by Yoav Limor
The Iranians can launch missiles or, more realistically, deploy armed drones with a range of 2,000 kilometers. These drones fly slowly, near to the ground, and are especially difficult for the air force to detect and intercept.
In response to their recent exchange of blows on the high seas, which reached an apex on Tuesday with the attack on an Iranian spy ship in the Red Sea, Israel is also bracing for a possible strike on targets in Israel from Iranian territory.
The Iranian-flagged Saviz was hit with limpet mines attached to its hull. Israel didn't claim responsibility for the incident, but foreign news outlets reported that the IDF's Shayetet 13 naval commandos carried out the operation, which was just the latest in a string of operations against Iranian targets the unit has carried out over the past two years.
It appears that contrary to previous incidents, in which Israel reportedly disrupted illicit weapons or oil smuggling, this time the purpose of the attack was to let the Iranians know that their recent attacks on vessels owned by Israeli businessmen were out of bounds.
Although the targeted ship was operating under a civilian guise, it was a spy vessel permanently docked near Eritrea to gather information on ship movements in the Red Sea. It's safe to assume Iran will not let this attack go unanswered. One option is to attack Israel from Iranian soil. The Iranians can launch missiles or, more realistically, deploy armed drones with a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) and farther. Unlike regular rockets and missiles, the drones fly slowly, near to the ground, and are especially difficult for the air force to detect and intercept.
As reported, the exchange of blows between Israel and Iran have intensified in recent weeks and have also included Israeli airstrikes on Iran's proxy militias in Syria, Tehran's efforts to smuggle precision missile components into Lebanon, and its widespread maritime activities, some of which has been revealed publicly in recent weeks. In this context, it has been reported that Shayetet 13 has carried out dozens of missions to sabotage illicit oil shipments from Iran to Syria. The money from the sale of this oil was used in part to fund Hezbollah and other terrorist elements. According to assessments, these sabotage operations cost the Iranians upwards of $2 billion.
The objective of other operations carried out by Shayetet 13 was to prevent advanced weapons from reaching Hezbollah hands in Lebanon. Several days ago, a purportedly innocent ship was damaged, but it was later revealed to have been smuggling components for Hezbollah's precision missile project. The equipment, a fuel mixer for missiles, was to replace similar equipment that was damaged and destroyed in a drone strike attributed to Israel in August 2019.
In response to this chain of events, Iran attacked at least two Israeli-owned cargo ships sailing under a foreign flag. the first attack, in the Gulf of Oman, was aimed at a ship owned by businessman Rami Ungar. It was hit by limpet mines attached to its hull by Iranian commandos.
In the second attack, some two weeks ago, a ship owned by Israeli businessman Udi Angel was hit. The ship was struck by missiles launched from an Iranian vessel. In both cases, Iran's methods were similar to Israel's alleged modus operandi: sabotaging ships but without sinking them or causing casualties. It appears, however, that the succession of blows sustained by Iran, including Mossad operations on its soil, could now spur Iran to change its policy to incorporate direct attacks on Israel, rather than via proxies. It's safe to assume such an attack can only be approved by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself.
From past experience, it seems the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force, commanded by Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, would be tasked with such an attack on Israel. The IRGC's Aerospace Force is a strategic arm of the Islamic republic, which possesses advanced missile and other capabilities (including drones). This force is responsible for launching the cruise missiles and drones that struck Saudi Arabia's gigantic Aramco oil production facility on September 14, 2019, causing extensive damage.
Iran never confessed to firing those missiles from its territory, but Western intelligence agencies have solid evidence proving it. Until recently, Israeli officials believed that despite the numerous blows it has sustained, Iran would not launch weapons from its territory so as not to risk a direct Israeli counterstrike. Senior officials said Iran would prefer putting its proxies in the line of fire, rather than itself. The belief was that Iran would try retaliating from Syrian soil, and perhaps even via the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Indeed, it was reported recently that attack drones have been delivered by the IRGC to the Houthis, which led Israel to refocus its intelligence efforts and place its aerial defenses on high alert.
If Iran indeed takes direct action from its territory, it will, for the first time, move the war with Israel out of the shadows. Thus far, this war has been fought secretly and in the dark, or on foreign soil through proxies, primarily its militias in Syria.
In February 2018, Israel intercepted an Iranian drone launched from Syria. The IDF retaliated by attacking Iranian and Syrian targets. During these airstrikes, an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was shot down. Three months later, Iran again tried attacking Israel, this time launching 40 rockets from Syria at the Golan Heights. Most of the rockets landed inside Syria and others were intercepted, and in response, the IDF hit dozens of Iranian targets on Syrian soil in an operation dubbed "House of Cards."
At the time, Israeli officials believed the Iranians were responding to Israel's efforts to dislodge them from Syria, and for stealing their nuclear archive from the heart of Tehran, which had come to light a few days earlier. In January 2019, rockets fired at the Mount Hermon ski resort were intercepted by Israel's air defenses. In June 2019, too, rockets were fired from Syria at the Hermon, one of them landing in Israeli territory without causing damage. In August 2019, Iran tried launching armed drones from Syria at IDF bases on the Golan Heights, but the army hit the drone operators before they could carry out the attack. This incident sparked an escalation with Hezbollah, which sought to avenge their deaths under the claim that they were members of the organization.
In light of the recent escalation with Iran, Israeli defense officials have departed for several Western capitals to present the severity of the Iranian danger. The issue was also raised in meetings between President Reuven Rivlin and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in Germany, France and Austria recently. Naturally, Israel has reported to the Americans and Russians as well.