Photo Credit: YouTube
IDF drills near the border with Lebanon in 2022.

On 9 April 2023, Israeli Arabist scholar and former intelligence officer Mordechai Kedar published an article recounting information recently received from an associate he describes as a source he has “known for years – an expatriate from the Middle East, a supporter of Israel, who lives in Europe and is in continuous contact with people in Iran and Iraq.”

The article is in the outlet Makor Rishon (“Firsthand Source”), owned by Israel Hayom.  The information outlined by Kedar is from his source’s “assessment that Iran is planning to launch a combined attack on Israel in the foreseeable future that will include all the forces at its disposal in the Arab countries” – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

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Kedar proceeds to describe missile and rocket barrages from all the implicated territories (including the more-distant nations), along with an unconventional ground attack from Lebanon and Gaza using motorcycles and ATVs, assisted by local Arab sabotage in Israel, Judea, and Samaria.  Iran, he says, hopes to exhaust the Israeli air defense arsenal after the first few hours of an attack.

The onslaught will be attended by a mass cyberattack.  Iran, Kedar says, won’t overtly put its own assets into this, to try and avoid retaliation from Israel.

Kedar indicates he hesitated to publish the assessment, fearing it could spark a panic among Israeli readers.  In the end, he decided to go ahead with it – an understandable choice given the gravity of the implications.

Interestingly, he inserts the caveat toward the end that he doesn’t “know how realistic this scenario – an air and ground attack on Israel – is.”  I’m all for putting information out there, and in any case, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility as something Iran would attempt.  What I do think is that what Iran can expect of it probably doesn’t meet the expectations raised in the article itself.

That’s partly because the mental framework for the narrative is confined to the proximate, short-term impact it may have on Israel.  I don’t believe that’s the full context of Iran’s thinking about goals and strategy.  It leaves out a discussion of Iran’s full slate of priorities, and the political conditions of the surrounding region, which are being transformed in more ways than one (i.e., Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iran).

In fact, I’ll spot readers at the outset the lead priority in Iran’s full slate:  acquiring a nuclear weapons threat to use as regional leverage.  Hanging onto power in Iran might be placed above that, but it’s an enduring priority that’s probably not quite as immediately affected by the conditions discussed below.  Those conditions collaborate at the present moment not to make an apocalyptic regional uproar the best move for Iran’s radical regime, but to favor testing a nuclear warhead while the testing is good.

If you feel you’ve got the whole picture now, blessings, and thank you for your attention.  Some readers will already see it.  The balance of this is for others who want to see the analysis.

First points

I first want to emphasize that I take Israel’s security situation seriously.  I have no doubt the Netanyahu coalition does too, and that it puts Israel’s national security interests first.

This assessment of Israel’s governing coalition means that I don’t think it needs to turn tail on its judicial reform proposal (negotiating and modifying it are of course to be expected), as if that’s the only means of securing the unity required for addressing national security threats.  The current government has continued to be proactive about interdicting Iranian activity in Syria, as seen in the air strikes of recent weeks.  I’m not joining any voices proposing that Netanyahu must withdraw the reform effort, cease exercising any of his governing functions, or even step down or be kicked out, as the only “solution” to a security problem.

Hezbollah rockets hit northern Israel 6 April 2023. Israel MFA video via Hindustan Times, YouTube.

Rather, I have confidence that Netanyahu will perform the give and take he considers necessary to get the multiple jobs of a governing coalition done.  Having to juggle priorities isn’t a panic-inducing, insoluble crisis.  It’s what nations have prime ministers for.  The media may depict it otherwise, and indeed are likely to, from what we’ve seen of their opposition to the current coalition and the judicial reform package.  But it isn’t necessary to accept that perspective.

It’s important to acknowledge the concern of critics that the IDF has a general readiness problem at the moment.  The issues described by Yitzhak Brik have to do with force preparedness and adequacy of weapon stocks, and those factors will of course matter significantly to any defense scenario.

