IDF intel chief: Iran could use Iraq as springboard for attacks on Israel

Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman says chances for conflict with Hezbollah, Hamas low, as neither is interested in conflict now, but potential exists for miscalculation to lead to war

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Shiite militiamen carry a poster of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while stepping on a drawing of an Israeli flag during a Jerusalem Day rally in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, June 8, 2018. (AFP/Ahmad Al-Rubaye)
Shiite militiamen carry a poster of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while stepping on a drawing of an Israeli flag during a Jerusalem Day rally in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, June 8, 2018. (AFP/Ahmad Al-Rubaye)

Israel’s Military Intelligence chief warned Monday that Tehran’s increasing presence in Iraq means the country could be used as a base from which Iran could launch attacks on Israel.

“Iraq is under growing influence of the [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’] Quds Force and Iran,” Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman told a conference in Tel Aviv.

Iran could “see Iraq as a convenient theater for entrenchment, like what they did in Syria, and to use it as a platform for a force build-up that could also threaten the State of Israel,” Hayman said, speaking at the event hosted by the Calcalist financial newspaper.

In August, it was reported that Iran was deploying ballistic missiles in with a range that makes them capable of hitting Israel, as well as their Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia.

Military Intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, speaks at the Calcalist newspaper’s conference in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2018. (Screen capture: Calcalist)

The Military Intelligence chief said this growing threat was one of the central issues his unit, and the Israel Defense Forces, in general, would be watching in the coming year.

Hayman also noted Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s expected return to control over the whole of Syria, with the backing of Moscow, and after the full withdrawal of US troops.

“This presence of Iran, with Syria’s return to stabilization under a Russian umbrella, is something we are watching closely,” Hayman said, noting that the next year will see “significant change” in the war-torn country.

US President Donald Trump’s announced pullout of US troops raised concern in Israel, which has warned of Iran’s efforts to establish a military presence in Syria and has carried out airstrikes on Iranian-linked targets there. On Monday, a senior Israeli official said Trump was mulling an Israeli request to stagger the withdrawal.

This frame grab from a video provided by the Syrian official news agency SANA shows missiles flying into the sky near Damascus, Syria, December 25, 2018. (SANA via AP)

Israel has repeatedly vowed to prevent Iran establishing a permanent presence in Syria and Lebanon and has carried out dozens of air strikes against Iran-backed forces and attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah, including last week, according to foreign reports.

Hayman added that Iran in general was in a precarious situation after the US dropped out of the 2015 nuclear accord and put in place renewed sanctions against the Islamic Republic, while the other countries involved in the deal remain party to it.

“Iran is trying everything to get around the American financial sanctions. We are monitoring these efforts and are fully aware of this attempt,” he said.

No interest, but potential for war

Hayman said only “luck” was preventing an outbreak of violence in Lebanon with Hezbollah and in the Gaza Strip with Hamas.

According to the intelligence chief, Israel believes the two terror groups do not want war at this time, but that the situation remains volatile.

“For most of our main enemies, war is in total opposition to their basic security interests, but at the same time, the potential for an escalation of violence and a deterioration to war is increasing,” he said.

Earlier this month, Israel launched Operation Northern Shield, an effort to find and destroy attack tunnels that the IDF says Hezbollah dug into northern Israel from Lebanon. The effort raised concerns of renewed violence between the Iran-backed terror group and Israel as IDF soldiers operated directly along the contentious border, where an accident or misunderstanding could spiral out of control.

Israeli soldiers are seen at the scene of a tunnel dug across the border from Lebanon, in a photo provided on December 26, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to the IDF, Hezbollah planned to use the tunnels as an element of surprise in its opening gambit against Israel in a future war. In an effort to conquer part of Israel’s Galilee panhandle, hundreds of Hezbollah operatives would be sent through the tunnels, while more fighters crossed above ground and a barrage of rockets and mortar shells would keep back any incoming Israeli troops.

Israeli military officials say Northern Shield prevented that threat and set back Hezbollah’s attack plans by several years.

“The point of this operation was not the destruction of Hezbollah’s attack tunnels. It’s an operation that’s meant to foil Hezbollah’s main attack plan, under which it would conquer communities along the northern border,” Hayman said.

An attack tunnel from southern Lebanon into northern Israel that Israel says was dug by the Hezbollah terror group, on December 19, 2018. (JACK GUEZ / POOL / AFP)

He added that the tunnels aspect of this strategy was “central, important and decisive, but not the entirety of the plan.”

The intelligence chief said Hezbollah had kept its tunnel activity secret over the years it spent digging the underground passages and believed that having this ability to launch a surprise attack may have encouraged the Shiite group to launch a war against Israel.

“The fact that Hezbollah had this card up its sleeve could have led it to an irresponsible decision-making process, which could have caused serious damage to the State of Israel,” he said.

However, Hayman stressed that he did not believe Hezbollah was inclined to launch a war in the immediate future, citing the group’s “complicated” political situation in Lebanon and decreasing financial support from its patron Iran.

“But it could make a miscalculation in how to respond to one of our attacks,” which would lead to a significantly more powerful retaliation by the IDF and potentially then all-out war, he said.

Hayman also said the Hamas terror group in Gaza was not interested in war with Israel in the immediate term, as it would lose the achievements its amassed over the past year with its “Great March of Return,” which garnered both domestic and international support.

Since late March, as part of Hamas’s “Great March of Return,” there have been regular clashes along the Gaza border directed by the ruling terror group; thousands of acres of land in southern Israel burned by Palestinians in the Strip launching airborne incendiary devices; and occasional outbreaks of violence with hundreds of rockets and mortar shells launched at Israeli communities surrounding the coastal enclave.

Palestinians run during clashes with Israeli forces across the border fence, east of Gaza City, on December 28, 2018. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

These efforts have boosted Hamas’s status at home and brought international condemnation and criticism of Israel for its use of live fire during the border riots, in which mostly unarmed people took part. Domestically, the IDF’s response to the “Great March of Return” was seen as insufficient and weak by many in Israel.

Earlier this month, IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot said that while he believed Hamas was unable to achieve its stated goal of ending Israel’s blockade of Gaza — in place to prevent armed groups from smuggling weapons into the Strip — the terrorist organization managed to “shake the feeling of security of Gaza-adjacent residents.”

“I am aware of the fact that we as a military did not succeed in providing a good feeling of security in the past eight, nine months. I think we provided security under very, very complicated conditions. But the feeling of security was harmed with fairly primitive means by our enemy,” he said.

Former defense minister Avigdor Liberman even resigned his post in response to the government’s Gaza policies, sparking a process that led to the dissolution of the ruling coalition and the launch of early elections in April.

According to Hayman, the terror group would not be inclined to give up that psychological and political victory over Israel with a war that it cannot win.

“Hamas understands that war would cause the destruction of all the achievements it believes it has reached until now. Such a war would deteriorate the conditions in the Strip and cause significant damage to its force build-up and capabilities, and thus it will do everything to prevent [war] at this time,” Hayman said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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