Israel and Iran have been waging a murky covert war for years now. This shadowy war has been punctuated by a succession of attacks, counterattacks, assassinations, cyber warfare, drone overflights and material assistance to proxies.
As 2013 gets underway, one can expect more of the same.
Israel is motivated by a desire to cripple or destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons program and to inflict blows on its allies in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Sudan.
Iran, an Islamic theocracy, is driven by two overriding objectives – to obliterate Israel and to extend its influence in the Middle East.
One facet of this war came into public view shortly after the end of last November’s eight-day border war between Israel and Hamas, an Iranian client. On three major road junctions in the Gaza Strip, large billboards were erected extolling Iran for its assistance to the Palestinian cause. The message on the billboards, inscribed in Arabic, English, Farsi and Hebrew, read, “Thank you, Iran,” in what was the first explicit acknowledgment of Iran’s role in arming Hamas.
During the recent Gaza war, Hamas and Islamic Jihad fired Fajr-5 rockets toward Tel Aviv, setting off its first air-raid alert since it was hit by Iraqi Scuds in the 1991 Gulf War, and at nearby Rishon LeZion. These projectiles, with a range of 75 kilometres, were supplied by Iran, a fervent supporter of radical Palestinian factions.
Israel downed many of the Fajr-5 rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. That Hamas had access to such weapons in the first place speaks volumes about Iran’s unwavering commitment to Palestinian rejectionist factions.
It’s debatable how the rockets reached Gaza, which has been subjected to an Israeli naval blockade since Hamas’ seizure of the coastal enclave from the mainstream Fatah movement in 2007 in a violent coup.
They may have been smuggled through a network of tunnels from the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza. Alternatively, as the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, suggested, the Fajr-5 technology was transferred by Iran to Palestinian workshops in Gaza, which were targeted by Israeli Air Force during the recent fighting.
Iran was only too glad to advertise its contribution to the Palestinians. Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, said he was “honoured” that Iran had materially helped Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called Gaza’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, to offer congratulations for Hamas’ “victory” over Israel. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, chided Muslims nations for not having rallied behind Gaza in its showdown with Israel.
For their part, Palestinian leaders expressed gratitude to Iran. Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, thanked Iran for its military and financial support. Ziad Nakhleh, the deputy leader of Islamic Jihad, openly admitted that the rockets in his arsenal were of Iranian origin. Mahmoud Zahar, one of the founders of Hamas, predicted that Iran would increase its aid package to Gaza.
By all accounts, Iran smuggles arms to Gaza by way of a circuitous route.
Iranian ships from the port of Bandar Abbas drop them off in Sudan, which signed a military co-operation agreement with Iran in 2008. From there, they are shipped northward to the lawless Sinai Peninsula and through tunnels to Gaza.
Being acutely aware of Iran’s clandestine activities, Israel has devoted considerable resources to staunch the flow of weapons to the Palestinians in Gaza.
In the past decade, Israeli naval commandos have intercepted several ships laden with Iranian weapons. In the most celebrated case, in January 2002, Israel seized the Karine-A – a freighter loaded with 50 tons of missiles, mortars, explosives, rifles and mines worth $400 million – in the Red Sea.
Three years ago, in what developed into an international incident in Dubai, Mossad agents killed Mohammed Mabhouh, a Hamas official who procured arms from Iran.
This past October, a munitions or rocket factory in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, was bombed by a flight of unidentified jets. Sudan, having accused Israel of being behind the attack, promised a painful response. Israel maintained an official silence, neither denying nor taking credit for the bombing.
If the Israeli Air Force carried out this stealth strike, 1,900 kilometres from a base in Israel, Iran was certainly put on notice that its nuclear facilities may not be immune from destruction.
But Israel’s message was not only directed at Iran. Israel, having bombed several Palestinian arms convoys in Sudan in the past three years in which apparently hundreds of Palestinians were killed, made one important point by striking the Sudanese factory.
Israel proved yet again that Sudan – whose president is sought by the International Criminal Court for having committed atrocities in the Darfur region – is a source of instability in the Middle East by virtue of its status as a transit point of arms smuggling from Iran to Gaza.
Short of actually attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, which it has threatened to do, Israel has tried to sabotage its atomic program through kidnappings, assassinations and cyber warfare.
In 2007, the Mossad reportedly abducted Ali Reza Asgari, Iran’s deputy defence minister, who has not been heard from since. In the past few years, most recently last January, five Iranian scientists connected with Iran’s nuclear program have been killed. Israel has denied responsibility, but Iran has pointed an accusatory finger at Israel. After last January’s assassination, Israel’s chief of staff, Gen. Benny Gantz, was quoted as saying that Iran should expect more “unnatural” events to occur.
Over the last two years, Israel, in conjunction with the United States, has launched a cyber assault on Iran’s nuclear program in an operation known as Olympic Games. Authorized by U.S. president George W. Bush in 2006, Olympic Games’ computer viruses, notably Stuxnet, have temporarily disabled centrifuges that enrich uranium. Two months ago, Iran announced the establishment of a special command centre to counter industrial sabotage of this kind.
Apart from Iran’s militarized nuclear program, Israel is most concerned about its missile capabilities, since Iranian missiles can supposedly reach Israel.
Toward the close of 2011, a key figure in Iran’s missile program, Hassan Moghaddam, was killed when a massive explosion levelled an ammunition depot near Tehran. Israel was immediately accused as the chief suspect.
Iran has struck back with a vengeance.
Iran and its Lebanese surrogate, Hezbollah, have been accused of masterminding attacks against Israeli embassies and embassy personnel, as well as Israeli tourists, in Bulgaria, India, Georgia, Kenya, Thailand, Argentina and Azerbaijan (which has dismissed reports that any pre-emptive strike on Iran would be launched from bases in Azerbaijan).
Iran, too, has boasted that Iranian-manufactured surveillance drones have made dozens of flights into Israeli airspace to collect reconnaissance data and probe Israel’s air defences. These flights have originated in Lebanon and have been under the control of Hezbollah, the recipient of Iranian largesse.
It seems likely that Israel’s covert war with Iran will escalate as Tehran moves inexorably closer toward building a nuclear device and thereby engulfing the Middle East in further tension.