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Are the rules of the Iran-Israel ‘shadow war’ about to be broken?

A shadow war is by definition a limited fight. A country engaged in such a struggle aims to accomplish three strategic goals. First, hitting and eliminating selected high value enemy targets whose existence or activities it deems decidedly inimical to its national security interests. Second, convincing the enemy of the credibility of its warnings and its determination to put a stop to the existing or emerging threat. Third, while demonstrating its readiness to escalate from verbal admonitions to violent actions it also signals its elemental disinterest in open warfare. This is achieved by a combination of the intermittent frequency of the attacks, the selective nature of their targets, the weapons used and, most importantly, the secrecy of the operations. The stealthy nature of the campaign is meant to accord its sponsors plausible deniability and thus provide them a measure of immunity against possible retribution. It is also hoped that by keeping quiet the enemy will save face and will not be pushed by street sentiment to retaliate in kind let alone break the unwritten rules of the war in the shadows.

The tit-for-tat covert attacks exchanged between Israel and Iran certainly bear the hallmarks of such a war. For years, the two have undertaken to quietly hit each other ­targets on land, by air and at sea, in some cases by proxy. Yet they have assiduously sought to avoid open clashes that would risk escalation to all-out war, preferring instead to act surreptitiously without directly claiming responsibility.

Then came the assassination of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officer killed outside his home in Tehran on May 22, 2022. It has been reported that Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei planned kidnappings and killings for Quds Force Unit 840, including recent failed plots against an Israeli diplomat, an American general and a French intellectual. (the Quds Force is a branch of the IRGC specializing in external unconventional warfare and intelligence operations.)

Obviously the target this time was not connected to Iran’s nuclear program which has been Israel’s predominant focus in its covert actions against Iran. Yet the commander of the IRGC, Maj.-Gen. Hossein Salami, accused Israel of responsibility for the hit.

In fact, while not taking direct responsibility for the attack, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid confirmed there was a shift in Israel’s conduct of the shadow war against Iran. He was cited in the Israeli online newspaper Ynet on May 30,2022 as saying: “ Unlike previous governments we brought another principle to the table…It will no longer be that they (the Iranians) can spread terror on our borders or inside Israel proper and remain immune inside Iran because we only confront them in secondary theaters like Syria or Lebanon.”

Many Israeli commentators also argued that the direct attack on Iranian forces was not incidental. It reflected a strategic change in approach, designed to target not only the arms of what Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett described as the “Iranian octopus” but its very head.

This is not the first time that such a strategic shift has been alleged. In 2020 another aspect of the Iran-Israel shadow war grabbed the limelight —cyberwarfare. Thus, the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies reported that Israel’s water and sewage infrastructure were attacked by Iran on April 24 and 25. causing minor damage. in response according to the Washington Post on November 11, 2021, Israel launched a cyberattack that targeted Iran’s bustling Shahid Rajaee Port terminal in Bandar Abbas sitting on the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Reportedly the attack, which was launched on May 9, caused havoc by abruptly halting shipping traffic and leading to massive traffic jams leading to the port.

Israeli media reported that Iranian government agencies were the subject of cyber attacks on October 14, and another such attack on Iran’s ports was reported on October 19. The Post in its report quoted an Iranian general as saying Israel was also likely behind an October 26 cyberattack that paralyzed gas stations nationwide.

Analysts zeroed in on the cyber attacks as indicative of a strategic transformation of the shadow war. In particular they argued the expansion of the targets hit and the greater frequency of the attacks were notable aspects of a new strategy.

For example, The New York Times on November 27, 2021 wrote “For years, Israel and Iran have engaged in a covert war, by land, sea, air and computer, but the targets have usually been military or government related. Now, the cyberwar has widened to target civilians on a large scale.”

