The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

JISS: Prepare to take independent military action against Iran; and conversely, prepare for the opposite scenario: that there will be a rapprochement between Iran and the US and the nuclear talks will resume.

Israel Hayom, 20.12.19



The quiet in northern Israel could be deceptive. Theoretically, it could be an indication that the clashes between Iran and Israel in recent years – the former determined to gain a foothold in Syria and pose a threat to Israel, and the latter steadfastly preventing that from happening – have calmed down. It’s no secret that in the past few months, there has been a drop in activity on that front, mostly by Israel. It happened after a series of events that Iran caused in the Persian Gulf, the most blatant of which was a cruise missile and airstrike attack on Saudi oil facilities. The fact that that incident, like the ones that preceded it, occurred without a response, made Iran more audacious. Israel believed that Iran would now start responding to any Israeli attack on Iranian satellites or interests in the region.

Iran, unlike Israel, didn’t stop what it was doing. Despite its domestic economic crisis, the displeasure of Russia and Syria, and the military blows it has sustained, Iran is persistent. This gives up plenty to consider about the chances of convincing Iran to abandon its scheme to settle down in the region between Iraq and Lebanon. In short: that would be too big a task for Israel. Without a deal with world powers, there is almost no chance Iran will be deterred.

But Israel can definitely take action, and intends to do so. Anyone who doesn’t want an upgraded version of Hezbollah in Syria must act before the steaming kettle becomes a steam engine equipped with advanced precision weapons. The IDF has been busy with this challenge for the past few years, and to judge by Defense Minister NAftali Bennett’s and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s comments this week while inspecting an IDF drill on the Golan Heights – which was also designed to send a clear message that Israel is prepared for war – it will keep the country busy for the foreseeable future.

An Iranian retaliation is on the way

Some will, of course, tie all this to the Israeli elections and claim that it’s all a political maneuver. That’s incorrect. Anyone familiar with the details, in the coalition or the opposition, knows that this is not the kind of thing that can be put aside until after an election. Israel is supplying only a partial response anyway, and defense officials said this week that discussion about the situation should focus on the need for more action, including higher-risk operations.

The meaning is clear: Israel must risk an Iranian retaliation. Thus far, Iran has demonstrated low-level retaliation to Israeli actions, all of which were thwarted or disrupted. But that can’t go on forever. The attack on Saudi Arabia shows that Iran has the capacity to strike a painful blow. True, Israel isn’t Saudi Arabia, and has a different level of deterrence for Tehran, but anyone thinking that commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani will sit by as Israel continues to operate is wrong. There will be a response.

This scenario brings with it an increased likelihood of a fighting on the northern border, if not necessarily a war. We are talking about days of battles that could develop following an Israeli strike and an ensuing Iranian response. They could end as an isolated incident, or devolve into a wider-scale escalation.

This scenario will also probably be a pillar of Military Intelligence’s annual situation assessment for 2020, which is due to be presented to the nation’s leaders next month and will include more than a few questions, including: What will take place between Iran and the US on the matter of Iran’s nuclear program and the US sanctions; what role Russia will play; will Persian Gulf states stay hostile to Iran or try to draw closer to Tehran in an attempt to protect themselves; what will happen with the popular protests that have erupted in Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran; and – of particular importance to Israel – will the Gaza Strip lean toward a long-term cease-fire deal or opt for escalation, and when and if the Palestinian Authority will hold elections and whether PA President Mahmoud Abbas will survive the year. Also, how long and to what extent will Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan remain in place?

Direct contact with Putin

Many of the questions mentioned above are raised in a forecast for 2020 published this week by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. The institute, under lead researcher Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, points out another major challenge that Israel might face if Iran decides to continue enriching uranium to build a nuclear bomb. That would require Israel to prepare itself to take independent military action – something more likely in the second half of the year – without knowing if and to what extent the US will provide backing.

At the same time, Israel must prepare itself for the opposite scenario: that there will be a rapprochement between Iran and the US and the nuclear talks will resume. JISS researchers call that possibility “problematic” and warn that Israel would have to “ensure that full coordination with decision-makers in the US remains in place for everything having to do with the demands that will be placed on Iran.”

In the meantime, Iran’s economic distress is expected to worsen, and the protests there to expand. The political struggle between the conservatives and the pro-reform forces in Iran is also expected to increase in intensity ahead of Iran’s parliamentary elections, which are scheduled to take place this February. The authors of the document expect that if the Iranian economic crisis continues and the country does not resume negotiations, it will continue to launch “provocations” through the IRGC and the Quds Force, which could enflame the Israel-Iran situation in Syria and turn it into a much bigger conflict.

If that came to pass, it wouldn’t be particularly convenient for either Syria or Hezbollah. The JISS predictions for 2020 indicate a trend of increasing stability in Syria, which is at the tail end of a seven-year war and currently reestablishing an effective central government, compared to Lebanon, which is seeing growing instability that could strengthen Hezbollah but could also put a check on its freedom of military action.

In a worst-case scenario, Israel would have to prepare for a pre-emptive war against Hezbollah, but there are more likely scenarios – first of which is the possibility that Russia will take action to limit Israel’s operational freedom in Syria. To prevent that from happening, Israel will have to maintain open lines of communication with Moscow in general and Russian President Vladimir Putin in particular, a complex task.

Most of these issue are already in play, especially the ones that deal with operations in the north. Israel has no choice but to act, but it must do so with its eyes open and while acknowledging reality, including the dangers it presents. Most importantly, it must cut back on the talk, particularly during the election campaign, a time when even the most vital matters can be seen as political games.

When the defense minister was speaking this week about how Syria would turn into “Iran’s Vietnam,” he was comparing Iran and its satellites to the US in the war in southeast Asia. Washington might not care for that comparison, but that’s not the most important point – the Vietnam War was tough on the Vietnamese. They might have won, but they paid a heavy price, and that was fighting for their own land. It’s not certain that Israel wants to make Syria into its “own” land and fight for it and in it. Next year, Israel will have to do all it can to keep fighting that battle while maintaining quiet on the northern front.

by Yoav Limor, Israel Hayom,  20.12.19