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Military Options Against Iran

by Mitchell Bard

Introduction
Iranian Capabilities
Iranian Threats
War Options
Israeli Attack
Large Cost for Short-Term Benefit?
America’s Reaction
A U.S. Attack
Multilateral Actions
Cyber War
The Case Against War
Regime Change
Iran Raises the Stakes
First Shots
Spy Games
Assassinations
Biden Sends a Message
Indirect War
War at Sea
U.S. Troop Deployment
“Other Options” If Diplomacy Fails
Iran Threatens Israel
The War Between The Wars
Regional Defense Alliance

Introduction

Israeli officials have repeatedly said that if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon, it would pose an existential threat and said they would not allow Iran to build a bomb. They hoped this implied threat would motivate the international community to act. The fear of Israel taking unilateral action no doubt played a role in the imposition of sanctions on Iran and the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Some critics accuse Israel of provoking the United States into a war with Iran. This has not happened, but Benjamin Netanyahu disclosed in his memoir, “Bibi: My Story,” that he asked President Barack Obama during his first visit to Israel to bomb Iran. Obama objected to the idea. “Nobody likes a Goliath. I don’t want to be an 800-pound gorilla strutting on the world stage. For too long we acted that way,” he said (HaaretzOctober 14, 2022).

The only country that publicly called for the use of military force against Iran is Saudi Arabia, which believes it has the most at risk if Iran has the bomb. The Saudis were frustrated by the failure of both the Bush and Obama administrations to act and publicly said they would acquire a bomb if Iran were allowed to develop one.

Iran did not believe Obama would use military force and was willing to accept what it saw as short-term restrictions on its nuclear weapons activity in exchange for a financial windfall and sanctions relief. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA led Iran to accelerate its nuclear activities. He warned if Iran resumed its nuclear program, there would be “very severe consequences,” raising the possibility of a military response; however, he never acted on the threat (Politico, May 9, 2018).

Joe Biden came to power promising to negotiate a return to the JCPOA. Though he would later say he was willing to use force as a “last resort,” he remained committed to diplomacy.

In December 2021, seven experts, including former Obama defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta and former Obama CIA director David Petraeus, issued a joint statement that supported the diplomatic track but also said, “Without convincing Iran it will suffer severe consequences if it stays on its current path, there is little reason to hope for the success of diplomacy...We believe it is vital to restore Iran's fear that its current nuclear path will trigger the use of force against it by the United States.” The statement called for military exercises, pre-positioning, and other “steps that lead Iran to believe that persisting in its current behavior and rejecting a reasonable diplomatic resolution will put to risk its entire nuclear infrastructure” (Washington Institute, December 17, 2021).

Israel does not want to go to war with Iran if it can be avoided. Given Iran’s threat to the Arab world and U.S. and European interests, Israel believes one or more other countries should act against Iran to protect those vital interests. In the past, Israel and the United States disagreed on the point at which it would be too late to act. Israel believes that Iran must be stopped before it reaches the “zone of immunity,” when it will have the capability to assemble a bomb, whereas the United States has suggested it could still act even after Iran built a bomb.

The United States and Israel also disagree on the implications of taking military action. The U.S. and others believe the cost of any attack will likely exceed the benefit of what many believe will be only a short-term delay in Iran’s ability to build a bomb. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued this argument is backward – he believes the cost of not stopping Iran would be higher than the expense of acting. As he said in 2012, “There’s been plenty of talk recently about the costs of stopping Iran. I think it’s time we started talking about the costs of not stopping Iran.” A nuclear-armed Iran, he said:

  • Would dramatically increase terrorism by giving terrorists a nuclear umbrella; that is, Iran’s terror proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas will be emboldened to attack the United States, Israel, and other countries because they will be backed by a power that has atomic weapons.
  • A nuclear-armed Iran could choke off the world’s oil supply and make real its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz.
  • If Iran gets nuclear weapons, it will set off a mad dash by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others to acquire nuclear weapons of their own.  The world’s most volatile region would become a nuclear tinderbox waiting to go off.
  • And here’s the worst nightmare of all, with nuclear weapons, Iran could threaten all of us with nuclear terrorism.

Still, Netanyahu said, Israel prefers a peaceful resolution to the issue (AIPAC Policy Conference, March 5, 2012).

Besides the basic desire to avoid war, several factors mitigate a military operation. The Europeans are unlikely to act without the United States because they lack the military capability to sufficiently damage the Iranian facilities and, more importantly, the will to use force. It is possible that one (most likely Britain) or more may be willing to act in concert with the United States.

The United States is the one country that has the military capability to destroy or at least seriously set back Iran’s nuclear program. Nevertheless, the United States has its reasons to hesitate besides the potential consequences of initiating a war. First, before resorting to military force, the president would want to demonstrate to the American people that he has done everything possible to avoid war. Second, like the Trump administration, President Biden wants to focus on the economy and domestic issues. Third, like Trump, Biden has talked about withdrawing from areas of conflict and will be even more reluctant to start a new war after withdrawing from Afghanistan. Fourth, Biden is unlikely to launch a major operation without the support of America’s European allies, who want to return to the JCPOA. Fifth, Biden appears willing to continue to use sanctions in the hope Iran will eventually negotiate a new deal that will be more stringent than the JCPOA or the collapse of the regime, neither of which appears likely.

Iran has continued to pursue a nuclear weapon, flouting the terms of the JCPOA, first covertly and now openly. While the Europeans have ignored the violations and sought ways to evade U.S. sanctions,  Israel, in some cases with the aid of the United States, has demonstrated it can sabotage Iranian facilities through cyber warfare and other means to impede the development of a nuclear weapon.

Still, as Iran gets closer to having the capability to build a bomb, Israel will be faced with two bad options: Use the IDF to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations or live with a nuclear Iran. If Israel chooses the military option, historian Benny Morris noted that it might succeed in crippling Iran’s nuclear program, but it may also:

  • Cause massive environmental damage.
  • Provoke Iran to launch ballistic missiles and drones at Israel and unleash a worldwide campaign of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish terrorism that would, in turn, require an Israeli response that would escalate the level of violence.
  • Prompt Hezbollah and perhaps Hamas and Islamic Jihad to fire rockets at Israel. Palestinians in the West Bank might start an intifada. Any or all of these actions would force Israel to fight a multifront war.
  • Draw the United States and possibly the Europeans into a war they don’t want to fight. Israel’s relations with its allies will likely suffer if they don't engage.
  • Threaten relations with Sunni Arab countries.

Morris notes that living with a nuclear Iran also has costs.

  • Iran might decide to attack Israel with nuclear weapons.
  • Iran and radical Islamists will be emboldened by their perceived victory over the West.
  • Arab nations may decide it is safer to side with Iran than with Israel.
  • The belief that time is on the Palestinians’ side would be reinforced.
  • Iran’s allies would feel free to attack Israel and other Middle East nations protected by Iran’s nuclear umbrella.
  • Israel’s economy would suffer because of the need to increase defense spending, the reluctance of foreigners to invest in Israel, the prospect of Israelis leaving for safer homelands, and potential immigrants and tourists seeking alternative places to move or visit.
  • It is likely other countries will seek nuclear weapons to counter Iran increasing the danger to everyone in the region (Haaretz, September 27, 2021).

Iranian Capabilities

Iran reportedly used reinforced materials and tunneling deep underground to store nuclear components to protect them in the event of an attack (AP, March 4, 2005; Telegraph, January 25, 2006). Public reports suggest Iranian facilities are now so deep underground that only the largest “bunker buster” type bombs could damage them. The United States is the only country with these weapons.

In September 2013, Iran and Oman signed a defense cooperation accord, which is not likely to impact Iran’s ability to attack or defend itself (Jomhuri Islami, September 20, 2013). More significantly, in 2016, Russia delivered its most advanced air-defense system to Iran (Bloomberg, March 7, 2018).

One of the major concerns of the United States and others is that Iran could interfere with shipping in the Persian Gulf and thereby pose a threat to global oil supplies and has deployed assets to protect vessels from Iranian action. Iran has developed sophisticated naval technologies, including limpet mines, coastal defense cruise missiles, speedboats, uncrewed explosive boats, and small to medium-size submarines. It also has cruise missiles deployed along its coast and on Abu Musa, the Tunbs, and the Farsi islands (Washington Institute, June 10, 2020). 

In November 2012, the Iranian Navy unveiled two new submarines and two missile-launching warships. This capability is viewed as a potential threat to the strategic balance in the Persian Gulf and, therefore, to the United States and the West (DPA, November 28, 2012). Earlier, Iranian officials had said they planned to design nuclear-powered submarines, enabling the navy to keep the subs on patrol for extended periods and distances. They do not yet have this capability. In 2021, the country’s largest warship caught fire and partially sank in the Gulf of Oman. The cause of the fire was not reported (Washington Post, June 2, 2021).

A new threat emerged in April 2020 when Iran deployed anti-ship missiles and rockets overlooking the Strait of Hormuz. The systems include the Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 multiple-launch rocket systems, which can launch 12 missiles with ranges of 27 and 45 miles in under two minutes. A variant of an anti-ship missile similar to the U.S. Navy’s Harpoon has also been deployed (Forbes, April 7, 2020).

An Iranian commander said in September 2021 that Iran has “six armies outside its borders that work for it” (Al Arabiya, September 27, 2021). He referred to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad movements in Gaza, the regime forces in Syria, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, and the Houthi militia in Yemen. A significant concern is that these proxies could be ordered to fire rockets or launch drones at Israel. The threat of doing so is meant to deter Israel.

In 2018, Iranian-backed forces launched an attack drone and rocket at Israel from Syria bases. Israel has repeatedly launched strikes on Iranian targets in Syria. Israel has also made clear that any attacks from Lebanon would be met with a severe response, and the Lebanese government is not anxious to be dragged into another war by Hezbollah. Similarly, Hamas and PIJ may be reluctant to provoke Israel to mount a large-scale operation in Gaza that would further weaken their position.

Iran also has developed ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets throughout the Middle East, including Israel and U.S. military bases. The commander of U.S. Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, has said the 2,500-3,000 ballistic missiles are the primary threat to the United States and its allies. Since May 2019, Iran-backed militias have launched dozens of short-range rockets targetting American bases in Iraq (Newsweek, December 28, 2020).

