Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz recently revealed details from an incident in 2018, in which an Iranian drone was shot down upon entering Israeli airspace after being launched from the T4 airbase in Syria. The drone’s mission was to deliver explosives to terrorist groups in Judea and Samaria. The interception of the drone, which is also a type of precision weapon, marked another chapter in the war against Iran’s efforts to smuggle weapons through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and to other terrorist groups as well.
According to foreign media reports, the number of Israeli attacks in Syria has increased significantly recently, and not a week goes by without reports of one or more such strikes. Most of the attacks are aimed at Iranian infrastructure and forces in Syria, and target efforts to transfer precision components to Lebanon.
This is the “campaign between the wars” launched by Israel several years ago to enforce its “red lines” in Syria and damage Iran’s nuclear program. Israel has made it clear it won’t allow Iranian forces and proxy militias to operate and establish a foothold in Syria, and won’t allow Syria to be used as a transit hub for game-changing weapons earmarked for Hezbollah. Precision weapons are not just rockets, but also unmanned aerial vehicles, cruise missiles and multirotor drones.
Israel initially adhered to a policy of ambiguity but changed its mode of thinking, and since 2019 government and military officials have revealed that thousands of Iranian targets have been destroyed in recent years. The message was devised for a specific audience: Iran, Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Since 2009, Iran has been focused on developing precision weapons under orders from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, based on the understanding that such weapons are “game-changers.” Accordingly, the IDF chief of staff determines that these weapons and their components are the second-greatest threat to Israel, after Iran’s nuclear program. Israel understands that the plans are intertwined, as part of a long-term Iranian plan, and that both must be stopped.
The interesting recent twist is that while the alleged Israeli attacks are ongoing, the Russians and Syrians are not complaining. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett have invested tremendous energy in convincing Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia’s interest is to remove Iran from Syria. Israel stressed that as long as the threat persists and Iran violates Israel’s red lines, the attacks will continue, there won’t be stability in Syria and Russia’s investment in the country will be in jeopardy. Russia understands and accepts this narrative. Whether Putin takes active steps to remove Iran from Syria is another question, but he is permitting Israel to act freely.
Assad, for his part—who likely wouldn’t be in power without Russian and Iranian intervention in his country’s civil war—recently joined the Russians in tacitly coming to terms with the Israeli airstrikes. The Iranians have begun overstepping their bounds, and Assad realizes that they are exploiting Syria and violating its sovereignty. He understands that without dislodging them from Syria, he also won’t be welcomed back into the family of Arab nations. Iran’s precision-weapon program also poses a threat to Lebanon, which is on the verge of economic and social collapse. If weapons keep being smuggled to Hezbollah, and particularly if precision weapons keep being manufactured and converted in factories on Lebanese soil, Israel will have no choice but to attack in Lebanon. This could escalate into all-out war, which would put the final nail in the coffin of the beleaguered country.
All this is happening against the backdrop of renewed nuclear talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna. Israel wants a good, comprehensive deal that terminates Iran’s ability to acquire a nuclear bomb, forever. U.S. President Joe Biden and his special Iran envoy Robert Malley have adopted an approach that is very much conflicting. The precision weapons are not part of the negotiations—and it’s uncertain whether this is a bad thing at this stage—in order to focus on the nuclear program. The precision- weapons issue should be addressed parallel and separate to the nuclear issue, while the campaign between the wars should be intensified.
The American desire for a “less for less” deal has led to a “more for less” framework. The lifting of American sanctions, even if partial, will allow Iran to rehabilitate its economy and continue supporting terror, as it does with its precision weapons operations, and at the same time would send a message across the globe that doing business with Iran is again worthwhile. Ergo it is “more for less,” because Iran would have to give up “far less.”
The Iranian doctrine is predicated on four pillars: The United States has the ability to attack—but Biden is weak and won’t do it; Israel understands the United States is weak and won’t attack alone, because it can’t; Iran believes its economy can withstand the pressures at their current level; and finally, the Iranian leadership senses there is no credible threat against the regime, the lives of its officials or their personal assets.
As long as these four pillars stand, the Iranians think they can come to Vienna with maximalist, absurd demands, and at the same time do as they please in Syria and elsewhere in the region. They are only willing to discuss sanctions relief, American assurances that any future administration will abide by an agreement, even if that demand contradicts American law, and the cessation of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s open investigations. The Iranians have not agreed to discuss what they will give in return, in terms of their nuclear program, violations, or regional behavior.
Washington understands Israel’s position regarding the precision weapons, hence the White House is quietly ignoring the campaign between the wars, but it insists on returning to negotiations with a poorly conceived approach. Israel has “free rein” to deal with the precision weapons, but not the nuclear program, not even through its considerable cyber capabilities—which of course is unacceptable from Israel’s perspective. The actions against the precision weapon threat will continue under Washington’s approval and virtually open support of the Russians and Syrians; Israeli actions against the Iranian nuclear program could lead to a conflict.
IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel is a former national security adviser to the prime minister and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.