Ex-IDF intel expert: Iran retaliatory attack certain, unclear when, where

JPost One-on-One weekly 'Zoomcast': Yonah Jeremy Bob with former top IDF intelligence and security official Brig.-Gen. Itai Bruin - Episode 2

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Itai Bruin
First of all, the Biden administration is coming in only one week. Everyone is talking about the likelihood of attacks from Iran even before then, but there was a recent INSS annual report that came out and said that the likelihood might even go up under the Biden administration, that there's an "open account" between Israel and Iran, between Iran and the United States, and maybe because the Biden administration might be a government with more restraint in general, that maybe Iran might see this as a green light to finally get revenge on Israel for various events that Israel might have been involved in over the last year related to certain top Iranian intelligence and other officials officials disappearing. Please, what do you think about that?
Well, as you said, we just published our annual strategic assessment for 2021 and the Iranian paragraph is titled something like "Iran is at a low point but still poses the main threat to Israel's security," and that's much broader than the current situation. As to your question, I think Iran, like all the key players in the Middle East, does not want large scale escalation. Iran suffered from a very difficult year from the sanctions, from the maximum pressure policy from the Trump administration, the huge number of deaths from COVID-19, and the year started with the killing of Soleimani, the commander of the Quds force and architect of the Iran regional policy and ended with the killing of Mohsen Fakrizadeh, who was in charge of the weapons group within the nuclear program. And it also had the attack on the advance centrifuge facility Natanz. All these - 

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Not that we're saying that Israel was responsible for these operations.
[Laughs] I think there was some difficulty with the communication. But I think you were referring to Israel's responsibility, so it's good that we have this communication problem because we don't really know. But no doubt from the Iranian perspective, Israel is responsible for at least some of these operations, so I think you're right.
Anyways, there is an open account, but moreover, I think Iran needs to retaliate in order to rehabilitate its deterrence. These are a series of events that are threatening the sovereignty of Iran, the deterrence of Iran. The question, I think, is a question of timing. I don't have any doubts Iran needs to retaliate, needs to do something. The open question is, what, where and when. And here, I think we are talking about a very sensitive issue, because on one hand, this is the right time to retaliate, these days, and I think they were afraid of certain Trump activity against them if they do something. And I think the beginning of the Biden administration, the Biden term, is not the perfect time because strategically, what drives Iran, what Iran really wants, is the removal of the sanctions, lifting the sanctions, going back to JCPOA and continuing what suddenly stopped in May 2018.
So, maybe the right time to do something is just before Trump goes away, when he won't do anything, when Biden hasn't started yet, so maybe this is the right time to do something. But I think that Iran will try to wait to see what is happening with the Biden administration.
I think Iran has three options that they can do.
One option is some kind of a terror attack, maybe in the Gulf, with Israel's new friends and all of these Israelis going to Dubai and Bahrain and some other places. This will be a retaliation for what Iran views as terror attacks, for example against Fakhrizadeh.
The second option is to use its proxies, the shi'ite militias either in Syria or in Iraq, to do something, probably firing rockets into Israel.
But the third option, which is much less probable, is to do something with Hezbollah or even Hamas, some kind of an escalation.
It seems to me that the first option, the terror attack, is the most probable, but its about timing, and time is very sensitive now.
You mentioned already Hezbollah. So we have in the INSS annual report and also the Israeli military has said Hezbollah is the #1 short term threat against Israel in terms of its massive amount of rockets, and some of them are even precision guided missile rockets. Hezbollah would also like even more precision guided missile rockets, but they already have some, and Hezbollah will try to establish with Iran a new front for even more precision guided missile rockets and maybe even drone attacks from Syria. So what do you think is going to happen with that? The INSS report gave a few different strategies, one is the "war between wars," which is sort of continued attacks by the IDF and even the Mossad against certain types of weapons systems usually in Syria but sometimes in Lebanon, but there is also talk of being ready for some kind of a preemptive strike. The 2006 Lebanon War started in a matter of minutes, some of the best rockets Hezbollah had were blown up by the IDF in a preemptive strike but I'm told by some experts today that there are currently too many rockets and they're too spread out that we might not be able to pull that off again in a single preemptive strike. So all of these strategies people are talking about, are we really going to go through with them or are we talking abut juggling as many balls as we can to deter Hezbollah, and if they decide to go to war with us we cant really stop them?
