Analysis

After Years of Covert Proxy Wars, Iran Shifts to Direct Contact With Israel

Israel and Iran have essentially been at war since the early 1980s through proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas, but at no point has there been a direct military confrontation between the two

An old military vehicle can be seen positioned on the Israeli side of the border with Syria, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel February 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
\ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

The shock that many Israelis felt seeing a fighter jet of their invincible air force scattered into a thousand pieces in the Galilee dominated much of the coverage of Saturday morning’s air battle. But a much more important question is why did the Syrians succeed for the first time since 1982 in shooting down an Israeli aircraft? (Realistically, after Israel’s 100-plus airstrikes on targets in Syria over the last seven years, the loss of just one plane is an excellent record by all standards.) 

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While there have been a number of incursions into Israeli airspace since 2006 by Iranian-made drones, these have all been carried out by Hezbollah or Hamas. Of course, Iranian officers would have been closely involved, but early Saturday marked the first instance, as far as we know, where the drone was directly operated by Iranians, not just a proxy. The precedent doesn’t relate just to drones.

Israel and Iran have essentially been at war since the early 1980s, when under Iranian influence, Hezbollah was formed as a Shi’ite militia fighting Israel’s military presence in southern Lebanon. In all the time since then, Iran has pursued its campaign against Israel through proxies – Hezbollah and at various points Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Assad regime in Syria.

>> In first, Israel and Iran are engaged in a head-to-head confrontation ■ As Syria and Iran Threaten Israel, America Signals Its Ally Is on Its Own <<

Israel’s own campaign against Iran has been waged in secret intelligence operations occasionally – according to foreign media sources – also using proxies from the opposition groups to the Islamist regime in Tehran. But at no point has there been a direct military confrontation between the two countries.

TOPSHOT - A picture taken on February 10, 2018, shows the remains of a missile that landed in the southern Lebanese village of Kaoukaba, near the border with Syria, after Israel's military attacked 12 Syrian and Iranian targets inside Syria in what it described as "large-scale" raids following an exchange of fire earlier in the day.
ALI DIA/AFP

There doesn’t even exist an official state of war, as still exists by law between Israel and some Arab countries since 1948. Only in 2011 was the law prohibiting trade with “enemy countries” updated to include Iran. 

This sudden departure from established Iranian strategy, in which the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force has for the first time carried out its own incursion of Israeli airspace, still has many Israeli officials baffled. In a briefing Monday, the Israel Air Force’s second-in-command, Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, admitted that he still had no idea what mission the Shahed-141 drone was on.

“It could be anything between an intelligence-gathering operation and an attack operation,” he said. “They may have been trying to test our capabilities and alertness and the degree to which we protect Israel’s skies. It’s very important for us to understand what the objective of the mission was, but I can’t say at this point.” 

That it was an attack mission is unlikely, as no weapon or explosives have so far been found among the drone’s fragments, which are in Israel’s hands. A reconnaissance operation would perhaps make more sense, but if this is the case, why didn’t the Quds Force use one of its proxies to carry out the mission, as it has in the past?

Some Israeli analysts have advanced the theory that the incursion was a successful effort to “draw Israeli aircraft into a missile trap.” But if the Iranians were using the drone to lure Israel into a counterattack, why sacrifice the Shahed-141? It’s the latest model by Iran’s aerospace industry, cloning the American RQ-170 spy plane, an example of which fell into the Iranians’ hands in 2011. The same objective could have been achieved using an older and less valuable drone.

One explanation that has been made by Iranian exiles, ostensibly based on sources within the Revolutionary Guards’ air force, was that the plan was to obtain footage of Israeli bases that would be used on Sunday’s 39th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Such pictures, the explanation goes, would have been proof of Iran’s strategic capabilities and superiority over the Zionist enemy; this would have diverted attention from Iran’s domestic unrest.

If that was the case, the mission was a complete failure: The drone was shot down the moment it entered Israeli airspace. On Sunday, at the anniversary marches and celebrations, Israel was barely mentioned and the theme was internal unity. 

Four decades ago, before the revolution, Iran and Israel were strategic allies – two non-Arab nations in the Middle East sharing a rivalry and often enmity with the Sunni Arab regimes. For Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a never-ending war with Israel was a cornerstone of the Islamic Revolution, but 39 years later, as revolutionary fervor seems to be waning in Iran, his successors may feel they need a more direct confrontation to keep the embers alive.