The bottom line of the Israel Defense Forces’ intelligence assessment for 2020 isn’t significantly different than it was the previous two years. The likelihood of anyone intentionally starting a war against Israel remains low (in recent years, Military Intelligence has freed itself of the taboo created by the 1973 Yom Kippur War and is willing to say that explicitly). But MI sees a medium to high probability of an unplanned slide into war due to escalating reciprocal strikes.
What’s new in this assessment lies in two reservations. First, Military Intelligence admits that given the current pace of events in the region, and especially how quickly escalations can develop, it’s impossible to provide a precise forecast. At most, it can identify general trends.
Second, its ability to make predictions is particularly limited regarding how the people will act in neighboring countries and their economic plight. This was illustrated, for example, by recent fluctuations in the protests in Iran, and by the fact that earlier predictions of an economic collapse in Syria proved false, as, to some extent, did similar predictions about Iran.
Military Intelligence defines the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and the shock waves it caused, as the most dramatic event in the region so far this year. It was preceded by two important developments in Iran last year – intensified American sanctions in May, which prompted a series of Iranian attacks aimed mainly at the Gulf states’ oil industry, and the incidents between Iran and its agents and Israeli forces on the Syrian and Lebanese borders in August and September.
Military Intelligence describes Soleimani’s death as a “formative blow” that’s expected to have a significant impact on the region. The Trump administration surprised the Iranians with its willingness to kill Soleimani, who commanded the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, and this bolstered American deterrence against Iran.
Iran’s leaders can now expect a year of tough decisions. Should they continue their gradually escalating violations of the nuclear agreement, which risks provoking Europe to follow America’s lead and quit the deal? Should they continue Soleimani’s legacy of consolidating the region’s Shi’ite axis by setting up military bases in Syria and smuggling advanced arms to Lebanon, even at the price of a growing risk of direct conflict with Israel? And how should they address their enormous budget deficit when sanctions on their oil industry have deprived them of their main revenue source?
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In the background, two important elections are due this year – for the Iranian parliament and the U.S. presidency. Meanwhile, protests have re-erupted in Iran, gaining renewed impetus after the Iranians mistakenly shot down a passenger plane at the height of the Soleimani crisis.
Tehran’s violations of the nuclear deal are still seen in Israel as a controlled, gradual escalation designed – like Iran’s attacks in the Gulf – to push Washington to return to negotiations and recommit to the deal. The violations are a way of accumulating bargaining chips that can be used in future talks with the Americans.
In the meantime, Tehran risks a crisis with the deal’s European partners. Continued violations may force them to take a stand in the next few months.
At its current pace of uranium enrichment, Iran would need almost two years to produce a nuclear bomb if it decided to do so. But the change in Tehran’s conduct has already forced Israeli Military Intelligence to divert resources to increased monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program.
Still, Israel would apparently have to invest a lot more preparation and resources if it sought to hone its offensive option, as it did early in the previous decade, and no such decision has yet been made. The immediate theater of friction with Iran isn’t its nuclear program but Soleimani’s legacy of military entrenchment in Syria.
On this score, despite the apparent lull in incidents in recent weeks, Military Intelligence thinks an opportunity has been created to accelerate the pace of attacks against Iran and its allies. And it has urged Israel to seize this opportunity despite its assessment that Iran and Hezbollah will respond militarily if any of their people are killed.
MI doesn’t think Soleimani achieved one of his main goals of recent years: Hezbollah still doesn’t possess an array of precision missiles that it could use against Israel, nor has it begun to systematically produce precision weapons. MI doesn’t define Hezbollah’s capabilities in these fields as operational.
On the Palestinian front, MI stuck to its assessment that Hamas doesn’t want war, wants to rebuild Gaza and seeks a long-term cease-fire – and is therefore willing to keep trying to restrain Islamic Jihad and other small factions.
Still, MI hasn’t retracted its strategic warning about the risk of an outbreak of violence in the West Bank, even though such a development hasn’t happened in recent years. This could happen in response to a specific incident or due to the Palestinian Authority’s collapse, possibly as a result of the expected battle to succeed President Mahmoud Abbas.