US-Israel ties strengthening, Iran needs to plan next move carefully

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: Iran needs to consider its next moves carefully because there is less tolerance in the West for Iran's threats.

 Focus on Iran, the Iranian flag in crosshairs (Illustrative). (photo credit: Akbar Nemati/Unsplash, DAVID YAPHE)
Focus on Iran, the Iranian flag in crosshairs (Illustrative).
(photo credit: Akbar Nemati/Unsplash, DAVID YAPHE)

The last week of January saw important developments in Iran-Israel tensions and also US-Israel ties. The triangular puzzle of relations between Iran’s threats, Israel’s attempts to interdict those threats and US support for Israel is one of the pillars of the Middle East’s current situation.

Iran is hinting it may retaliate for a drone attack this week. Several drones reportedly struck a military facility in Isfahan, Iran, on the night of January 28-29. Iran claimed it was an unsuccessful attack, but our report at The Jerusalem Post said it was a phenomenal success.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the drones that targeted a defense compound were a clandestine operation carried out by Israel. US officials also said that the US was not involved.

“We’ve seen the press reports, but can confirm that no US military forces have conducted strikes or operations inside Iran. We continue to monitor the situation, but have nothing further to provide,” a US Department of Defense official told CNN.

There is widespread consensus that this was an important incident in Isfahan. Israel Hayom noted that “the American leak that Israel is behind the attack on the Iranian weapons production facility in Isfahan, two days ago, underscores the fact that this is an incident of considerable importance. The political-security leadership in Washington would not have gone to the trouble of referring to a marginal incident and did so only to distance itself from any responsibility for the operation.”

 An explosion is seen at an Iranian missile and drone test at the 17th Great Prophet drill in Iran. (credit: Ali Yeghane Lari/Mehr News Agency) An explosion is seen at an Iranian missile and drone test at the 17th Great Prophet drill in Iran. (credit: Ali Yeghane Lari/Mehr News Agency)

What were the ramifications?

There are more ramifications to this incident. Iranian media reported that Russia is also interested in the incident in Isfahan. Russia criticized the drone attack. There is also a Ukrainian angle here. Iran has been supplying Russia with drones to strike at Ukraine. This means that as Ukraine continues to suffer under Russia’s invasion, Ukraine appears to see the incident in Isfahan in a positive light. From the US point of view, any reduction in Iran’s threats in the region or Iran’s attempt to supply Russia with weapons is also a positive development. Nevertheless, the US is also sensitive to the idea that Iran might retaliate against US forces in the region for attacks on Iran or its proxies, if Iran believes that striking at the US is easier than striking at Israel.

In addition to the drone strike in Isfahan, there was also an incident at the Iran-Iraq border this week in which trucks carrying some sort of cargo were destroyed. Local reports in Syria said this was an airstrike, but it is still unclear what happened. The lack of clarity continued on Monday, after reports of another airstrike or explosion in the area. This area, near Albukamal in Syria, is known as a corridor for Iranian weapons trafficking. An article at Al-Monitor noted this week that “strikes near [the] Iraqi border mark [a] widening regional battle against Iran.”

Several years ago, during the Syrian civil war, the Iranian regime encouraged proxy militias in Iraq to move into al-Qaim in Anbar province, Iraq, and then to secure the area on the Syrian side of the border. The pro-Iran group Kataib Hezbollah, run by key Iranian ally Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, established a headquarters in Albukamal. In 2018 that pro-Iran facility was hit in an airstrike. Iran shifted gears then and built a base called Imam Ali, near Albukamal. It also built storage facilities and tunnels at this site to help move weapons from Iran, via Iraq, to Syria and then Lebanon. Thus Albukamal became one of the many Iranian outposts and forward operating bases for the Iranian regime and its proxies.

Iran continues to try and strike Israel

In 2018 Iranian drone operators flew a drone from the T4 air base into Israeli airspace. The drone was shot down. In addition, in April 2018, an airstrike hit an Iranian 3rd Khordad air defense system at T4. In August 2019 Israel said it struck a “killer drone” cell operating in Syria near the Golan. The drone operators were threatening Israel.

One has to look at these incidents as part of the rising tensions between Israel and Iran and Iran’s attempts to strike at Israel. At the time, Israel said it was trying to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria. It’s unclear whether the entrenchment has been reduced, but Iran is clearly pressured, and it has sought other targets of opportunity. Besides sending drones to Russia, which forces Iran to focus elsewhere, Iran has also attacked ships in the Gulf of Oman in incidents in 2021 and 2022.

CONSIDERING IRAN’S shifting methods of threatening the region – its drone attacks between 2018 and 2022, and now exporting the drones to Russia – as well as the incidents in Isfahan and Albukamal, there are many questions about what Iran’s regime might do next. In the past Iran has sought to target both Israel and US forces in the region. Tehran has to consider its next moves carefully these days because there is less tolerance in the West for Iran’s threats, and Israel-US security ties are at a high point.

Evidence of the high point in those ties was a recent US-Israel military drill involving US Central Command forces and the IDF. The drill included more than 100 aircraft, including US B-52s and US precision strike systems on the ground, such as HIMARS multiple rocket launchers. The drill was the largest in history between US forces and Israel. It involved naval assets as well as a plethora of military aircraft. These aircraft spanned the large spectrum of strike aircraft that Israel and the US possess, including F-16s, F-15s and F-35s. The US and Israeli navies also operated together.

In the wake of the CENTCOM drills, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also arrived in Israel after a trip to Cairo. He was traveling to key US partners and allies in the region.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant praised the Blinken visit. “Your visit comes at a critical time, and it sends a clear message to our adversaries as well as our partners in the region: the US and Israel are united in the need to face Iran and anyone who threatens peace and stability,” Gallant said to Blinken, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry.

He also praised the CENTCOM drills. “The defense cooperation between our countries has reached a new peak over the past month, as seen in the exceptional ‘Juniper Oak’ exercise. Our bond and cooperation are critical to preserving the interests of both nations and to ensuring security and stability in the region.”

The trends in the region are clear. Iran is increasingly facing challenges. Its decision to export drones to Russia has harmed its relations with the West, and its suppression of protests has made many realize how vile is the regime that runs Iran. Iran’s threats to Israel are no longer seen as a purely Iran-Israel issue.

Asked by Al-Arabiya about developments in the region, Blinken said that “all of our military efforts are designed with the idea of deterrence in mind – that is, to try to make sure that a would-be aggressor thinks twice, thinks three times, and then doesn’t do it.”

Iran should keep this in mind as it plots its next moves.