Rami Dabbas
Rami Dabbas
Writer & Political Analyst

Iran and Israel, Who Wins The Unconventional War?

Without commenting on the official accusation that Iran directed against his country of committing acts of sabotage at the Iranian nuclear facility Natanz on April 11th, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a press conference he held with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Jerusalem: “Iran has not and will not give up its dream. By possessing nuclear weapons, and Israel, on its part, pledges to prevent it from obtaining it, ”stressing, at the same time, Israel’s keenness not to get involved in a direct war with Iran.

These words of Netanyahu summed up the nature of what can be called an “unconventional war” between the two countries and has continued since 2004. And by mutual attacks on the merchant ships of each of them, as happened recently, and by diplomatic means as well, a war that is difficult to describe as potentially decisive in the sense that any of the two sides will be able to achieve their goals, but there remain fears that the escalation between Israel and Iran will lead to warfare other than the traditional situation.

The focus here will be on one method or tool of the non-traditional war tools taking place between the two countries, which are covert operations that include cyber-attacks, assassinations, and psychological warfare operations, as the other means (proxy wars, sabotage of commercial ships, and diplomatic moves) do not represent for both countries effective means of influencing the opponent, because of its dependence on other parties, whose position may not be secured or cooperative enough.

Secret War Theory

The integrated actions of the unconventional Israeli war against Iran are attributed to the tenth head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, who assumed its chairmanship from 2002-2010. In 2004 Dagan and his deputy Tamir Pardo called a meeting at the Mossad headquarters attended by leaders of other intelligence services (” The Shin Bet, and “AMAN”) to discuss how to stop the Iranian nuclear project. The estimate was that if Iran really wanted to manufacture nuclear weapons, it would eventually succeed. Accordingly, Dagan posed the following question: What can we do (to change that)?

The security experts participating in the meeting answered the question as follows: “We can try to bring about a change in the Iranian regime, or convince the Iranian leaders that the price they will pay for continuing to try to achieve the nuclear ambition will be exorbitant and will plunge Iran into a deep economic crisis – sanctions and political pressures. And so on. ” But Dagan believed that such solutions would not be sufficient to persuade Iran to abandon its project. Hence, he said: “We (the security services) come to our main mission, as we are working in the meantime to significantly slow down the nuclear program so that they do not reach the stage of possessing nuclear weapons.”

At the end of the meeting, Dagan presented a plan of several points that did not ignore the importance of diplomatic pressure and impose sanctions but focused in particular on covert and qualitative operations such as using Israel’s technological capabilities to launch cyber attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities, carrying out assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, and psychological warfare. In showing Iran as a weak and infiltrated country, unable to protect its facilities and scientists, and also unable to respond to the Israeli attacks against it.

At the end of his term as head of the Mossad, Dagan entered into a sharp clash with Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and the latter two were preparing a comprehensive military plan to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities with concentrated air and missile strikes. Netanyahu and Barak are planning it, and it may turn into a security disaster for Israel, in light of the inability to anticipate the type and size of the Iranian response to such an attack, and the most important thing is Washington’s violent opposition to any move of this kind of origin.

Dagan used the excuse of success in the covert war against Iran to persuade Netanyahu to stop thinking about direct war with Iran, noting that in 2010 alone, Israel managed to penetrate the Natanz reactor, along with other Iranian nuclear facilities, by introducing a complex virus program bearing the codename. Stuxnet “to the computers that control Iranian centrifuges to enrich uranium, causing chaos and causing the centrifuges to spiral out of control.” Dagan also mentioned the success of the Mossad in assassinating two of the most prominent scientists working in the Iranian nuclear project, Masoud Mohammadi (assassinated in Tehran in January 2010) and Majid Shahryari (assassinated in November of the same year in Tehran as well).

Dagan was clear in defining his strategy, which he described as not claiming that it will eliminate Iran’s dream of possessing a nuclear weapon, but rather aims to delay Iran’s arrival at the plant to manufacture this weapon. The ten years that have elapsed since Dagan’s departure from office have demonstrated the efficacy of his strategy, as Iran was unable to manufacture nuclear weapons until it reached the nuclear agreement in 2015, while some intelligence estimates indicated that it would achieve this goal within 2011 at the latest.

