Security and Defense: Iran strike in the spring?
What Operation Pillar of Defense says about Israel’s wider strategic picture.
Iron Dome fires interceptor rocket south of Ashdod Photo: REUTERS
The recent conflict between Israel and Hamas offers several hints regarding
Jerusalem’s wider strategic situation in the region. For many years, Iran and
its proxies on Israel’s borders have worked to create rocket and missile bases,
aimed at threatening its soft underbelly: the civilian home front.
Iranian project saw terror bases developed in southern Lebanon and Gaza, and
represents the most serious asymmetrical threat faced by Israel to
The Iranian plan is based on the idea of giving Hezbollah, Hamas
and Islamic Jihad the ability to flood the home front with projectile fire,
thereby causing casualties, widespread damage and a paralysis of ordinary life.
This capability has multiple purposes in the hands of Israel’s
It allows Gaza terror factions to realize their ideology of
eternal jihad, buffered only by tactical cease-fires between rounds of fighting.
Even more significantly, it enables enemies of the state to try and deter Israel
from striking at the threats that surround it. When Iran’s Revolutionary Guard
Corps oversaw the creation of the rocket bases, they had hoped that the threat
they were developing would deter Israel from carrying out targeted
assassinations of terrorists in Gaza on the local front, while on the regional
front, Israel might be deterred from striking Iranian nuclear
Hamas had wrongly assumed that the rise of its fellow Islamists in
Egypt would contribute to that deterrence.
As Operation Pillar of Defense proved in November, the attempt to deter Israel
from defensive strikes in local arenas failed. An Israeli air strike killed
Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari, a development that shocked both Hamas and
Iran was startled by the blow, despite its ongoing crisis with
Hamas (relations between the two have cooled over Hamas’s backing of the Syrian
One of the major factors that allowed Israel to operate freely
last month is, of course, the Iron Dome rocket defense system.
Iron Dome batteries deployed in southern and central Israel intercepted 87
percent of projectiles heading toward populated areas, allowing the IDF to stick
to its plan of a limited weeklong air campaign to damage Hamas. The plan was
centered on the modest goal of reinstating Israeli deterrence, as a necessary
condition for ending the daily rocket menace terrorizing the South.
problem is that this successful model – of an active defense in the service of
offensive Israeli capabilities – is in place only for Gaza for the time being,
and not against the main Iranian rocket base in our region, which is Hezbollah
The Shi’ite terror organization has amassed over 50,000
rockets in Lebanon, and all of Israel is within range.
In timing that
cannot be coincidental, the Defense Ministry held a successful test of the
David’s Sling rocket defense system soon after the end of the recent Gaza
conflict. David’s Sling, with its ability to intercept medium and long-range
rockets and cruise missiles, is the active defense answer to Hezbollah’s
But it will only be operational in 2014. That creates a serious
“scheduling problem,” as Israel may find itself having to make a fateful
decision on the Iranian nuclear question as early as this spring, if Tehran
continues its enrichment of uranium at the current pace.
“The problem is
Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal. They have Katyushas, M600s, Scud missiles from
Syria, and Fajr 3 and 5 rockets. This is an immediate threat, which we might
face in the spring, when there will be a need to decide on Iran,” said Dr. Ely
Karmon, a senior research scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the
Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
“The Iranians armed Hezbollah with
50,000 rockets for a reason. They are reserving this option. The threat from
Hezbollah is more serious. Perhaps they [the IDF] will have to conquer Beirut,”
Air defense systems were never meant to provide a full answer
to the threat, but the more efficient they become, the more flexibility the IDF
has in planning its air and ground attacks.
It remains unclear whether
the IDF is planning on a return to the Lebanese capital, but there can be no
doubt that in the absence of an active defense system, a wide-ranging ground
offensive involving large numbers of infantry and armored vehicles crossing deep
into Lebanon, backed by an aggressive air campaign, will form Israel’s response
to the rocket threat from Hezbollah. The faster ground forces get to Hezbollah
positions, the sooner rocket attacks on Israel would cease in a future
In Gaza itself, there are few signs that the Iranian rocket strategy
suffered a blow to its prestige, Karmon argued.
