Israel's Iron Dome system intercepts rockets the Gaza Strip, as seen from Ashkelon, on May 13, 2023. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.
Israel's Iron Dome system intercepts rockets the Gaza Strip, as seen from Ashkelon, on May 13, 2023. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.

Iran is playing the long game against Israel, experts warn

Iran is “patiently building a multi-arena threat” against the Jewish state, and the recent escalation with Gaza must be viewed in a wider context, say Israeli defense observers.

On Tuesday, Israel’s Channel 12 cited a senior Israeli political source as claiming that Iran, disappointed by Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s performance during “Operation Shield and Arrow,” is plotting to strike at Israelis overseas.

However, according to professor Col. (res.) Gabi Siboni, an expert on military strategy and technology at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, while Tehran may indeed be disappointed with PIJ, the Islamic Republic is in it for the long haul.

“They are trying to build an entire axis and make it ready for the day the order is given,” said Siboni, a former Israel Defense Forces division chief of staff. While it is plausible that Iran was surprised by the lack of effectiveness of PIJ’s rocket fire, it is likely a marginal issue for Tehran, he added.

Iran’s goal, he said, was to establish an axis comprising Hezbollah and Shi’ite factions in Syria.

“It would not object to gaining a foothold in Jordan, and promotes terrorism in Judea and Samaria as much as it can, as well as Hamas and PIJ in Gaza,” said Siboni, adding that it also sought influence among Arab Israelis.

However, he continued, “The broad strategy is their focus of activity. They take their time, and do not expect instant results like we do. They are working systematically to build this.”

Should they succeed in establishing a nuclear umbrella, he said, they would then feel bold enough to activate their proxies against Israel more freely.

Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University, said Iran’s real disappointment with regard to the recent fighting with PIJ was the terror group’s isolation.

PIJ needed over 24 hours to recover from Israel’s opening strike on May 9, which he described as a local “shock and awe” operation, but the real failure for Iran was that Lebanon and Syria remained on the sidelines.

“PIJ is strong in Syria. It tried to attack the Golan Heights from there in recent months, and lives in symbiosis with the Assad regime. [PIJ chief] Ziad al-Nakhalah is always in Beirut as a guest of Nasrallah. Yet PIJ did nothing from the north,” he noted.

With regard to Iran seeking to harm Israelis abroad, Karmon said that while this was true, it also had little to do with the recent round of hostilities.

“Iran is constantly trying to target Israelis overseas.” he said. “Iran is doing this constantly. It takes mercenaries with other nationalities and forms terror cells with them, which are led by Iran. This has happened in South America, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, and elsewhere,” he added.

In March, Greek police arrested two Pakistanis on suspicion of planning terror attacks on Israelis in Athens under Iranian direction.

As far as PIJ’s effectiveness during the fighting, Iran has no real cause for disappointment, said Karmon.

“Iran itself tried to attack Israel out of Syria and Iraq, with drone strikes, and did not succeed, so why would a smaller terror organization, under Israeli observation, be successful?” he said.

“Of course the Iranians had expectations, but they understood from the moment Israel eliminated the commanders of PIJ’s rocket division that PIJ wouldn’t be able to do very much,” he argued.

PIJ fired nearly 1,500 projecties at Israel during the escalation, of which some 20 percent fell in Gaza. Two civilians were killed in Israel by PIJ rocket fire, one of whom was a Gaza resident. Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system intercepted over 95% of rockets heading for built-up areas, according to the Israeli military. 

Looking ahead, Siboni said that Israel’s objective should be to undermine Iran’s multi-arena strategy by taking every available opportunity to degrade the capabilities of Iran’s proxies and partners. “This should be our path to wrecking the Iranian strategy–by harming its proxies,” he said.

He thus questioned Israel’s attempt to differentiate between Hamas and PIJ during the last escalation.

“This was wrong, because Hamas is enjoying quiet in Gaza while working to undermine security in Judea and Samaria,” he stated. “I’m not saying we need to conquer Gaza, but if Hamas rules there, then it should not enjoy quiet as it builds capabilities against us in Lebanon and Judea and Samaria. We are playing Hamas’s game by allowing it to act freely in Judea and Samaria and Lebanon without extracting a price from it in Gaza,” he added.

Karmon, too, believes Israel should have targeted Hamas, adding that the attempt by Israeli decision makers and the defense establishment to differentiate between it and PIJ was driven by fear of a wider escalation, with Jerusalem Day coming up.

“Israel did not want complications and an extended escalation,” he said.

Furthermore, he said, for Israel to come out on top against an organization such as PIJ was nothing to brag about.

“It is true that operatively, Israel won against PIJ—but PIJ did not have huge capabilities,” he said, noting that it had also kept some of its “strategic,” longer-range rockets in reserve.

As the dust settles, PIJ will resupply its rocket stockpiles with Iranian funds, and perhaps seek to build new drones, too, said Karmon.

Israel’s decision to intercept two PIJ projectiles using the newer David’s Sling air defense system, designed for longer-range threats, was also a signal to Hezbollah and Iran, saying that Israel is prepared for their threats with defenses that go beyond Iron Dome, he said.

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