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said on April 22, 2020, that it had put a military satellite into orbit for the first time. The announcement raised concerns that the technology used to launch the satellite could be used to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (New York Times, April 22, 2020). In June 2021, it was reported that Russia had agreed “to deliver to the Iranians a Russian-made Kanopus-V satellite equipped with a high-resolution camera that would greatly enhance Iran’s spying capabilities, allowing continuous monitoring of facilities ranging from Persian Gulf oil refineries and Israeli military bases to Iraqi barracks that house U.S. troops” (Washington Post, June 10, 2021).

In July 2020, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Navy chief said, “Iran has established underground onshore and offshore missile cities all along the coasts of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman that would be a nightmare for Iran’s enemies” (Haaretz, July 5, 2020).

Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of CENTCOM, which oversees the Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of South Asia, told the House Armed Services Committee on April 20, 2021, that small and medium-sized armed Iranian drones endanger U.S. forces and American allies in the Middle East. “For the first time since the Korean War,” he testified, “we are operating without complete air superiority.”

“Sometimes, it is very difficult for us to detect them until it is too late,” McKenzie added. “We have a variety of systems that we’re testing now in a free market competition to find the best and most integrated capabilities. We are not there yet, and it remains a very concerning priority of mine.”

On the positive side, McKenzie said, America’s MQ9 Reaper drones have helped deter Iranian attacks. “In the summer of 2019, we believe we stopped several imminent attack strains from ships at sea simply by positioning MQ9s overhead so that they could hear them operating.”

Agreeing with McKenzie’s analysis, Jonathan Ruhe, the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s director of foreign policy, observed, “The development and proliferation of these UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] is a key element of Iran’s larger effort to counter and overwhelm advanced defenses around the region, including ultimately Israel’s, with swarms of precision munitions like drones and missiles.” Ruhe added, “The United States needs to work with its regional allies to develop a theater air defense network that can counter Tehran’s growing ability to hold the Middle East hostage with these weapons” (JewishInsider, April 21, 2021).

McKenzie, now retired, noted in October 2022, “Over the past five to seven years, Iranian capabilities . . . have risen to such a degree that now they possess what I would call effective ‘overmatch’ against their neighbors.” He explained that “overmatch is a military term that means you have the ability to attack, and the defender won’t be able to mount a successful defense” (Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2022).

Israel has also expressed concern about Iranian military vessels patrolling the Red Sea. “The presence of Iran’s military forces in the Red Sea in recent months is the most significant in a decade,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said. “It is a direct threat to trade, energy and the global economy” (Jerusalem Post, July 5, 2022).

In November 2022, Iran announced it had developed a hypersonic missile that could “penetrate every missile defense shield” (Jerusalem Post, November 10, 2022). If true, this would significantly increase the threat to the region.

See also Military Threats to Israel: Iran

Iranian Threats

Iran has repeatedly made bellicose threats regarding the consequences of an attack, especially one initiated by Israel. For example, Masud Yazaiari, spokesperson of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, said an Israeli attack would not succeed. “They are aware that Tehran’s response would be overwhelming and would wipe Israel off the face of the earth” (Maariv, July 27, 2004).

In April 2007, Mohammad Baqer Zolghadr, Iran’s deputy interior minister in security affairs, said Iran would strike U.S. interests worldwide and Israel if attacked. “Nowhere would be safe for America with [Iran’s] long-range missiles ... we can fire tens of thousands of missiles every day,” Zolghadr said (Haaretz, April 26, 2007).

Ali Shirazi, liaison for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the elite Quds Force, said after a reported Israeli airstrike on an Iranian base in Syria, “Iran has the capability to destroy Israel and given the excuse, Tel Aviv and Haifa will be razed to the ground” (Times of Israel, April 12, 2018).

Before the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, deputy Quds commander Brigadier-General Esmail Ghaani warned against an American attack. “We are not a war-mongering country,” he said. “But any military action against Iran will be regretted ... Trump’s threats against Iran will damage America ... We have buried many ... like Trump and know how to fight against America” (Independent, October 13, 2017).

In May 2019, tensions grew as the United States tightened sanctions on Iran, ending exemptions to several countries that were allowed to continue importing oil from Iran as part of the effort to reduce their oil exports to zero. American intelligence reported a heightened threat of an attack on U.S. interests. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again,” President Trump said in a tweet (Reuters, May 19, 2019).

He later said, “I just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons, and they can’t be threatening us. And with all of everything that’s going on, and I’m not one that believes – you know, I’m not somebody that wants to go into war, because war hurts economies, war kills people most importantly – by far most importantly,” he said. “I don’t want to fight,” he added, “but you do have situations like Iran, you can’t let them have nuclear weapons – you just can’t let that happen.”

The commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, Major-General Hossein Salami, said the same day that “Iran is not looking for any type of war, but it is fully prepared to defend itself” (CNN, May 19, 2019).

Still, January 3, 2021, was the one-year anniversary of the United States assassinating Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. Iran vowed retaliation, and the United States and its regional allies have remained alert for a possible attack by Iran or its proxies.

On May 22, 2022, Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei was assassinated in Tehran. Israel was immediately suspected of being responsible, a suspicion seemingly confirmed by a leak from the Biden administration (Times of Israel, May 26, 2022).

Khodaei was reportedly in charge of terrorist attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide. Ben Caspit asserts that Israel has adopted a new policy whereby it “will no longer ignore attempted attacks by proxies of the Iranian regime, and intends to exact a price from those who dispatch them, even in the heart of their capital.” Caspit added, “The shift in Israeli strategy and its apparently increased daring, according to foreign publications, appears to stem from Israel’s commitment, under pressure from the United States, to freeze all activity against Iran’s nuclear program as long as negotiations are ongoing between Iran and world powers” (Al-Monitor, May 24, 2022).

War Options

Most discussions of the military option have focused on worst-case scenarios – Iran’s program can only be delayed, not stopped; Tehran will unleash a wave of terror; Iranian allies, Hamas and Hezbollah, will rain missiles down on Israel; the Muslim world will be inflamed; the price of oil will skyrocket and damage the world economy and other potential catastrophes discussed here.

One other concern is collateral damage. The potential for civilian casualties, property damage, or radiation exposure is an essential consideration in military planning. One reason a military option may be pursued sooner than later is that the danger of releasing radiation will be small or non-existent if an attack is launched before nuclear fuel is loaded into any reactors. According to one 2013 study, the most likely targets of any attack are facilities built underground or storing their hazardous materials in underground bunkers, which would reduce the expected risk to the environment and population (TheTower.org, August 14, 2013).

Any military planner must consider such worst-case scenarios, but if all decisions were based on these predictions, no wars would ever be fought. Strategists must also consider best-case scenarios and those between the optimistic and the apocalyptic. 

An Israeli Attack

Netanyahu revealed in his memoir that he tried to get his cabinet to agree to a military strike in 2010 and 2011, but was opposed by his top security officials, including the head of the Mossad, the defense minister, and the IDF Chief of Staff. Netanyahu said they were too worried about having to face a commission of inquiry, believed an operation would only delay the nuclear program by a few years and could lead to war, and relations with the United States would be damaged (Haaretz, October 14, 2022).

Some analysts have questioned Israel’s ability to conduct a military operation; however, Israel’s then chief of staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, said the country’s military was capable of attacking Iran on its own without foreign support. If necessary, he said Israel could fight alone without the help of the United States or other countries. “We have our plans and forecasts ... If the time comes we’ll decide” on whether to take military action, he said. Similarly, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen said: “Iran has no immunity anywhere. Our planes can reach everywhere in the Middle East - and certainly Iran” (Reuters, April 29, 2021).

This echoed comments by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who reiterated that Israel would not “abandon our fate into the hands of other countries, even our best friends.”

In 2022, now Defense Minister Gantz said “We are able to seriously harm and delay the nuclear [program]” (Times of Israel, July 26, 2022).

Israel’s likely objective would be to destroy Iran’s main enrichment sites, research and testing facilities for nuclear warhead development, and factories for manufacturing missiles, centrifuges, and other nuclear weapons-related equipment. Israel would not have to attack Iran’s nuclear reactors.

Several options are available for potentially attacking Iran. Some of those suggested in the media have included facilities assassinating the country’s leaders or nuclear scientists; bombing the entrances to prevent scientists and others from reaching them; destroying Iran’s main oil terminals and crippling the economy, and bombing the enrichment sites. Press reports have also disclosed covert operations to disrupt the nuclear program. For example, Israel reportedly “used front companies to infiltrate the Iranian purchasing network ... to deliver faulty or defective items that ‘poison’ the country’s atomic activities” (Telegraph, February 16, 2009). The world also learned of joint U.S.-Israeli efforts to sabotage Iranian centrifuges through computer viruses such as Stuxnet.

Some analysts argue that Israel lacks the military capability to stop the Iranian nuclear program for more than a few years. This is the conventional wisdom, but it is just that, conventional, and Israel has repeatedly proved that it has the daring and creativity to disprove the skeptics.

Consider Israel’s history. American officials have been consistently wrong about Israel’s capabilities. They did not expect Israel to survive the Arab invasion of 1948. In the early 1950s, the Arabs were seen as strategic allies, but Israel was acknowledged as the only pro-Western power in the region by the end of the decade. In 1967, no one anticipated that Israel would surprise their neighbors and destroy their air forces on the ground. In 1976, Israel shocked the world when it rescued 102 hostages in Entebbe. In 1981, Israel flew through Arab air space and destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. In 2007, an Israeli raid destroyed a suspected Syrian nuclear facility.

Only a handful of Israelis are privy to plans that could be far more audacious and innovative than critics imagine. As Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, who flew a fighter escort on the raid on Iraq, told the Jerusalem Report, “you can introduce dozens of improvisations and creative ideas and get much more out of the basic conditions than would seem possible at face value.”

The most commonly assumed Israeli option would involve an aerial bombardment of Iranian nuclear facilities. The problem analysts frequently mention about Israel bombing Iran is that the Iranian facilities are hidden deep underground. The Obama Administration sold Israel bunker-buster bombs; however, only a handful of Israeli planes can carry them, and the munitions are not believed to be powerful enough to penetrate deep enough to destroy the plants. Israel does not necessarily have to reach the depths of the facilities. It may be enough to destroy the power supplies need to operate them, which will be above ground.

