The Covert War Between Israel and Iran Rises to the Surface

Iran’s missile attack last weekend sheds light on America’s role in the escalating conflict that Israel refers to as the “war between wars.”

A damaged mansion following an Iranian missile attack in Erbil, Iraq on March 13, 2022. SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images.

A damaged mansion following an Iranian missile attack in Erbil, Iraq on March 13, 2022. SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images.

Observation
March 17 2022
About the author

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is author of the new book Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and Eleven Days of War (FDD Press). Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer.

On Sunday, in the early morning hours, Iran launched approximately twelve Fatah 110 ballistic missiles from the environs of Tabriz toward the U.S. consulate in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. No casualties were reported, although there was some physical damage to the area. According to a statement by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the attack was intended to strike the “Strategic Center of Zionist Conspiracy and Evil”—apparently shorthand for supposed Israeli assets in northern Iraq.

The Israeli officials I spoke to about the strike appeared genuinely perplexed about what the IRGC hoped to hit. However, the New York Times quoted an unnamed senior U.S. official who said that the building hit in Erbil also served as an Israeli training facility, even though Kurdish officials deny this. But regardless of whether there is a secret Israeli base in northern Iraq, or whether Iranian operatives sincerely believe there to be one, the attack was undoubtedly an attempt to exact retribution for recent Israeli successes in a shadow war that has until now tilted heavily in Jerusalem’s favor. It may also have been intended to deliver a message to Washington: if you don’t stop Israel from targeting our assets, we’ll ratchet up our direct attacks against you.

The most recent reason for Iran to retaliate against Israeli targets was a March 7 airstrike in Syria that killed two IRGC colonels, along with two Syrian fighters—reportedly the seventh such airstrike against Iranian assets in Syria this year. Saeed Khatibzadeh, a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry, vowed revenge, stating that Israel would “pay for this crime.”

And this was not Jerusalem’s only recent battlefield success against Iran. This week, Israeli media revealed the dramatic details of an operation in which six Israeli drones reportedly struck an airbase in western Iran, destroying “hundreds” of Iranian drones. The attack, which took place in February, was first reported by the Hizballah-linked Al-Mayadeen news outlet. The same outlet described the Israeli assault on the drone base as the provocation for Sunday’s missile launch on Erbil. The distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack that struck Israeli businesses on Monday may have also been part of Iran’s efforts to exact revenge.

 

Taken together, these instances reflect an undeniable intensification in the conflict between Jerusalem and Tehran. That intensification is not only apparent in the frequency and scale of the attacks and counterattacks, but in something more fundamental. For decades, the Islamic Republic attacked Israel using Hizballah and other Middle Eastern proxies, and the IDF responded by attacking those proxies. Direct confrontation was unthinkable. Iran preferred this arrangement, which left its homeland safe, and far from the front lines. Those days are now over.

That shift from proxy to direct confrontation can be traced back to a Benjamin Netanyahu-era policy known as the “War Between Wars.” What began with efforts to impede Iran’s nuclear progress expanded to attacks against Iran’s conventional-weapons programs, and even regime targets in cyberspace. Netanyahu didn’t always claim credit for the attacks that took place under his watch, but he often found ways to ensure that Iranians knew that Israel was eating their lunch.

Naftali Bennett, who became prime minister last year, has labored to differentiate himself from his predecessor in many ways, but he has continued to identify opportunities to downgrade Iran’s capacities, and to deter it from more reckless aggression. Bennett has renamed this counteroffensive “the Campaign to Weaken Iran,” but aside from the change in title, there hasn’t been any change in substance, at least so far as an outside observer can tell.

The concept behind the War Between the Wars is straightforward. The Islamic Republic is spoiling for a fight, and so it is arming and training its proxies to wage war against the Jewish state—such as the one fought between Israel and Iran-backed terrorist groups in Gaza last May. Tehran exerts de-facto control over a vast swath of territory stretching from western Iran to the Mediterranean Sea—what analysts have dubbed a “land bridge”—and it can be used for transporting materiel and stationing proxy forces. At the same time, the regime is developing advanced weapons technology, such as drones and precision-guided munitions, to target Israel. And it aims to develop nuclear weapons, with the goal of eventually wiping Israel off the map—a phrase used by the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

If Iran continues unchecked, Israel could soon face devastating simultaneous attacks from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, or even Yemen. In such a war, Israel would face sophisticated and accurate missiles that could possibly evade its vaunted missile-defense systems. To forestall or prevent that eventuality, Israel must erode Iranian capabilities. And so it has. In 2019, then-IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot revealed that Israel had destroyed “thousands” of military targets in Syria. The following year, his successor, Aviv Kochavi, announced that Israel had struck more than 500 Iranian military targets in Syria during 2020 alone.

Syria may be the most observable front in the war between wars, but it is not the only one. Iranian vessels have caught fire on the high seas. And so have Israeli vessels, for that matter. Iranian nuclear scientists have been mowed down in broad daylight. Al-Qaeda operatives seeking safe haven in Iran have been assassinated. Cyber weapons have been deployed against Iranian nuclear sites, but also against Israeli businesses and government agencies. Israel’s water system was even penetrated, although thankfully that infiltration was neutralized before any serious harm came to Israeli citizens.