Well the issue with Hezbollah is, of course, complicated. On one hand, we have kind of a deterrence balance with Hezbollah; they don't want to go to war, and we don't want to do to war. But with Hezbollah as well as with the Iranians though, there is another issue, and that's the transfer of advanced armaments from Iran to Hezbollah, and you mentioned what we describe as the precision project. This is a project that is aimed to transfer armaments for Hezbollah to acquire precision capability in their missiles and rockets.
The issue of precision dramatically changed the battlefield. Currently, Iran can fire dozens of rockets into Israeli soil, but they're not accurate so they're aimed at the population. They're a statistic weapon, because they cannot aim at specific locations. The precision weapons, though, can hit specific targets, electricity, gas.
Ben-Gurion Airport, Israeli military headquarters.
These are the weakness and vulnerabilities of Israel. Israel is a small country with small number of vulnerabilities that, if they are  attacked, can cause huge damage, for example: Israeli air bases. So Israel, for a few years since 2013, is conducting the "campaign between the wars" in order to stop this transfer of advanced armaments to Hezbollah. So this is one way, and it is continuing.
The change here – Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to it many times – is since Hezbollah and Iran understand this way of operating, they are now building the capability to do this project in Lebanon. And Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, signaled to Israel that in Syria, generally speaking you can do many things: don't kill our people in Syria, but we will not retaliate if you attack Iran bases there. But in Lebanon, you can't do anything. This is kind of a distinction.
So Isael is in kind of a dilemma, and we have a few strategies. I think they are real and not just mumbo jumbo speaking about deterrence.
There are three.
One is to keep this campaign between the wars. The advantage is that it is below the level of escalation. if Israel is smart, it will not cause large scale escalation. This is the logic behind the campaign between the wars.
It upsets Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, but they're willing to take the hits as long as they're limited.
If Israel is wise and conducts its operations this way, it will keep Hezbollah below the level of escalation, meaning not killing operatives and not attacking in Lebanon.
The disadvantage is that this does not stop the project anymore because the center of gravitas has moved from Syria to Lebanon.
The second strategy is active defense, defensive strategy. But this is a problematic strategy because missiles can penetrate even with our most active missile defense system and we have an advanced missile defense system.
The third, you mentioned this idea of a preemptive strike or preventative strike, and Ii think this is back on the table, and this is something new from the past 2-3 years.
It's not only about the hundreds of thousands of rockets Hezbollah has, but is about this precision project. And I think Israel understands that if they attack targets related to this project, there will be a large scale escalation.
So what we recommend is that discussions should be made about the specific time when Israel should carry out this preventive or preemptive strike. First, there will be the outcome of the context, something that will happen between Hezbollah and Israel. But moreover, it is highly connected with the precise number of missiles and rockets, because a few of them, well sure it's unpleasant, but they cannot really hurt Israel's infrastructure. But a few hundred of them can really do it.
And this is a very sensitive calculation, when is the right time to do it? but I think time will come, and Israel will have to act.
You also mentioned Iran's nuclear program. All the signs from James Sullivan, incoming national security advisor, to Anthony Blinken, incoming secretary of state, to Biden himself says that the Biden administration is going to rejoin the nuclear deal, the question is not if but when, and there are all these different opinions coming out, and I don't know if it was this particular report but just yesterday Sima Shine, a former Mossad Iran expert, said that it's a fact that we're going to have to deal with and that the best strategy is instead of trying to prevent the Biden administration from rejoining the Iran deal – which seems to be the current strategy of the Netanyahu government – but to behind the scenes try to influence them so that they'll add to the deal when they rejoin such as ballistic missile development, such as advanced centrifuges – which is what Iran needs to make a nuclear bomb – such as anytime anywhere inspections by the IAEA. It's to push those ideas behind the scenes quietly, so any add on deal will be stronger for Israel because trying to get them from joining the deal even if Israel wishes is not gong to get anywhere. What do you think?
