'Russia causes discord, makes itself relevant by fixing it'

Intel chief: Iran acting out in response to ‘unprecedented’ economic sanctions

Tamir Hayman says Islamic Jihad more likely to start a war in Gaza than Hamas, boasts that Israel knows more than Nasrallah about Hezbollah’s missile program

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, head of IDF Military Intelligence, speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv on June 5, 2019. (Yissachar Ruas)
Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, head of IDF Military Intelligence, speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv on June 5, 2019. (Yissachar Ruas)

The head of Military Intelligence on Wednesday said the heavy economic sanctions on Iran and their devastating financial ramifications were the driving forces behind attacks linked to the Islamic Republic on petroleum facilities last month and Tehran’s recent decision to step up uranium enrichment.

“Iran is under growing pressure that is forcing it to take actions connected to oil and to its nuclear project — though for now there are no changes to its policies,” Maj Gen. Tamir Hayman said, speaking at the Intelligence Legacy Center conference in Tel Aviv as part of the Israel Defense Expo.

On May 15, Iran announced it was stepping up its uranium enrichment program in response to the United States’ decision the year before to drop out of the 2015 nuclear deal and impose heavy economic sanctions on Iran and the countries and groups that do business with it. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency watchdog said Iran was staying within the limitations set by the 2015 nuclear accord, though its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium and heavy water were growing.

“The unprecedented sanctions on Iran has led to a severe recession, which is being felt in all directions, and has led Iran to take actions against the global oil trade,” he said.

Damage to the Norwegian-flagged oil tanker MT Andrea Victory off the coast of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. (UAE National Media Council via AP)

Last month, four United Arab Emirate oil tankers were damaged in the Gulf of Oman. The United States and Israel said Iran was behind the sabotage, which Tehran denied.

Days later, Houthis in Yemen — a militia that receives significant funding and assistance from Iran — carried out a number of drone strikes on Saudi Arabian oil facilities.

The Military Intelligence chief also offered a frank, undiplomatic assessment of Russia’s role in the Middle East, saying that Moscow makes itself relevant by resolving issues that it helps create.

Since 2013, Russia has taken a dominant position in the Syrian civil war and the Middle East in general, acting as the primary supporter of dictator Bashar Assad and a de facto ally of Assad’s other patron, Iran. In that capacity, Moscow has played a key role in mediating conflicts between Jerusalem, Damascus and Tehran — especially as the United States has increasingly pulled itself out of the region.

“Russia is dominant because of friction, disruption and intervention. It partially initiates discord and then approaches relevance with solutions possible because of its presence in the region,” he said.

Hayman said Iran appeared to have slowed its efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria due to the Israel Defense Forces’ attacks against its forces and proxies there.

“In light of the multi-faceted pressure that we have put [on Iran] — including from the kinetic influence of Israeli actions — there is a slowing of the [Iranian] entrenchment in Syria, but it has not entirely stopped, and Iran is looking for other places to establish a presence, for instance in Iraqi territory,” he said.

Smoke billows from a targeted neighborhood in Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave on May 5, 2019. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP)

In his wide-ranging speech, the Military Intelligence chief also addressed the prospect of war in the Gaza Strip, saying it was not likely as the Hamas terror group, which rules the enclave, is not interested in a large-scale conflict. However, Hayman warned that the second-largest group in the Strip, the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, has far fewer responsibilities toward Gaza residents and thus has less to lose in a war, making it a far likelier instigator of violence.

“Hamas is quite deterred from war and is deeply interested in staying the course of a ceasefire in which they expect to receive certain concessions — and therefore they really don’t want a war,” he said.

“The Islamic Jihad has a high potential of volatility. This group does not have the duties of a sovereign and so there is a potential for it to initiate [war],” Hayman said.

Turning his attention to the north, the IDF general said Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah’s program to turn its massive arsenal of some 100,000 “dumb” rockets into precision-guided missiles has largely stalled due to American pressure on the government of Lebanon — despite recent claims to the contrary by Hezbollah  Hassan Nasrallah.

Supporters of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group listen to a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah via a video link in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, March 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

In an uncharacteristic boast by a head of Military Intelligence, Hayman said, “We don’t need Nasrallah to tell us the status of this project. We know it better than he does, and everything that he revealed was already known. To the best of our understanding, their capabilities, their missiles, are still not precise.”

Precision-guided munitions represent a far greater threat to Israel than “dumb” rockets, which follow a fixed trajectory and are highly inaccurate.

On Friday night, Nasrallah said in a speech to his supporters that his group possesses precision-guided missiles, but denied it produces them.

“So far in Lebanon there are no factories for precision missiles,” he said.

He threatened for the first time, however, that Hezbollah could consider setting up such factories.

A senior US diplomat presented photographs and maps of sites used by Hezbollah to store precision missiles to a number of Lebanese government officials recently, according to a report Sunday.

A satellite image released by the Israel Defense Forces showing three sites near Beirut’s international airport that the army says are being used by Hezbollah to convert regular missiles into precision-guided munitions, on September 27, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, owned by a Saudi prince, said that David Satterfield, US acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, told the Beirut officials that the US government could neither overlook the findings nor hold Israel back from acting to deal with them, and that it was up to the Lebanese government to resolve the situation.

In April, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly conveyed to Lebanon a message from Israel warning Beirut of action by Iran and Hezbollah to covertly construct a new missile production facility in the country.

Pompeo visited Beirut after Israel, using the trip to highlight his concerns about Hezbollah, which is targeted by US sanctions as a terror group, but holds three cabinet posts in Lebanon.

In a September 2018 speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu displayed a map pinpointing the location of the Hezbollah missile sites near Beirut’s airport, and accused the terror group of “deliberately using the innocent people of Beirut as human shields.”

Netanyahu later said that Hezbollah closed the facilities he had revealed to the United Nations.

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