This article doesn’t make light of them, but in terms of Israel’s defense posture, it does focus on a separate aspect of preparedness.  The topic here is what Israel’s mindset for threat alertment and detection is.  Even if materiel provision and fully-trained combat readiness are not what they should be, intelligence, warning, and expectations about the opponent’s likely moves can still be on target.

So the second, and probably most important point, is this one.  The Kedar summary is written as if the IDF is caught flat-footed and off guard by the Iran-orchestrated onslaught (and also as if everything goes right for the attackers).

There’s no reason to expect that.  In fact, if Kedar’s source is correct, it’s very probable that Israeli intelligence and the IDF already know that Iran’s planners are working something along these lines.

We have good reason to understand, in fact, that the IDF has recognized such a possibility for a number of years.  Although analyses in 2018 of potential multi-front attacks were focused on a more conventional invasion force, Israeli analyst Yochanan Visser wrote a series of articles at the time on the strategic vision of then-IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, for whom preparing the IDF for such a contingency was a top priority.

A multi-front assault was very much on the collective mind of the IDF, and most of the Iran-backed players were the same then.  A BESA Center paper from the same time, by Yaakov Lappin, named the fronts identified by Eisenkot as Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank/Gaza, and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.

The difference with Kedar’s source material would be swapping out Yemen for the Sinai.  I would agree in 2023 that the Sinai Peninsula has been made more resistant to Iranian-backed infiltration since the Obama years (which we were in up through January 2017, a bare year before the Eisenkot concept was set forth in early 2018).

Yemen, meanwhile, has increasingly become a playground for Iran and Hezbollah since 2018.  Launching missiles at Israel from Yemen is feasible, at least from a military capability and range point of view.

A vast backstory

The IDF wouldn’t merely be alerted by current events and new intelligence to what Iran may be preparing.  The Israeli military has been pondering a closely-kindred multi-front defense problem for some time now.  Even after the first Abraham Accords were signed in September 2020, there was no reason to discount the likelihood of Iran’s regime organizing a multi-front assault.  The regime’s activities in Syria, since at least as early as 2013, have made clear that the mullahs of Qom have such a vision dancing in their heads.

Indeed, the possibility is something I outlined as far back as 2009 – nearly 14 years ago – when it was evident to me that the Obama administration’s policies on Israeli “settlements” and general Islamist radicalism would set off a scramble among Israel’s enemies to “race to Jerusalem”; i.e., exploit the Obama posture to close in on Israel from all sides.  (See the four parts of the series, “The Next Phase of World War IV,” hereherehere, and here.  The articles are fairly long and some of the material is historical at this point; the key discussions are in Parts II and III.)

In 2010, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then the president of Iran, visited southern Lebanon and yukked it up with Hezbollah near a replica of the Dome of the Rock, depicted with an Iranian flag over it.  This was only four months before the January 2011 Hezbollah coup in Lebanon against Saad Hariri, and the uprising in Tunisia days later, launched the “Arab Spring,” which significantly produced the ouster of status-quo leader Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Every single day since those events – in Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria – Israel has had reason to recognize the likelihood that Iran will try to organize a multi-front assault on Israel.  Iran’s effort to consolidate a land-bridge through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean, a process performed by purporting to “fight ISIS” across its Euphrates strategic corridor, is quite obviously a strategic move to flank Israel to the north and build up the position and capabilities for just such an assault.

There is no doubt the IDF recognizes that.  It has spent the last eight or more years vigilantly watching for signs of that Iranian effort and interdicting many of them with air strikes.  The strikes have hit both manufacturing and logistics hubs for Iran in Syria, and Hezbollah convoys attempting to move weapons and materiel into storage in Lebanon.  Israel has also struck visiting IRGC war planners on the Syrian side of the Golan and taken out key Hezbollah operatives as a preemptive measure.

