The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Dr. Yossi Mansharof: The chances of a direct war with Iran are very low, but the reliance of Tehran on proxy warfare will play a major role.

The Jerusalem Post, 10.01.2020



The new decade started off with a bang, with tensions soaring between the United States and Iran, nuclear-armed foes breathing flames of war.

The killing of the top Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, along with the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, heightened tensions in the Middle East to a temperature rarely seen before.

After millions turned out for his funeral – during which 50 people lost their lives during a stampede in Soleimani’s hometown of Kerman – Iran carried through with its retaliation for his death.

The Iranian response, which consisted of 22 missiles fired from Iran at two joint American and Iraqi military bases – 17 toward the Ain al-Assad base in the Anbar province and five toward coalition headquarters in Erbil – caused relatively little damage and led to no loss of life.

“All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning,” Trump tweeted following the strikes.

While both the US and Iraq denied any casualties, Iranian media outlets claimed dozens of American troops had been killed, and several pro-Iranian Twitter accounts claimed dozens more had been injured and evacuated out of Iraq in serious condition.

But, had that been anything other than Fake News, Trump’s tweet would have been completely different. At a press conference several hours later the American president said that “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, for his part, said that the strikes were a “slap in the face” of the United States but that military retaliation was not enough and “what is important is that the corrupt presence of the US in this region should come to an end.”

Accusing the US of bringing “war and hostility” to the region, Khamenei reiterated his country’s readiness to face threats, telling the crowd that “today, we are armed. The nation of Iran is equipped against the bullies of the world.”

According to a senior official in Khamenei’s office, the missile strikes on Wednesday were the “weakest” of several retaliation scenarios.

Iranian officials vowed to avenge Soleimani, marking American forces in Iraq and the Middle East as their target. Iranian proxy groups, including Lebanese Hezbollah, threatened to eliminate American presence and comments were made by senior Iranian officials as well as by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and other proxy groups that if Washington were to carry out further military actions in response to Iranian retaliatory moves that the Israeli cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv would be turned “to dust.”

During a memorial service in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Nasrallah said that Soleimani’s assassination marked a new era in the Middle East, and that the response will be “just punishment” for the crime.

“The date of Soleimani’s assassination is a turning point in the history of the region, not just for Iran or Iraq,” Nasrallah said, adding that his assassination marked “the start of a new US war in the region.”

“The US military is the one who killed Soleimani and Muhandis, and they will pay the price. This is the equation,” Nasrallah said, adding that just punishment would mean targeting someone on the same level as Soleimani, like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, or the head of CENTCOM Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie.

While Israel considered him to be the most dangerous individual to the state’s existence, Nasrallah said that “it didn’t dare” to kill him. “Israel could have killed him in Syria, because he moved about openly, but it didn’t dare to kill him. Israel resorted to the Americans.”

Israel, for its part, remained relatively quiet during the week that followed the killing of Soleimani alongside Muhandis.

Quiet and cautious.

It’s not that Israel did not want to see the end of the Soleimani era. In October, Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen said that the Iranian general knew “very well” that his assassination “was not impossible.”

“His actions are identified and felt everywhere, there’s no doubt the infrastructure he built presents a serious challenge for Israel,” he said. But, “with all due respect to his bluster, he hasn’t necessarily committed the mistake yet that would place him on the prestigious list of Mossad’s assassination targets.”

During a conference Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Tamir Heiman, stated that Israel sought no escalation with Iran, and that the crisis between the United States and Iran was confined to Iraq.

Senior Israeli officials in the defense establishment also noted that it would be reckless for Iran to strike Israel, even through its proxies, as while it is certain that the Islamic Republic can inflict major damage to the Jewish state, Israel’s military would respond with overwhelming force.

Following the Iranian missile barrage on US forces, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel would strike a “resounding blow” if Iran were to attack.

