The retaliation Iran is planning in the north, according to Israeli defense officials, is actually a mirror image of Israeli policy in Syria. Israel has been operating for years against weapons convoys heading from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and recently, attacks have been attributed to Israel against Iranian military sites in Syria.
Still, Israel almost always opts not to take responsibility for its actions, at least officially. The goal is to deter the opponent while not causing a deterioration that would lead the region into war.
Now Iran wants to do almost the same thing: settle accounts with Israel and deter it, but maintain ambiguity regarding the perpetrators and avoid war in Syria, where it has only just begun to deploy militarily and from whose territory it would have a hard time against Israel’s air and intelligence superiority.
In Yemen the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are employing similar tactics. Everyone knows that the missiles the Houthi rebels are firing at Saudi Arabia were smuggled to them by Iran, but Tehran can pretend that it doesn’t know what these critics are talking about.
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Israel is making preparations based on the following intelligence: The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, has launched an operation combining Iranian planning, advice from Hezbollah missile and rocket unit commanders, and implementation by Shi’ite militias stationed in Syria whose members come from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan but are funded by Iran.
It seems that from the Iranian perspective, there’s no choice but a military response. Tehran attributes to Israel at least five attacks against its military in Syria since September, and last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added insult to injury when he revealed the Mossad’s success in pilfering the Iranians’ nuclear documents from right under their noses.
But because Iran wants to avoid an all-out escalation, it’s important to choose the target and scope of the operation. Thus the choice appears to be to launch missiles and rockets against Israeli bases in the north, which Iran apparently perceives as a legitimate target, an eye for an eye. The leak to this effect Sunday of course comes as a signal to the Iranians that its intentions have been uncovered, forcing another delay of the operation.
Nearly a month has passed since the last attack attributed to Israel, in which seven Iranian advisers were killed at the T4 base in Syria, and after that, at the end of April, came another attack. But it’s not at all certain that Iran will act according to Israeli assumptions and won’t try to launch a surprise in terms of timing or front, after the planned action was made public.
Alongside the psychological warfare the two sides are waging, defensive preparations are underway. At the moment it seems that Israel is determined to continue its efforts to uproot the Iranian military presence from Syria, and that in this matter there’s a consensus between the political and security leadership. Jerusalem assumes that Iran is less invested in the conflict than Israel and so Iran might blink first if the pressure continues.
The weak point in this argument is its reliance on the assumption that Hezbollah will continue to stay out of the fray. Involving Hezbollah directly, from Lebanon, means war, with the price on all sides much higher.
Meanwhile, Israeli politicians seem to be blabbing themselves to death, despite warnings about the sensitivity of the situation. On Monday a member of the security cabinet, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, said Israel would kill Syrian President Bashar Assad if he lets the Iranians operate against it from Syria.