The IDF hasn’t been lax on the western or southern fronts either.  In the early 2010s Israel took plenty of shrieking criticism for refusing to let NGO-backed “flotillas” breach the maritime embargo of terrorist organization Hamas offshore from Gaza – a stance Israel had to adopt due to continuing attempts by Iran to ship weapons to Hamas by sea.  Shortly before that period, Israel interdicted Iranian arms shipments being funneled through the Horn of Africa on land.

In December 2020, the IDF put a submarine in Eilat, with continuous direct access to the Red Sea, when the potential threat from the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen became increasingly evident.  A submarine operating from Eilat could move by stealth to attack land targets in Yemen (such as Hezbollah antiship attack positions ashore), as well as counter Iranian naval activity from the Red Sea to the Strait of Hormuz.

Well before Mordechai Kedar’s source obtained information about Iran’s planning in 2023, in other words, Israel recognized that Iran’s influence not just in the Sinai but in Yemen and the Red Sea was a move to flank Israel to the south.  The IDF has been looking at this multi-front operational defense problem for years.

The 2015 version of a map I first used in 2013. This one shows how Iran’s activities sought to flank ISIS as well as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Some of the political developments have been overtaken by events since then. (Google map; author annotation)

The point here is not that the IDF has everything “wired” or in-hand, especially as regards an asymmetric ATV-borne attack across the Lebanon and Gaza frontiers, or concerted civil sabotage by Arab militias inside Israel.  In 2014, for example, Israel found that it wasn’t well enough prepared for the threat posed by tunnels from Gaza.  More attention has been given to that problem in the years since.  Not everything is perfectly foreseen.

But the IDF has been accustomed to preempting the conditions for a multi-front war for some time, and that is the mindset that really makes the difference.  The adjustment in a new scenario isn’t thinking in those terms; it lies in the particulars of the expected methods and tactical problems.  For different tactical problems, alertment factors are different.

Jonathan Spyer, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, addressed the related point that in this time when Iran has shown an intent to menace Israel in a multi-front push, Israel needs to move to a posture of deterrence rather than reaction, especially in Lebanon.  Spyer is right about that, although in making the point that the IDF didn’t directly attack a “Hezbollah target” after the rocket barrage from Lebanon on 6 April, I actually think he highlighted that the IDF isn’t running behind the problem at the moment.

Israel still has the discretion to choose whether to escalate with Hezbollah.  If Iran wants to foment escalation, there’s no reason for Israel to help Iran do that on the mullahs’ timetable.  The government of Israel should choose its own time to start making deterrent points in the form of direct engagement with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It’s perfectly fair to ask if Israeli intelligence and the military are watching for signs of the preparations that would attend the unconventional attack methods outlined by Kedar’s source.  That string should be pulled in public discourse.  Preemption of such an attack would be far better than fighting it after being surprised.

But the IDF’s bread and butter in the matter of invasion is preemption, and that’s what Israeli intelligence has long been geared for.  If Kedar’s source knows about Iranian planning, it’s unlikely the Israeli defense establishment has no clue about it.

What would not come amiss is a national security address by Netanyahu to Israelis, not to give secrets away about the extent of Israeli knowledge or the nature of IDF planning, but to clarify the government’s priorities and posture in the current situation.  Independent of any attempt to address doomsday scenarios like that of Kedar’s source, getting through directly to the public would have a reassuring effect that I think is probably needed at the moment.  The other audience for such an expression of Israel’s national determination would be in Tehran.

VOA video, YouTube

Iran’s overarching priority – and a waiting world

Speaking of the mullahs’ timetable:  that’s the driving factor for what Iran is doing, and if we step outside the scenario Kedar outlines to consider the larger context, things look a bit different.

The simple reality is the salient one.  The Iranian regime wants a bomb, and has never been so close to being able to hatch the essential, game-changing precursor to a nuclear weapons capability:  a tested warhead.

This is partly because the 2015 JCPOA didn’t prevent Iran from bringing online new centrifuges that have enabled the nuclear program to gin up enough near-weapons-grade uranium to strike for a bomb test in as little as three weeks from the starting flag.

