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Iran Unhinged?

The Israeli military said on July 2, it has shot down three unmanned aircraft launched by the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah. The Iranian-made drones were heading toward an area known as the Karish field where an Israeli gas platform was recently installed in the Mediterranean Sea. One of the drones was shot down by an F-16 and two others were downed by a naval surface-to-air missile system onboard the Israeli Navy corvette Eilat.

Whatever goals Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah and his Iranian masters had in mind the undertaking was first and foremost a propaganda ploy. The drones were unarmed . Moreover by dispatching three drones at various low altitudes and speeds, each flying a different route, the hope was to hinder Israel’s elaborate detection system so that at least one of the crafts would get through. ( Clearly this configuration was chosen after the IDF had downed another Hezbollah drone days earlier which was on a solo mission to the same rig.)

Hezbollah could then beam the images the drone took of the Karish rig on their’s and probably Iranian TVs. The idea undoubtedly was to demonstrate to audiences across the region Hezbollah’s reach and operational competence while mocking the vulnerability of Israel’s vital interests and the penetrability of its much ballyhooed air defenses. It will also exhibit to the increasingly restive Lebanese public that Nasrallah was and continues to be the nation’s true perhaps sole defender. To further promote this phantasm Hezbollah quickly announced the drones were on a “reconnaissance“ mission  undoubtedly seeking to quench any question as to why the pilotless aircraft shied away from actually striking their target. Nor did this reserve precluded Hezbollah from boasting the mission charted a “new equation“ between the organization and Israel. After all Nasrallah  pledged to  block Israel from extracting gas from the Karish field  and the inaction would have belied his bluster about being the guardian of Lebanon’s “maritime wealth.”

Someone in Tehran apparently believed that scoring a publicity “coup” was sufficient grounds for the launching of the daring mission. The mullahs, it seems, were so eager for a propaganda victory that they brushed aside any consideration of the cost of the mission’s potential failure let alone the danger of a possible Israeli retaliation. Such recklessness has heretofore been uncommon in Iran’s conduct of its subversive regional operations.

As a result the drones’ mission played into Israel’s hands perfectly resulting in an unmitigated fiasco for Iran. First, Israel’s vaunted intelligence capabilities were displayed anew. Israeli media reported that the IDF’s intelligence had prior knowledge of the drones’ mission. Second, the effectiveness of Israeli developed radar systems were given a boost by a combat-tested demonstration of their capability to detect even hard-to-track targets like low-flying, small-scale drones. Third, interoperability. The downing of the drones showed an impressive ability for ground, air and sea platforms’ combined action to assure operational success. Fourth, interception capacity. The IDF demonstrated for the first time operationally the effectiveness of the Israeli developed Barak-1 ship-borne defense system against aircraft, anti-ship missiles and UAVs ( unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.)

Such is the extent of Iran’s “assistance” that if Israel was an arms merchant looking to make a sale it would have to award a cut of the transaction proceeds to the mullahs as a “finder’s fee”. However, Israel is of course looking for a greater strategic payoff.

The Wall Street Journal on June 26, reported that last March at a secret gathering of military chiefs of Gulf states held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt,  Air Chief Marshal Fayyadh bin Hamed Raqed al-Rawaili, Chairman of the Saudi General Staff as well as the IDF’s Chief-of-Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv. Kochavi, were in attendance and discussions focused on the Iranian aerial threat. It was agreed to form a joint early warning detail. Moreover, Gulf countries expressed an interest in Israel’s air defense technology.

In testimony to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in late June Defense Minister Benny Gantz revealed the formation of the  “Middle East Air Defense Alliance,” or MEAD. He called it the “first element” of a shared vision “in the face of Iran’s attempts to attack the region’s countries using rockets, cruise missiles and UAVs.”

“This program is already operative and has already enabled the successful interception of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries,” he said. The US President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit, which includes stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia in mid-July, “will support this process,” he added.

Clearly the latest drone episode fits handsomely into the U.S.-Israeli regional strategic design. The concept of a defense alliance or a coalition eventually comprising Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, and perhaps later Jordan has been given a material boost. Further plans for intelligence sharing, integrated anti-aircraft and anti-drone capabilities, advanced radar deployment and both offensive and defensive cyberwarfare development, all areas where Israeli technology could play a central role, must look more realistic in its aftermath.

Iran could hardly disguise its alarm even before the counterproductive drones’ incident. For example, Reuters on June 1, cited a “senior Iranian official, who is close to Iran’s top decision-makers,” as stating that the specter of an emerging Arab-Israeli bloc is driving the Islamic Republic to pursue nuclear talks with world powers with renewed determination.

Days later Iran’s Tasnim news agency quoted Admiral Alireza Tangsiri, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy as warning that whoever allows Israel to establish presence in the Persian Gulf will encounter security problems.

Hezbollah said about the drones episode “the message was delivered”. Indeed it was, and it is unmistakable—The regime in Tehran has been unhinged by recent Israeli operations and is now committing serious strategic mistakes which run directly counter to Iran’s fundamental security interests.(It is unlikely the mission was launched without Iranian prodding or Hezbollah first securing the green light from Tehran. Otherwise the mullahs must be hopping mad and Nasrallah might soon be called on the Iranian carpet.)

Iran could thus be more dangerous as it desperately seeks to deal a blow to Israel, directly or through its proxies, to avenge its humiliation and revamp its deflated deterrent image. However, as suggested by reports of an ongoing purge involving high-ranking Iranian officials and officers, it could also be noticeably more susceptible to pressure which may now even threaten the stability of the mullahs’ regime itself.

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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