In addition to aircraft dropping bombs, Israel could also launch its Jericho missiles and possibly submarine-based cruise missiles. This last possibility, a submarine-based attack, became more realistic following reports that Israel launched an attack with precision-guided missiles that destroyed a shipment of Russian anti-ship missiles in the Syrian port of Latakia (Tom Gross, “Was Israel’s Latest ‘Air’ Attack on Syria from a Submarine?” Weekly Standard, July 20, 2013). Gross also raised the possibility that Israel could use another tactic – an EMP (electromagnetic pulses) that could “be emitted from installations the size of a suitcase smuggled into Iran by land and used to disable specific buildings or target specific offices – for example, the office of the Iranian defense minister, to make it impossible for him to communicate by phone or computer with the outside world for a period of time.”

Unlike the United States, which could carry out sustained strikes, Israel is expected to have only a brief window – perhaps only a single raid – to do whatever damage it can. The likely targets would be the heavy-water production plant at Arak, the uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan, and the uranium enrichment centers at Natanz and Fordow. The length of an attack may be constrained, but it could still be potentially devastating if Israel uses its full range of resources, including strikes from the air, land, and sea, EMPs and cyberattacks, and special forces operations.

One impediment to an Israeli airstrike was thought to be its inability to refuel its aircraft. During a drill in May 2022 that included simulated airstrikes on Iran and a simulated multi-front war against Iran-backed proxies in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza, Israel disclosed, and the U.S. Air Force confirmed, that American tankers would refuel the Israeli planes. An American spokesperson later tried to dissociate the USAF participation from the Israeli exercise, calling it an unrelated “dry refueling mission” (Breaking Defense, May 18, 2022; Jerusalem Post, May 19, 2022; JNS, May 22, 2022).

A few weeks later, the Jerusalem Post reported that Israel had developed the capability to fly its F-35 stealth fighter jets from Israel to Iran without mid-air refueling. The report also said the planes could carry a new one-ton bomb (Jerusalem Post, June 8, 2022). 


An American KC-135 aircraft refueling Israeli Air Force F-16i fighter jets
during the recent joint exercise over Israel, November 30, 2022. (Photo: IDF)

Another scenario is referred to as the “Entebbe Option.” The idea would be for Israeli commandos to storm the enrichment facility housing Iran’s centrifuges, remove the enriched uranium and then destroy the facility (Foreign Policy, September 27, 2012). Cdr. Jennifer Dyer has argued an Israeli attack would not be as air-heavy as in the past. It is more likely, she argued, that Special Forces and asymmetric means would be used (Jewish Policy Center, Spring 2022).

In the Spring of 2022, Israel intensified preparation for a possible conflict with Iran, conducting drills to defeat Iranian radar systems, simulate long-range combat flights, and defend against cyber weapons. The exercises were no doubt meant to send a message to Iran that Israel could threaten its nuclear facilities. The Israelis might have also wanted to reaffirm their commitment to act against Iran if the United States returned to the JCPOA without addressing its security concerns.

Any attack on nuclear facilities would most likely be conducted before Iran introduced dangerous levels of uranium to preclude the possibility of radiation fallout (Washington Post, August 5, 2013). Similar concern prompted Menachem Begin to destroy the Iraqi reactor at Osirak in 1981.

Large Cost for a Short-term Benefit?

Assuming Israel can launch an effective strike, what about the argument that it will only set Iran back a few years?

Maybe the strike will destroy more of the program than the naysayers believe. But assume that it does not. This does not mean the Iranians can rebuild the program quickly, if at all. They will still have the technical knowledge, but it took them more than 20 years to get to where they are today. They will also face much greater international scrutiny. The world kept its head in the sand for years, and the IAEA failed to detect illicit activities, but that will not happen in the future. Furthermore, sanctions can remain in place; inspections could become more rigorous, and other measures could be taken to ensure the nuclear program is not rebuilt.

Some argue the Iranians will become more united due to their nation being attacked. They may also become more determined to get a bomb to ensure that no one can attack them in the future and become even more secretive. This is indeed one scenario, but others are also conceivable. For example, given the widespread disaffection within Iran, another revolution could install new leaders who will abandon the nuclear option. The Iranian people may conclude that their fanatical leaders brought a catastrophe upon them and that it is time to restore Iran to the community of nations. Senior leaders may die in the attack, which might facilitate regime change.

Public discussions of the military option have assumed that Iran will respond to any attack as their leaders have threatened. In weighing the use of military force, Israel must consider, for example, the possibility that Iran and Hezbollah will try to target its nuclear facilities. The Israel Atomic Energy Commission has already taken precautions to protect the nuclear reactors in Dimona and Nahal Sorek and believes that a missile strike that hits a nuclear reactor “would be a major propaganda achievement,” but “would not endanger Israelis” (Haaretz, June 28, 2018).

Other scenarios are also possible. Israel attacked both Iraqi and Syrian facilities, and neither country counterattacked Israel. The Iranians know that if they strike back, Israel can respond devastatingly. Israel would overwhelm Lebanon and Gaza if Hezbollah and Hamas entered the fray. An Iranian attack on American targets or interference with oil supplies would provoke an overwhelming U.S. response and might bring other Western powers into the fight.

America’s Reaction

One unanswered question is what the United States would do in the event of an Israeli military operation. U.S. officials hope and expect Israel to inform them in advance, but Israel may choose not to do so. One reason for keeping the U.S. in the dark is to avoid the possibility the president would oppose the decision and take measures to stop it. If Israel ignored U.S. wishes, it would risk alienating the president and possibly losing political, military, and economic support in the aftermath of the Israeli strike. Given U.S. assets in the area, it may be difficult if not impossible, to surprise the United States, and it is more likely Israel will, as it has in some previous instances, alert the president after the operation has begun.

The United States should not be surprised if Israel acts, given the repeated statements by officials that Israel will not allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon and will act if others do not. In 1981, Israel sent similar messages to the Carter and Reagan administrations, but American assessments of Iraq’s nuclear program were different than Israel’s, and the Israeli warnings were not heeded.

In the past, American officials have said they do not want to appear complicit in an Israeli attack. Still, the Iranians and the Arab/Muslim world will assume that Israel is acting with U.S. help or permission and may have an adverse reaction. Therefore, the United States will be interested in seeing that Israel’s operation is as short as possible and preventing the situation from escalating. To do this, the United States may be forced to take a more active role in defending Israel, particularly against missile attacks from Iran, Hamas, or Hezbollah. This may necessitate threatening military intervention.

President Obama took steps to minimize one of the principal concerns of the United States and its allies, namely, an Iranian threat to the supply of oil. In 2011, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested that a military attack on Iran would ruin the world economy because of its impact on oil prices (Fox News, November 18, 2011), which remains a concern. At a minimum, an Israeli strike is likely to cause a spike in oil prices because of fears of what Iran might do and the tendency of prices to rise whenever there is instability in the region.

If Iran were to carry out its threats to attack ships in the Persian Gulf, place mines in the water, or otherwise interfere with the shipment of petroleum, oil prices would rise even higher, given that roughly 20 percent of the world’s oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz. In the past, the United States has made clear that any Iranian threat to global oil supplies would cross an American red line that would trigger a military response.

A U.S. Attack

Israel has said that if Iran achieves the capability to build a nuclear weapon, it will have crossed a red line requiring a response. The United States, under Obama, refused to discuss a “red line” and maintained that Iran would have to reach a higher threshold – the actual production of a nuclear device – before it would consider going beyond the non-military measures taken to discourage Iran from pursuing a weapon.

President Donald Trump was less circumspect. On July 21, 2018, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned the Trump administration against continuing to oppose Iran and threatened to shut down international oil shipments in the Strait of Hormuz.  “Mr. Trump, don’t play with the lion’s tail; this would only lead to regret,” IRNA, the state-run news wire, quoted Rouhani as saying. “America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars” (Reuters, July 22, 2018).

A day later, Trump tweeted:

NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS! (JTA, July 23, 2018).

During a Senate hearing in May 2018, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. military was ready for a war with Iran. “We maintain military options because of Iran’s bellicose statements and threats,” he said. “And those plans remain operant” (Foreign Policy, June 28, 2018).

Should the United States decide to use military force against Iran, it has various options. One would be to bomb the nuclear facilities. The U.S. can carry on a sustained attack over an extended period. It also has bombs that are much more powerful than those given to Israel. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced on April 13, 2015, that the Pentagon has a bunker-busting bomb capable of destroying Iran’s secretive underground nuclear facilities. The weapon called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator is being “continually improved and upgraded” and provides the United States with the capability to “shut down, set back, and destroy” Iran’s nuclear program (The Hill, April 10, 2015).

The United States is also likely to strike far more targets than Israel. The Israelis will be primarily concerned with the nuclear facilities, but an American strike would probably aim to take out missile bases, launchers, and production facilities. A U.S. (or Israeli) operation might also target Kharg Island, from which Iran exports 90 percent of its oil and gas. Another target could be the port of Bandar Abbas, which is responsible for 90 percent of Iran’s container trade (Jerusalem Post, May 8, 2018). A broader strike might include refineries, natural gas terminals, railways, bridges, roads, and power plants. A no-fly zone and/or naval embargo could also be imposed. These measures would damage infrastructure and potentially cripple Iran’s economy.

Gen. James Mattis, then head of U.S. Central Command and now Secretary of Defense, said in 2013 that the U.S. military could bring Iran to its knees. “There are [a] number of means to do that,” he said, “perhaps even short of open conflict. But certainly that’s one of the options that I have to have prepared for the president” (AP, March 5, 2013).

John Allen Gay, the co-author of the 2013 book War with Iran, said, “The initial attack would undoubtedly be conducted with stealth aircraft, while follow-on attacks would feature non-stealth aircraft. At some point, and early on, we would have to attack Iran’s air defense systems. They have sophisticated S-300s [surface-to-air missiles] from Russia, so they would need to be destroyed.” The air campaign would target Iran’s nuclear facilities at Fordow and Natanz as well as “air bases, naval bases, and ballistic missile installations” (Foreign Policy, June 28, 2018).

James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, observed that U.S. defense planners know that Iran has plans to close the Strait of Hormuz using mines, swarms of patrol boats, and shore-based cruise missiles; human-crewed aircraft; and diesel submarines. At a minimum, they would seek to harass merchant ships, oil tankers, and allied warships. These illegal actions would likely seriously impact oil prices in the short run as ships avoid the waterway and oil exports from the Gulf nations are blocked.

The United States, its allies, and coalition partners have planned for this contingency, according to Stavridis, and would likely react by attacking Iranian ships attempting to lay mines, striking land-based air, and cruise missile sites, sinking Iranian diesel subs, and launching air strikes against targets inside Iran. Reopening the Straits if Iran succeeded in closing them would take time, during which the world economy would likely suffer as oil prices rise.

