Yadlin: Scope of Iranian retaliation to potential strike is ‘exaggerated’

Former Military Intelligence chief assesses Iranian strategic calculations, concludes nightmare scenarios unlikely.

Amos Yadlin 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Amos Yadlin 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
An Iranian retaliation to a military strike on its nuclear sites will likely be limited, and significantly smaller in scope than commonly believed in the West, a new study published by the head of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, said on Wednesday.
Yadlin, formally head of Military Intelligence, and Avner Golov, a senior INSS researcher, published, together, a systematic overview of Iran’s military capabilities and assessed the likely Iranian strategic calculations when choosing a response.
They concluded that the nightmare scenarios of regional full-scale war is exaggerated and “serves Iran as an excellent deterrence mechanism, since it weakens the credibility of the military option and decreases the chances of the Iranian regime agreeing to a diplomatic solution.”
They said that “the option of an attack on Iran, as well as the threat of it, is an important and central mechanism in the service of diplomacy.”
Iran’s main retaliatory strike force is composed of 300-400 surface-to-surface missiles, made up of the Shihab 3 with a range of 1,300 km., and the Ghadir with a range of over 1,600 km., the authors wrote.
“Both of these missiles do not have high accuracy and do not allow for the pinpoint striking of a target,” the paper said.
The Shihab’s Circular Error Probable (CEP), indicating its accuracy, is over two kilometers, and the Ghadir’s CEP is hundreds of meters.
A Shihab can carry a one-ton warhead of conventional explosives, and the Ghadir can carry 750 kg.
Missile strikes can be used to terrorize cities, rather than hitting targets accurately, Yadlin and Golov said.
Actual damage can be contained to a minimum, through early warning alerts for civilians, an efficient use of the Arrow 2 anti-missile shield, and an improvement in projectile defense fortifications for the general population.
Although suspicions exist that Iran can arm its missiles with chemical and biological warheads, their low accuracy and ineffectiveness as unconventional delivery systems, combined with Iran’s understanding that such a move will provoke a massive military response, will prevent such a scenario, said the authors.
An additional threat exists in the form of Iran’s extraterritorial terrorism capabilities, embodied by the IRGC’s Quds Force.
Past Quds Force attempts to carry out attacks in revenge for covert strikes on the Iranian nuclear program show the limitations of this apparatus, the study said.
“These [Iranian] efforts failed and they point to a limited Iranian ability to carry out wide-scale terror attacks, and to a good ability to foil them in the Western world,” the authors stated, before concluding that this threat can be contained.
Other potential threats include Iran’s air force and fleet of drones.
Iran’s fighter jets are inferior to those of Israel, which enjoys two layers of air defenses against hostile intrusions: Interception aircraft and a chain of anti-aircraft weapon systems.
Iran’s most advanced jets, the Sukhoi 24, cannot get to Israel and back without midair refueling and would be vulnerable to air defense radars.
Iran’s drones are also primitive in comparison with their Western counterparts, “and do not allow much operational flexibility after their launch,” the study said.
The most realistic UAV threat consists of “suicide drones from Lebanon or Syria” that could be deployed, and this scenario merits preparations, but is “not the kind of threat that Israel can’t absorb,” the paper continued.
Iran’s long-range naval strike capabilities are “very limited,” the paper said, and consists mainly of Soviet-made submarines that operate in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.
Ships that can reach Israeli shores would have a hard time crossing the Suez Canal during a conflict, and would likely run into Israel Navy ships armed with advanced sea-to-sea missiles.
An attack boat disguised as a civilian vessel might be used to launch sea-to-shore missiles and mini suicide submarines could be deployed, though this threat can be countered by Israel as well, according to the study.
There is no Iranian ground force option to speak of, due to the 1,200 km. distance between the two countries, Yadlin and Golov said.
Iran’s capabilities are far from “Gog and Magog” scenarios and are limited to missile strikes and terror attacks, the effects of which will be principally psychological, they wrote.
If an initial attack on Iran is surgical and aimed only at nuclear sites, Iran, when weighing responses will wish to preserve its survival and decision makers in Tehran will likely seek to avoid a response that could suck the US into a conflict with Iran.
Similarly, Tehran will likely seek to avoid provoking a large-scale second Israeli wave of attacks that could be used to cause more damage to nuclear sites, as well as targeting regime assets.
