Boaz Ganor

Israel’s playing poker while Iran is playing chess

Did Israel fall into Iran's trap in going after its weaker proxy, Hamas, while the stronger strategic Hezbollah remains nearly unscathed?
A chessboard against a backdrop of flames. (iStock)
A chessboard against a backdrop of flames. (iStock)

As Israel continues to fight the “Iron Swords” War that was imposed upon her, it is vital for us to understand the background and reasons for the outbreak of the war, and in doing so, address some fundamental questions: Why did it break out in October 2023? Who is behind it? And how was it kept under wraps so effectively?

In early 1979, with the end of the reign of the Persian Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini established the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khomeini became the country’s spiritual leader and instituted the fundamental principle of “exporting the Iranian revolution.” The intention was to spread the Iranian model first and foremost to the world’s Shi’a communities, with other regions to follow. This task was assigned to, among others, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Quds Force. One of the regime’s primary objectives was to take over the large Shi’a community in Lebanon and through it the entire country, creating a direct and immediate front against the “Little Satan” — Israel. The First Lebanon War in which started in 1982 provided Iran with the ideal conditions to implement their plan in Lebanon. The vacuum created with the removal of the Palestinian military forces in Lebanon allowed the proxy they established in the country’s Shi’a community to become the strongest military force in the state.

Iran’s penetration into the Palestinian arena was more complex, both in principle and in practice. In contrast to Hezbollah’s natural religious and operational subordination as a Shi’ite movement to Khomeini and Iran, the Palestinian Islamist organizations (like the entire Palestinian population) belong to the Sunni stream of Islam. Hamas adhere to the worldview of the Muslim Brotherhood, historically positioned in rivalry with the Shi’ites. However, the end justifying the means, Iran decided to turn a blind eye to the Shi’a-Sunni divide to advance the exporting of the revolution and confront its ultimate enemies — the United States and Israel. The bear hug extended by Iran to the Palestinians was quickly welcomed by the small Islamic Jihad factions, who eagerly accepted Khomeini’s overtures and, in return, received generous economic and military aid as early as the late 1980s. Hamas was a harder nut to crack. Hamas declined to fully accept Khomeini’s embrace, although it gradually showed willingness to accept funds, and then weapons, aid and training from Hezbollah, until it finally became a proxy of Iran’s “second circle” while retaining an independent sphere of operation.

That is the framework that forms the basis of the rationale behind the Iron Swords War. I will begin the concrete background that led up to the war with a personal anecdote: In late 2009, I was extended an invitation to visit the White House by General James L. Jones, who was serving as the United States national security advisor at the time. At the beginning of our meeting, the general caught me off guard with the following question: “If the United States were to give Israel a “yellow light,” should Israel launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities?”

I was genuinely taken aback by the question. I said to General Jones, “Why are you asking me? After all, it would seem more fitting to address this question to Israeli officials; I’m a civilian expert on terrorism.” Jones clarified that while he does indeed consult with the official authorities, he was interested in my personal view on the matter. “If you’re asking my opinion,” I responded, “even a ‘green light’ from the United States shouldn’t be enough for Israel to take such action.” Now he was the one who was surprised. “Really?” he asked. “You think that even if the United States were to give Israel the green light to strike Iran, Israel shouldn’t attack?”

“That’s right,” I replied, “for three reasons: Firstly, although I’m not an expert on the capabilities of the Israeli Air Force, I am inclined to believe that even if the entire air force mobilizes to strike Iran, it’s improbable that Israel could fully obliterate all its nuclear facilities. The Iranians have learned the lessons from Israel’s attacks on the nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, so they have dispersed their nuclear capabilities across various facilities throughout Iran, most of which are deep underground.” I added that, “In my assessment, Israel would be able to inflict significant damage on these facilities, but it’s unlikely to be able to destroy them all at the same time.”

“The second reason,” I continued, “is that I know what the Iranian reaction would be to such an attack by Israel. The Iranians would employ the entire massive arsenal of rockets that they built in Lebanon and transferred to Hezbollah for this very purpose — an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets (as of the time of our conversation in 2009). The launch of these rockets would cause unprecedented damage to the Israeli home front and economy.

“The third reason,” I said, “is that while Iran possessing nuclear bombs would undoubtedly pose an intolerable existential threat to Israel, the existential threat to Iran’s neighboring countries would be even greater. I have no doubt that Iran would use its nuclear capability to escalate political subversion and terrorist activity in the Gulf nations, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni countries. Their aim would be to overthrow the governments in these states and establish a pro-Iranian regime that would cooperate with them. If I were a Sunni leader in the Gulf, the prospect of Iran possessing nuclear military capability would certainly keep me awake at night.

