Analysis

Israeli Strikes on Iranian Targets Are Great Election Fodder, but Have Little Strategic Impact

Though Israel's Military Intelligence has outstanding ability to gather information ahead of an operation, it can't say what diplomatic and strategic outcomes would follow

Netanyahu revealing intelligence images of advanced Hezbollah missiles in Beirut at the UN, September 2018.
Richard Drew/AP

The satellite that Iran planned to launch into space on Thursday ended its life with a big explosion. This isn’t the first time Iran has failed to send a satellite beyond Earth’s atmosphere. On the two previous occasions, in January and February, the tests ended similarly. One was reported by Iran, the second was concealed from the media.

But the interesting point in this whole affair is related to the president of the United States, who hastened to deny that his country was involved in the explosion. Did anyone ask him? Blame him? Until Donald Trump’s tweet, Iran apparently did not intend to report the failure, and its leadership did not point an accusing finger in any direction. Trump didn’t make do with a denial – he posted the picture of the exploded space center, apparently from an intelligence briefing he’d received that morning.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 38Haaretz

In doing so, did the president intend to hint that the United States not only knows about the failed test, but also plans to prevent the continuation of the tests because it suspects they are designed to improve Iran’s ability to launch ballistic missiles? Did Trump violate the intelligence confidentiality imposed on the briefings he receives? And is this perhaps a new tactic, shared by the United States and Israel, in which publications about foiling Iranian plans and striking at Iranian targets are part of the system of deterrence against Iran?

>> Read more: First drone war pulls Israel's conflict with Iran out of the shadows | Analysis

Israel preceded Washington by publicizing not only the details of the operation in which it attacked an Iranian squad that intended to launch explosives-laden drones into its territory – it also added many details about the location of the launching site, the direct involvement of Qassam Soleimani, who plans Iran’s operations outside the country, and about the nature and capabilities of the drones.

The amazement at the precise intelligence possessed by Israel and the United States regarding Iran’s plans is justified. It’s clear that they are capable of penetrating deep into Iranian military units and acquiring information. Ostensibly, this turns Military Intelligence into the most significant agency in making the decisions likely to influence diplomatic and strategic developments in the region. But that’s an erroneous conclusion.

Foiling the launch of an Iranian satellite, destroying a special explosives-mixing machine in Lebanon, the mysterious bombing of a missile base in Iraq, or the destruction of a building designed for launching drones against Israel are similar on the tactical level – despite the major logistical differences – to striking at targets in the Gaza Strip. You can assassinate a Hamas commander, destroy civilian infrastructure or hit missile launchers, but those acts won’t solve the root problems that create these military operations.

That’s because while military intellihence has outstanding ability to gather information in advance of an operation, it cannot present the map of diplomatic and strategic outcomes that could follow.

The result is that Israel doesn’t know how Hezbollah will react to the destruction of the mixing machine in Lebanon and cannot anticipate how Hamas will react to attacks in the Strip – and above all, neither Israel nor the United States has the ability to assess the extent to which striking at select Iranian targets will change Iran’s policy in Syria or Iraq or on negotiations with the United States.

The world knows about Iran’s decisions only after they are made. Despite the tactical successes, the West lacks tools to assess the decision-making processes and the influence mechanisms in the country.

For example, Qassem Soleimani is considered the planning and operational head of Iranian activity outside the country, and therefore the person who also heads the Iranian influence networks in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. But this convenient definition, which presents Soleimani as a supreme target, ignores the large group of influential people, headed by the Iranian President Hassan Rohani, the speaker of Parliament, the clerics close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, close advisers, his son, the new commander of the army et al. Each of them has a certain status regarding the decisions about Iran’s response to strikes attributed to Israel.

Khamenei himself has so far refrained from declaring publicly how Israel should be treated. He is the final decision maker, but his decisions are not arbitrary. There is no question that Iran understands messages, but it doesn’t see them as a diktat, and it translates them based on its internal needs, including political needs, and not necessarily based on the intention of their dispatchers. That means the assumption that precise attacks against Iranian sites or key people are likely to act as a message that will influence its policy does not have much to support it.

The tactical military dialogue that Israel is conducting with Iran, in the hope it will delay dramatic steps – such as Trump’s intention to conduct direct negotiations with Iran, or the French mediation toward a meeting between the two leaders – cannot guarantee such an outcome. On the other hand, it looks as though the harsh sanctions imposed by the United States against Iran did not lead to its surrender, but rather to a guarded willingness to conduct negotiations with the great power that is wooing it.

If conditions ripen for such negotiations, the Israeli attacks will not carry any weight in shaping their content, but they are apparently good for the Israeli soul, especially in an election period.