Gantz: 'Iran is seeking to preserve instability'

Intel chief: Iran could attack World Cup, protests may lead to more aggression

Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva says only thing stopping Tehran from disrupting games is concern over Qatar’s reaction; Iran is nearing 90% enrichment, world will be tested, he adds

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva speaks at an Institute for National Security Studies  conference in Tel Aviv on November 21, 2022. (Screenshot: INSS)
Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva speaks at an Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv on November 21, 2022. (Screenshot: INSS)

The head of Military Intelligence on Monday said Iran was mulling an attack on the World Cup in Qatar, as it faces increasing pressure at home amid nationwide anti-regime protests.

Speaking at an Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) conference in Tel Aviv, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva said the protests sweeping Iran are “extremely exceptional” and have transformed into a “civilian rebellion.”

“The death toll, the attacks on national symbols — this is very troubling for the regime, especially combined with sanctions, the existing international pressure, and the difficult economic situation,” he said.

The protests were sparked by the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, after her arrest by the morality police in Tehran in September, and have since spread across the country. Authorities have responded with a crackdown that Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights says has left almost 400 people dead, half a dozen sentenced to death, and more than 15,000 arrested.

“There is a real concern within the regime that it endangers the regime. At this stage, I do not see a risk to the regime…. but as the pressure on Iran increases, including internal pressure, the Iranian response is much more aggressive, so we should expect much more aggressive responses in the region and in the world,” Haliva said.

“I am telling you that the Iranians are now considering attacking the World Cup in Qatar as well,” he said. “The only thing holding them back is how the Qataris will react.”

Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police, in Tehran, October 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Middle East Images, File)

Echoing Haliva’s comments, outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned that Iran is liable to attack the World Cup in order to cause regional instability.

“Iran is seeking to preserve instability as a constant thing. At a time when the world around it is stable and thriving — this is the opposite of what is happening inside Iran,” Gantz said, speaking at the start of his National Unity party’s weekly faction meeting in the Knesset.

“The World Cup is likely to be one of those events at which it tries to cause instability,” he added.

Using soccer terms as the World Cup kicked off on Sunday, Haliva said: “Iran is on the whole field, from nuclear to riots.”

People gather around the official countdown clock showing remaining time until the kick-off of the World Cup in Doha, Qatar, November 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

He said Iran has ramped up offensive actions in the past year, noting a recent drone attack on an Israeli-owned oil tanker off the coast of Oman.

“From the beginning of 2022 we have counted… including cyberattacks, around 100 operations that the Iranians carried out,” Haliva said.

“In London, they are preparing for an Iranian attack and they know what they are talking about. The US is preparing for Iranian terror. I am not convinced that the [rest of the] world understands the power that the Iranians bring to the global level,” he said.

“We recognize Iranian fingerprints also in the Palestinian arena,” Haliva said, referring to repeated shooting attacks against Israeli troops and planned attacks by terror groups in the West Bank.

“The thought is that it can keep Israel busy at the expense of other things. London, Jenin and Nablus are one and the same in the Iranian vision,” he said.

In this photo released by the Iranian Army on August 25, 2022, a drone is launched from a warship in a military drone drill in Iran. (Iranian Army via AP, File)

Regarding the stalled Iran nuclear talks, Haliva said Tehran has made “significant progress” toward producing 90 percent enriched uranium.

“The moment is coming when the greatest test of the international community will come to light, when Iran entertains [the idea of] enrichment at 90%, even if only symbolically,” he said.

“I wonder what the international community will do when Iran starts enrichment at 90 percent,” he said.

Haliva said Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kohavi’s ongoing five-day trip to the US, which is focused on the Iranian threat, comes at a “critical” time.

He said that if Israel will need to strike Tehran’s nuclear facilities, “I would be happy if the US was by our side.”

Haliva said Arab countries that established ties with Israel in recent years, in a series of agreements known as the Abraham Accords, won’t necessarily stand with Israel in a potential strike on Iran.

“The Abraham Accords intensified [Iran’s] sense of [regional] suffocation. This is a great thing and I hope they would be expanded. But in the end, there is an understanding that we are the regional power, and it is not worth depending on these countries to be by our side on the day of action against the Iranians, because I estimate this will not happen,” he said.

This September 1, 2014 file photo, shows a nuclear research reactor at the headquarters of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

In light of growing uncertainty regarding a return by Iran to the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers amid long-stalled negotiations, the past two years have seen the IDF ramp up its efforts to prepare a credible military threat against Tehran’s nuclear sites.

European Union-sponsored talks have been ongoing for over a year to bring the US back into the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The deal, signed between Iran and the US, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia, has unraveled since the Trump administration pulled out in 2018. The US reimposed stiff sanctions and Iran responded by dropping many of its own commitments to the pact while also ramping up its uranium enrichment to levels far beyond the agreement’s limits.

Iran now enriches uranium up to 60 percent purity — a level it never reached before, and a short, technical step away from 90% enrichment. While Iran long has maintained its program is peaceful, non-profileration experts warn Tehran has enough 60%-enriched uranium to reprocess into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb.

Israel has long pushed the US to ready a credible military option, and US President Joe Biden said in July that he would be prepared to use force if necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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