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Iran tests an aggressive strategy against Israel, but comes up short

Remains of an F-16 plane that crashed in northern Israel on Feb. 10, 2018. Photo by Anat Hermony/Flash90.
Remains of an F-16 plane that crashed in northern Israel on Feb. 10, 2018. Photo by Anat Hermony/Flash90.

Iran launched a drone into Israeli airspace from Syria on Feb. 10, shocking Israel into retaliatory action that could have forced Iran back to its previous proxy tactics against Israel for the time being, but setting the stage for future incidents.

Israel responded by bombing 12 Iranian and Syrian targets in which Syrian anti-aircraft shot down an Israeli F-16 jet.

Over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed participants at the Munich Security Conference, where he focused on the Iranian threat from Syria.

“We will act, if necessary, not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself,” warned Netanyahu, also saying that “Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around our neck.”

Netanyahu displays a fragment of an Iranian drone destroyed over Israeli airspace at the Munich Security Conference.

Despite the tough rhetoric from Netanyahu, it remains unclear if Iran’s intrusion was meant to attack or to test Israel’s defenses.

According to a report by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) authored by Ayelet Savyon and U. Kafash, Iran changed its strategy to act directly against Israel instead of using proxies, but quickly changed it back because of Israel’s harsh retaliatory air-attack.

The report argued that the drone incursion into Israel could also have been to divert their public’s attention to Israel in order to distract from domestic protests.

Savyon, the head of MEMRI’s Iran desk and one of the authors of the report, told JNS that Iran’s restraint to Israel’s counterattack on Syria can be attributed to two possible explanations.

First, it could be that Iran was “deterred by Israel’s show of force and readiness for war with them,” or second, “the Russians calmed them down.”

Interestingly, according to the report, Iran quickly retreated from sending the drone into Israel as regime spokesmen denied Iranian involvement in the incident and even the existence of the drone at all.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said on Feb. 10: “The claim about an Iranian drone that flew [into Israel] and about Iran’s involvement in the downing of the attacking Zionist fighter jet is too ridiculous to address because Iran’s presence in Syria is only in an military advisory capacity at the behest of the legitimate and legal Syrian government.”

Professor Ali Ansari of St. Andrews University in Scotland, the founding director of the Institute for Iranian Studies, told JNS: “The one thing that did stand out for me was the report that the IRGC may be freelancing in Syria without the knowledge of the formal Iranian government.”

“This is regrettably not an unusual development, but in the context, a worrying one,” said the Iran expert.

Ansari pointed out that Iran could have been testing Israel’s defense capabilities, as well as its reaction. Iran is “in the habit of pushing the envelope to test responses, and this would seem to have been another example of this,” he added, noting it is a risky strategy to adopt.

However, MEMRI’s Savyon sees this explanation as unlikely because of the timing. “It was Tehran that wanted a big show for Revolution Day [Feb. 11], and it seemed that they were prepared for the first strike to cause Israel losses,” she argued.

The New York Times reported on Monday that the drone incident, which set off a flurry of violence, “drew new attention to how deeply Iran has embedded itself in Syria.”

Some in Israel, said the report, are starting to refer to a potential “First Northern War,” with the Israel Defense Forces having to cross into both Lebanon and Syria. According to a map it cited by the Institute of the Study of War, Iranian forces and their allies hold two positions near Israel’s border in the Golan Heights, and 10 others located in between Damascus International Airport and the Golan.

As the Syria war has shifted in President Bashar Assad’s favor—thanks to Iran, Hezbollah and Russia—Iran and Hezbollah now have more space from which to launch attacks against Israel from Syria.

The Iranian drone incident signified that Syria is now a real second front in the north alongside Lebanon, and that Israel needs to work diplomatically, militarily and covertly to prevent Iran and Hezbollah’s deepening presence in the country.

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