Stavridis suggested a preemptive strategy that would include:

enhanced surveillance and intelligence-gathering (especially in concert with Israel); stronger missile defenses for key U.S. bases in the region (Bahrain for naval forces and Al Udeid in Qatar for air forces); encouraging the Arab nations’ Gulf Cooperation Council and Israel to cooperate more intensely on intelligence-sharing and missile defense; more use of offensive cyber to preempt Iranian options; larger naval forces in the region, especially in the North Arabian Sea; and — above all — getting our European allies “on side” in the tougher sanctions regime (Bloomberg, July 24, 2018).

Like an Israeli strike, a U.S. operation would risk angering Arabs and Muslims; however, the reaction to both will also be affected by the success of the operations. Most of the Arab world has made clear it opposes Iran’s nuclear program and would cheer, privately if not publicly, the destruction of the threat. Provoking a regime change would also be viewed positively by most people in the region. If an operation results in harming the Iranian people, especially if there are high numbers of civilian casualties, the response could be more damaging.

Suppose the United States does take military action against Iran. In that case, it will probably act quickly to reassure the Iranian people and others in the region that it acted only as a last resort after Iran failed to heed international calls to give up its nuclear weapons program. If there is a change in the regime, the U.S. would likely offer aid to encourage a turn to democracy and help Iran rebuild the damaged non-military areas during the operation. American officials may also want to affirm a willingness to help Iran develop a nuclear energy program with appropriate safeguards to ensure that Iran cannot divert nuclear material for military purposes (Haaretz, March 22, 2013).

Opponents of military force acknowledge the U.S. could destroy Iran’s nuclear and military capabilities but argue this would not bring about regime change in Iran and would inevitably lead to a larger conflict. Robert Farley, a national security expert at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, argues that “there is very little reason to suppose that anything other than an Iraq-style war would lead to regime change in Iran.” Farley adds: “Even in a very extensive campaign, and absent the use of ground troops in a major invasion, the Iranian regime would survive” (Foreign Policy, June 28, 2018).

Multilateral Action

Most of the discussion about the possibility of military action has focused on Israel and the United States; however, it is possible that an international coalition would mount an operation. President Trump showed little interest in multilateral action and alienated America’s major allies when he withdrew from the JCPOA over their objections. Though he made threats, following Iranian attacks on U.S. bases, he did not take military action against the nuclear facilities.

During the Obama administration, the countries leading the campaign against Iran were the British, French, and Germans. None of those countries is likely to act alone and would probably only join a U.S.-led attack if they were convinced Iran was on the verge of building a bomb, and all diplomatic options had been exhausted. All these countries oppose a unilateral Israeli attack. As French President Francois Hollande told Israeli President Shimon Peres in March 2013: “We have no doubt that if Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons, the international community, not Israel, will bear the responsibility to stop it! Iran is not just a danger to Israel but a danger to the Gulf Region, to Europe, and to the whole world” (Algemeiner, March 8, 2013).

Cyber War

While negotiations were taking place with Iran, a covert war was waged against Iran’s nuclear program. This involved sabotaging nuclear-related equipment before and after it arrived in Iran.

In 2010, the world learned that a computer worm called Stuxnet wreaked havoc on Iranian computer systems and led to the destruction or damage of hundreds of centrifuges. In 2012, Iran admitted that another cyber-attack, Flame, infected their computers, allowing the attackers to use them for surveillance. Iran’s oil ministry was hit by the Wiper program, which erased its hard drives.

News reports attributed the cyberwarfare to a U.S. and Israeli intelligence operation called “Operation Olympic Games,” which started under President George W. Bush and expanded under Obama (New York Times, June 1, 2012). It is believed these covert activities set the Iranian program back months, if not years. Similar measures will likely be employed as part of a multi-pronged strategy to prevent Iran from developing a bomb.

Following the exposure of these operations, Iran created the Supreme Council of Cyberspace in 2012. Subsequently, Iran engaged in cyber warfare against the United States and its allies before and after the signing of the JCPOA. For example, in 2012, hackers attacked Saudi Aramco after disclosures about the American sabotage of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. More than 30,000 computers were destroyed, and Aramco’s information technology infrastructure was damaged so severely that its business operations were compromised.

In 2012-2013, Operation Ababil targeted U.S. financial institutions and temporarily knocked some banks offline, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage. This attack was in apparent retaliation for the tightening of U.S. oil sanctions.

In 2014, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation was attacked after the company’s owner, Republican political donor Sheldon Adelson, advocated a preemptive nuclear attack on Iran.

In 2016, seven Iranians working for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard were indicted for hacking attacks against U.S. banks and targeting a dam located in a New York suburb. The hacking attacks disabled bank websites and cost tens of millions of dollars in remediation costs. Had the attack on the dam been successful, Iran “would have been able to control water levels and flow rates at the dam that could have endangered the health and safety of people in the New York metropolitan area” (Forbes, March 24, 2016).

From approximately 2017 through early 2019, more than 2,200 people at more than 200 companies were targeted by Iranian hackers; another operation during the same period attacked 800 organizations. The Wall Street Journal reported that corporate secrets were stolen and data erased from computers in “oil-and-gas companies, heavy-machinery manufacturers and international conglomerates in more than a half-dozen countries including Saudi Arabia, Germany, the U.K., India and the U.S” (Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2019).

In 2018, federal authorities charged nine Iranians with launching cyberattacks that hit 144 American universities, 36 U.S. companies, and five American government agencies between 2013 and 2017.

In June 2019, the Homeland Security department released a statement saying it was “aware of a recent rise in malicious cyber activity directed at United States industries and government agencies by Iranian regime actors and proxies.” It said that “Iranian regime actors and proxies are increasingly using destructive ‘wiper’ attacks, looking to do much more than just steal data and money. These efforts are often enabled through common tactics like spear phishing, password spraying, and credential stuffing. What might start as an account compromise, where you think you might just lose data, can quickly become a situation where you’ve lost your whole network” (CISA, June 22, 2019).

According to Micah Loudermilk, “Over the past two years, security firms and the U.S. government have identified Iranian cyber-espionage operations targeting U.S. government entities, critical infrastructure, military/commercial aviation, manufacturing, and engineering, among other sectors.” He warns that future attacks could target “the U.S electrical grid (which it has already probed), water networks (which it has infiltrated), telecommunications systems (which it has mined for data), or even city governments” (Washington Institute, July 9, 2019)

The United States reportedly escalated its use of cyber against Iran in response to Iran downing an American drone and sabotaging oil tankers. In June 2019, for example, the U.S. Cyber Command targeted computer systems that control Iranian missile launches and those used by an Iranian intelligence group believed to be involved in planning attacks against oil tankers (New York Times, June 22, 2019). The United States reportedly conducted a secret cyber operation against Iran in response to the September 14 attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities (Reuters, October 16, 2019).

According to Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israeli officials are “constantly detecting and foiling Iranian attempts” to penetrate the country’s computer networks. For example, in May 2020, at the height of the coronavirus crisis, Iran launched a cyberattack on Israeli water and sewage facilities routed through computer servers in the United States and Europe. Israeli Water Authority officials detected and prevented the intrusion and immediately took measures to prevent further hacks (Washington Post, May 8, 2020). “The Iranian attack could have paralyzed Israel’s sewage systems, disrupting the water supply for farming and aggravating sanitation problems in some areas of the country at the height of the pandemic,” according to Ron Ben-Yishai (Ynet, May 19, 2020).

Israel reportedly responded on May 9, 2020, by hacking Iranian computers that regulate the flow of vessels, trucks, and goods, bringing shipping traffic at Iran’s Shahid Rajaee port terminal to an abrupt and inexplicable halt (Washington Post, May 18, 2020). The attack was said to be consistent with the strategic policy adopted by Israel since the Second Lebanon War, whereby it responds disproportionately to attacks but stays below the threshold of a declaration of war.

A series of incidents occurred at Iranian facilities beginning in late spring 2020, which Israel is suspected of causing with cyber weapons or possibly by placing bombs inside. This may have been another response to Iran’s cyberattack on its water facilities and a warning of its capabilities and ongoing commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

On June 26, 2020, a blast destroyed parts of a secret facility in Parchin associated with nuclear weapons research. One of the damaged areas is part of a missile facility (Breaking Defense, July 02, 2020).

Another explosion occurred on July 2, 2020, which destroyed a building at the Natanz enrichment facility, where Iran has been developing advanced centrifuges to significantly speed up uranium enrichment. It took Iran six years to build the facility. Initially, it was reported that the attack would set the program back by two months (Radio Farda, July 5, 2020), but more than eight months later, Iran still had not fully recovered the capability it lost (Jerusalem Post, March 18, 2021).

A few days later, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) reported that initial reports had underestimated the destruction. The explosion at the Centrifuge Assembly Center (ICAC) caused “significant, extensive, and likely irreparable damage to its main assembly hall section.” ISIS said, “This explosion will not likely affect Iran’s near-term research and development of centrifuges,” but still represented “a significant setback to Iran’s plans and ability to mass produce advanced centrifuges.” Rebuilding the plant, the group said, would likely take at least a year (ISIS, July 8, 2020).

Israel was also blamed for fires at industrial complexes and explosions at two power plants. Iran has said these incidents were accidents and a Middle Eastern intelligence official said Israel had nothing to do with them (New York Times, July 5, 2020).

According to the Jerusalem Post, the raid on the Iranian nuclear archive produced a map of unknown nuclear sites. “The power of this ‘map,’” Yonah Jeremy Bob noted, “became all too clear watching the explosions this summer” (Jerusalem PostSeptember 21, 2020).

In 2020, Khamenei authorized a “covert influence campaign intended to undercut” then-President Donald Trump’s campaign. In November 2021, two Iranian hackers – Seyyed Mohammad Hosein Musa Kazemi and Sajjad Kashian – who worked for an Iranian technology company were charged in absentia with stealing private information on more than 100,000 voters, sending threatening emails to voters, and spreading false claims about election security vulnerabilities (Politico, November 18, 2021).

In June 2021, the Biden administration seized 33 of Iran’s state-linked news website domains, which it said were “disguised as news organizations or media outlets, targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations” (Department of Justice, June 22, 2021). 