“Therefore,” I concluded, “I’m not sure I understand why the United States expects Israel to put its neck on the line for all the countries of the region. If Israel attacks Iran, it would pay a huge price, all while acting on a ‘yellow light’ from Washington. If the U.S. thinks it necessary to strike Iran, it should proceed accordingly, or, alternatively, establish an international alliance encompassing Sunni Arab nations and other global counterparts. In such an event, if Israel is invited to partake in this coalition and bear part of the burden, I believe that Israel should respond affirmatively to such a request.”

About a decade later, this regional alliance began to take shape. Initially, it was the Abraham Accords that paved the way for an American initiative to forge closer ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, striving towards normalization and peace. This would lay the foundation for a military coalition to deter and, if necessary, act against Iran. Iran’s biggest nightmare was about to come true, and soon. President Biden, aiming to leverage this achievement for the upcoming U.S. elections, exerted significant efforts to expedite the process.

Let us return for a moment to the Iranian quest for military nuclear capability. The Israeli prime minister of recent decades, Benjamin Netanyahu, has set a paramount goal for his governments: thwarting Iran’s nuclear aspirations. He pursued a dual and parallel strategy — initially to try and prevent President Obama from signing the nuclear deal, and subsequently, from the moment it was signed, to exert pressure on the American leadership to withdraw from it. In the first regard, the prime minister failed; the agreement was signed. In the second regard, Netanyahu played a pivotal role in compelling President Trump to terminate U.S. participation in the nuclear agreement. In May 2018, President Trump announced, to Netanyahu’s delight, that the United States would withdraw from the deal. From that moment, the impediments obstructing Iran’s path to the bomb were eliminated.

In parallel, over the years, Israel under Netanyahu’s leadership embarked on various operations aimed at damaging, deterring, delaying, and preventing Iranian nuclear activities. According to foreign reports, Israel has employed a range of methods to this end, be they targeted killings, intelligence infiltration of Iranian systems, cyberattacks, sabotage, fires, or other misfortunes. In some instances, the damage was severe — both physically and with regards to Iranian pride. The Iranians became enraged, bit their lips, vowed revenge, and in several cases even attempted to carry out terrorist attacks, most of which failed. But it appears that they adopted the maxim “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Revenge was served on October 7, 2023.

Indeed, the background to the war is the Iranian desire to exact revenge on Israel. To retaliate with great force and in the most painful way. But the Iranians do not act out of an instinct for vengeance. Therefore, the Simchat Torah massacre cannot be understood only in terms of revenge. The war was driven by a strategic Iranian objective: to orchestrate a regional explosion that would destroy, once and for all, American and Israeli attempts to forge anti-Iranian coalitions and alliances with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations. Another “round” or another Israeli operation in Gaza would not be sufficient for this purpose. Israel had to be dragged into a war, and preferably a multifront one. However, Iranians were cognizant that this conflict must not spiral into an uncontrollable detonation. The strike on Israel was intended to be excruciating enough to lead to the occupation of Gaza, as well as escalation along other borders, but not to trigger Israel into behaving irrationally and taking action that would not be able to be contained regionally.

The Iron Swords War is therefore an Iranian war by proxy. The modus operandi that was employed was planned in Tehran. The massive rocket fire that served as cover for the infiltration of thousands of terrorists, the slaughter of civilians, the rape, the videos — this was all “made in Iran.” How can we know this for sure? Because this is precisely, to the letter, the blueprint that Iran had planned for years for a Hezbollah attack on Israel from Lebanon. Only that instead of thousands of Hamas Nukhba Force members, the original plan comprised a significantly more severe blow to Israel by a much larger group of terrorists from Hezbollah’s Radwan Force, who would infiltrate Israel while firing tens of thousands of rockets into the Israeli home front. Hezbollah and Iran made no secret of their plan. They publicized it in every possible outlet — articles in the media, interviews, photographs, video clips — in a bid to dissuade Israel and the U.S. from launching an attack on Iran.

The southern model, as mentioned, was an exact replica of Iran’s plan for the northern border. With all due (lack of) respect to Hamas, they do not and did not have the capacity to devise such an attack, prepare for it, train for it, arm themselves, gather intelligence — and, most importantly, evade Israeli detection of a stealthy intelligence maneuver that will be written about in the history books — without Iranian initiation, planning, and assistance.

It is true that the complacency, smugness, overconfidence, and tendency towards self-delusion among many in Israel were significant factors in the success of Iran’s plan, but without Iran itself, the war would not have erupted. The Iranian interest in thwarting Israeli normalization determined the general date of the outbreak of the war; the shortcomings in Israel’s military preparedness on the holiday of Simchat Torah dictated the precise date: October 7th.

