The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday revealed the identities of four senior Iranian and Hezbollah officials involved in a joint project to manufacture precision-guided missiles for the Lebanese terror group, in a dramatic move apparently intended as a tacit threat to the officers. The army warned that the Iranian-led project was “jeopardizing the stability of Lebanon.”
The secretive program is being led on the Iranian side by Brig. Gen. Muhammad Hussein-Zada Hejazi, a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operating under the direct command of Qassem Soleimani, a general who heads the IRGC’s Quds Force, IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told reporters.
According to Conricus, Iran has intensified its efforts to establish facilities capable of producing precision-guided missiles in Lebanon in recent weeks.
The Israeli military said it was taking the highly irregular step of releasing information about active members of a terrorist plot in order to push the Lebanese government and international community to take action to halt the project. Conricus said the IDF would likely reveal additional intelligence about the plot within the coming hours and days.
“Iran is endangering Lebanese by trying to produce precision-guided missiles on Lebanese soil, using the Lebanese people as human shields,” Conricus said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said exposing the details of the program was meant to send a signal to Israel’s enemies.
“We will not stand to the side and allow our enemies to acquire deadly weapons to use against us. This week, I already told our enemies to be careful with their actions. Now I am telling them: Dir balak,” Netanyahu said, using an Arabic phrase meaning, “Watch out.”
The release of the declassified information on the largely secret missile project targeting Israel, which was first highlighted by Netanyahu in a speech to the UN General Assembly last year, was also seen by some analysts as marking an effort to avoid the need for a large-scale military operation to destroy the program. Israel was seen to be both intimidating Iran and Hezbollah with the quality and detail of its intelligence, and spurring the international community to take action before the IDF undertook such a campaign. The revelation constitutes a “potential casus belli,” said Israeli Channel 12’s military analyst Roni Daniel on Thursday night.
Tensions between Israel and Hezbollah have been particularly high this week following Israeli airstrikes on Saturday night on an Iranian position in Syria that killed two Hezbollah members. Israel named the two as Lebanese nationals and said they were involved in a IRGC Quds Force plot to use armed unmanned aerial vehicles against the Jewish state.
Further stoking tensions was a drone attack in Beirut early Sunday morning attributed to Israel that reportedly targeted key components of the joint Hezbollah-Iranian precision missile project.
Conricus said he would not comment on the matter.
The precision missile project
According to the IDF, Iran began trying to transport advanced precision missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon through Syria in 2013 and 2014. But airstrikes attributed to Israel prevented the Islamic Republic from providing the terror group with large numbers of these projectiles.
Israeli Military Intelligence believes that in 2016 Iran and Hezbollah decided to change tack and convert the terror group’s existing simple rockets into precision-guided missiles in factories inside Lebanon, but had yet to acquire the ability to do so, despite significant investments of time, money and resources.
“According to our assessments, Hezbollah does not yet have an industrial capability to manufacture precision-guided munitions — not for lack of trying,” Conricus said.
He said the terror group does possess several precision-guided missiles, but does not have “significant amounts” of them.
The Israeli army said IRGC Col. Majid Nuab is responsible for the technical aspects of the program, which began in 2016.
The complicated logistics of transporting the machinery necessary to create such precision-guided missiles from Iran, through Syria and into Lebanon is managed by IRGC Brig. Gen. Ali Asrar Nuruzi, according to the IDF.
This joint project is being led for Hezbollah by Fuad Shukr, a senior member of the Lebanese group who acts as a close adviser to its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and is wanted by the United States for his role in the 1983 bombing of a US Marines barracks in Beirut, Conricus said.
“He is responsible for everything related to this precision missile project, the development of the missiles as well as preparations to use them. If they’ll be used by Hezbollah, he’s the guy who’ll [actually] be using them,” the IDF spokesman said.
In addition to their names, the Israeli military also released photographs of the officials.
Asked if the revelation of their identities was meant to serve as a threat of assassination to the three IRGC officers and Hezbollah official, Conricus said, “If I were any of these terrorists, I probably wouldn’t be too happy to be named and shamed.”
According to the Israeli military, Iran has used three main ways to transfer the technical equipment necessary both to convert simple rockets into precision missiles and to indigenously manufacture long-range precision missiles from Iran to Lebanon: through the ground, air and sea.
The army spokesman said Military Intelligence believes some of these components were transferred from Syria, where Iran has a large presence and significant influence, to Lebanon through official Lebanese ground crossings, including through the Masnaa Crossing. Other pieces of equipment are suspected of being flown into Lebanon using civilian transport flights into Beirut’s Hariri International Airport. And some machinery was sent to Lebanon by ship through Beirut’s international port, according to the Israeli military.
Conricus said Hezbollah has established multiple facilities involved in the precision missile project in various areas of Lebanon, including in Beirut.
During the strike in Beirut early Sunday morning, a drone carrying explosives reportedly detonated near two crates containing equipment central to the project, destroying them and setting back Hezbollah’s efforts by approximately a year.
Conricus said Israel has attempted to use diplomatic methods to block the joint Iranian-Hezbollah effort.
Last September, Netanyahu revealed the locations of three alleged precision missile facilities inside Beirut during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly.
Since then, Israel has provided information on the plot to Lebanon through the UN and through large countries that have diplomatic ties with both Israel and Beirut, but to no avail, Conricus said.
“It is happening inside Lebanon, despite the fact that Israel through official and covert channels has warned the state of Lebanon and tried to [alert] the state of Lebanon to the dangers of producing these weapons on Lebanese soil near Lebanese civilians,” Conricus said.
He said Israel believes that in light of the Lebanese government’s lack of action on the matter, it has made itself complicit in the Iranian-led endeavor.
“In our point of view, the Lebanese government is completely responsible for what is happening on Lebanese soil,” Conricus said.
However, the spokesman added that at this time Israel does not see the Lebanese Armed Forces as an “active enemy,” as it does consider Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah is our main enemy, the LAF is a potential enemy,” he said.
Soldiers in northern Israel have been on high alert this week over fears of a reprisal attack from Hezbollah following the strikes on Saturday night and early Sunday morning.
The Lebanese frontier was especially tense Thursday morning, following an incident the night before in which Lebanese troops fired on Israeli drones that reportedly entered their airspace.
The IDF believes Hezbollah intends to attack its soldiers or a military installation on the border, and not civilians.
In light of these concerns, the army on Tuesday restricted the movement of military vehicles along roads close to the Lebanese border. The limitations were not imposed on civilians in border communities.
Israeli officials have threatened a harsh response to any reprisals by Hezbollah, both against the group and against the state of Lebanon, which Jerusalem sees as complicit in the terrorist militia’s activities.
“The Israeli response to an attack will be disproportionate,” an unnamed senior officer told Israel’s Channel 12 news on Monday night.