In June 2022, Microsoft said that it “identified and disabled” a Lebanon-based hacking group believed to be associated with Iranian intelligence. The hacking group, tracked by the Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC),  targeted or compromised more than 20 organizations based in Israel (TechCrunch, June 3, 2022). The same month, Iranian hackers used fake email accounts to take over Israeli accounts and steal information. The targets included former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel (Times of Israel, June 15, 2022).

Tit-for-tat cyber attacks have become increasingly common. In July 2022, a pro-Iranian, Iraqi group Al-Tahira claimed responsibility for hacking the websites of Israel’s Health Ministry the municipalities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and Rafael Advanced Defence Systems (BICOM, July 20, 2022).

The Case Against War

A variety of military officials in the U.S. and Israel, politicians around the world, pundits, and analysts have suggested that any military operation against Iran aimed at destroying or, at least, slowing down Iran’s nuclear program will end in catastrophe.

The motivations of these critics of military action vary and include those who:

  • Oppose war.
  • Are virulently anti-Israel and either don’t care if Iran threatens Israel or claim the Israelis are trying to drag America into a war.
  • Do not believe a military strike can succeed and Israel cannot seriously set back Iran’s program. Also, they think Iran will become more secretive and bury its program even deeper underground.
  • Fear that any attack will lead to a spike in oil prices that will damage the world economy. A related concern is that Iran will interfere in oil shipment through the Straits of Hormuz by mining the Persian Gulf, harassing or attacking oil tankers, or taking other steps that will adversely affect the world’s oil supply.
  • Worry that an attack by Israel or the U.S. will provoke widespread anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment and provoke terrorist attacks against Jews and Americans.
  • Predict that Iran will respond with missile attacks on Israel and possibly American bases in the region. Meanwhile, Israel worries that a U.S. attack will inevitably lead to an Iranian missile attack on Israel.
  • Anticipate that the U.S. will be held responsible if Israel attacks, which would undermine American interests in regional stability, promoting Palestinian-Israeli peace, and retaining good relations with its regional allies.
  • Expect Iranian allies – Hamas and Hezbollah – to launch rockets at Israel, putting virtually the entire population in danger.
  • Will rally the Iranian people around the regime as a reaction to seeing their country under attack, especially if civilians are killed in the operation. This will reduce the probability that opponents will have the opportunity to overthrow the Islamic regime.
  • Insist an Israeli strike will outrage the “Arab street,” and protests will force Egypt and Jordan to annul their peace treaties with Israel.
  • Argue that Israel can only set back the Iranian program for 3-5 years, which is not worth the suffering Israelis will have to endure if Iran and its allies attack their homeland.
  • Expect a unilateral Israeli action to bring international condemnation that will isolate Israel and could lead the United States and others to take punitive measures against Israel.

Israelis prefer that the United States alone, or with its allies, take out Iran’s nuclear program. Several respected Israeli analysts opposed an Israeli strike before the signing of the JCPOA. Meir Dagan, the former Mossad chief, said an Israeli attack would be the stupidest thing I have ever heard” and “patently illegal under international law” because Iran operates within the IAEA framework. Dagan also believed Israel couldn’t launch the type of surgical strike on Iran that it used to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor because the Iranian facilities are spread around the country. He also feared that an Israeli operation could provoke a regional war and an arms race. Finally, he agreed with those who believed the regime would be strengthened because the Iranian people would rally around it after coming under attack.

Gabi Ashkenazi, a former military chief of staff, also spoke out against a military strike by Israel and advocated “a combination of strategies: a clandestine campaign; diplomatic, political and economic sanctions, and maintenance of a credible and realistic military option.” Another former Israeli chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, opposed an Israeli strike because he believed it would harm relations with the United States and result in “loss of life, grave damage to the home front and deep erosion of Israel’s political situation.”

Military planners always hope their operations will succeed; however, they must also consider worst-case scenarios, including many of those suggested by opponents of using force. In consultation with their military advisers, political leaders will have to decide whether the risks of action outweigh the potential benefit. They must also consider the benefits and costs of inaction.

Regime Change

The saying, “predictions of my demise are premature,” certainly applies to the rulers of Iran. Since the revolution in 1979, suggestions have repeatedly been made that a new revolution is in the works. We are told that the young, educated, westernized part of the population seethes under the autocratic and medieval mullahs who hold power. On occasion, some Iranians have protested, but these potential uprisings never received much support from the United States or other Western nations. They were quickly put down by the brutal regime. People in the West who have not had to fight for freedom in a totalitarian society often underestimate the difficulty of overthrowing a government that controls all the levers of power and uses a ruthless cadre of secret police to enforce discipline.

Besides the difficulty of changing the regime in Iran, another misconception is that this would necessarily alter Iran’s interest in building a nuclear weapon. It is not only the radical Islamic leadership that seeks a nuclear capability; other Iranians insist it is Iran’s sovereign right to use its technological know-how to acquire the same weapons as other nations. By what right, they ask, is the United States, Israel, India, or Pakistan entitled to have nuclear weapons while denying the same right to Iran?

Thus, regime change would not necessarily eliminate the nuclear threat from Iran. The issue then, for the international community, would be whether a non-Islamic regime with these weapons would threaten its neighbors and world stability less. The fear that Iran would intimidate its neighbors or attack Israel might be reduced, but Arab countries would still feel the need to obtain bombs to ensure deterrence. Everyone would also have to worry that the Islamists might return to power, and then they would have the weapons already in their arsenal.

Iran Raises the Stakes

Tensions between Iran, the West, and its Gulf neighbors increased in June 2019 after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was accused of attacking ships with mines and shooting down an American spy drone.

Trump said that after the downing of the U.S. Navy drone, he was prepared to order a military strike against Iran. He said he called it off at the last minute because it would have inflicted disproportionate Iranian casualties (Washington Post, June 28, 2019).

Britain subsequently deployed elite combat divers to the Persian Gulf to protect British ships from Iranian attack (Daily Mirror, June 22, 2019).

In early July, British Royal Marines assisted Gibraltar in the detention of an Iranian oil tanker suspected of heading to Syria to deliver oil in violation of EU sanctions. Khamenei threatened to respond to Britain’s “piracy” at “an appropriate time and place.”

Britain subsequently said on July 11 that Iranian ships tried to block a British tanker heading through the Persian Gulf. Britain subsequently said it would send a third warship to the Gulf (Reuters, July 16, 2019) and Special Boat Service commandos (Daily Mirror, June 22, 2019). The United States and Britain have been seeking European support to patrol the Persian Gulf around the Strait of Hormuz in response to the Iranian provocations; however, none of the Europeans have agreed to participate. Although it is in their interest to ensure the sea lane remains open, European leaders do not want Iran to think they are cooperating with the Trump administration and are leery of being drawn into a war. They also want to pursue talks with Iran to lower tensions (New York Times, August 1, 2019).

In another sign of escalating tensions, Iran announced in July 2019 that it captured 17 Iranian citizens who were accused of working as spies for the CIA and had sentenced some to death (Jerusalem Post, July 22, 2019). Iran also detained a French-Iranian scholar on unspecified charges, which was particularly surprising given French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal and defuse tensions in the Middle East (Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2019).

In a move seen as a response to U.S. sanctions cutting off its oil exports, and an effort to demonstrate the capability to threaten U.S. oil supplies, Iran attacked Saudi oil installations on September 14, 2019, shutting down half of the kingdom’s crude production. The attack using drones and cruise missiles sent its adversaries the powerful message that it could hit specific targets with great precision from a long distance. The threat to Western energy supplies was obvious, but Israeli analysts also saw the strike as a warning of the vulnerability of its strategic assets, including the Dimona nuclear reactor (Haaretz, October 6, 2019). Israel subsequently disclosed it has a system to protect against cruise missiles like the ones used by Iran to attack the oil installations (Breaking Defense, October 24, 2019).

Iran’s belief that its adversaries are unwilling to risk a war despite such provocations was reinforced by the failure of the United States or the other Western powers to do more than issue perfunctory condemnation. Instead, the attack prompted calls for entering negotiations with Iran, with even the Saudis seeking talks with their enemies (Al Jazeera, October 5, 2019).

In a signal that it would not be cowed by a growing Western military presence to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf, Iran, China and Russia began a four-day joint military exercise in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman on December 27, 2019. “Among the objectives of this exercise are improving the security of international maritime trade, countering maritime piracy and terrorism, exchanging information regarding rescue operations and operational and tactical experience,” said Iranian Second Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani. He added this was the first time Iran engaged in a joint exercise with two major world naval powers at this scale (CNN, December 27, 2019).

First Shots

After being widely criticized for failing to respond to the Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration decided to take a more aggressive stance after the Iran-backed militia group Kataib Hezbollah fired more than 30 rockets at an Iraqi military base that killed an American civilian contractor and injured four U.S. service members. Two days later, on December 29, 2019, U.S. F-15 fighter jets targeted three Kataib Hezbollah bases in Iraq and two in Syria. At least 25 members of the militia were killed and 55 wounded (CNN, December 30, 2019).

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had warned after several earlier attacks on Iraqi bases that if Iran or its proxies harmed Americans or its allies, the United States would answer with a “decisive” response. “We will not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy,” Pompeo declared after the U.S. strike. Defense Secretary Mark Esper added, “we will take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defense and we deter further bad behavior from militia groups or from Iran” (Jerusalem Post, December 30, 2019).

Angered by the U.S. airstrike, Iraqi protestors broke into the compound of the United States Embassy in Baghdad on December 31, 2019, where they broke security cameras, covered the walls with anti-American graffiti, set a guardhouse on fire, and then broke through another entrance and set more fires. They did not enter the main embassy building and later withdrew and joined demonstrators outside the compound chanting “Death to America,” throwing rocks, covering the walls with graffiti, and demanding that the United States withdraw its forces from Iraq. American officials were especially alarmed that Iraqi security forces did not prevent the protestors from breaching the compound, indicating that the demonstrators had support among them (New York Times, December 31, 2019).

Trump warned Iran would be “held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat” (@realDonaldTrump, December 31, 2019).

On January 7, 2020, Iran fired ballistic missiles from its territory at two military bases in Iraq housing U.S. The U.S. had enough warning to move personnel to safety, and no casualties were reported. Analysts suggested the Iranians had intentionally avoided harming any Americans to discourage President Trump from escalating the conflict further. The strikes were viewed as a way of satisfying the Iranian public’s desire to see the government retaliate for the killing of Soleimani. Later, however, it was determined the missiles were aimed at harming U.S. forces and that 11 soldiers were injured in the attack (Military.com, January 17, 2019).