The question arises as to why Iran chose its Palestinian instead of its Shi’a proxy to attack Israel. As mentioned, the Iranian monster has two main arms in its campaign against Israel — the weaker Palestinian arm that comprises Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the strong Shi’a arm, Hezbollah. In its bid to drag Israel into a limited regional war, it had to make a choice between these two arms. Iran knew that activating the northern plan involving Hezbollah would inflict ten times more damage on Israel. The scale of rocket fire across all of Israel’s regions would be unprecedented, as would the widespread destruction and number of casualties on the home front. The deep penetration of the Radwan Force into Israeli territory and the massacre that would ensue in several localities might cause Israel to instinctively resort to utilizing all its capabilities without much regard for rational considerations. Moreover, the direct connection between Hezbollah and Iran would not leave Iran room for denial and might prompt an Israeli response directly on Iranian soil. This is exactly what Iran sought to avoid, and the reason it opted for its Palestinian proxy rather than the Shi’a. It is also the reason that it instructed Hezbollah to maintain (at least for the time being) a limited level of intensity in its attacks against Israel. Iran did not want to open a Pandora’s box.

Israel walked right into the Iranian trap. The resounding blow it suffered from the less potent Iranian arm prompted Israel to vow the total destruction of Hamas. Iran knew that after Israel’s campaign in the Gaza Strip, even if Hamas’s military power was neutralized, the strong strategic arm — Hezbollah — would remain nearly unscathed. The Iranian deterrence against an assault on its nuclear facilities would be maintained, and Tehran would be redeemed. Observing Israel’s enraged response, the Iranian rulers smirked with satisfaction and pleasure — Israel was acting exactly according to their plan. And as for the Iranians, they are prepared to fight to the last drop of Palestinian blood.

To prevent the possibility of Israel exposing the Iranian plot, the Iranians also devised a coordinated system of denials. This campaign began two days after the massacre, with Khamenei’s declaration that Iran was not behind the attack on Israel. A few days later, in a Friday sermon, Nasrallah asserted that Iran and Hezbollah were not made aware of the intention to carry out the massacre, and that it was a decision made by the “leaders of the resistance.” Adding to this narrative, at the beginning of November Iran’s supreme leader met with the chief of the Hamas political bureau Ismail Haniyeh in Tehran. During the meeting, Khamenei conveyed to Haniyeh, “We will not enter the war on your behalf.” According to Iranian sources, this was due to Hamas failing to inform Iran about its plans to attack.

Immediately following the massacre, the three heads of the “Axis of Resistance” were already in sync with a unified message: This was a Palestinian, not an Iranian, initiative. A doubtful assertion, but seemingly one that has been accepted by Israeli intelligence and decision-making circles. In response to a question asked at a press conference on October 28 regarding whether Israel possessed information implicating Iran in the October 7 massacre, Netanyahu replied, “Iran supports Hamas. I cannot necessarily say that in this specific operation they were involved in the micro-planning, but without their support, there is no Hamas.” The prime minister’s choice of words might have differed had he been presented with intelligence information linking Iran to the slaughter in the manner described above.

How can the dissonance between the analysis above and the assessments of Israeli intelligence and decision-makers be explained? Is it due to a lack of intelligence supporting this thesis, or could it be another misconception? It must be considered that the Iranians meticulously crafted the information security plan for the October 7 attack. They not only instructed those privies to the secret within Hamas to carefully guard their plans, but also took measures to prevent any information leaks through Hezbollah and Iranian channels. In other words, Israeli intelligence failed not only to discern the intentions and plans of the massacre through its intelligence channels vis-a-vis Hamas, but also to detect intelligence signals on the subject vis-à-vis Hezbollah and Iran. Consequently, there’s a prevailing belief that the latter were not involved in the attack on Israel.

In 2019, I met with the deputy head of the Japanese National Security Council, a wise and seasoned man. The conversation turned to the Iran nuclear deal. I contented that at that point in time (towards the end of Trump’s term), the president realized the mistake he had made and was vigorously striving to return to a framework for a new nuclear agreement. “And the paradox is,” I added, “that the Iranians are also interested in the same thing — a new nuclear agreement. But they are willing to give less than they gave in the previous deal, and Trump needs to receive more.” He smiled and said, “I think you’re right. But the problem is that to reach the same goal, the Americans play poker (a tactical American game based on manipulation and deceit) while the Iranians play chess” (a strategic game of Iranian origin based on long-term planning and calculating many steps ahead).

It would appear that before the outbreak of the October 7 war, Israel was playing poker —employing cunning tactics, manipulations and trickery — while Iran was engaged in game of chess, planning several moves ahead.

About the Author
Prof. Boaz Ganor is the president of Reichman University and the founder & former executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).
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