An overall strategy for Israel against
the threat posed by Iran
By Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead and Lt. Col. Itay Haiminis | 5 January, 2022
|Photo: Tasnim News Agency | CC By 4.0|
Iran could become the only existential threat to Israel. Israel must prevent Iran from obtaining operational military nuclear capabilities while preparing for a conflict in Lebanon designed to defeat Hizballah and promote the establishment of a moderate regime. These two objectives are closely linked as Israel needs decisive military capabilities if Hizballah should decide to take action against it under the scenario of a strike in Iran. Moreover, in view of the progress made in Hizballah's force buildup efforts, it is becoming increasingly more likely for the scenario of a military conflict on multiple fronts to come true. Strategic freedom of action is needed to broaden the military activity sphere in the Middle East, to be obtained by strengthening the alliance with the United States, and expanding the collaboration with anti-Iranian parties in the region. In order to persevere with these efforts, Israel should avoid conflicts that would divert resources away from countering Iran.
The uniqueness of the threat Iran poses to Israel
Iran could become the only existential threat to Israel since the Arab states have abandoned their desire to defeat Israel by means of conventional warfare. The Iranian threat stems from a unique combination of extreme religious, Muslim Shiite, ideology, and a long-term strategic objective to annihilate the State of Israel. This threat is translated into a military system founded on two key anchors: the development of nuclear weapons; and military forces throughout the Middle East that possess high-trajectory capabilities and pose a threat to Israel. Thus, Iran represents an extraordinary threat to Israel in the form of a combination of religious anti-Israeli ideology, and the diverse military capability to put it to practice.
Iran is making great efforts for many years to establish technological and operational infrastructure that would allow it to develop nuclear weapons at the appointed time, under suitable circumstances, and within a short timeframe. Although the Iranian leadership denies its true intentions, and takes pains to hide its weapons-grade nuclear efforts, Israel clearly has intelligence that provides unambiguous evidence as to its plans. The Trump Administration's term in office, and particularly its decision to pull out of the JCPOA, has driven Iran to become a nuclear threshold state. In the absence of a new nuclear deal, Iran will proceed until it reaches the point of no return in terms of its military nuclear capabilities. Iranian nuclearization will jeopardize Israel's security, and is also likely to lead to a regional nuclear arms race. If and when countries who are friendly toward Israel, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would be equipped with military nuclear capabilities, Israel would not be able to count on them maintaining their moderate orientation toward it.
A central dimension of Iran's military strategy that poses a threat to Israel is its successful utilization of state territories with weakened sovereignty – Syria, Iraq, and Yemen – where it entrenches its influence in such a way as to allow it to threaten to target Israel's borders as well as center. The Iranian high-trajectory capability is comprised of several levels – an advanced military industry, thousands of warheads in Hizballah's possession, precision capabilities that Iran is continuously rendering more sophisticated, armed drones, and cruise missiles provided to its proxies. On top of these, it intends to operationalize offensive forces on Israeli soil – from Hizballah and Hamas tunnels and ground forces, to the militia groups at its disposal in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, Iran actively seeks to destabilize Israel's partnerships in the region, for instance with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, in an effort to bolster its relative status in the regional balance of power in such a manner as to compromise various Israeli interests (such as security on the Israel-Jordanian border).
What is Israel required to do?
First, Israel must identify Iran as the main threat toward which all necessary resources and efforts – diplomatic, military, intelligence and security – are to be directed.
The Israeli strategy should focus on targeting Iran's capabilities instead of influencing its intentions, while forming an international deterrence front against it. Israel must recognize its limited power and knowledge in this context, for it may be unpleasantly surprised, and not for the first time either.
Israeli military activity as part of the war between wars against Iran and its proxies in recent years has eroded Iran's military capabilities, slowed down Hizballah's armament pace, and impacted its entrenchment in Syria; however, it could confuse Israel's strategic set of priorities. While it should certainly remain an important aspect of its strategy, the war between wars must not cause Israel to lose sight of its focus on the Iranian nuclear program. In the absence of a military nuclear option, Iran would not be able to pose an existential threat to Israel via its proxies. However, a nuclear threat would enable Iran to double its efforts and build intimidating ballistic capabilities in terms of both quality and quantity.
A key component, perhaps the most central, of Israel's strategy against Iran is its military latitude, and ability to take independent action against Iran and its regional proxies. Latitude is necessary, first and foremost, in order to implement the Begin Doctrine – military action against any Middle Eastern country that strives to obtain military nuclear capabilities – but also for the purpose of denying Iranian proxies any military capability that poses a threat to Israel.
What can be done to expand Israel's military latitude against Iran? The following efforts are required:
- Developing military capabilities that would enable Israel to take decisive independent action to remove all threat, whether in the first or more distant circles. Military force buildup should focus on this objective, even if it is at the expense of others. Such military capabilities would also bolster Israel's power of deterrence, as well as its ability to impact the nature of international steps taken with Iran, and is likely to contribute to stronger relations with the United States and other countries in the region who oppose Iran.
- An effort focused on aspects of security, diplomacy, and intelligence aimed at preserving the IDF's qualitative military edge (QME) as the strongest army in the Middle East. The IDF's QME is needed to deter aggression by Israel's neighbors, and, more importantly, ensure that, when the time comes, the IDF would be able to contend with any scenario of regional escalation following conflict between Israel and Iran.
