In the shadow of the escalation in Gaza, Iran is exerting pressure on Hamas (and perhaps also on Hezbollah) to respond harshly to extract a price for Israel’s operation against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This is part of Iran’s ongoing effort to drag Israel into a multi-theater campaign while leaving itself out of a direct confrontation at this stage.
Iran continues to violate all the agreements it signed: It infringes on human rights in Iran and Ukraine; it supports Russia in its war against Ukraine; it funds terrorist organizations in Lebanon, Syria, Judea and Samaria, and around the world, while drawing closer to Saudi Arabia and Syria. Nonetheless, there are still those in the United States, together with the EU, who yet again dare to float the prospect of having a partial nuclear deal.
On the absurdity of a partial and faulty nuclear deal (called “less for less”, but it is really “much more for much less”) I wrote many times in the past. It looks like the Iranians are (again) doing Israel’s bidding by refusing to accept the deal, even though such a deal would at most give the West a delay of a few weeks or months until Iran obtains enough fissile material for a bomb, and at the same time will lead to extensive sanction relief. This will allow the regime to recover economically and continue funding and supporting terrorism. Under an agreement signed by the superpowers, including the United States, it will also be very difficult for Israel to attack Iran on its own.
There is no doubt that Iran has been, at least partially, behind almost all recent attacks on Israel in the south, in the north, and in the east, through Hamas, Hezbollah, and its forces in Syria. Its goal is to push Israel into a confrontation on four or even five fronts: Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, Judea and Samaria, and Jerusalem.
Now is the time to implement one of the major changes in Israel’s national security strategy that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began in 2017-2018 – by punishing not only those who attack Israel directly, as the IDF and Shin Bet have done in recent days against the PIJ in Gaza – but also the actors who fund and send them under the expectation that they would be treated with impunity: i.e. Iran. The punishment does not have to be immediate or direct, as this could have the region spiral into all-out war. There are many ways to punish and weaken Iran indirectly, including from the inside by, for example, supporting the protesters taking to the streets of the Islamic Republic.
The Israeli campaign against Iran will probably reach a direct and broad confrontation in the upcoming years. Israel should act wisely by preparing for such a scenario and exploiting the regional conflicts – most of which were launched by Iran or backed by it – and the internal conflicts in Iran, as a tool to weaken Tehran in the long run and in the run-up for a broader clash.
Iran has been preparing for a wider conflict for many years. One of the main tools of the Iranian doctrine is dramatically shoring up its capabilities around Israel with weapons and fighters that would be ready, when necessary, to join the overall effort against Israel.
In Lebanon, Iran is building Hezbollah as its main force for a wider conflagration with Israel. Iran has armed the organization with more than 150,000 statistical missiles of various ranges, anti-tank missiles, UAVs and drones, intelligence capabilities, and other means. In recent years, the main effort has been concentrated on building a PGM (precision-guided munition) arsenal by converting some of the statistical missiles and by manufacturing others, including lately on Lebanese soil. The PGMs may serve as a game-changing weapon in a future campaign, Therefore, Israel is waging an ongoing and broad campaign to prevent or at least reduce this threat, as part of the “campaign between wars”.
In Syria, Iran has in recent years – under the cover of the civil war and through the assistance it gives to Bashar Assad’s regime – tried to create capabilities that mimic those it has in Lebanon. Iran is trying to establish itself in Syria by building a significant military force based on the Shiite militias by transferring and manufacturing PGMs for Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran is also arming the Syrian army with advanced weapons to replenish the weapons Assad used during the civil war and the weapons destroyed by alleged Israeli air strikes. Iran has recently begun arming the Syrians with air defense systems to replace the Russian systems transferred to Ukraine due to the new Russian priorities.
In Gaza and Judea and Samaria, Iran massively and continuously supports Hamas and PIJ, with advanced armaments and a regular budget, and encourages them to attack Israel. Some of the capabilities are indeed intended for the ongoing conflicts with Israel, but the real mission is to support a future confrontation with Israel. That is why the Iranians are sometimes furious with Hezbollah when some of the advanced munitions that Tehran supplies for its purposes get used by the organization in a confrontation with Israel whose timing had not been coordinated with Iran.
Israel must “exploit” the regional conflicts to frustrate Iran’s entrenchment efforts at a much larger scale, especially by destroying the arsenals and its various capabilities to manufacture and convert munitions in order to prevent their use in the future. The main efforts should be vis-à-vis the warehouse and the PGMs capabilities in Lebanon, but also vis-à-vis Syria and Gaza.
At the same time, Israel must prevent Iran (economically and practically) from rearming its proxies after their weapons will be destroyed. To do it effectively, Israel must pressure Washington, in coordination with the Gulf states, to deal with all three components of the Iranian nuclear program – fissile material, weaponization (which should be now the main effort), and the means of delivery – and at the same time create maximum economic pressure and a credible military threat.
A partial and weak nuclear deal will send a false signal to Iran (and to the markets) that the West will agree to everything Iran did and will do. Israel will be left alone again, and it will be very difficult to take out the nuclear program under an agreement. In addition, any agreement will give Iran windfall revenues, allowing the regime to rehabilitate its economy, and continue arming its proxies around the region while reducing the effectiveness of Israeli operations to destroy their capabilities.
Israel should continue improving its military capabilities toward a broad future confrontation with Iran, alongside building other capabilities. It’s time to change Israel’s thinking and take the initiative, as has been the case in recent days in Gaza. A plan must be built to turn lemons into lemonade by having Iran’s plan of a multi-front confrontation become a double-edged sword, and by severely undermining their efforts to entrench themselves in the region and arm their proxies. The paradigm shift will also strengthen Israel’s standing in the region, including the efforts to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, despite the agreement it recently signed with Iran, under the auspices of China.
Brigadier General (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion’s Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security advisor and head of the National Security Council (acting).