IDF sees chance to halt Iranian entrenchment in region with Soleimani gone
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Iran not yet seen racing toward nuke; is still 2 years away

IDF sees chance to halt Iranian entrenchment in region with Soleimani gone

In army’s annual intel assessment, Tehran remains the primary foe in the region; the death of its viceroy might make the fight easier, but potential for unwanted conflicts abounds

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

Iranians walk past a poster of slain military commander Qassem Soleimani off a main square in the Islamic Republic's capital Tehran on January 11, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
Iranians walk past a poster of slain military commander Qassem Soleimani off a main square in the Islamic Republic's capital Tehran on January 11, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Israeli Military Intelligence believes the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani represents a significant opportunity to counter Tehran’s growing aggressiveness in the region, The Times of Israel learned Tuesday.

In its annual intelligence assessment, which is presented to the country’s decision-makers, the Israel Defense Forces relates to Iran as its primary enemy, albeit one that is both increasingly weakened by internal protests in the country and by the recent loss of one of its main leaders, who served as something of a viceroy commanding and counseling allies throughout the Middle East.

However, the assessment also warns that Iran’s attempts to maintain control of its country and allies, who have also seen protests against Tehran’s influence, could end up raising the risk of heavy retaliation by Iran against Israel for ongoing Israeli airstrikes against its efforts to entrench itself militarily in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

The IDF does not foresee Iran intentionally initiating a war against the Jewish state in the coming year, but does see a risk of unwitting conflict as Israel intends to continue acting against Tehran in the region, which could prompt Iranian strikes against it in return.

In this photo from June 23, 2017, supporters of Iraqi Hezbollah brigades march on a representation of an Israeli flag with a portrait of late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)

The full ramifications of Soleimani’s death earlier this month in an American airstrike in Baghdad remain unclear, but as the long-time commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, who created and controlled Shiite militia proxies throughout the Middle East, his absence is expected to have a positive effect on regional stability, according to the military assessment.

Specifically, the IDF believes Soleimani’s death has the potential to allow Israel to curb or halt Iran’s efforts to entrench itself militarily in Syria and continued attempts to transfer technology needed for Hezbollah to produce its own precision-guided missiles within Lebanon.

For now, Hezbollah is not believed to have this capability — a threat that Israel is prepared to go to war to prevent. Access to large numbers of highly accurate missiles would represent a significant threat to Israeli national security, second only to the danger posed by an Iranian nuclear weapon, Israeli officials have said in the past.

The assessment notes that it’s not clear if Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah fully believes that the IDF is prepared to go to war to prevent Iran and the Lebanese-based terror group from establishing factories to produce precision-guided rockets, and warns that the misunderstanding could end up sparking a intense, prolonged military confrontation with Hezbollah.

No breakout plans

On the nuclear front, the IDF does not believe that Iran is currently interested in rapidly “breaking out” and developing an atomic bomb as quickly as possible. Though the military sees Iran’s ongoing violations of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as a troubling development, it does not assess that Iran is inclined to race toward a weapon.

Following Soleimani’s death, Tehran announced it would no longer abide by the limits on quantities and levels of enrichment for uranium of the JCPOA — the latest in a line of violations of the agreement since US President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018. Israel believes that these violations are not meant to signify an effort to develop a nuclear bomb as quickly as possible, but are rather meant to serve as a form of pressure on the other signatories of the JCPOA.

The exterior of the Arak heavy water production facility in Arak, Iran, 360 kilometers southwest of Tehran, October 27, 2004. (AP Photo)

However, should it choose to “break out” rapidly, by the fall of 2020 Iran would be able to produce the 1,300 kilograms (2,900 pounds) of low-enriched uranium needed to get the 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of highly enriched uranium necessary for a bomb, assuming it continued at current projected rates, according to Israeli assessments. The overall current assessment is that Iran is potentially two years from a bomb — the same time frame that has been assessed for some time.

For Iran, while there is relatively broad consensus on the importance of its nuclear program, it is facing increasing pressure domestically to abandon or limit its expansionism as American sanctions wreak havoc on the Iranian economy.

The IDF sees the ongoing protests throughout Iran, which began in November, as the most significant challenge to the regime led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei since the Islamic revolution that brought it to power in 1979.

Iranian forces quelled those protests in a bloody crackdown that killed as many as 1,500, according to some estimates.

New protests have broken out in recent days since Iran admitted accidentally downing a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 aboard.

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