In Syria, Lebanon and now Iran, things are blowing up. In recent weeks Iranian nuclear sites and ports, transshipment facilities used by Iran in Syria and precision guided munitions installations of Tehran’s proxies in Lebanon have been hit by mysterious explosions and fires.
A campaign undertaken three to five years ago by Israel in Lebanon now apparently reaches into Iran itself, not that Israeli officials publicly take credit. To understand why, one must go back to 2011-2012 and the start of Syria’s civil wars, says Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
In addition to bolstering Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, “Iran tried to exploit [chaos in Syria] all it could to deploy hard assets” including armed forces and missiles close to the border with Israel. Schanzer reminded 160 participants on a July 22 Jewish Policy Center webcast that the goal of Tehran’s ruling mullahs was “to turn Tel Aviv in Seoul.” That is, to put Israel’s largest metropolitan area under a massive, imminent military threat like that facing the South Korean capital from North Korea’s military, just 25 miles north across the Demilitarized Zone.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah (the Shi’ite Party of God), Iran’s main terrorist surrogate in the Middle East and elsewhere, possesses up to an estimated 150,000 rockets and missiles—in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which helped end the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. In the Gaza Strip, the Iranian-supported Hamas (Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement) collected and built another 10,000 to 15,000.
Israel’s Iron Dome and other missile defense systems could block most enemy projectiles likely to hit their targets. “But if they all were launched in a short time,” Schanzer said, “there’s no way Israel could survive without massive damage.”
Especially not if the rockets and missiles were retro-fitted or built new not as “dumb bombs” but instead as precision-guided munitions (PGMs), able to change course as commanded while in flight. “So, the Iranians decided in recent years they needed to up their game,” he noted. “The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has been spearheading an effort to turn dumb rockets into precision weapons,” said Schanzer, a former senior director of the Jewish Policy Center and author of, among other works, State of Failure: Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas and the Unmaking of Palestine.
An Iron Dome battery of 15 missiles might be able to counter an equal number of enemy rockets, Schanzer said. But if 16 were launched at one target and the one that penetrated was a PGM with the ability to strike within five to 10 yards of its bulls’-eye—say Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona, Defense Ministry’s haKirya headquarters in Tel Aviv or chemical plants in Haifa—the resultant mass casualties could start a general Middle East war.
“Syria has been the way station for all of this,” including Iranian attempts to build PGM sites in Lebanon. Some explosions and fires become less mysterious when it’s remembered that Israeli officials have called such guided weapons “game-changing,” he added.
Iranian or Iranian-supplied PGM’s threaten not only Israel but also Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Schanzer said. He pointed to attacks by Tehran-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen on Saudi oil facilities and by pro-Iranian Iraqi militia against U.S. forces in the region.
Proliferation of such weaponry “could be extremely dangerous for the entire region,” Schanzer noted. But in any case, “the Israelis are always the tip of the spear.” Hence the Israeli-Iranian “war in the shadows” or “war between the wars” of the past three or four years. By intensifying pre-emptive attacks, “Israel wants to try to forestall” an all-out war.
Hezbollah’s entrenchment in Lebanon, running social welfare agencies and maneuvering as the government’s dominant power-broker as well as Iran’s terrorist proxy, makes suppressing the PGM threat there more difficult than in Syria, Schanzer said. Israel, not able to absorb a massive first-strike, has warned “Lebanon could be flattened … turned into a parking lot” unless the threat is reduced or eliminated.
Paradoxically, Lebanon’s disastrous economic crisis presents an opportunity, according to Schanzer. Since terrorists and terrorist organizations “always mean bad governance,” he noted, Lebanon’s notorious insider-run economy has become even more corrupt and hollowed-out under Hezbollah’s influence.
The International Monetary Fund has been leery of a major bail-out needed to save the Lebanese from widespread impoverishment. In the crisis, “Israel has floated the possibility … [it] would go to bat” for Lebanon at the IMF, if the PGM’s are removed, Schanzer said.
Another opportunity regarding Iran seems to have been created by the COVID-19 pandemic, related world-wide decline in economic activity and oil price plunge, Schanzer observed. The Islamic Republic responded poorly to the health crisis at the same time the drop in petroleum revenue and renewed U.S. economic sanctions squeezed government funds and the Iranian economy. With the theocratic police state facing public protests, Jerusalem sensed an opening, he said.
Time Running Out?
But time is short. “The end of the [conventional] arms embargo is coming in October” as provisions in the “fatally flawed” 2015 Iran nuclear arms deal begin to sunset, Schanzer pointed out. One flaw was that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action the Obama administration negotiated with Iran, on behalf also of Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and China, did not limit ballistic missile development. Yet such missiles are the vehicles to carry nuclear warheads.
“Israel, perhaps the United States, maybe other allies” see the mullahs’ difficulties as a chance to take the shadow war “to the heart of the conflict itself … not just Iranian proxies on Israel’s borders,” he said.
The Israelis also must consider November’s U.S. elections. Should an administration headed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joseph Biden replace that of President Donald Trump, Schanzer asked if Israel still would think it had “a green light” to act against Iran?
A former U.S. Treasury terrorism financing analyst, Schanzer questioned whether a recently announced 25-year deal between Iran and China will supplant Iran’s already close ties to Russia. Both defend Iran in the U.N. Security Council, but Russia already sells a lot of weaponry to Iran. Given the country’s economic woes, “its hard to imagine Iran can pay for what it receives” from China, Schanzer said.
Nevertheless, the announced pact could be “a wake-up call for Israel.” Israel’s trade with China accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the Jewish state’s economic activity, “but that has to change,” he said. Israel and other U.S. allies including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have “some choices to make” when it comes to doing business with an expansionist China.
Meanwhile, Tehran manages economically in part because it has “illicit networks around the world” by which it generates income. Sources include drug trafficking—in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East—smuggling, and illegal oil sales such as recent shipments to Venezuela, Schanzer remarked. Further, “Iran deprives its own people to provide [terrorist] proxies with weapons and money.”
So, whoever is responsible for the mysterious fires and explosions, Schanzer said he “wouldn’t be surprised if we find eventually that Iranians were involved in the unraveling of the regime.”