Another analyst writing in the Jerusalem Post on May 20, 2020 argued that Israel was “reticent to take military action inside Iran itself to make the regime feel the pain because of a fear of sparking a shooting war. But cyberwarfare apparently, has different rules, and the same reticence against using military force to attack facilities inside Iran does not extend to lashing out at Iranian infrastructure through cyber.”

However in neither of these cases the central feature of the shadow war —its clandestine nature that allows both sides to dodge culpability —was abandoned. This despite the fact that the perpetrator is hardly anonymous. Helped by, among other things, intentional and unauthorized leaks, the sides know or strongly suspect who is the culprit behind the various furtive attacks targeting them. Yet to this day this has not altered their willingness to abide by the war’s unwritten rules and thus avoid a full scale clash.

The sides commitment to a covert campaign was undoubtedly also spurred by its effectiveness in forewarning the enemy of its vulnerability. Apparently it was hoped this would boost deterrence and force the diversion of resources from the development of new offensive capabilities to defensive ones.

Successful multiple shadowy operations could become a force multiplier of a kind by causing the spread of rumors and imaginary thinking among the public. The latter ascribes even accidental mishaps to the dirty work of “hidden hands” which, if rampant, could pose a threat to the regime’s stability.

Israel likely believed that the secret war would also galvanize diplomatic efforts to block Iran’s nuclear drive to stave off war. In the meantime, in contrast to open hostilities, the sporadic unclaimed attacks have shielded the protagonists of this undercover fight from censure by the international community.

The expansion of the targets beyond military ones or those linked to the Iranian nuclear program and the means by which they were hit did not impinge on the sides’ basic incentives to silently wage a protracted low-intensity conflict without jeopardizing their paramount interest in avoiding a conflagration. Thus the new developments signify a tactical shift not a new strategic paradigm. Still, since the recent attacks can be viewed as an escalation of sorts it cannot be argued they have no relevance to a heightened chance of a shooting war.

By contrast a shadow war can undergo a real strategic transformation under either one of three main scenarios. The war can end or pause due to political constraints. For example, Israel suspended its hidden campaign against Iranian nuclear related targets in 2013 reportedly under pressure from the Obama administration which feared that continued attacks will endanger the prospects for a nuclear deal it was negotiating with Tehran at the time..

Alternatively, a shadow war can undergo a transformation and escalate to a full scale conflict if one of the sides views its actual or potential harm as unacceptable and undertakes to eliminate the threat via overt military means.

Indeed such a scenario was almost realized in May 2018 during the waning days of the Syrian civil war. Iranian forces moved into Syria after the outbreak in 2011 of the popular uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad whose regime was suddenly on the brink of collapse. To begin with, Tehran’s goals were limited to keeping the Assad regime in power and secure the overland corridor from Tehran to Lebanon to support its proxy there— the Hezbollah terrorist organization.. However, instead of withdrawing its forces once these goals were achieved, Iran modified its strategic plan so it could wage a covert operations’ campaign against Israel, with the aim of keeping it occupied and deterring a potential Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In effect Syria were to become an advanced Iranian base from which it could intensity its shadow war against Israel.

Accordingly, on February 10, 2018 the Israeli Air Force (IAF) downed an Iranian drone over the country’s far north. The drone carried explosives, and, according to an Israeli military source cited by the BBC on April 14,2018, was “tasked to attack.” Its stealth launching marked the first time Iran directly attempted to attack Israel proper.

Israel immediately retaliated with the IAF carrying extensive raids against targets inside Syria including the T-4 airbase in the central province of Homs from whence the drone was launched.

Iran, in an apparent effort to claim immunity and protect its forward base for covert operations against a possible Israeli retaliation, denied any involvement.

In an interview with the BBC in late February, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi rejected charges that Iran had sent the drone into Israel claiming the it belonged to the Syrian army. But Israel accused then head of the IRGC’s Quds Force of orchestrating the attack.“It was ordered and commanded by Qassem Suleimani,” Israeli Defense Forces’(IDF) spokesman , Lt Col Jonathan Conricus said.

