Opinion |

Netanyahu Is Playing With Fire in Iran

If Israel really did seek ‘revenge’ by attacking Iranian targets, then it’s changed the unwritten rules of the unacknowledged game, which could have grave consequences

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is delivering a speech this week during a videoconference in the capital Tehran. He is seen next to views of Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is delivering a speech this week during a videoconference in the capital Tehran. He is seen next to views of Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant.Credit: - - AFP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

The attack on the Republican Guards’ spy ship in the Red Sea and sabotage of the Natanz uranium enrichment site are both attributed to Israeli intelligence, and, taken with the leaks about these attacks – it shows that Israel, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is playing with fire.

Official Iranian spokesmen vow that Iran will respond. Based on precedent, they can be believed. There is no question that they will seek reprisal against Israel, even if success is not assured.

Unlike the airstrikes in Syria, where Israel feels quite safe, the conflict between Iran and Israel that has been going on for two and a half years could spin out of control, leading Israel into a cycle of violence in which it does not necessarily hold the upper hand. Some 95 percent of all trade with Israel is by sea. The Israeli navy is relatively small and its ability to protect and secure maritime trade is limited, particularly in areas like the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, which are far from Israel’s shores.

Quoting an Israeli source, the New York Times reports that the goal of the operation was revenge. If this is true, then whoever planned and approved added insult to injury. They deviated from what has been standard policy for decades. The intelligence and security agencies have always prided themselves that covert assassination and sabotage missions are driven not by a thirst for vengeance but by a desire to disrupt and foil and prevent future operations against Israel. Even when the targets were terrorists “with blood on their hands” (a phrase I detest), the rationale behind the decision to take them out, so it was always maintained, was not related to revenge for their past actions.

The flooded engine room of the Iranian ship the Saviz after it was attacked in Red Sea off Yemen. Credit: Nournews via AP

Decisions ordering military operations, dispatching troops who risk their lives, must be independent of outside considerations, political or otherwise, and must not be based upon emotions or impulses.

Two and a half years ago, at the recommendation of then-IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, the political leadership decided to step up pressure on Iran. The operations that had hitherto been conduct by air and on the ground – in Syria, on the Iraqi border, in Yemen and Lebanon, and in cyberspace, according to foreign press reports – expanded to the naval arena as well. The reports said that Israeli naval commandos, with the aid of precise intelligence from Israeli military intelligence and the Mossad, sabotaged dozens of Iranian tankers that were transporting oil to Syria. The payments for the oil, in Syrian pounds, were used by the Al Quds Force commanded by General Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated by the U.S. in January 2020. Soleimani and his men used the money to fund Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in Syria.

All of the sabotage missions were executed with surgical precision. They were designed to damage the tankers without sinking them and inflicting casualties, but causing Iran substantial economic damage. These operations are estimated to have caused a billion dollars’ worth of direct and indirect damage to the Al Quds Force. Israel also exploited two opportunities when it had current and precise information to sabotage weaponry being transported on Iranian ships to Hezbollah. Most of the sabotage missions were in the Mediterranean Sea, while a minority occurred in the Red Sea. These operations also had psychological value by damaging the morale of the Al Quds commanders.

These operations were crowned a success because the Trump administration, which was let in on the plans, encouraged them, and also because secrecy was preserved. The information did not leak in Israel, the U.S. or Iran, which gritted its teeth and swallowed its pride.

Satellite photo shows the Iranian cargo ship MV Saviz in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen, last year.Credit: Planet Labs Inc. via AP

After the change of administrations in Washington and with elections approaching in Iran, the leaders in Tehran decided to stop holding back. The result was sabotage without causing major damage – sort of an eye for an eye – to a ship partly owned by the Israeli automotive and shipping magnate Rami Ungar. A while later, a lengthy article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, saying that Israel had sabotaged a dozen Iranian tankers.

In response, the Revolutionary Guards struck again, this time at a ship owned by businessman Udi Engel. Meanwhile, reports began multiplying in Israeli media too. It should have been clear to the decision-makers in Israel – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen –the moment the Wall Street Journal report appeared, that the chatter would exacerbate the tensions with Iran just when the Biden administration wants to lower the flames, so it can negotiate with Iran about returning to the original 2015 nuclear accord and lifting the sanctions.

But in Israel, apparently they don’t understand hints, or else they’re flying on automatic pilot.

The tensions with Iran rose a notch this week following the explosion at Natanz, which badly damaged the uranium enrichment centrifuges. According to internal Iranian reports, the blast was caused by sabotaging the electrical systems at the site.

It bears stressing that the idea of sabotaging the nuclear facility’s electric lines first arose about 20 years ago: the American journalist James Risen wrote about it in his 2006 book, “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.” He claims the CIA and Mossad considered sabotaging the power lines leading to Iranian nuclear sites using trucks laden with explosives that would be detonated by electromagnetic signals. The mission of penetration was assigned to the Mossad, which would have had to use its agents in Iran for the purpose. Experts on behalf of the CIA traveled to Nevada to test a model of the Iranian electrical system. Following the experiment, the CIA concluded that the plan was too risky and inefficient, and couldn’t and shouldn’t be done. The plan was called off.

This time around, as the power system and its backup at the underground site of Natanz blew up, it seems the plan came off.

Shadowy incidents of sabotage in Iran, combining cyber-warfare and secret agents, are very efficient. Biden’s administration could live with it and even tacitly applaud it. But that only applies as long as the secrecy is maintained. The gratuitous chitchat, originating in loose lips leaking to the New York Times, which has become a sort of laundromat for top-level Israeli leakers from both political and military circles for the sake of their own aggrandizement or internal reasons in Israel, is dangerous.

It’s one thing to see Netanyahu do it, as he has a political interest mixed with a messianic belief in confronting Iran in order to foil the possibility of a diplomatic accord. But why are Gantz and Kochavi lending a hand to this? Even Cohen, the Mossad chief, who steps down within weeks, has changed his combative approach and now advocates reducing the friction with the American administration, in the hope of persuading it to formulate a new nuclear accord that is better than the original one.

In the meantime, in defiance of the Israeli operations, Iran today announced that from Wednesday, it will be begin enriching uranium to the level of 60 percent purity, from 20 percent. This is an unprecedented move. Iran had never crossed the threshold of 20 percent, either before the 2015 accord or after, and it will bring Iran closer to the ability to produce fissile material: a nuclear bomb needs 93 percent. And yet, experts still believe Iran does not actually aspire to produce a bomb: it is using this as another bargaining chip in its negotiations over an agreement.

What remains is to hope that after sabotaging the ship, and the glaring mistake of leaking about it – which at the very least indicates gross negligence that could have cost lives – Israel will conclude that it has to stop pouring fuel on the fire.

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