Yadlin and Golov set out a scale of five possible Iranian responses, ranging from total restraint to a regional escalation.
One highly likely Iranian response is a “tit for tat” strategy, targeting Israeli nuclear reactors, they said.
This scenario would see “a significant number of missiles fired from Iran and Lebanon towards Dimona or any other target perceived as being ‘nuclear-associated’ in Israel, in order to send a message of parity between Iran and Israel, and maybe even strike the Israeli facilities.”
“There’s a high chance that this method of operation will be included in the Iranian response, as a wider response, or a limited Iranian response,” the authors said.
Alternatively, Iran could widen its response and include the activation of terrorism cells, while also firing off one or two missile barrages at Israeli cities, and target Saudi and Western targets in the Gulf.
Suicide missions from the air and sea are also possible.
“We believe that the chances of such an Iranian response is high if a Western attack hits Iranian nuclear infrastructure but does not harm other regime assets,” the study said.
Such a response would enable Iran to balance out its need to reply to an attack, but avoid an escalation that will threaten regime assets not directly tied to the military nuclear project.
A more serious yet less likely potential response, according to the study, would be sparked by an Iranian desire to avenge its national honor, punish Israel and isolate it from the US.
This would entail a massive launch of dozens of missiles at Israeli cities a day, paralyzing civilian life, and enlarging the psychological pressure against the Israeli population.
In this option, “The Iranians will try to achieve maximum deterrence against the Israeli government in a future conflict.
We assess that the regime in Tehran assumes that such a response will provoke a significant Israeli response, that could lead to an escalation in the conflict between the two countries.
“This could enable an additional strike at nuclear infrastructure, and a large-scale strike of Iranian economic interests and regime assets.
This escalation could spin out of control and encourage US military involvement, which would threaten the survivability of the regime of the Ayatollahs.
As a result, we assess that the Iranian regime will refrain from such a response against Israel, so long as the Western attack focuses on nuclear infrastructure,” Yadlin and Golov said.
Finally, Iran could go for a maximal response aimed at regional escalation, attacking the US, Gulf states and Israel.
This would necessitate a US response, and Iran would only pursue this course if it does not fear a significant attack on its regime assets, since it would already have sensed its survival to be in jeopardy.
In such an extreme scenario Iran would try to “set alight the region” and hope for Russia to achieve a cease-fire, before sustaining more damage.
The study concluded that such a retaliation is unlikely.
In examining potential responses by Iran’s proxies and allies, the authors noted that Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal has grown significantly since the Second Lebanon War of 2006, but added that Israel’s defensive, offensive, and intelligence capabilities have increased significantly as well.
Hezbollah is fighting for the Assad regime in Syria, and it remains unclear how this erosion on its capabilities will influence its readiness for a confrontation with Israel, Yadlin and Golov said.
Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has undoubtedly added many new enemies against it, in Lebanon and outside of it, they said.
“Since the organization was established by Iran, and is managed on the foundation of Iranian funding, arms and training, on the basis that it will act if ordered to do so by Tehran, it may not be able to refrain from acting and the internal-Lebanese pressure will mainly influence the scope of the action, limiting it,” the study said.
Hezbollah will likely take part in an Iranian response, but its response might be relatively small in scale.
Syria’s rocket and missile arsenal poses a strategic threat to Israel, but Syria is not an Iranian proxy and acts according to its own interests, the paper said.
The civil war has greatly reduced Assad’s willingness to take part in an Iranian response against Israel, although growing dependence on the Iranian patron and Assad’s wish to revenge attacks attributed to Israel could allow for a small response.
“Even if Assad responds, it will be symbolic and minimal, such as letting terrorists launch attacks from Syria, and this won’t drag Israel into full-scale war,” they said.
Hamas is out of the Iranian orbit for now, though relations are warming up again, and Islamic Jihad will apparently take part in Iranian response, the paper assessed.
“Israel knows how to deal with the threat to the South,” as Operations Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense have demonstrated, wrote Yadlin and Golov.
They concluded by saying that a surgical strike on Iranian nuclear sites will decrease the chances of regional escalation, as would a message sent to Iran during an attack, that a massive retaliation on its part will provoke a powerful American- Israeli attack on regime assets, as well as economic and military targets.
Israel should strengthen its already advanced missile defenses; and those involved in planning a strike should also plan for the day after an attack as well as continue sanctions to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear program, the paper said.