Analysis |

Covert Drone War Between Israel and Iran Goes Public With Missile Launch on Iraq

Tehran has adopted a policy of responding to any attack against it attributed to Israel, such as the one last week in Syria. Meanwhile, Israel fears new demands would see Iran getting more out of Vienna nuclear talks

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A house damaged by an Iranian ballistic missile attack in Irbil, Iraq, Sunday.
A house damaged by an Iranian ballistic missile attack in Irbil, Iraq on Sunday.Credit: Ahmed Mzoori /AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Iran’s claim of responsibility for this weekend’s missile launches at Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, revealed a bit about the war of drones, missiles and cyber that the Islamic Republic and Israel have been waging for a long time.

Some of the blows the enemies exchange are landed under the radar; others are publicized only after some time. But in practice, Israel and Iran have been clashing directly for five years now, and there has been a clear trend of escalation. One could list key incidents such as the downing of an Iranian drone that had penetrated Israeli airspace in February 2018 and Iran’s attempted cyberattack on Israel’s water system in April 2020.

In general, it’s clear the Iranians have adopted a policy of responding to any significant Israeli attack, and certainly to any attack that causes them casualties. And last week, two officers in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were reportedly killed in an alleged Israeli air strike in Syria, not far from the Damascus airport.

But the time that elapsed between these two incidents may actually be too short. It’s possible the Iranians were responding to earlier attacks against them.

The missiles were fired at Irbil overnight on Saturday. At first, there was speculation that the target was American, but later, media outlets close to Iran said the target had been Israeli.

At noon on Sunday, the Revolutionary Guards announced that they had carried out the attack and described the target as Israeli “strategic centers.” They also warned Israel that next time, the response will be a “harsh, decisive and destructive response.”

The Lebanese television station Al Mayadeen, which is close to both Hezbollah and Iran, added further details. It said the attack was an Iranian retaliation for an incident in mid-February, when Israeli drones launched from Iraqi Kurdistan hit an Iranian base and caused substantial damage. It also said the overnight strike on Irbil killed and wounded many Israeli soldiers, but that claim doesn’t seem credible.

Interior view of a house that was damaged during missile attacks in Irbil, Iraq, on Sunday. Credit: AZAD LASHKARI/ REUTERS

This isn’t the first time the Iranians have claimed there is a secret Israeli base in Irbil. In April 2021, the Iranian media reported that Iran had launched drones and missiles at that same location, near the Irbil airport, and that the attack had wounded Mossad agents.

Foreign media outlets have for years reported that secret Israeli activity was taking place in both Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, both of which border Iran. In principle, this sounds reasonable, since an Israeli presence in those places would greatly reduce the range for Israeli attacks on Iranian targets.

In this regard, the American disclaimer was interesting. In response to the initial reports Sunday morning, which mentioned the United States as a possible target, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman quickly announced that the administration didn’t believe the American consulate in Irbil had been the target. Washington did something similar in the past, when it leaked that attacks by pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Syria on the American base in Al-Tanf were retaliation for Israeli attacks.

The Kurdish government’s response was more collegial. In a statement on Sunday, it said the attack constituted Iranian aggression against a strictly civilian target.

Iran nuke connection

This small-scale war is being conducted against the background of two much bigger international developments – the war in Ukraine and the effect of the deteriorating Russian-American relationship on the talks in Vienna between Iran and five other countries about a new nuclear deal. And these developments aren’t unrelated.

According to reports from Vienna, the parties were slated to finalize the new agreement soon. But then a last-minute problem cropped up: Moscow demanded guarantees that if Tehran signed the nuclear deal, Russian trade with Iran would be able to continue despite the sanctions the international community imposed on Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine.

Over the weekend, Britain, France and Germany warned Moscow that its new demands could cause the nuclear deal, which they said was on the verge of being signed, to collapse. But the Israeli defense establishment says Iran may also raise new hurdles, in the hope of extracting additional concessions from the other parties before signing.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani arrives at the Palais Coburg, a site where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria in February 8. Credit: Lisa Leutner /AP

Israel is troubled that the Biden administration is completely focused on the fallout of the war in Ukraine and doesn’t appear to be interested in setting tougher conditions for Iran in the nuclear talks. In particular, Jerusalem would have liked to see Washington insist that any deal be contingent on completion of the International Atomic Energy’s investigation into four sites where Iran is suspected of engaging in prohibited nuclear activity.

Israel is also worried about the arrangements for removing Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium. Under the original agreement signed in 2015, from which America unilaterally withdrew in 2018 with the urging of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the enriched uranium was sent to Russia.

Defense sources said that in recent months, Iran has continued enriching uranium to a high level, with the result that it is now apparently just weeks away from acquiring enough enriched uranium for a single nuclear bomb. But even after reaching that target – which the Iranians have so far been careful not to do – the bomb would still need to be adapted to fit on the warhead of a ballistic missile. That would take another year or two, say intelligence estimates.

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