Army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi warned the Iranians on Monday that any action against Israel would prompt a harsh response, following threats from Tehran in the wake of the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in late November, a killing that Iran has blamed on Israel.
Kochavi's explicit comments come against the backdrop of Israeli defense officials' concern that the Iranians will attempt to avenge the assaination.
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"Recently we have been hearing about growing threats by Iran against the State of Israel," Kochavi said, speaking at an army awards ceremony. "If Iran and its partners – members of the radical axis, in the first or second circle of countries – carry out action against the State of Israel, they will discover that they are in a very costly partnership. The Israeli army will forcefully attack anyone who is a partner, in part or in full, to action against the State of Israel or against Israeli targets."
A range of responses and plans have been prepared and rehearsed, Kochavi added.
Fakhrizadeh was considered a father of Iran's nuclear program. Israel has refrained from official comment on the killing in a resort town outside of Tehran, but senior Trump administration officials have said that Israel was behind the killing, as has an unnamed senior Israeli official quoted by the New York Times.
Israeli defense officials have prepared for various possible Iranian responses to the killing, including a response on Israel's northern border. The Israeli army has also stepped up coordination with the U.S. military's Central Command against the backdrop of the threats.
On Monday, Kan Channel 11 television news reported having been told by Arab intelligence officials that an Israel Navy submarine openly crossed the Suez Canal on Sunday of last week above the waterline. The trip was reportedly made with Egyptian approval, during the current tense period between Iran and Israel.
The submarine passed through the Red Sea and in the assessment of the Arab intelligence officials, would have been heading towards the Persian Gulf in what the officials told Channel 11 was an Israeli attempt to send a message to Tehran through a naval presence.
With regard to the killing of the Iranian nuclear scientist, in 2018 at a news conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly named Fakhrizadeh when the prime minister revealed the Iranian nuclear archive that Israel's Mossad espionage agency managed to steal. Both Israeli and Western intelligence agencies described the scientist as someone with vast knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel has long been suspected of several targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, both in Iran and Syria. Several attacks on infrastructure linked to Iran's weapons program have also been attributed to Israel.
The timing of the killing was also seen as significant, coming just weeks after the U.S. presidential election. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to move away from President Trump's policy of harsh sanctions on Iran, and has expressed more of a willingness to negotiate with Tehran.