On April 9, Israel again attacked the T-4 airbase reportedly killing several IRGC troops including Colonel Mehdi Dehghan, who led the drone unit. An unnamed Israeli military source was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “It was the first time we attacked live Iranian targets—both facilities and people.”

Tehran vowed revenge. It came at 10 minutes past midnight on the morning of May 10, 2018. when about 20 rockets, including both Grad and Fajr-5 Models, were fired at Israeli military installations on the Golan Heights by Iran’s Quds Force from the outskirts of Damascus in southern Syria. The attack marked the first time ever Iranian forces have ever fired directly on Israeli troops.

Israel retaliated in force later the same day. In response to the Golan Heights attack, it said its fighter jets had struck “almost” all of Iran’s military infrastructure inside Syria – some 70 targets—in an operation dubbed ”House of Cards”. IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Conricus was quoted by CNN on May 11, as saying this was Israel’s “largest operation“ since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

The rationale for the unfolding confrontation was plainly laid out by then Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu .According to the Israeli paper Haaretz on May 6, 2018 he told the Israeli cabinet, “We are determined to stop Iran’s aggression in its early stages, even if it involves a conflict…Better now than later. Nations that were unprepared to take timely action against murderous aggression paid much heavier prices afterwards.“

Though it appeared as if the Iran-Israel shadow war was about to explode into an all out open warfare, the sides communicated their interest in keeping the violence n check.

The Iranians, in fact, signaled their interest in a limited engagement from the get go. The attack was restricted both quantitatively and qualitatively. Only one salvo was fired and the barrage was aimed at purely military targets. The volley was also confined to a single geographic area—Israel’s Golan Heights.

Further, as with its drone plot earlier the same year, Iran acted as if it was not even involved. For instance, immediately after the rocket barrage Abolfazl Hassanbeigi, Vice Chairman of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council told the Hezbollah’s Al-Manar satellite television station on May 10 that “Teheran has nothing to do with the missiles launched at Israel from Syria overnight Wednesday”. The attack was carried under the cover of darkness and the Quds Force did not claim responsibility for it. The semi-official Iranian media also attributed the rocket fire to the Syrian army.

Israel would have none of Iran’s signals and deceptive verbiage. It viewed both as indicative of the kind of covert campaign Iran intended to unleash now that it established itself militarily in Syria in close proximity to Israeli territory.. In turn, Israel undertook to exhibit openly and forcefully its determination to suppress any nascent attempt to expand the shadow war against it. Yet even before the IAF launched its country-wide bombardment Israel’s then Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman sought to dispel fears of an all-out war. He told Israeli Television on May 9, that the Israeli security establishment was operating “responsibly and no one is looking for an escalation or war.” He reiterated this position after the attack telling CNN on May 11, “If it will rain in Israel, there will be a biblical flood on the other side.” However, he stressed, Israel was disinterested in any prolonged fighting saying the latest offensive was not an ongoing operation. “I hope this chapter is over, and everyone understands the situation, and we won’t have to spend nights in situation rooms,” Lieberman declared.

Indeed hours after the IAF’s blitz the IDF’s Home Front Command  announced that normal life should resume in the north of the country.

The bottom line is that the unwritten rules of the Iran-Israel shadow war were indeed breached in 2018 (as well as a year later). Yet the sides’ cardinal interest in containing any escalation remained intact irrespective and was responsible for halting the action forthwith.

The familiar modus operandi of the Israel-Iran war in the shadows was soon back in play effectively resurrecting its temporarily forsaken “code” of conduct..

Finally, a shadow war could transform into open warfare when one of the sides reaches the conclusion it has been ineffective in achieving its goals. In the case of Israel, Iran’s continued progress toward the bomb may suggest Israel’s shadow war is falling short of realizing its strategic objectives.

In early March 2021 Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, told Fox News that Israel was updating plans to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. “We must stand independently and we must defend ourselves by ourselves,” Gantz warned, saying this would be the case if the world is unable to curb the Iranian nuclear program.

