Analysis

Iranian Threat to Israel Is Real, Even if It Serves Netanyahu’s Interests

Tehran is deploying long-range missiles in Yemen, tipping the balance of deterrence and sending the Israeli air force into high alert

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with Mohammed Abdul-Salam, spokesman for the Yemen Houthis in Tehran, August 13, 2019.
enei.ir,AP

Before the new police investigation against his advisers totally took over the media agenda, Benjamin Netanyahu had an interesting security-related announcement. He stated at a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin that Iran had recently placed long-range missiles in Yemen that threatened to reach Israel.

Every new piece of security-related information these days should be taken with a measure of skepticism. The various interests behind the revelation of Iranian threats are pretty clear. Many of the senior officials discussing the grave regional situation have a fairly transparent goal, a unity government. Everyone has his reasons, and the more serious the security situation, the greater the chance of establishing such a government.

For Netanyahu, it could be a way to remain in power after all, despite his second consecutive electoral failure. For Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz, it’s an opportunity, which he seems to prefer, to share responsibility for leading the country (something his partners in the party’s “cockpit” still vigorously oppose). For Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, it’s the solution that will put the political system back on track – and perhaps hasten the beginning of the end of the Netanyahu era. And the chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, desperately needs and end to the political paralysis in order to advance his multi-year plan for the Israeli military, part of which is meant to respond to the new threats posed by Iran and the various groups it inspires.

 Iran's long-range Shahab-3 missile being launched from an undisclosed location, 2008.
AP

Still, the new information about Yemen is significant and important. It represents the other half of the picture of threats that until now had not been revealed to the public. Military intelligence officials warned last month of the possibility that Iran would try to attack Israel from Western Iraq by launching cruise missiles or drones from bases it established in the area with the assistance of Shi’ite militias that it operates. It seems that the second scenario relates to Yemen. Tehran provided Houthi rebels there with drones and Scud missiles, which it has used in the last few years to attack airfields and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. Now, according to Netanyahu’s speech, long-range ballistic missiles have been added to the Iranian arsenal in Yemen.

Because the distance between northern Yemen and Eilat, the southernmost point in Israel, is over 1,800 kilometers, it is possibly the type known as Khorramshahr, derived from the North Korean Musudan missile. The original version has a range of about 4,000 kilometers. Reports abroad indicated that the Iranians had increased the weight of the warhead by some 500 kilograms to between 1,500 and 2,000 kilograms while reducing the range to 2,000 kilometers. In the game between range and weight of a warhead, the Iranians are capable of striking numerous targets in southern Israel from Yemen.

Iranian missiles can reach Israel from Iran itself, of course. But deploying long-range missiles in Yemen, not only enabled Tehran to fire on Saudi Arabia in the past, but also indicates that the Iranians are preparing another option for themselves. This is the plan Netanyahu revealed, in partial detail, this week.The regional picture is becoming gloomier. There is the decline of American interest in the Middle East; the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the Kurds in northern Syria to the (non-existent) mercy of the Turks; America’s failure to react to Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf, chief among them the highly damaging drone and cruise missile attack against Saudi oil facilities; the self-confidence Iran displays alongside the operational capability it displayed in Saudi Arabia – and Israel’s need to ramp up accordingly its defensive preparations against low-altitude cruise missiles, which are detected differently than ballistic missiles.

The prime minister speaks in closed forums in almost apocalyptic terms about the possible confrontation with Iran. It seems Netanyahu is relying on, among other things, intelligence assessments that the Iranians decided to establish a new balance of deterrence by which it will respond to any further Israeli attack against their bases and arms convoys on the northern front. It is of course possible that Netanyahu’s legal and political troubles are influencing his assessments, but it’s hard to ignore everything. The military, particularly the air force, remains on high alert. Anyone living near an air force base has noticed this development in recent weeks.

Anti-government protesters chant slogans and hold a placard with Arabic that reads "Iran out, all Islamic parties I want my right" during a demonstration in Basra, Iraq, October 25, 2019
Nabil al-Jurani,AP

However, the tension between Israel and Iran doesn’t depend solely on the way the two countries could end up exchanging blows. The Iranians are also swayed by other considerations. The two countries where Tehran has enormous influence, Iraq and Lebanon, have recently seen an unprecedented wave of mass protests, leading Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to announce his resignation on Tuesday.

The news worries Hezbollah, Hariri’s partner in government despite the group’s involvement in the murder of his father Rafik in 2005. These constraints – the stability of the Iraqi regime is also in danger – could affect the self-confidence of the regime in Tehran and perhaps, under certain circumstances, even restrain the policy of escalation it has recently waged against Israel.