While the high tension was felt during a drive along the border from Rosh Hanikra on the Lebanese border to Mount Bental on the Syrian border the day after Soleimani’s assassination, nothing else was out of the ordinary.

Though Israel’s military closed the Hermon ski resort for less than 24 hours and placed its intelligence and air defense divisions on high alert, no bomb shelters were open and no further recommendations were given to residents.

CONSIDERED A military genius, Soleimani was appointed commander of the IRGC in 1997. Until a few years ago, he remained almost invisible to the public eye. But over the past few years he had risen to international fame as the man behind Iran’s regional aspirations and the country’s fight in Syria.

Under Soleimani’s command, Iran has been trying to establish a land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean, a major concern for Israel, which since 2013 has been carrying out a “war-between-wars” campaign aimed at preventing Iran from reaching its goal.

At a conference held by the ALMA Education and Research Center, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Ilan Lavi called Soleimani the main architect behind the fact that when a war breaks out in Israel’s north, the IDF will be at war across the entire northern border rather than fighting on one front.

As Quds Force commander thousands of Shi’ite militia fighters won back the majority of Syria for President Bashar Assad and, after retaking southern Syria from rebel groups and Islamic State fighters, began to entrench themselves along Israel’s border.

Israel’s military has for years warned of the threat posed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, with an arsenal of close to 130,000 missiles and rockets along with a battle-hardened fighting force of several thousand men.

Yossi Mansharof, a researcher in the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the Ezri center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa, told The Jerusalem Post that Iran’s missile strike was not the end of the story.

“I don’t think this is it,” he said, explaining that just “yesterday [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani declared that it’s now the turn for the people of the region to punish the United States” he said.

While Mansharof believes that the chances of a direct war with Iran are very low, “the reliance of Tehran on proxy warfare will play a major role,” he continued, explaining that he sees “high motivation” of Shi’ite militias across the region including in Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

“Qais al-Khazaali, the commander of Iraq’s Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia vowed to take revenge for Muhandis and Soleimani. Also, Hezbollah media are emphasizing that rounds of attrition in the region are expected,” he said.

But Khamenei, he stressed, doesn’t want war because the Islamic Republic “is quite aware of their military and technological inferiority” and the most important thing for Khamenei is the survival of the regime which is already facing a crisis of legitimacy in the eyes of the Iranian people.

“Iran is relying on proxy warfare so we have to see what the Iranian leadership and head of the proxies like Nasrallah or Khazaali decide. It seems that they are motivated to take revenge but are well aware of the dangers. They thought that Trump would not dare to take a risky decision in the coming year because of elections but now they see that Trump can take actions against Iran.”

“The elimination of Soleimani means that for the short term, Iran’s terror capabilities are damaged but, over the long term, Iran will keep with its strategy and Esmail Qaani along with Nasrallah and Khazaali will resume their activities backed by Khameini and do their best to achieve the strategy of Iranian hegemony in the region,” Mansharof said.

According to Mansharof, it’s probable that Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in the Golan might carry out a revenge attack against Israel, similar to other Iranian plots foiled by the IDF intelligence and military capabilities in recent months.

“For Israel his elimination doesn’t change much in Syria,” he said. “The Iran-led resistance axis was highly motivated already to attack Israel from the Syrian front, and they failed in previous cases so Israel showed its deterrence power. I think in any case that Iran will resume its offensive plans in Syria and we will see further clashes between Israel and Iran’s military establishment in Syria.”

Though the quiet seems to have returned, the tensions between Iran and the United States remain at an all-time high and it remains to be seen whether the strikes on Wednesday are the end of the latest escalation between the two nations.

On Thursday morning, the deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps was quoted by Iran’s Tasnim news agency that the country will take “harsher revenge soon” as Iran’s attack missile attack on American troops in Iraq, showed its “military might” against which the United States “couldn’t do a damn thing.”

It’s never over until the fat lady sings, they say.

By ANNA AHRONHEIM, The Jerusalem Post, 10.01.2020