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Why Did Israel Intensify Escalation with Iran?

Israel’s conundrum with Iran is no longer confined to Iran’s nuclear program –notwithstanding the utmost importance Israel attaches to it– but extends to other issues that Tel Aviv considers equally significant. 

Arguably, Israel has developed its counter-Iran strategy to encompass most –if not all– of Iran’s “sources of power”. This has been clearly indicated in several reports that suggested Israel has striked, on 14 February 2022, an airbase of the Revolutionary Guards near Kermanshah containing hundreds of drones. 

Seemingly, Israel deliberately leaked these reports as part of its response –which is still taking shape–to the missile attacks the Iran Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) interestingly claimed responsibility for, targeting what it called a “secret base” belonging to the Israeli intelligence in the Iraqi province of Erbil on 13 March. 

Multiple Goals

Over the past six years, the scope of Israel’s strikes on Iranian targets expanded to include ballistic missiles, drones, and the Iranian presence in various parts of the Middle East, alongside nuclear facilities. At large, Israel’s attacks are aimed at achieving several aims, most notably the following: 

Directing Attention to the “Severity” of the Nuclear Deal: Israel is vigorously campaigning against the nuclear negotiations in Vienna to promote chances of continuation of the nuclear agreement by the United States’ return to the deal in exchange for Iran’s abiding by the agreement terms. Through these attacks, Israel is striving to get the international powers involved in negotiations to realize that the new deal in Vienna will not settle the outstanding issues with Iran, particularly since the latter may attempt to sidestep the deal, non-adhering to its commitments and involving in activities relating to the military aspect of the program, away from the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Demonstrating Vulnerability of the Iranian Interior: This is a goal that gains particular significance and momentum from Israel, particularly since Iran has always relied on propaganda to promote and amplify its capabilities and attract those sympathetic to its ideological rhetoric from different countries. Israel’s intention is clear: sending the message that Iran, which boasts its capability to break into borders of other countries through its armed militias and some local communities, is itself susceptible to infiltration, as evidenced by the multiplicity and expansion of the qualitative security operations against it over the past six years, including the seizure of Iran’s nuclear archive on 31 January, the two attacks on the Natanz nuclear facility on 2 July 2020 and 11 April 2021, the assassination of the nuclear scientist and head of ministry of defense’s research and innovation organization, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, on 27 November 2020, and the attack on the drone base on 14 February 2022.

Sparking Internal Protests: Apparently, Israel’s targets in Iran aren’t restricted to nuclear or missile facilities. Recently, Iran blamed Israel for the cyber-attacks that targeted its online petrol distribution system on 26 October 2021. While Israel didn’t announce –as usual– its responsibility for the attacks, it gave the green light to its media to insinuate that. In an interview with the Israeli Channel 12, Yossi Cohen the Director of Mossad revealed details about Israel’s heist of the Iran Nuclear Archive and alluded to Israel’s responsibility for  the Natanz attacks and the assassination of Fakhrizadeh. The goal? Provoking an internal crisis and fueling protests that has become a recurring phenomenon in Iran given the worsening living conditions due to the devastating impacts of the US sanctions. This would, in the end, place Iran under constant internal pressures that would diminish the regime’s ability to manage its regional conflict with Israel.

That said, Israel doesn’t seem to have entirely realized this goal.  While Iran has been subject to wide security breaches, this did not stop it from carrying out attacks against Israeli targets and interests, especially in regional and international waters, let alone its claimed attack on an Israeli “secret base” in Erbil. This isn’t inseparable from the attacks that Hezbollah claimed responsibility for, including launching two rockets into Israel on 17 and 18 February, in tandem with the threats posed by pro-Iran militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (and perhaps Yemen at a later stage), through their engagement in escalation against Israel. Iran’s goal is to make Israel aware that the continuation of its security operations inside and outside Iran will be very costly.

Targeting Iran’s Long Arms: Iran has repeatedly used its ballistic missiles to attack targets in Iraq and Syria. For instance, it claimed it had attacked IS’ bases in Syria with ballistic missiles on 18 June 2017. On 8 January 2020, it attacked two Iraqi bases where US forces are based in response to the killing of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, in a military operation by the United States on 3 January 2020 that also claimed the life of Deputy Secretary-General of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. Additionally, Iran targeted a site that it claimed to be a secret Israeli base in Erbil on 13 March. As such, Iran has come to consider missiles as one of the key mechanisms that could be employed in managing its relations or, to be more precise, its conflicts with its regional and international opponents. If a direct confrontation between Iran and Israel is likely, missiles will be the primary tool that Iran will use to raise the cost of any military action against Israel.

Iran also relies heavily on drones as a tool to manage the conflict with its opponents and target their interests. Notably, Iran has been accused of launching attacks on oil facilities and tankers using missiles and drones. Beyond that, Iran worked to develop the capabilities of its pro-militias, as has been evidenced by the rebel Houthi Movement’s use of missiles in launching multiple attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the Iraqi True Promise Brigades’ use of missiles to attack the UAE on 2 February.In short, the above indicators –in their entirety– suggest that the shadow war between Iran and Israel will intensify over the coming period and may progress to an advanced stage after Iran deliberately claimed responsibility for the recent Erbil attack, which would drive Israel to take further action towards addressing what it perceives as direct threats to its security and interests, particularly since the Vienna negotiations on the nuclear file are coming to an end, which will give rise to new dynamics that affect the level of escalation in the coming stage.

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