Iran has recently made significant advances in the development of its weapons industry, including precision-guided rockets and missiles, cruise missiles and drones. Israeli intelligence has observed a leap in Iranian capabilities, which are now being extensively distributed to other parts of the radical axis led by Tehran in the Middle East, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, the Shi’ite militias in Iraq and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Intelligence officials say that for the first time, the Iranian arms industry has become an industry encompassing the entire radical axis. One unit from the Revolutionary Guards, Unit 340 of the Quds Force, is responsible for the research and development that serves all the terrorist and guerilla organizations operating with Tehran’s patronage and financing. The knowhow gained by the Iranians is quickly and effectively relayed to their proxies throughout the region.
Tehran’s aim is to enable these organizations to achieve independent production capability in their respective countries, without being dependent upon Iranian smuggling operations, so they will be less vulnerable to Israeli strikes against the various smuggling channels. Last week, Iran accused Israel of responsibility for a blast on an Iranian ship in the Mediterranean. This was apparently a smuggling operation that was thwarted on the way to Lebanon.
Israel is especially concerned by Hezbollah’s acceleration of its “precision project,” in which it plans to do a massive upgrade of its arsenal of rockets and missiles so they can strike within just a few meters of their targets. In recent years, in the wake of the Israeli strikes on its smuggling operations, Hezbollah has made several attempts to build facilities in Lebanon to manufacture weaponry and convert arms to precision-guided weapons. Officially, Israel talks about Hezbollah having dozens of precision rockets, but some assessments say that number has surged in the past couple of years and is now apparently in the hundreds.
Hezbollah is working on developing several types of improvements for its missiles – greater precision, greater lethal impact and ability to circumvent the active Israeli defense systems. In his speeches, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah often talks about the level of precision of his organization’s weaponry and boasts that in the event of a war, Israel will be surprised by Hezbollah’s capabilities.
Another nearby arena where similar progress has been made is the Gaza Strip. Hamas, with Iranian aid, has significantly boosted its production capacity for rockets and drones and conducts very frequent test firings that are directed westward into the Mediterranean. In the last few years, Hamas members have traveled to Iran and elsewhere for training in weapons development.
In late February, an Israeli naval operation reportedly destroyed Hamas weapons off the Gaza coast. This turned out to be a Hamas boat. Last week, some Gaza fisherman were killed when an object they pulled from the sea exploded. Palestinian sources say it was a booby-trapped Israeli drone that apparently crashed during the naval operation.
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The arms used by the Houthis in Yemen, primarily Ansar Allah, which operates in close consultation with the Revolutionary Guards, has also been dramatically upgraded. In recent weeks, the Houthis have stepped up their attacks, with Iranian encouragement, against airfields and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. Drones and surface-to-surface missiles were used in these attacks. At present, the Houthis are not showing much interest in friction with Israel. They are too preoccupied with the war on the Saudis. But intelligence officials say that in the future, Iran may try to deploy drones and missiles in Yemen that could reach southern Israel.
The nuclear issue
Despite the concern over the advancement of the Iranian arms industry and Iranian aid to the terror organizations in the region, Israel is not seeking to link these issues with the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Sometime soon, the United States will likely resume negotiations with Iran over an American return to the nuclear deal. In Israel and the West, there has been discussion of whether, within the framework of the new accord, an attempt should be made to impose concessions on Iran on these two other issues.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s instruction to the Israeli officials involved in dialogue with the Biden administration has been that these issues should be kept separate, and that Israel recommends that the initial talks with Iran focus solely on the nuclear issue. At the same time, Israel will work to persuade the Americans and the European countries to press the Tehran regime in the other two areas. Netanyahu evidently feels that tying all three issues together in the negotiations will detract from the U.S.’s bargaining power and from its ability to extract sufficient concessions from Iran regarding its nuclear program. Despite the hawkish statements made by Netanyahu and other top officials when Joe Biden took office in January, Jerusalem is gradually coming to accept that the negotiations are going to resume and that it would be more useful to try to influence them rather than deal with boycotts and bombast.
The issues of Iran’s weaponry and the aid it is providing to Hezbollah are at the center of this week’s joint visit by President Reuven Rivlin and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi to three western European countries. Rivlin, whose term ends in July, planned a farewell tour to meet with his counterparts in Germany, Austria and France. He asked Kochavi to join him so he could give the European presidents and military commanders in their countries an overview of the strategic developments in the region. Another topic of discussion is Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s opposition to the International Criminal Court in the Hague opening an investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories.
Germany has taken a pro-Israel position regarding the ICC decision. At the meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday in Paris, a good part of the discussion will be devoted to the situation in Lebanon, given France’s deep involvement there. Kochavi is expected to relay a warning via the French that, should another war break out in Lebanon, Israel will not be able to easily distinguish between striking Hezbollah targets and striking strategic civilian infrastructure in the country.
Army Radio vs. Kochavi
This is not the first time that the president chose to be accompanied by senior IDF officials in talks with foreign officials. In the past, meetings were attended by Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, commander of the Israel Air Force, and Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, former head of military intelligence and soon to become deputy chief of staff. Rivlin and Kochavi have had a positive and close relationship for many years.
This hasn’t stopped a string of Army Radio commentators from launching attacks on Kochavi for having the nerve to join “the most political president in the country’s history” on his trip to Europe. The IDF chief of staff is making a grave mistake, they say. Oddly enough, just a month ago, when Kochavi, in a highly unusual speech, outlined a very aggressive stance on the Iranian nuclear issue, these same commentators lavished him with praise for his courage and his strategic farsightedness.
At the beginning of the week, in an unusual move that apparently took Kochavi’s bureau by surprise, Army Radio decided not to assign a reporter to travel with the IDF chief of staff and the president . Such a decision is, of course, within the journalistic authority of the station commanders. But with the election just days away, one can’t help concluding that certain broadcast slots on Army Radio, as on Channel 20 on television, the Galey Israel radio station and the freebie newspaper Israel Hayom, are fully part of the orchestrated efforts from Balfour Street to ensure a Netanyahu victory.