The following day Trump addressed the public and indicated the U.S. would not take further military action because Iran appeared to “be standing down.” He did, however, say the U.S. would “impose additional punishing economic sanctions” on Iran. He also reiterated, “Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.”

“Peace and stability cannot prevail in the Middle East as long as Iran continues to foment violence, unrest, hatred, and war,” Trump declared. “The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime: Your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem will not be tolerated any longer.  It will not be allowed to go forward” (White House, January 8, 2020).

Tensions remained high after Iran shot down a Ukraine International Airlines Flight after takeoff from Tehran’s airport on January 8, 2020, killing 176 people. The government initially denied intentionally targeting the plane, and protests erupted after it admitted to shooting the aircraft down (CNN, January 11, 2020).

In his first such address in eight years, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a public sermon on January 17, 2020, in which he called protesters “stooges of the United States” and said the missile attack on the U.S. base “delivered a slap to U.S.’s image as a superpower” (New York Times, January 17, 2020).

Spy Games

Israel, the United States, and other Western powers are engaged in ongoing intelligence operations to monitor and undermine Iran’s military activities. The Iranians are also active in monitoring their adversaries. They have, for example, tried to recruit Israelis to spy for them. In April 2020, for example, an Israeli citizen was arrested on suspicion of having links with Iranian intelligence agencies and providing intelligence on strategic sites in Israel. He is accused of holding meetings with Iranian intelligence officers while abroad, where he received funds, training, and encryption tools to stay in contact with his handlers. He was asked to provide information on strategic sites in Israel and ways to deepen rifts in Israeli society and recruit Israeli-Arabs to help Iran and carry out terror attacks (Jerusalem Post, April 7, 2020).

Assassinations

One other tool in the campaign to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb is the targeted killing of nuclear scientists. On November 27, 2020, the father of the Iranian nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was killed in an ambush. Fakhrizadeh had been compared to Robert Oppenheimer, who helped develop the first American nuclear bomb. In addition to running the secret nuclear weapons program from its origin, Fakhrizadeh was a Brigadier General in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s Deputy Minister of Defense.

According to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Fakhrizadeh wrote in one of the documents obtained by the Mossad that Iran planned “to announce the closure of Project Amad,” its nuclear program, but continue “special activities…under the title of scientific know-how development” (Israel Today, November 30, 2020).

The Mossad was believed to be responsible for the hit, likely with U.S. approval and assistance. The Mossad was also accused of assassinating four and wounding one of Iran’s top nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012.

Some critics argued killing scientists would have no impact on Iran’s nuclear program, was a violation of international law, heightened tensions in the region, and was likely to provoke retaliation. Iranian officials quickly vowed revenge (Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2020). Former CIA director Michael Hayden said, however, “the death of those human beings had a great impact on their nuclear program.” They resulted in “the loss of the know-how in the dead men’s minds; the significant delays in the program resulting from the need to beef up measures to prevent penetration by Western intelligence; and the abandonment of the program by experienced experts for fear that they would suffer a similar fate” (Washington Post, November 28, 2020).

If nothing else, the assassination sent a message to Iran that Israel has excellent intelligence, and the capability and will to act on it.

Unrelated to the nuclear program, on January 3, 2020, a U.S. drone tracked a two-car convoy near Baghdad International Airport before firing missiles that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qassim Suleimani and several other men, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Mohammed Ridha Jabri from the pro-Iranian umbrella group for Iraqi militias – the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq. Al-Muhandis, the group’s leader, was blamed for attacks against the United States dating to 1982. Jabri was the organization’s public relations chief.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said the Pentagon had taken “decisive defensive action” against Suleimani, who the United States held responsible for hundreds of American deaths. “Gen. Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” Esper said in a statement. “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans” (Washington Post, January 3, 2020).

“General Suleimani was the architect of nearly every significant operation by Iranian intelligence and military forces over the past two decades, and his death was a staggering blow for Iran at a time of sweeping geopolitical conflict,” according to the New York Times (January 3, 2020).

The assassination of Qasem Soleimani was designed to weaken the regime and to demonstrate to Iran the U.S. has the will to respond to provocations. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., head of U.S. Central Command, said the killing of a charismatic leader and “ruthless bureaucratic operator” weakened Iran’s control over militia groups in Iraq that threatened American forces.

More than a year after his assassination, it was learned that Israel shared with U.S. intelligence three cell phone numbers used by Soleimani in the hours before American drones unleashed Hellfire missiles on the Iranian general. “In Tel Aviv, U.S. Joint Special Operations Command liaisons worked with their Israeli counterparts to help track Soleimani’s cellphone patterns. The Israelis, who had access to Soleimani’s numbers, passed them off to the Americans, who traced Soleimani and his current phone to Baghdad” (Paul Best, Israel shared Iranian General Soleimani’s cell phones with US intelligence before drone strike: report,” Yahoo News, May 8, 2021).

“The death of Soleimani unhinged Iran’s ability to direct these units forcefully…. So I think there’s actually a lot more dissonance between these groups and among these groups as they go forward,” McKenzie said (Washington Post, December 22, 2020).

Ilan Goldenberg, who worked on Middle East issues during the Obama administration, characterized the move as a “massive game changer” in the region. “Iran will seek revenge. It may escalate in Iraq, Lebanon, the gulf or elsewhere. It may attempt to target senior U.S. officials.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the U.S. “assassination,” and said it violated the terms under which American forces operate in the country. In a nonbinding vote, the Iraqi parliament (missing nearly half its members) subsequently voted unanimously to demand that U.S. forces leave Iraq.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the “cruelest people on earth” assassinated the “honorable” commander who “courageously fought for years against the evils and bandits of the world.” He added, “His departure to God does not end his path or his mission, but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands” (USA Today, January 3, 2020).

American military officials said they were aware of a potentially violent response from Iran and its proxies and were taking steps to protect American personnel in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world (New York Times, January 3, 2020). The administration also called for all American citizens to leave Iraq.

After Iran threatened retaliation for the killing of Suleimani, Trump tweeted his own warning:

Iran is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets as revenge for our ridding the world of their terrorist leader who had just killed an American, & badly wounded many others, not to mention all of the people he had killed over his lifetime, including recently hundreds of Iranian protesters. He was already attacking our Embassy, and preparing for additional hits in other locations. Iran has been nothing but problems for many years. Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran &  the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats! (@realDonaldTrump, January 4, 2020)

The United States had already increased its military presence in the region, sending 750 troops to Kuwait and an additional 100 Marines to Baghdad to protect the embassy from further attacks. Following the Iranian threats, the Pentagon announced another 3,000 soldiers would be deployed to the region (NBC, January 3, 2020).

Iran did not retaliate in 2020, but U.S. forces were put on alert in January 2021 in anticipation of a possible attack around the anniversary of Suleimani’s assassination.

Iran is also known to assassinate its enemies and dissidents. In 2011, for example, U.S. authorities charged two Iranian men with plotting to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. In 2019, the Dutch government accused Iran of plotting to murder two Iranian dissidents in the Netherlands. As of September 2020, Iran had reportedly assassinated at least 21 opponents abroad and killed hundreds in bombings of foreign military, diplomatic and cultural facilities. It targeted Americans, Europeans, Latin Americans, Israelis and Arabs, and Iranian opposition members living abroad, according to the U.S. Institute of Peace (United States Institute of Peace, September 21, 2020).

In January 2021, the National Security Agency intercepted Iranian communications, revealing the Revolutionary Guard discussed mounting “USS Cole-style attacks” against Fort McNair, an Army base in Washington. The intelligence also revealed threats to kill Gen. Joseph Martin, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army who lives on the base (AP, March 21, 2021).

In July 2021, four Iranian intelligence officials, along with a co-conspirator and California resident, were indicted for conspiring to kidnap Iranian American human rights activist Masih Alinejad (Lawfare, August 16, 2022). Reports later indicated that Iranian intelligence agents were hiring private detectives to spy on Alinejad and other dissidents in America (New York Times, November 13, 2022).

At the end of September 2021, Israel accused Iran of planning to kill an Israeli businessman in Cyprus (Times of Israel, October 4, 2021). Shortly thereafter, a report disclosed an operation involving 15 international security agencies that exposed an Iranian terror infrastructure planning a series of assassinations against Israeli and Western targets around the world. The investigation began in June 2021 when Colombia’s Dirección Nacional de Inteligencia (DNI) discovered two Israeli businessmen were the targets of an assassination attempt planned and financed by a high-ranking Iranian Quds Force officer (IPT News, October 1, 2021).

In November 2021, the Mossad reportedly thwarted multiple attacks by Iran against Israeli tourists and businessmen in Tanzania, Senegal, and Ghana. All five suspects with African passports were arrested (Jerusalem Post, November 7, 2021).

In June 2022, Israeli intelligence had evidence Iran was planning to kidnap or kill Israelis in Turkey. Security officials helped some Israelis leave. In one case, assassins were said to be waiting for a woman and her spouse to return to their hotel room. The Israelis never returned for their possessions and were escorted to the airport by security officers (Times of Israel, June 13, 2022).

The head of MI5 said in November 2022 that Iran tried to kidnap or kill at least 10 people in the UK (Jerusalem Post, November 16, 2022)

The same month, two Revolutionary Guards air force engineers who reputedly worked on building and developing weapons for Hezbollah died. This was after Israel was accused of poisoning the food of two Iranian scientists who died (Jerusalem Post, June 15, 2022).

In August 2022, the Department of Justice charged a member of the IRGC based in Tehran, Shahram Poursafi, with plotting to kill former National Security Adviser John Bolton. Poursafi reportedly agreed to pay $300,000 to have Bolton murdered, and offered $1 million to kill former Secretary of State and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Pompeo and another former State Department official, Brian Hook, have security guards due to “serious and credible” threats from Iran (Lawfare, August 16, 2022).

Biden Sends a Message

During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden said he planned to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran. Though he said there were conditions, his administration attempted to start negotiations without concessions from Iran. The Iranians rejected the offer to talk (New York Times, February 28, 2021). 

While some interpreted Biden’s position as a sign of weakness, the administration conveyed messages suggesting he would be tougher on Iran than his critics feared. After an Iranian-supported militia launched a rocket attack on a U.S. base in Iraq, Biden ordered an airstrike on targets in Syria near the Iraqi border used by the militia. The president said he wanted Iran to know, “You can’t act with impunity – be careful” (Reuters, February 26, 2021).

