Before talking about the Military Intelligence assessment for 2021, it’s important to recall MI’s assessment for last year, and especially what it did not contain. When its bullet points were presented to members of the Israeli media on January 13, 2020, they contained not a single hint of the big event that would shake the entire world less than two months later.
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For the Israeli media, too, the novel coronavirus was no more than a distant rumor at the time, the far-off roar of a wave that hadn’t yet crashed on our shores. The first patients had been diagnosed in Wuhan, China a few weeks earlier, but the Chinese authorities made great efforts to hide the scale of the emerging disaster.
MI, like most Western intelligence agencies, had no clue. And health ministries in most countries didn’t know much more.
Like the effects of climate change, the possibility of a pandemic was not part of annual assessments then, and wasn’t considered a fit subject for Israeli intelligence agencies. This oversight will gradually be rectified in light of the lessons of the past year.
More than any other development, the virus is what shaped global reality last year and will continue to do so this year, including on strategic issues. When governments worldwide are beset by economic and health woes without precedent in the modern era, the appetite for war seems to decline.
There’s another lesson here, regarding what economist Nassim Taleb calls “black swans.” Every so often, an unexpected event will emerge and overturn all previous assessments. Intelligence analysts, like media pundits, must be aware of the limits of their ability to analyze and predict.
The spread of the virus slowed regional moves by the Iranian-led Shi’ite axis and reduced friction with Israel during the pandemic’s early months. But later, despite its economic straits, Iran resumed sending money to regional terrorist and guerrilla organizations. Continuing to build these groups’ military might remains a top priority for Tehran.
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The main factor that will affect the current year, aside from the coronavirus, is likely to be the transfer of power in Washington. Tehran, like other Mideast capitals, is anxiously monitoring the changes U.S. President Joe Biden is making to the policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump. The fundamental questions that will determine the shape of the Middle East in the near term are whether the United States will rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran (probable) and on what conditions (unclear).
Iran, followed by Hezbollah, remains MI’s primary focus. MI views Iran as the source of both the ideological and the financial power that feeds a complex regional campaign, part of which is aimed at Israel. But after the storm raised by IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi’s lambasting of the nuclear deal two weeks ago, MI director Tamir Hayman sounded a more cautious note in meetings with journalists this week.
Hayman presented a clear, detailed picture of Iran’s time table. Tehran is approaching the point where it has sufficient weapons-grade enriched uranium fuel for a single nuclear weapon, but it isn’t there yet – despite its open violation of the provisions of the 2015 nuclear agreement.
It is still expected to take Iran close to two years to produce a nuclear warhead, from the time it decides to do so. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign didn’t dissuade Tehran from its goal, but its sanctions cause enormous economic damage to Iran.
Iran, according to MI, is at a historic nadir. Alongside the economic crisis and the ravages of the coronavirus, it has been damaged by the IDF’s “campaign between the wars” and hasn’t yet retaliated for two assassinations of senior Iranian officials last year – Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was responsible for Iran’s regional terrorism networks, and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was responsible for its nuclear program. The United States took responsibility for the first, while Iran blames Israel for the second.
The current calm doesn’t mean Iran considers the account closed. The IDF’s assessment is that it might still respond through a terror attack by proxies such as the Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria.
Moreover, Hezbollah is still threatening attacks of its own. The tension in the north could deteriorate into a limited escalation along the border that could last for several days even as both sides tried to prevent a slide into all-out war.
On the strategic level, the Iranians are worried by Israel’s normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and with Bahrain. The anti-Iranian axis, which operated in secret for years, is now coordinating openly and publicly.
For several years now, MI, like the IDF as a whole, has seen the Palestinian theater as secondary to the northern front. This basic assumption remains in place at the start of this year. In the army’s view, the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip has made a strategic choice to seek a long-term truce with Israel in exchange for significant improvements in its economy and infrastructure.
The Palestinian Authority also doesn’t seem eager for a military conflict with Israel. On the contrary, Biden’s entry into office has raised its hopes for a resumption of diplomatic negotiations.
Nevertheless, the way the coronavirus upended the global reality serves as a reminder of the limits of predictions. This year, too, could bring earthshaking developments that were never foreseen.