- State- and military-level preparation for a possible war with Hizballah as part of the scenario of a strike in Iran. The importance of preparing for prospective war is also due to the progress made by the Lebanese organization in force buildup, particularly in the Precision Project, which increases the likelihood of conflict between Israel and Hizballah, even if neither party is inclined to engage in it. The Lebanese organization's military defeat is therefore the recommended military goal, for it would enable the establishment of a new regime that would represent all power factors in Lebanon, and be supported and assisted by the West as well as the Gulf states, serving, inter alia, as a counterweight for Iranian influence in the Land of Cedars. Militarily, Israel must recognize the fact that the current military response to threats posed by Hizballah is lacking. The IAF alone, despite its tremendous might, cannot fully address the scope and precision of Hizballah fire. Nor could active defense, even if fortified, fully deliver on its promises. The IDF should build up its force differently in view of the threat posed by Hizballah, primarily by restoring the strength of its ground forces in order to form a more decisive and rapid strike force. This would require better, more open dialogue with the government in order for the latter to gain a greater understanding of the IDF's capabilities and restrictions in case of war with Hizballah. At the same time, the preparation for war on the political front should focus on forging secret ties with all power factors in Lebanon that would potentially serve as basis for the new regime to enable quick withdrawal, as well as preliminary discussions with the United States, alongside select countries in Europe and the region that may be harnessed to form new order in Lebanon under a war of necessity scenario.
- Strengthening Israel's strategic relations with the United States as a pillar of the former's national security. Israel must strive for strategic understandings with the U.S. administration that would allow it to take action against Iran itself as well as its proxies independently in accordance with its national interests. Israel should also avoid being tied down to commitments, for instance, as part of a defense alliance, that would limit its latitude, while refraining from challenging its relations with the United States, for example in the context of its evolving relations with China. The IDF's independence with regard to U.S. policy is also essential in view of the understanding that the United States has decided to reduce its military involvement in the Middle East, as its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 has recently demonstrated.
- The IDF would do well to broaden its involvement in more "distant circles", such as Iraq and Yemen, in coordination with the United States and Gulf, as Iran has important interests in these areas, and targeting them could enhance the sense of threat felt by the Iranian regime, as well as disrupt its plans of regional hegemony. By the same token, the IDF should avoid unnecessary military confrontations in the "first circle" that could impede its willingness or ability to take decisive action against Iran. This is true for both countries and non-state actors that pose a challenge to Israel (from Turkey to Hamas), with whom Israel is advised to pursue an arrangement, even if it is only temporary.
- Enhancing partnerships with Sunni Arab states, primarily Egypt, Jordan, and some of the Gulf. Israel needs to know that it can take military action against Iran without having to worry about these countries' response, or the impact its actions would have on its relations with them. Moreover, a collaboration with these countries means Israel would be less preoccupied with security issues of secondary importance compared to the Iranian threat, and would bolster the system of regional alliances against Iran. It is therefore in Israel's best interest that these countries remain stable. The positive progress made in the relations with them, culminating recently in the Abraham Accords, indeed has the potential for broadening collaborations in areas such as security, military, and intelligence; however, Israel must realize that it would not be able to harness them to joint action as part of a coalition, nor have them on board as it takes independent action against Iran.
- An ongoing effort to destabilize the Iranian regime to the point of its collapse, although such an endeavor's chances of success are not very high. Economic pressure, including sanctions, will not suffice to achieve this goal. However, they do weaken the regime, and this trend should be enhanced as much as possible.
- A clandestine effort, whether independently or in collaboration with other partners, the purpose of which is to disrupt the progress made by the nuclear program, if only in order to delay the time when Iran would be able to make the leap toward operational military nuclear capabilities. To that endeavor, Israel should add an extensive, ongoing diplomatic and intelligence-based effort vis-à-vis international organizations and countries across the globe that would broaden Israel's political legitimization to take military action against Iran, if need be, as well as avoid any subsequent state-level or other punitive measures.
- Deepening the tactical coordination with Russia on deconfliction. Both countries share an interest that should be leveraged. Like Israel, Russia has no interest in broad, influential Iranian presence in Syria. Israel should take advantage of that for its military action against Iranian targets in Syria, as well as thwarting emerging threats from Syrian territory. Yet, Israel must also bear in mind that Russia views Syria as its protégé, and intends to provide support for the Syrian army, and build up its force until it has the kind of military power that previously threatened Israel's territorial contiguity, as well as the safety of its citizens.
To conclude, Israel must set as the thwarting of the Iranian nuclear program as a top priority on its strategic agenda. The IDF is the main tool at its disposal by which to achieve this goal, and it should direct its force buildup accordingly. Iran will not be deterred from its pursuit of military nuclear capabilities, and Israel must build up crushing military capabilities. The latter's military latitude against Iran depends, first and foremost, on designated force buildup, as well as successful strategic coordination with the United States in order to enable Israel to take independent action against Iran if necessary.
The various recommendations listed in this document certainly require some thought on Israel's set of priorities, as well as the prioritization and urgency attributed to each of the suggestions made. Thus, and in view of the assessment that Israel still has latitude over the Iranian nuclear program by diplomatic as well as clandestine, confidential means, it should focus, first and foremost, on accelerated force buildup in preparation for the possibility of war with Hizballah. Such decisive military force will provide the necessary strategic latitude for Israeli decision-makers to know that, even if they will be forced to order a direct strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, the IDF would be able to contend with the subsequent response, be it by Iran directly or Hizballah.
Additional security issues that rank high on Israel's set of priorities, important as they may be, particularly the ongoing conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, must not divert Israel's attention away from the threat posed by Iran as the key challenge to Israel's national security.
Authored by Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead, Executive Director, Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University, and by Lt. Col. Itay Haiminis, Head of the IDF Systemic Knowledge Development Branch at the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies, IDF.
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