“Iran has already scored
points from this confrontation.
The heads of Islamic Jihad and [Hamas
Prime Minister] Ismail Haniyeh have said that it was Iranian weapons which
allowed them to attack Israel. Islamic Jihad was the first to fire on Tel
That’s significant, as this organization is Iran’s auxiliary,”
Musa Abu Marzouk, deputy chairman of Hamas’s political
bureau, declared in recent weeks that Hamas would continue to receive shipments
of Iranian weapons to refill stocks of long-range Fajr rockets and medium-range
“I see this as a message from Hamas to Egypt, in which they are
demanding freedom to import weapons to Gaza,” Karmon said.
various publications, Iran sent out one shipment already and they are determined
to send more.
Thus, Hamas managed to join the new Sunni axis while
maintaining its access to Iranian weaponry.
In addition to the threats
from Lebanon and Gaza, Iran possesses hundreds of ballistic missiles, such as
the Shihab 3 (based on a North Korean missile) and the BM25 (purchased from
North Korea in 2008), all of which can strike Israeli
Jerusalem has already developed a response to this threat in
the form of the Arrow 2 ballistic missile defense system, which intercepts
incoming threats in the upper atmosphere, and the Arrow 3 system, which will
intercept missiles in space after becoming operational.
“The question is
what is the state of the radars within the Arrow system,” said Maj.-Gen. (res.)
Giora Eiland, former head of the National Security Council. “Can these systems
preempt the Iranian missiles?” Eiland said there was no clear connection between
Iron Dome’s performance and a possible strike on Iran in the spring. He also
cast doubt on the term “multi-layered missile defense,” often used by Defense
Minister Ehud Barak.
“To think that Arrow 2 [and] 3, David’s Sling and
Iron Dome give us the chance to shoot down the same missile is wrong,” Eiland
said. “Although there is some overlap between them, each system deals with a
Nevertheless, Iron Dome is capable of providing a
partial answer to some of Hezbollah’s rockets.
Yet, as of now, Israel has
no defensive answer in place to deal with Hezbollah projectiles with a range of
200 kilometers, Eiland stated.
“The other side is improving. It has more
rockets, larger warheads and the ranges are growing,” he said. “Even in Iron
Dome, which provided a good but limited response, we saw that it wasn’t
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shlomo Brom, a senior researcher at the
Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, agreed. Although Israel
challenged the Iranian rocket program, it is far from neutralizing the threat,
In the November conflict, rockets still managed to strike the
home front, and terror organizations began overwhelming Iron Dome with massive
volleys toward the end of the escalation, Brom noted.
“I’d bet that the
trend will feature a rise, not a drop in rockets. In the future, they’ll try to
fire many more rockets than what we’ve seen,” he said.
(res.) Michael Segall, a strategic analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public
Affairs, takes a more optimistic view on the repercussions of the conflict. In
an analysis he recently published, Segall viewed the conflict through a wide
regional lense, placing it within the context of a growing rift between the
Shi’ite and Sunni camps.
He said the Shi’ite camp – made up of Iran,
President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria and Hezbollah – is on a collision
course with the emerging Sunni camp – composed of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and
The tensions are “evident in the conflict arenas in the Middle
East – Syria, the Palestinian arena, Bahrain, Jordan,” Segall said, and stand to
greatly influence the landscape of the region.
“Egypt, playing a central
role in determining the new regional order, will likely find itself in
confrontation with Iran. Turkey is already confronting Iran over regional
hegemony and influence, with Syria as a front line,” Segall said.
context, Israel’s ability to deflect Iranian rockets, as exhibited last month,
helped “put Iran in a problematic position of growing isolation,” he
Segall views Iron Dome’s success as one of a number of blows to
Iran’s standing in the region.
Whether the Gaza war damaged or benefited
Iran, Tehran’s nuclear clock continues to tick.