I think that of course Israel, but also the United States and people around Biden currently understand that there were problems and inefficiencies in the JCPOA in 2015. What bothers Israel I think is the possibility that the international community will return exactly to the JCPOA of 2105. What INSS recommends is much broader than only the Iran issue. First and foremost we recommend Israel and the Biden administration will negotiate and understand each other and cooperate on certain issues; Iran, China, the Palestinians. There are many issues on the table, and currently the Iran issue is the most important one. And we recommend Israel and the US will try to define what are the necessary changes in the JCPOA in terms of supervision, dealing with regional activity, ballistic missiles. But the main issue is the nuclear issue, which is an issue of supervision and sunset, what is the future and prospect of the Iran nuclear agreement.
Meaning at what point will the nuclear limits stop?
Yes, and Iran can move it to its military program. So I think this is the most important issue and we don't think there's another real way but to communicate with the Biden administration, defining the vital interests of Israel in the new agreement.
And what do you think about the bigger picture plight over the character of the region? You have the Shi'ite axis of Iran and its proxies in Iraq, and Yemen, and Syria and other countries, and you have the moderate Sunni states Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, other counties, along with the Abraham Accords sort of splitting the region into visceral and the Sunni states and Iran and its allies. How are some of the new developments going to impact the issues we've been discussing?
We are marking now the 10th anniversary of the so-called Arab Spring, I was back then in military intelligence, the head of the analysis division, and we didn't call it Arab Spring. We defined the events in 2011 as a regional upheaval, and when we went to he senior military level, the prime minister and cabinet and we presented to them in late 2011 what was going on in the Middle East, we told them the old order ended, the new one has yet to be defined and the Middle East is going into a transition period.
A transition period is characterized by instability and volatility, and I think we were right; these were the years of the regional upheaval. We are currently describing a struggle, a continuing struggle over the shape or over the image or even over the soul of the Middle East, and this struggle is conducted in two dimensions, in two realms. The first is about the regional order, the second is inside the state between regimes, elites and the public.
The first dimension, the regional order, is what you referred to. There are four camps, four axes. The Iranian camp includes Iran, Bashar in Syria, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and many Shi'ite pro-Iranian militias in Syria, Iraq, the Houthis and Yemen. This is one camp. It is consolidated, but I think it lost its self-confidence because of all the problems had happened to this axis, mainly Iran, in 2020, and also the killing of Soleimani, who was the architect of this activity. So this is one camp.
The second camp is the camp that is led by turkey. Turkey, Qatar, Hamas in a way. They have lots of shared interests, but the biggest one is the muslin Brotherhood, they share the same ideology concerning political Islam. They were very aggressive and active, especially Turkey, Erdogan; they were very active in the east Mediterranean, Libya, other places.
The third camp, which is not really a camp, is the jihadists. Al-Qaeda, the remnants of ISIS; they are still active but they are reorganizing after a series of blows they suffered.
The fourth camp is the Sunni Arab moderates like Egypt and Jordan, but it seems the center of gravity is going to go to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. they share some of the same interests, but they are really sharing three enemies. They are against Iran and its axis, Turkey and they are against the jihadists. In that sense, they became close friends with Israel. It was covert for a few years and now its open, signaling that the issue of the Palestinians is no longer something that stops normalization. This trend was part of the Trump administration and I think and I hope this trend will continue and will maybe be enlarged by other states, either Saudi Arabia or others, because we do have shared interests with them.
The second dimension, and this is very important, is within the sates, and this is highly connected with what we defined as the fundamental fundamental problems of the Middle East. Unemployment, mainly youth unemployment; corruption; inequality; and a huge dependency on oil and foreign assistance. These problems were not solved in the years of the regional upheaval, and they even worsened. So the public is still under tension. COVID-19 sent them home after they went to the streets in some of the states in 2019. Ihe tension is there, and in 2021 it might spill out into the streets, threatening the stability of some of the states.