The series of explosions, fires and mysterious mishaps that took place in the past month in Iran continues to attract international attention. Even on the assumption that most of the incidents are related to a low level of maintenance of the country’s infrastructure sites, the events affect the regime’s image and undermine the might that it wants to convey to its citizens. Western media outlets attribute some of the incidents to a deliberate campaign of sabotage, sponsored by Israel and perhaps the United States – and are thereby indirectly spurring Tehran to initiate a response that would make it clear that it is determined to protect its interests.
Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, who is in charge of the U.S. forces in the Middle East, told The Washington Post last weekend that Iran may respond with an operation against Israel. He said a new crisis is likely to erupt in the wake of “the recent attacks on Iran’s centrifuges at Natanz and missile-testing sites. Iran blames Israel, and at some point, my experience with Iran tells me they will respond.”
In a telephone briefing to journalists from somewhere in the Middle East, McKenzie added that the assassination by the United States of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January created a new balance of deterrence against Tehran, but “Iran still holds its goals for regional hegemony and, as part of that, they are intent on ejecting the United States from the region.” He added that Iran was “calculating” how to undermine the U.S. presence “without crossing a red line,” and said that since the assassination, it is more difficult for the Iranians to make decisions and to formulate policy, for fear that they won’t read the anticipated American response properly.
“I think it would be a great mistake for Hezbollah to try to carry out operations against Israel [from Lebanon, as part of the Iranian response]. I can’t see that having a good ending,” McKenzie said.
In recent weeks there have apparently been additional Iranian attempts at cyberattacks against Israel, in a continuation of the attempted attack against Israeli water infrastructure facilities in April. Those attempts were also prevented.
The Israeli defense establishment is also still seeing some confusion in Iran in the absence of Soleimani, who is now being described as “the missing strategist.” The major general, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, was the motivating agent behind his country’s intelligence activity throughout the region. His replacement, Esmail Ghaani, is seen as a skilled and organized staff soldier, but not as someone who can lead Iran’s regional strategy or acquire a similar senior status in the country’s chain of command beyond his original rank.
The recent chain of events is placing the regime in distress, because it joins the assassination of Soleimani, the incident of the accidental downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane in Iranian airspace (which was whitewashed for several days), the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic that continues to rage in the country, and the economic woes. Since the start of the year there has been a decline of almost 50 percent in the value of the rial, almost half of that in the past month.
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The government’s decisions to cut subsidies for essential goods rekindled public fury, and last week there was already a report of protest demonstrations. The desperate economic situation, under U.S. sanctions, spurred the government to reopen the economy. As expected, this step increased the extent of illness from the coronavirus. And the budgetary problems led to a cutback in Iranian assistance to Hezbollah, the Shi’ite militias in Iraq and other organizations that Tehran operates for its own needs throughout the region.
Added to the regime’s problems is the fact that Israel, according to foreign media reports, has intensified the aerial attacks in Syria in recent months, against sites identified with the Iranian effort at military entrenchment there and the smuggling of weapons to Hezbollah. At the same time, intelligence information sent by Israel to the International Atomic Energy Agency, based on documents from the nuclear archive that were stolen by the Mossad in an operation in 2018, has led to a demand by the IAEA to send inspectors to examine two additional sites that the Iranians were trying to conceal.
Dr. Dalia Dassa-Kaye, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the Rand Corporation in California, said Sunday in an interview on CNN that senior Israeli officials realize that Iran is isolated in the international arena and is in a position of weakness. She said that the combination of the policy of maximum pressure being exercised against Iran by the Trump administration, the coronavirus, and the death of Soleimani are encouraging Israel to initiate its own pressure on the regime.
According to Dassa-Kaye, the U.S. administration is not taking steps to restrain Israel, and in effect is giving the Israeli leadership to believe it has a green light from the United States to act. She estimated that there is a reasonable possibility that Israel is behind the explosion in the centrifuge facility earlier this month – as claimed by regional intelligence sources who were quoted in The New York Times. She also says that it’s possible to expect additional Israeli moves. But she warns that Israel may be taking a dangerous gamble when it assumes that Iran won’t react, because it’s hard to prevent escalation when the regional situation is already so sensitive.
Dassa Kaye’s analysis should also include the domestic politics in Israel and in the United States. The Trump administration has three and a half months left until the elections, which the president will lose, according to all the polls (and another two and a half months from Election Day in November until the end of his term, if he does lose). In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is confronting an unprecedented crisis, which stems from the health-related and economic damage caused by the coronavirus, along with the start of his trial and an increasing lack of public trust. Trump and Netanyahu find themselves in unaccustomed positions of weakness. These are exceptional times –- which could also develop into unforeseen scenarios of escalation.