Iran’s options to hit Israel for nuke chief’s killing reach far beyond Hezbollah

The Lebanese terror group may be keen to stay out of the fight, but precision rocket tech is reaching Gaza, and accurate cruise missiles are within the grasp of groups in Iraq

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Military personnel stand near the flag-draped coffin of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an assassinated top nuclear scientist, during his funeral ceremony in Tehran, Iran, November 30, 2020. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)
Military personnel stand near the flag-draped coffin of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an assassinated top nuclear scientist, during his funeral ceremony in Tehran, Iran, November 30, 2020. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

Two weeks have passed since the mysterious assassination outside Tehran of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, long regarded by Israel and the US as the head of Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program. A number of versions of what actually happened during the few minutes of the shooting attack have come out since then, some of which seem taken directly from Hollywood.

According to the official Iranian version, a satellite-operated machine gun opened fire at Fakhrizadeh, killing him and several of his bodyguards. Other unconfirmed reports have claimed there was a shootout involving several gunmen, though all versions agree there was also an explosion, the purpose and timing of which is disputed.

Although Israel has not officially taken responsibility, Iran has blamed the Jewish state, whose security establishment is now trying to figure out if, and how, Iran will react to the assassination.

Initial alerts warned of attacks against Israelis in the Gulf’s United Arab Emirates or Bahrain (which has a distinct Shi’ite majority, like Iran), countries with which Israel only recently established ties. Alternative scenarios are of attacks against Israeli targets in other countries, similar to the deadly attacks in Buenos Aires during the 1990s in retaliation for the assassination of Abbas al-Musawi, one-time leader of the Iran-backed Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

Yet these are not the only options for Iranian retaliation. Currently, Tehran has quite a few allies in the region standing by to offer immediate assistance should Iran require it. Is a precision-guided missile attack from Gaza an impossible scenario? How about cruise missiles launched from Western Iraq, where Iran-backed militias operate, in a repeat of the Gulf War and its notoriously imprecise Scud missile attacks on Israel — but this time with far more accurate targeting?

Tehran now has the ability to react through such means.

Palestinian members of the Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad terror group, parade with a replica rocket on a truck during a march in Gaza on October 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The Iranian threat from Gaza, and beyond

In Gaza, for example, the Iranian regime has been investing a lot of time and money to develop the Islamic Jihad terror group’s military capabilities. The organization’s operatives are sent to training camps throughout the Middle East where they are schooled in various military skills, from urban warfare to launching precision-guided missiles.

They are also taught how to self-produce more accurate rockets; the technology required used to be extremely sophisticated and advanced, but nowadays is relatively easy to acquire. The actual components required for accuracy are not bulky or heavy — smuggling a handful of computer chips can help produce an entire array of precision-guided missiles. It isn’t clear what level of accuracy the Gazan terrorist organizations are capable of right now, but there is no doubt that the utmost efforts are being invested by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to acquire such capabilities.

Not so long ago, the scenario of a cruise missile or precision-guided rocket attack against Israel from Gaza, guided and directed by Iran, seemed completely far-fetched. But Iran demonstrated the ability to carry out advanced attacks on September 14, 2019, when it used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and cruise missiles to attack the Aramco oil-processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia. The attack, launched from Yemen, was in revenge for Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the war against the Houthis rebels in that country.

In other words, the Iranians are now capable of accurate long-distance attacks using a range of weapons. And the lack of any American, Saudi, or Western reaction to that September attack may have whet Iran’s appetite to try these weapons out again.

Iran‘s Soumar cruise missile, unveiled in March 2016. (YouTube screenshot)

Last month the Houthis launched another cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabia and threatened to one day fire at Israel’s southern resort city of Eilat. But if Tehran decides to use a cruise missile attack to react to Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, it probably won’t be from Yemen, and certainly not from Lebanon. Gaza’s abilities in the field are currently limited, though it is possible Islamic Jihad could be tempted to have a go — thus dragging all of Gaza into a war in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak and a failing economy.

However, the most likely option for a cruise missile revenge attack would be from Western Iraq. Iran manages a wealth of Shi’ite militias in the area, under the tutelage of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force headed by Esmail Qaani, who replaced the slain Qassem Soleimani. Such an attack on Israel would leave the decision-makers in Jerusalem without a return address. The question is whether these militias have the ability to carry out such an operation.

Generally speaking, Iranian influence in the area is pretty extensive, even though it is not yet at the scope and rate Tehran is aiming for. Twenty-five years ago the only export of Iran’s Islamic revolution was Hezbollah in Lebanon. Today, Iranian fingerprints can be found throughout the region: Yemen, of course, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and even Bahrain.