But it’s also because of current circumstances, existing or potentially created, that Iran can readily perceive as favorable for getting away with a warhead test.

I’ll spot readers the spoiler up-front again.  One of those circumstances is having Israel preoccupied with a homeland-attack threat.  That could eat significantly into the IDF’s ability to interdict an Iranian “sprint” to the tested-warhead finish line.  Iran has been angling for years to keep Israel paralyzed by such conditions.  Much of the negotiating process for the JCPOA, for Iran, had as its objective deterring Israel from taking action while stringing things along.

It’s important to note as well that for optimum conditions, Iran’s multi-front threat to Israel should not provoke a cascading collapse of the regional status quo.  That wouldn’t work to Iran’s advantage.  The regime needs time after acquiring the threat of a bomb – needs the ability to wield it for intimidation and deterrence – to reset other conditions for a systematic assault on Israel.

Some of the key conditions that might be profitably reset in Iran’s favor are the current governments (and their status quo geopolitical postures) of Jordan and Egypt.  One of the big problems with a super-dramatic, game-changing assault on Israel is that the opportunities it would open up to radical actors in the region could well destabilize those two nations against Iran’s interests.

It’s unlikely that Salafi Sunnis who oppose the status-quo Arab leadership, if they saw Israel rendered vulnerable, would choose to align with Iran and approve hoisting the Iranian flag over Al Aqsa.  At least some of them would go all-out to compete with Iran for such a goal – as followers of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi did in briefly installing Mohammed Morsi in Egypt after the Arab Spring.

Moreover, the general regional shock could bring down one or more of the existing governments in a relatively short time.  At the very least, the shock could force policy changes the status quo governments aren’t prepared for. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, even Turkey – none of them would be unaffected in terms of their internal stability (or external security) if the viability of Israel were put in question.

Iran doesn’t actually have the means or power to guarantee regional outcomes in that event.  The mullahs are aware of that, and have no pattern of trying to unleash chaos they can’t control.  Their priority would be a containable undermining of Israel’s capabilities and attention span.  It’s not to set a torch to the region before they have a tested warhead.

I doubt the situation in Syria would remain stable either.  While Erdogan’s hold on Turkey may not be in question, the vibrations from a divided Syria that was suddenly committed to an Iran-backed fight in Israel would reverberate into Turkey, and probably prompt cross-border interventions by Ankara as part of the general mayhem.

Putin meets with military officers. Kremlin/MOD photo

Russia doesn’t want that.  Moscow’s stake in Syria requires a relatively stable status quo favorable to Russia, and that status quo would become much harder to keep in bounds for a Russia straining mightily in Ukraine.  Israel, of course, would have to take some of its own fight to Syria; things would heat up quickly for Moscow’s arrangements there, with Turkey perceiving a need to have a hand in Syria as well.

In the geopolitical context of 2023, losing the current, advantaged Russian position in Syria would be, if not an existential blow for Russia, a blow that was existential-adjacent.  It would adversely affect Russia’s interests all the way from Sevastopol to the Strait of Gibraltar.

Moreover, there’s no great-power vacuum now on the other side of the Syria equation.  With Iran’s recent maneuvers vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula in general, Tehran has effectively invited China into the Syria equation as an added variable.

There’s more than one useful great-power patron, if you’re Iran.  If you’re Russia, seeing your position in Syria edged out by that other great-power patron would be unacceptable.  If you’re China, on the other hand, strolling into Syria as a counterweight to Russia – a peer competitor invited in by Moscow’s prize client – is exactly what you’d want to do.

These are just some of the reasons I don’t think Iran would have as free a hand as Kedar’s scenario imagines to throw regional expectations into chaos by devastating Israel in the short term.  Four nations that have obvious common interests in containment right off the bat are Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt.  Those four, even with their stability problems, aren’t nuts that Iran’s mullahs can just crack in preemptive moves for their own purposes.  Sunni extremists have a better shot at the Arab governments than Iran has.

Turkey has interests similarly adversarial to Iran’s, if perhaps not as many interests in common with the other four.