In another apparent message, Yair Hirschfeld said that General (res.) John Allen told the Annual Conference of the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies that “the American military presence in the Gulf would go hand in hand with supporting Israeli security interests and upgrading the security of Saudi and Arab Gulf states against attacks by Iran or its proxies. Should such attacks happen, he made clear, the U.S. Navy had prepared a bank of Iranian targets to deter and, if necessary, retaliate against any possible Iranian aggressive action” (Fathom, February 2021).

In April 2021, the State Department announced that U.S. and coalition forces “has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq.” The United States at that time had only 2,500 troops in the country. The withdrawal of U.S. forces by President Obama reduced Iranian fears of an American attack and allowed Iran to strengthen its position in Iraq. Critics expressed concern a force reduction by Biden would have a similar impact (AP, April 7, 2021).

Biden showed that he was still prepared to take military action after Iranian-backed militias used drones to attack Iraqi bases used by the CIA and U.S. Special Operations Units. On June 28, 2021, the United States launched airstrikes on two targets in eastern Syria and a third across Iraq’s border. “This action should send a message to Iran that it cannot hide behind its proxy forces to attack the United States and our Iraqi partners,” said one former CIA and Pentagon official (New York Times, June 28, 2021).

Indirect War

While none of the actors inside or outside the region want a full-scale war, the threat of a conflagration has grown as violence escalates along the margins of the conflict.

In what Israel’s Environmental Protection Minister, Gila Gamliel, called an act of “eco-terrorism,” an Iranian tanker carrying 90,000 tons of crude oil from Iran to Syria deliberately spilled oil near Israel’s coast in February 2021, creating one of the greatest ecological disasters in Israel’s history (Jerusalem Post, March 8, 2021).

In addition, an Israeli-owned ship was attacked by Iran in international waters on February 25. The Iranians apparently did not intend to sink the ship or kill anyone on board but wanted to damage it sufficiently to force it to go to Dubai for repairs.

“We are in a new event, the first of its kind,” said IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion, the former head of the Strategic Division in the Planning Directorate of the IDF General Staff. “It was a signal that Israel also has a soft underbelly and can be hit anywhere in the world. The Iranians essentially wanted to tell us, ‘Don’t mess with us’” (JNS, March 10, 2021).

Israel is engaged in its own naval war with Iran. An apparent leak from the Biden administration to the Wall Street Journal revealed that Israel had attacked at least a dozen ships bound for Syria, some carrying oil and others weapons. Amos Harel speculated, “The leak may reflect U.S. dissatisfaction with Israel’s operations against Iran, as it attempts to renew negotiations with Iran over the return of the United States to the nuclear accord (Haaretz, March 13, 2021).

The Iranians have used these shipments to circumvent U.S. sanctions designed to deny Iran oil revenue. A shipping professional told the Wall Street Journal, that Iran did not want to report the attacks out of fear that “it would look like a sign of weakness” if they failed to respond (Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2021). Israel wants to prevent Iran from raising money to fund Hezbollah.

Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen intensified attacks on Saudi Arabia. Since the Biden administration decided to reverse the designation of Yemen’s Houthi militia as a foreign terrorist organization on February 12, 2021, drones and ballistic missiles have targeted Saudi Arabia 48 times. In March, the largest oil-loading facility in the world was targeted in a ballistic missile and drone strike. Those same Iranian-made missiles have the capability of hitting Israel, creating a threat from a new direction, and adding to the missile threat already posed by Hamas and Hezbollah (Independent, March 13, 2021; BESA, March 16, 2021).

On December 22, 2021, the U.S. Navy said it boarded a fishing vessel from Iran and seized 1,400 Kalashnikov-style rifles and 226,600 rounds of ammunition, as well as five Yemeni crew members. The ship was sailing along a route “historically used to traffic weapons unlawfully to the Houthis in Yemen” in violation of “UN Security Council Resolutions and U.S. sanctions” according to the statement (Haaretz, December 23, 2021).

War at Sea

On April 6, 2021, Israeli naval commandos attached a mine to an Iranian ship in the Red Sea causing major damage but not enough to cause it to sink. The vessel, the Saviz, gathers intelligence and serves as a floating naval base for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Red Sea.

According to Ron Ben Yishai the attack had three objectives:

  1. To retaliate for an Iranian attack on an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Arabian Sea last month.
  2. To show the Iranians that Israel has the upper hand in the waters of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and that Tehran would be wise to refrain from efforts to attack its navy or Israeli-owned vessels anywhere near their shores, including in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. Iran must also end efforts to smuggle oil and arms to Syria and Lebanon.
  3. To clarify to the United States that Israel will continue its relentless fight against Iran’s subversive actions in the region, whether it is in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, even if the U.S. is attempting to rebuild relations with the Islamic Republic (Ynet, April 7, 2021).

On April 11, 2021, the power failed at the Natanz uranium enrichment site in what Iran said, and analysts speculated, was a cyberattack by Israel. Other reports suggest a bomb was smuggled into the facility (Times of Israel, April 12, 2021). U.S. intelligence officials said an explosion destroyed the internal power system that supplies the underground centrifuges that enrich uranium, and that it could take at least nine months to restore Natanz’s production. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, described the blackout as an act of “nuclear terrorism” (New York Times, April 11, 2021).

Critics of military action frequently claimed one impediment to military action is that Iran has built facilities underground. The attack on Natanz, which is 165 feet underground, shattered that myth.

The attack was another embarrassment for Iran, again showing that even its most heavily defended nuclear facilities could be penetrated. It was even more humiliating because it came as Iran celebrated “National Nuclear Technology Day” and occurred the day after President Hassan Rouhani boasted scientists were experimenting at Natanz with at least three new types of centrifuges able to enrich uranium 10-50 times faster than before (Ynet, April 11, 2021).

Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall said social-media messages by Iranians have begun mocking the regime for its claims of being the strongest military in the region with a large missile program, but is unable to defend its most critical assets—whether they are the Natanz nuclear site, nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh or the late commander of the Quds Force Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani (JNS, April 14, 2021).

The operation was portrayed in the media as an effort by Israel to sabotage negotiations that began earlier in the week in Vienna, which were seen as the first step toward a U.S. return to the JCPOA and was consistent with Netanyahu’s warning earlier in the week that Israel would not be bound by any agreement that threatened its security.

The attack was too sophisticated, however, to have been planned when those talks began. It was more likely to have been in the works for some time but may have been approved after Israel saw that the Biden administration appeared willing to make concessions to Iran in what critics see as a determination to reverse Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign (Jerusalem Post, April 12, 2021). It should be remembered that one of the major flaws in the JCPOA was the failure to require Iran to destroy all its centrifuges.

According to Ben-Yishai, Iran’s uranium enrichment progress indicated it could reach the nuclear threshold within months, but still needed a detonation mechanism. He noted that Iran could not hide the enrichment activities from the IAEA because it required large facilities; however, the development of “blast mechanisms and design bombs can be conducted in relatively small laboratories and facilities that Iran is careful to hide from inspectors.” Israel, he said, fears Iran will drag out negotiations to allow it to reach the threshold and, ultimately, to get a bomb that would make it the North Korea of the Middle East (Ynet, April 11, 2021).

Iran announced in response to the attack on Natanz it would increase enrichment levels to 60% using centrifuges at Fordow and vowed it would retaliate against Israel. On April 14, 2021, it was reported an Israeli-owned vessel was damaged by an Iranian missile off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (AP, April 14, 2021; New York Times, April 13, 2021).

Also, in April, Iranian ships harassed U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. This is not the first such incident but did appear a direct challenge to test the Biden administration’s response. On April 2, three Iranian Revolutionary Guard fast-attack craft and a larger support vessel swarmed two U.S. Coast Guard ships patrolling in international waters (Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2021). On the 26th, a U.S. warship fired warning shots when Iranian attack boats again came too close to a patrol (USA Today, April 28, 2021).

In June 2021, Iranian officials said they had foiled an attempt to sabotage one of Iran’s main centrifuge manufacturing sites in the city of Karaj, but reports later indicated that “all equipment in the area had been destroyed completely or rendered inoperable” (Times of Israel, July 5, 2021).

Soon after that attack, a ship previously owned by an Israeli company was attacked by Iran in the Indian Ocean without causing major damage or any casualties (New York Times, July 3, 2021). A Liberian-flagged tanker owned by an Israeli was attacked on July 30, 2021, by Iranian drones off Oman in the Arabian Sea. This time, two crew members, one from the UK and another from Romania, were killed (AP, July 30, 2021). U.S., UK, and Israeli officials were reported to be discussing a coordinated response to the unprovoked attack.

U.S. Troop Deployment

It is not yet clear if President Biden will also reduce or remove American forces from Syria and Iraq. Any change in U.S. deployment in those countries could impact Israel’s security by emboldening Iran and providing Tehran with an opportunity to fill the vacuum and accomplish its goal of creating a land bridge across Syria and Iraq to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, which would facilitate its ability to transfer weapons and forces to southern Lebanon and the Golan front in Syria.

A report by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies noted, “The U.S. and its local partners currently hold blocking positions that have closed two of the three potential land bridge routes across the Middle East. The U.S. garrison at al-Tanf in eastern Syria sits astride the main highway from Baghdad to Damascus, obstructing one route. In addition, U.S. forces and their local partners in northern Syria block the northernmost route.” The report emphasized the importance of disrupting this land bridge because “Tehran’s goal is to subvert the regional order, export its revolution, and displace the U.S. as the leading power in the region.”

On October 20, 2021, a U.S. base in southern Syria was attacked by five Iranian suicide drones. Most American troops were evacuated beforehand after receiving a warning from Israeli intelligence. The attack was reportedly retaliation for Israeli airstrikes in Syria (New York Times, November 18, 2021).

On January 5, 2022, bases hosting U.S.-led military coalition forces in Iraq and Syria were attacked. This was the third day in a row that Iran-aligned paramilitary groups targeted America and its partners (Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2022). Earlier in the week two drone attacks were foiled (Reuters, January 5, 2022) and the U.S. led-coalition in Syria struck several launch sites for short-range rockets believed to be intended for attacks on an installation used by U.S. troops in eastern Syria (Military Times, January 4, 2022).

“Other Options” If Diplomacy Fails

In response to reports of a possible attack on Iran by Israel, Iran’s military air defense commander said that Iran was expanding its air defense system around the Fordow facility for enriching uranium and “the enemy cannot even think of attacking Iran” (JCPA, August 26, 2021).