The Shi’ite militias include not only Iraqis and Iranians, but also mercenaries from Afghanistan and Pakistan, who were shipped in to fight the Islamic State group in the Syrian civil war and remained, highly motivated to face the familiar old enemy – Israel.

Iraqi Shi’ite militiamen fire their weapons during clashes with terrorists from the Islamic State group, in Jurf al-Sakhar, September 28, 2014. (photo credit: AP, File)

Staying within boundaries, for now

The Iranian nuclear project, despite Fakhrizadeh’s demise and despite a mysterious explosion in the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz earlier this year, is far from grinding to a halt. This week The New York Times reported that massive work is being carried out in Natanz, most likely in order to move the entire facility underground.

A photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows the scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020 (Fars News Agency via AP); insert: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in an undated photo (Courtesy)

The Trump administration’s decision to exit the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers also did not slow down the Iranian project – just the opposite. The Iranians are already deliberately exceeding the limitations placed on them under that agreement to prove they do not cave to American pressure. Some analysts say that the time Iran would need to break out and acquire a nuclear bomb has now been reduced from a year to just six months.

It should be noted, though, that Tehran is not going ahead with the military nuclear track and is being extremely careful not to cross certain boundaries. Iran has continued to enrich larger amounts of uranium than it is permitted. According to data from the Israeli side, Tehran has some two tons of uranium at an enrichment purity of 4.5 percent, yet this level of enrichment is still considered permissible and suitable for civilian purposes and not at – or even close to – weapons-grade enrichment.

In the meantime, there is also no sign that Iran’s plan of entrenching itself in Syria has been especially successful. This is both good news and bad news.

The bad news is that Iran is not planning on quitting Syria. Just this week Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad and announced that his country will continue to support Syria and its people in their confrontation with the Zionists. The bombs discovered several weeks ago on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights border with Syria indicate that Iran and its emissaries – sometimes through Syrian/Lebanese/Shi’ite militias – are continuing their efforts to strike at Israeli targets.

The good news is that no increased Iranian presence has been identified in Syria. In fact, Iran has recently reduced its presence in Syria.

Footage of Israeli strikes on Iranian and Syrian targets in southern Syria following an attempted explosive attack by Iranian-backed operatives against Israeli troops on the Golan Heights, November 18, 2020 (Israel Defense Forces)

Wary Hezbollah

The crucial question still left unanswered is Hezbollah’s role in an Iranian retaliation, if there will be one at all.

The organization remains Israel’s greatest threat. Only this week the Institute for National Security Studies published a comprehensive study of the next battle in the north of Israel. The document includes a pretty realistic scenario of Israel coping with hundreds of rocket attacks a day, including precision-guided missiles, which will be launched not only from Lebanon but also from Western Iraq and possibly also from Syria. This battle will be different to any we have previously known and the threat to the Home Front will be especially great.

That scenario is still quite some way away. Currently, Hezbollah is very careful to avoid any escalation along the border between Israel and Lebanon. It is even taking its time retaliating against the killing of one of its men in an Israeli attack in Syria, possibly because it understands the implications of such a move — meaning, the fear of all-out war is a deterrent on Hezbollah’s side as well.

Possibly more than anything else, the negotiations between Israel and Lebanon concerning the maritime boundaries between the two states prove that even an extreme Shi’ite organization, one constantly calling for the destruction of the “Zionist entity,” understands that there are certain advantages to doing business with the “Zionist enemy.” Only a few short years ago Hezbollah most probably would not have permitted the Lebanese government to conduct any discussions at all with Israel. Yet here Hezbollah is not calling a halt to the talks. It may be criticizing them to a certain extent, but no more than that.

A deal with Israel regarding the drawing of the maritime border could mean billions of dollars from offshore gas that Lebanon is desperate for. This is a bankrupt state in a very difficult political situation. The combination of a global pandemic, the national disaster of the Beirut port explosion, the political dead-end and the increasing enmity among the different religious sectors, all contribute to the feeling – in Hezbollah as well – that war against “the Jews” is something to avoid at this stage.

In the meantime, the talks are continuing even though recently the American go-between has been doing a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, as both sides are avoiding holding their fourth meeting. Also, the Lebanese have attempted to draw the border significantly southwards from its estimated location, causing Israel to retaliate by drawing the border much higher north. Still, both sides remain committed to these talks and it is clear that Lebanon wants an agreement, even more than Israel.

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