One thing they all have in common, however, is a preference for not seeing Iran’s regime get a bomb on Iran’s time, and with China having a geopolitical hand in it.

Xi Jinping and Ebrahim Raisi meet in Beijing in 2023. Al Jazeera video, YouTube.

USA: The inert quantity

Not so long ago, the United States could be counted on to exercise a useful if not absolute containing effect on Iran’s ambitions.  About a year ago, I wrote an article for the Jewish Policy Center’s inFOCUS Quarterly (Spring 2022) on that topic and on Israel’s options for preventing a race by Tehran to a bomb.  At the time, it was still possible to say that conditions favored even the increasingly lax deterrence policy of the American Biden administration.

Unfortunately, however, that is one of the key circumstances that have changed in the last 12 months.  The U.S. posture, and current military capabilities and expectations, have been altered since February 2022 – the month in which I wrote the article, and the month in which Russia invaded Ukraine.

The invasion of Ukraine has had two major destabilizing effects on U.S. credibility.  One is that the failure of deterrence by a U.S.-led NATO before the invasion has emboldened China, making an expensive, distracting, and possibly losing confrontation over Taiwan (i.e., losing for the U.S.) more likely.

The other is that U.S. military capabilities are taking an absolute hit from the war in Ukraine (see here as well), in which we have been supporting Kyiv by drawing down some of our own crucial weapon and ammunition stocks, and prioritizing new orders from our defense contractors for Ukrainian forces over ours.  (This includes prepositioned stocks stored in Israel, which, while not designated for Israeli use, are understood to be an option for an Israeli defense emergency.)

Not all of the systems in question would be relevant to a bomb-preemption action in Iran, or supporting Israel in a fight for its life.  But either type of action would be very draining for U.S. resources in the short term, at a time when, according to defense testimony, we are overstretched to replenish the U.S. stocks being prioritized for Ukraine.

President Biden has also severely depleted our strategic petroleum reserves since he took office.  It’s possible for U.S. forces to face fuel shortages in the event of near-term major actions in the Middle East, or indeed anywhere else.

These considerations moreover directly affect our ability to enforce the status quo and contain blowback from regional shocks in the Middle East. The elements and import of U.S. power, as I wrote about them back in 2022, have somewhat deteriorated since then.

In particular, adding a conflict with China over Taiwan – and likely the entire South China Sea as well – would only worsen such calculations for the reliability of American power.

This is therefore a particularly bad time for the U.S. leadership to imply, as Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley did on 23 March 2023, that we’ve backed off our longstanding position of zero tolerance for an Iranian bomb.  Milley’s phrasing – that the U.S. is committed to preventing Iran from getting a “fielded nuclear weapon” – sounded uncomfortably like allowing an incipient tested capability similar to what North Korea had for a number of years.

It seemed like a sign the U.S. is backing off from the perennial no-tolerance red line, possibly because we can’t enforce it today.

GEN Mark Milley, CJCS, testifies in Congress in March 2023. YouTube, Defense Now video

It would be in the Iranian regime’s interest to interpret it that way.  Milley repeated the U.S. commitment a few days later without the “fielded weapon” caveat, but the damage was done.

These points about the U.S. posture are the key influence on Iran’s perceptions, suggesting the time may never be better to get a warhead tested and have a live threat to wield.

There’s not really a power vacuum

But it’s important to see the matter in context.  In no case can Iran have a free hand for that enterprise.  The mullahs must always consider what other regional nations will do.  And those nations are increasingly sure they can’t count on Washington to hold the line for them.  They’ll have to band together and hold that line for themselves.

Iran will thus still understand, I think, that there will be coalitions against its intentions.  The point now is that they will shift, and won’t be reliant on the United States.

This reality is what’s missing from the Iranian plan cited from his source by Mordechai Kedar.  It’s a different way of thinking.  But it’s having a real effect.  Clearly Saudi Arabia is already on that path, moving decisively away from reliance on Washington.  China will seek to take advantage of it; Russia to not lose ground to it.