The nature of the last operation

The latest operation carried out by Israel on April 12 indicates that the aforementioned Dagan strategy still governs Israeli moves towards the Iranian nuclear project. After a cyber-attack against Natanz on July 2 of last year, which caused the suspension of the ongoing enrichment operations in this reactor, and after the assassination of Mohsen Fakhri Zadeh, one of the most important scientists in Natanz, on November 27, the last operation came to stop the electric feeding unit for centrifuges. There are disagreements among Israeli experts about the consequences of this process. Some of them consider it harmless in the enrichment operations because it did not directly affect the centrifuges, which allows it to quickly resume. For example, Arik Barbing, the former head of the cybersecurity unit in the Shin Bet security service, sees it. The operation belongs to psychological warfare rather than sabotage the Iranian reactor, and it sought to convey a frequently repeated message to Iran, which is that Israel’s ability to penetrate Iran’s most vital installations is undeniable. Baring believes that Israel will not carry out large-scale sabotage operations against Iranian nuclear reactors at the present time, because it is keen to conceal its military and technological capabilities to surprise Iran when there is no other option for it (i.e. Israel) but to destroy Iranian nuclear reactors by itself and without the assistance of any party. Especially the USA.

On the other hand, the Israeli Channel 13 indicated, citing intelligence sources, that the attack caused more damage than the one declared by Iran. She added, “The cyber-attack has resulted in serious damage to the heart of Iran’s uranium enrichment program,” and that “repairing the damage may last for a year or several months at least.”

And because Iran did not disclose the extent of the damage caused by the attack, and there are no reliable external sources to determine its size and the effects it imposed, it will be assumed that Bar Bing’s opinion is more likely and that the strike stopped the electrical supply stations alone without damaging the enrichment units. The strike will be limited for two main reasons: First, that Israel does not want the anger of the Iranians to reach the point of compelling them to enter a direct and large-scale war against it. The second is that Israel was afraid of directing a strong blow to the reactor to avoid a clash with the administration of US President Joe Biden, which is trying to return to the nuclear agreement with Iran after the withdrawal of former President Donald Trump from it in May 2018, especially since Iran is strongly convinced that Israel was not going to implement any A strike directed at it without full coordination with Washington.

The limits of the Iranian response

Although the Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi had warned of an Iranian retaliatory strike after the attack on Natanz, Iran, like Israel, may seek limited action against the latter in order not to cause a wider Israeli response, because it does not want, in turn, A direct and comprehensive war with Israel in light of its certainty that such a war will not remain a mere confrontation between the two sides, but will expand into a larger confrontation with the United States of America itself.

On the other hand, just as Israel wishes not to disclose all its technological and military capabilities and saves them until the day when the war of mutual destruction with Iran becomes an unavoidable option, Iran, in turn, will not disclose any military capabilities it has that could come as a surprise to Israel when it breaks out. The war of mutual destruction, and therefore it will not, for example, direct strikes inside Israel, whether on nuclear installations or industrial and military installations, and it may also not wish to use the Lebanese Hezbollah to heat up the front with Israel in light of the political and economic crisis that Lebanon is currently suffering, especially given that the majority of the Lebanese people believe that the party is a major cause of the crisis that they have been going through for years.

Hence, Iran will have nothing left but to continue striking some Israeli merchant ships to suggest that it is capable of retaliating against the Israeli strikes, and numerous reports have already indicated that it targeted an Israeli ship again in the Arabian Sea on April 13th. The Israeli security services expect that Iran will try in the coming period to kidnap some Israeli figures to achieve a propaganda victory that limits its aggravating losses after it has been unable for more than ten years to respond to the overwhelming Israeli superiority in cyber warfare and accurate intelligence operations such as the assassination of nuclear scientists inside the capital, Tehran, The seizure of the documents of the Iranian nuclear project was a successful infiltration operation inside Iranian territory in 2018.

Summary and results

After the Israeli policy during the first decade of this century relied on planning to end the Iranian nuclear project, whether by Israeli military capabilities alone or by trying to persuade the United States of America to work in this direction with it, Israel shifted during the second decade towards a policy aimed at urging Western countries to put pressure on Iran. Through economic sanctions on the one hand, and work to prevent it from reaching the nuclear threshold by directing cyber strikes and launching assassinations on the other side. While the policy established by Meir Dagan has proven successful in preventing Iran from reaching the nuclear threshold until today, Israel has failed to prevent the United States of America from reaching the nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015, and even the success it partially achieved by withdrawing the latter from the agreement in 2018. This success has become threatened, due to the Biden administration’s desire to open the file of negotiations with Iran again.

On the other hand, Iran failed miserably in the test of deterrence against Israel, and the successive Israeli successes represented in the assassination of several Iranian scientists, and the ability to sabotage some Iranian nuclear facilities, leading to the seizure of documents of the Iranian project and their transfer from inside Iran to Israel … These successes are a great embarrassment for Iran in front of its people and before the whole world, so that the question about the reality of Iran’s military and technological strength seemed to gain special relevance, which represented a great opponent from Iran’s deterrent power, which might affect its negotiating capabilities if it responded to the invitation of the United States of America.

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