This was before Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met President Biden on August 28, 2021. During that meeting, the president assured the prime minister the U.S. would not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon and said that if talks failed, he was “ready to turn to other options” (Reuters, August 27, 2021).

In response to Biden’s remarks, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, tweeted “The emphasis on using ‘other options’ against (Iran) amounts to threatening another country illegally and establishes Iran’s right to reciprocate ... against ‘available options’” (NBC News, August 28, 2021).

During their Washington meeting, Bennett reportedly suggested a strategy of “death by a thousand cuts” which would involve conducting a variety of small operations against Iran that would obviate the need for a large-scale military attack and ensure that Iran would require no less than a year to acquire nuclear breakout capability (INSS - The Institute for National Security Studies, August 29, 2021).

In what appeared to be another example of one of those thousand cuts, reports indicated an Iranian missile production facility outside Tehran was heavily damaged by an explosion (Times of Israel, September 30, 2021). A few days later, Israel accused Iran of attempting to assassinate an Israeli businessman in Cyprus. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid intimated that Israeli intelligence tipped off the Cypriot police who arrested a suspect carrying a weapon (Reuters, October 4, 2021).

Meanwhile, the Europeans have in the past made clear their opposition to military action. Following the apparent sabotage of the Natanz facility in April, for example, diplomats from Britain, Germany, and France released a statement that said, “We encourage all sides to seize the diplomatic opportunity in front of us....We condemn escalatory measures by any actor which could jeopardize progress” (Jerusalem Post, April 21, 2021).

In an unprecedented threat, Mohsen Rezaee, President Ebrahim Raisi’s deputy for economic affairs warned that if the Israeli government “makes a mistake, the regime will treat the 10,000 Jews living in Iran differently.” Previously, Rezaee had threatened to take “1,000 Americans as hostages in the event of a U.S. attack on Iran and to demand a $1 billion ransom from the U.S. for each of them” (MEMRI, October 12, 2021).

Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chair MK Ram Ben Barak said on November 9, 2021: “Iran is trying to create terror infrastructure in Syria, is ramping up its efforts to deliver strategic weapons to Hezbollah, trying to lay the infrastructure for terror attacks in Gaza and in Judea and Samaria; it is trying to attack Jewish and Israeli targets abroad, working in the cyber arena and moving towards developing the nuclear capabilities that would give it a defensive umbrella that would allow it to ramp up its belligerence around in the region.”

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi told the committee: “The IDF is speeding up plans to deal with Iran and with the military nuclear threat … the IDF will continue to operate in order to remove the threats and will respond strongly to any breach of sovereignty, from Gaza, from the north, whether from Iranian forces or Palestinian forces.”

The same day, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said: “We are working broadly against a number of efforts to build up militarily and to upset the balance in this region. We will not allow Hezbollah or any other Iranian proxy to obtain weapons that would threaten Israel’s supremacy in the region … we are continually working to prevent war; we conduct operations, send messages, prevent military build-up. But if and when there is war on the horizon our home front will be ready and we will be ready to carry out operations that have never been seen before, operations we never had the capability to carry out. These will strike the heart of terror and its abilities.”

Meanwhile, the IDF continued to launch airstrikes in Syria to prevent Iranian entrenchment and weapon deliveries (BICOM, November 10, 2021).

Responding to suggestions that it is too late to stop Iran’s nuclear program, Yossi Cohen, the former head of Mossad, said during an interview, “it’s never too late...I assume it’s going to be complicated militarily, operationally, but I don’t think it’s impossible. I think that if the State of Israel will decide to get rid of this program, we will have to do it” (Haaretz, November 21, 2021).

A week before talks were scheduled to resume in Vienna, General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command assessed Iran’s progress. “They’re very close this time,” he said. “I think they like the idea of being able to breakout.” He added, “Our president said they’re not going to have a nuclear weapon....The diplomats are in the lead on this, but Central Command always has a variety of plans that we could execute if directed” (Time, November 24, 2021).

Also, just before the resumption of negotiations, the spokesman for Iran’s armed forces, Brig.-Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, said: “We will not back off from the annihilation of Israel, even one millimeter. We want to destroy Zionism in the world” (Jerusalem Post, November 28, 2021).

In December 2021, The JC revealed information regarding secret Mossad operations in Iran. According to the publication, the Mossad recruited Iranian nuclear scientists, who were led to believe they were working for Iranian dissidents, to destroy centrifuges in Natanz. Explosives were concealed in building materials used to construct the plant. Another attack involved the use of an armed quadcopter smuggled into Iran and used to launch missiles at the Iran Centrifuge Technology Company (The JC, December 2, 2021).

Iran Threatens Israel

The front page of the December 14, 2021, edition of the Tehran Times published a map of Israel covered with markings for potential rocket attacks with the threatening headline, “Just One Wrong Move!” Beneath the map, the paper wrote, “An intensification of the Israeli military threats against Iran seems to suggest that the Zionist regime has forgotten that Iran is more than capable of hitting them from anywhere.”


Click on the photo for an enlarged map

Major General Mohammad Bagheri, the Chief of General Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, said, “At the strategic level, we do not intend to strike anyone, but at the operational and tactical level we are ready for a decisive response and a quick and tough offensive against the enemy.”

The article also quotes Ayatollah Khamenei from 2013, saying: “Sometimes the leaders of the Zionist regime even threaten us; they are threatening to strike militarily, but I think they know it, and if they do not know it, they must know that if they make a mistake, the Islamic Republic will destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa” (Tehran Times, December 14, 2021).

The map includes targets in Lebanon and cities in the Palestinian Authority. Missiles also appear to be aimed at Jerusalem, empty desert, and the border with Egypt.

In February 2022, two Iranian drones designed to explode in Israeli territory were shot down over Iraq by American fighter jets. The year before Israeli fighters shot down two Iranian drones heading toward Israel. According to a report by a Hezbollah-affiliated media outlet, Israel destroyed hundreds of Iranian drones at the Kermanshah air base. Iran responded by firing 12 ballistic missiles toward Erbil, Iraq, targeting what they claimed to be an Israeli military base (Jerusalem Post, March 21, 2022).

The War Between The Wars

Since 2017, Israel conducted more than 400 airstrikes in Syria and other parts of the Middle East in the “war between the wars” to deter Iran and limit its ability to target Israel should the countries come into open conflict. It has targeted Russian-supplied air-defense systems, drone bases operated by Iranian military advisers, and precision-guided missiles bound for Hezbollah and forced Iran to move its operations further from the Israeli border.

“It’s not 100% success,” Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin, the former head of the IAF who served as architect of the campaign, told the Wall Street Journal. “But without our activity, the situation here might be much more negative” (Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2022).

In April 2022,  Mossad agents in Iran captured and interrogated an Iranian who was plotting to kill a worker at the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul, an American general stationed in Germany, and a journalist in France. The Quds Force, the IRGC branch responsible for overseas operations, planned to carry out the assassinations via drug cartels (Jerusalem Post, April 30, 2022).

In May 2022, the Shin Bet exposed an Iranian espionage network that tried to recruit Israeli civilians for spy missions and terror attacks. The intelligence agency also disclosed an Iranian intelligence plot to lure former Israeli security officials and academics abroad either to harm or abduct them (Israel Hayom, May 20, 2022).

Meanwhile, a report indicated the Iranian Navy had replaced the ship Israel had allegedly attacked in the Red Sea with a new one that would gather intelligence and could serve as a forward base for naval operations against Israel (JNS, May 20, 2022).

In another suspected Israeli sabotage operation, quadcopter suicide drones exploded on May 25, 2022, at the Parchin military technology complex where Iran develops missile, nuclear, and drone technology (New York Times, May 27, 2022). 

Britain’s Royal Navy said its warships seized Iranian weapons, including surface-to-air missiles and engines for cruise missiles, from smugglers in international waters south of Iran earlier in the year (Reuters, July 8, 2022).

In September 2022, the head of the Mossad David Barnea said Israel had “recently thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks abroad.” The same day, Iran announced it had developed a suicide drone “designed to hit Israel's Tel Aviv, Haifa” (Haaretz, September 12, 2022).

In testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee on November 15, 2022, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, “the Iranian regime across multiple vectors has become more aggressive, more brazen and more dangerous” over the last 18 months. He cited Iran’s attempted cyberattack on the Boston Children’s Hospital, plot to assassinate former National Security Advisor John Bolton and plans to kidnap journalist and dissident Masih Alinejad. “If that’s not enough to convince us that the regime is a threat, I don’t know what is,” Wray said (JewishInsider, November 16, 2022).

The same day Wray testified, Israel revealed an Iranian plot to kill Itzik Moshe, an Israeli living in Georgia. According to the Times of Israel, “Under Iranian direction, a Pakistani team affiliated with al-Qaeda traveled to Tbilisi to gather intelligence and prepare for it” and was discovered by Georgian security forces. The Pakistani was arrested along with two Georgian-Iranian dual citizens allegedly responsible for providing weapons to the hit team (Times of Israel, November 15, 2022).

Also on that day, an Israeli-owned oil tanker was struck by a bomb-carrying drone off the coast of Oman. Israel speculated it may have been retaliation for an Israeli attack on an Iranian weapons convoy on the Iraqi-Syrian border the previous week (Haaretz, November 16, 2022).

Regional Defense Alliance

A secret meeting was held under U.S. auspices in March 2022 at Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, that for the first time brought together participants from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Jordan. The meeting was notable for several reasons, it was the first such high-level discussion between officials from Israel and Arab countries, including two with which it has no diplomatic relations – Saudi Arabia or Qatar. It resulted in a decision to create a notification system to identify aerial threats, with alerts passed by phone or computer rather than through a U.S.-style military data-sharing system. The meeting advanced the idea of a regional alliance to deter Iranian aggression.

The U.S. was represented by Gen. Frank McKenzie, then the head of the U.S. Central Command, which incorporated Israel under its coverage during the Trump administration. The meeting was an illustration of the dramatic changes in the region produced by the Abraham Accords and the common threat of Iran. For decades, the United States kept Israel at arm’s length for fear of alienating its Arab allies (Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2022).

As reports suggested the United States was nearing an agreement to reenter the JCPOA, Iran-backed forces launched a drone attack in August on a base run by American and U.S.-backed Syrian opposition fighters in eastern Syria. The U.S. responded with an airstrike on facilities used by groups associated with the IRGC (Reuters, August 24, 2022). 


Map © Seth Frantzman, used by permission.