Saudi, Chinese, and Iranian foreign ministers meet in Beijing in 2023. Al Jazeera video, YouTube

So a key feature of the Iranian regime’s vision is not, in my view, so much to provoke a regional frenzy against Israel as a first consequence, as it is to keep Israel off-balance and preoccupied while Iran prepares the groundwork for a final campaign that Iran directly controls.  It’s possible now for Iran to think in those terms, because U.S. passivity is more likely than ever to afford what Iran needs most:  time.

Israel is by no means without options here.  Iran ushering China into the region’s dynamics now gives Russia even stronger reasons to guard its interests through new outreaches to nations like Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia (yes), and Egypt.  The Saudis have “rapproched” with Iran precisely because they want Iran to have an interest in keeping Riyadh satisfied.  Bolstering the Saudi position with backing from Russia and Turkey makes that more likely, not less.

A great-power client like the Saudis can have more than one patron, and multiple commonly-interested peers, and generally prefers to.  Russia and China are better than just China.  Israel, a peer, may not be on the front page in Saudi media every day, but it’s not in the Kingdom’s interest to lose the tacit understandings on cooperation built up with Israel over the years.

I’d expect to see similar dynamics with Turkey.

Neither the Saudis nor the Turks want to just roll over for Iran.  But don’t look for them to be overtly antagonistic toward Iran.  The Middle Eastern (and Asian) way of power-brokering is rarely to strike heroic adversarial postures, as Western governments do; it’s more often to make sure to have a seat at all the tables. That includes Iran’s.

Peripherally, Greece and India will consider their vital interests affected by who’s zooming who in the Middle East.  For India, the new door open to China is particularly significant.  Russia has longstanding ties with both India and Greece, and enduring common interests.  And both nations have seen the value in growing ties with Israel over the last decade.  That value will increase, not lessen, with the loss of America as the default, superpower enforcer in the region.

In terms of “inside sliders” among Israeli options, it will remain as useful to the Kurds and Azerbaijanis as to Israel for those connections to continue.

Turkish strikes begin on Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria, 9 Oct 2019. CNN video

And it’s not to be forgotten than Israel has its own, independent relationship with China, which China will want to keep as a factor in its Middle East relations for as long as possible.  There’s a whole evolving climate of geopolitical interests and trends for Israel to plug into.  Fortunately, Netanyahu is one of the few statesmen in today’s world with a facility for perception and vision on those lines.

Summary

Things were a lot simpler, and didn’t take nearly as long to lay out, when the U.S. was the primary decisive factor in most geopolitical dynamics.  But that’s no longer the de facto reality.  That in turn alters and complicates the power picture.  It doesn’t make it go away.

Elements of that emerging power picture will incentivize a number of the Middle Eastern nations to hold Iran in check, including for an attack on Israel.

Israel’s tasks are simple in conception, if complex in execution.  At the operational and tactical level, intelligence and the IDF need to stay as alerted as possible to a problem they’ve been monitoring and taking action against for years:  the likelihood of a multi-front assault on Israel.  In 2023, the chief instigator would be Iran, through regional clients.  Beefing up air and missile defenses, always advisable, looks even more urgent as a priority.  The same can be said of cyber defenses and cyber counterattack and preemption options.

At the strategic level, Israel needs to plug into the common-interest priorities of regional and peripheral nations, and negotiate for all it’s worth.  Only Israel can decide if, aside from immediate national survival day to day, preventing Iran from getting a bomb is the lodestone priority.  I would make it mine, if I were Israel.

That will mean being prepared to defend Israel and interdict Iranian bomb development, the latter to at least some level, at the same time.  Preemption of tactical attacks on Israel is likely to be required.  Frankly, so will ignoring media hysterics.  I don’t believe Mordechai Kedar meant to sow hysteria.  But where the media mean to, they aren’t promoting Israel’s interests or security at all.

{Reposted from the author’s site}

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J.E. Dyer is a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004.