The Times of Israel online newspaper reported September 7, 2021 that Gantz also told foreign diplomats the month before that Israel may have to take military action against Iran. “The State of Israel has the means to act and will not hesitate to do so. I do not rule out the possibility that Israel will have to take action in the future in order to prevent a nuclear Iran,” Gantz reportedly said.

A day earlier in an interview published in the israeli Walla news outlet the Chief of the General Staff of the IDF Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi divulged that Israel has “greatly accelerated” preparations for action against Iran’s nuclear program. Kohavi went on to say that “a significant chunk of the boost to the defense budget, as was recently agreed, was intended for this purpose. It’s a very complicated job, with much more intelligence, much more operational capabilities, much more armaments. We’re working on all these things.”

Reportedly Israel has approved a budget of some NIS 5 billion ($1.5 billion) to be used to prepare the military for a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear program. It includes funds for various types of aircraft, intelligence-gathering drones and unique armaments needed for such an attack, which would have to target heavily fortified underground sites.

For their part high-ranking Iranian commanders repeatedly issued outsized threats to annihilate Israel or destroy its major cities if it dares attack Iran. Moreover, in December 2021, Iran fired multiple ballistic missiles at the close of five days of military drills that were meant as a warning to Israel and included a mock strike on Israel’s nuclear facility..

“These exercises were designed to respond to threats made in recent days by the Zionist regime,” Iran’s Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri told state television. He added “Sixteen missiles aimed and annihilated the chosen target. In this exercise, part of the hundreds of Iranian missiles capable of destroying a country that dared to attack Iran..”

According to Iran’s official news agency IRNA the missiles were of the models Emad, Ghadr, Sejjil, Zalzal, Dezful and Zolfaghar and that their range was from 350 to 2000 kilometers (220 to 1250 miles). The short-range and medium-range missiles, Iran has said, can reach Israel as well as US bases in the region.

On the same occasion IRGC commander Gen. Salami said: “The military exercise… is a serious warning to Zionist regime officials… Make the slightest mistake, we will cut off their hand.”

Undoubtedly to magnify and dramatize the warnings the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces concluded the drill by blowing up a target set up to resemble Israel’s Dimona nuclear complex, Reuters reported. Iranian TV broadcast images of missiles hitting the target structures and issued a threat to Israel.

Iran’s semi-official news agency Tasnim, which is close to the IRGC, said “Through a simulation of the Dimona atomic facilities, the Revolutionary Guards successfully practiced attacking this critical center of the Zionist regime in its missile exercise.”

Nevertheless, in a direct challenge to these and other such warnings, Israeli papers reported June 1, 2022, that “dozens” of IAF planes conducted air maneuvers over the Mediterranean Sea the night before simulating striking Iranian nuclear facilities.

Almost simultaneously it was revealed that the IAF has developed a new capability to be able to fly its F-35 stealth fighter jets from Israel to the Islamic Republic without requiring mid-air refueling. As well that the IAF has integrated a new one-ton bomb into the F-35’s arsenal of armaments that it can carry in its belly without jeopardizing the stealth radar signature of the plane.

The IAF already simulated an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites a decade earlier. Similarly the Iranians whose penchant for operating through proxies to escape punishment is palpable and who regularly accuse Israel of possessing nuclear weapons cannot be taken at face value when they vow to destroy Israeli cities if their nuclear centers are hit.

Still, the specter of Iran’s crossing the nuclear threshold is today vastly more tangible than the last time the IAF’s might was on exhibit. Therefore, the latest declarations and publicized military preparations could this time around be more than just psychological warfare aimed to deter the enemy and pressure the international community to curb Iran. If this is the case then the days of the Iran-Israel shadow war may truly be numbered.

About the Author
Dr. Avigdor Haselkorn is a strategic analyst and the author of books, articles and op-eds on national security issues.
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