But perhaps the most dramatic moment in this shadow war was an operation in 2018 during which Israel’s Mossad spirited away hundreds of thousands of documents from a secret nuclear archive in the outskirts of Tehran. Some of those documents helped the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, identify nuclear sites previously concealed by the regime.

Throughout this campaign, Israel appeared to operate with the implicit blessing of the Trump administration, which all but cheered Israel’s daring asymmetric strikes. After Trump’s electoral defeat in 2020, however, the Israelis were unclear as to whether the Biden administration would stand for it. The Biden White House had, after all, made clear that a new nuclear deal with Tehran was a top priority, and open conflict with a U.S. ally might interfere with negotiations.

Undeterred, Israel ramped up its strikes against Iranian military assets across the Middle East. In Syria, the primary targets are precision-guided missiles and the parts necessary to build them, which Iran had sought to smuggle to its most powerful proxy, Hizballah. But targets further afield now include Iranian drones and the IRGC brass, among others.

 

And that brings us back to the missile attack on Erbil, which need also be considered in light of the recent impasse in the nuclear negotiations in Vienna. In those negotiations, Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—including Russia—seek a deal with the Tehran to revive the 2015 agreement restricting its nuclear program. The emerging deal plainly serves illicit Russian interests; not surprising, given that the Russian representatives serve as the primary intermediary between the American team and the Iranians—who refuse even to sit in a room with their U.S. counterparts. After the Americans caved to nearly every one of the regime’s demands, the Russians invaded Ukraine. In response to new American sanctions, Putin demanded that the forthcoming nuclear deal carve out a “white channel” that would enable Russia and Iran to continue commerce. The Biden White House refused, prompting the negotiators to return home for consultations.

It was at this point, with the nuclear deal hanging in the balance, that the Iranian regime chose to fire ballistic missiles at the American consulate in Erbil. Some might argue that the regime struck Israel targets because the world was distracted by the crisis in Ukraine and would barely notice. In fact, the ayatollahs were claiming Washington’s attention. For, counterintuitive though it may seem, they understood that such an attack would not imperil but rather spur the White House to finalize the agreement they desperately seek. The logic is simple: if you don’t give in to our demands, we will make trouble for you in the Middle East, and even threaten the United States.

To be sure, Tehran took a risk. This was the first time that Iran launched ballistic missiles from its territory at American installations in Iraq (or anywhere else for that matter) since January of 2020, when it retaliated for the assassination of the IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani. Then-President Donald Trump declined to respond, owing to the fact that the Iranian salvo did not lead to the loss of life. But had Americans died, the conflict could easily have escalated.

With more predictable leadership in the White House, and with war raging in Ukraine, Tehran correctly surmised that Washington had little stomach for a military response to Sunday’s attack on Erbil. As if on cue, the U.S. Department of State downplayed the strikes, saying it did not have “indications the attack was directed at the United States.” This explanation, unconvincing though it may be, gives Washington an excuse not to respond, either on the ground or at the negotiating table in Vienna.

And now, according to new reports, the White House has caved to the Russian demands for a financial white channel. As of this writing, the deal appears to be back on track, with Iran set to receive everything it wanted: an estimated $131 billion in sanctions relief, the de-listing of the IRGC as a terrorist group, the removal of restrictions on the supreme leader’s personal funds, and potentially even an “inherent guarantee” stipulating that if a future American administration should exit the deal for any reason, Iran has the “right” to enrich uranium at higher levels and to install additional advanced centrifuges.

For Israel, Biden’s wan response only confirms its worst fears. There will be no “longer and stronger” nuclear deal to contain Iran’s march toward a bomb, as the White House once promised. Instead, Iran’s finances are set to improve dramatically, allowing it to invest heavily in its regional military assets while waiting for the nuclear deal’s restrictions to lapse as early as 2025. Thus, in the minds of Bennett and his military advisors, the “Campaign to Weaken Iran” must continue apace.

Of course, Iran will undoubtedly respond to Israeli efforts. With friction increasingly out in the open, there will be a higher likelihood of escalation. Armed drones appear to be the Iranian regime’s weapon of choice. Not only does the regime wield them against Israel, but it gives them to its proxies, such as Hizballah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Even Hamas, arguably Iran’s least capable proxy, has attempted to deploy them. They’re an inexpensive and expedient response to Israel’s air superiority. Even less expensive, and perhaps more deniable, are cyberattacks. Those have increased in recent years, as well.

But it won’t end there. During recent meetings with security officials in Israel, it became clear that efforts are underway to thwart attacks against Israeli high-value targets by Iranian agents. Sooner or later, though, one of these attacks will succeed. If and when it does, one can only expect the Israelis to become even more aggressive in their own reprisals.

All of this will take place against the backdrop of an Iranian nuclear program that continues to threaten Israel and the region, which the forthcoming agreement will at best modestly slow down by a few short years. This too will spur on Israel’s covert campaign.

The continued escalation of the shadow war, marked by strikes like the ballistic-missile attack on Erbil last weekend, is the utterly predictable consequence of the Biden administration’s policy of enriching the Islamic Republic of Iran under the pretense of nonproliferation. In hopes of finally extricating American attention from the messy problems of the Middle East, the U.S. has laid the groundwork for even more trouble ahead. And in doing so, it has put its closest ally in the region in the tightest of spots. America’s acquiescence in Vienna has hastened the military conflicts it sought to avoid, while exacerbating nearly every problem it hoped to ignore.

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