How a military exchange gives Tehran insight into a sworn enemy.
The international politics of escalating tension between Israel and Iran are in flux. In just three weeks, a change in the atmosphere can be measured in three ways.
First, the western airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad's regime on the night of 13-14 April were met with disappointment by advisors of Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. Instead of a major operation that delivered a sharp warning to Iran over its military build-up in Syria, the attack was little more than symbolic. If the coordinated United States-France-United Kingdom action inflicted no real military damage, nor did it do anything to deter the Quds force – the external arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – from further building up its forces in Syria (see "After the Syria raid: what next?", 17 April 2018).
Second, Trump's declared opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran was leading three of its other signatories – France, Germany and the UK – to launch a strong diplomatic effort to dissuade him from repudiating it. For Israel, the deal's survival promised to be a worrying setback.
Third, the Assad regime's advancing control of Syrian territory was part of an emerging tripartite threat to Israel's regional power. A heavily armed, well entrenched and confident Hizbollah militia was based just across Israel’s northern border in Lebanon, with relatively easy supply-lines from Iran. And a permanent Quds force military presence in Syria was likely to include enlarged missile production and assembly facilities.
Today, the picture already looks different. Binyamin Netanyahu now leads a government that is little short of triumphalist. In the end, Trump ignored his supposed European allies and on 8 May gave official approval to the United States's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. The White House made it clear that if Iran starts up its nuclear programme it will face a military response. Moreover, the new US embassy was inaugurated in Jerusalem on 14 May, while the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have met the Palestinian protests in Gaza with lethally effective force.
Some indication of Israel's restored confidence is its justification for that use of force, which has killed dozens of people and wounded over 2,000, the majority of the latter hospitalised with gunshot wounds. Israeli government spokespersons appearing in the western media argue that the protesters were either unthinking dupes of Hamas or themselves of malign intent. This implies that the IDF is facing thousands of murderous terrorists determined to breach the border and attack innocent Israeli villagers, and who thus deserve to be shot.
Such rhetoric may be counterproductive, not least as several western media outlets are reporting from within Gaza and are able to offer a more balanced view. The Israeli government knows this, yet with the firm support of the US administration feels no need to refine its message. With Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and especially John Bolton advising Trump, what is there to fear?
The coming war
All is not what it seems, though, a point highlighted by the fallout from Israel's severe military assault against a Quds missile-strike towards the Golan heights. The sequence began with the firing of a barrage of twenty 1970s-vintage unguided BM-27short-range rockets towards Israeli positions on the Golan. It is not clear how many landed, but there were no Israeli casualties (see "Target Tehran", 10 May 2018)
Against this small-scale attack, on the same night the IDF launched its biggest air operation in Syria for decades, hitting dozens of targets associated with the Quds force. Israel's defence minister Avigdor Lieberman said that the IDF had hit “almost all of the Iranian infrastructure in Syria, and they should remember that when it rains here, there will be a downpour there. I hope we have completed this episode” (see Yaakov Lappin & Jeremy Binnie, “Israel responds to rocket fire by striking Iranian targets in Syria”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 11 May 2018).
There is, however, something too easy in the view that the Quds force staged an abortive attack which was eclipsed by immediate, massive – and triumphant – IDF retaliation. Quds is, after all, experienced and battle-hardened, not least by two years of aiding Iraq's government in the fight against ISIS in Mosul and elsewhere. In doing so it has been loosely allied with a much wider coalition, including the United States and its western allies with their massive use of air-power. The force has also been on the receiving end of scores of smaller Israeli airstrikes in Syria. All this gives its commanders confidence in their own abiities and insight into western capabilities.
The IRGC as a whole is intensely engaged in worst-case planning for an expected war with Israel and the United States. The increased Quds force deployments in Syria over the last couple of years, and the construction of permanent bases, make a second front available when that war comes. There would be no purpose in undertaking a limited and crude rocket-attack towards well-protected Israeli forces on the Golan heights, except as a deliberate provocation designed to assess Israeli capabilities against a range of targets (see "Israel vs Iran, a looming war", 26 April 2018).
Much physical damage will certainly have been done, but it's almost certain that most key equipment will have been moved and personnel evacuated in advance. The Iranians will now be doing site-by-site assessments of the Israeli attacks: working out how different weapons worked, whether "bunker-buster" and thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) weapons were used, whether the IDF had any problems with Syrian air defences, and what can be learned from the rapid nature of the Israeli response. That the response came within hours of the Iranian firing indicates that it was largely pre-planned.
In short, the Iranian commanders will now have a far better understanding of Israeli airforce capabilities. That represents an invaluable source of intelligence, capable of being used to assess their future deployments in Syria and indeed in Iran itself. Even more useful will be intelligence sharing with Hizbollah’s forces across southern Lebanon. To take one example, there are unconfirmed reports that the IDF did indeed use earth-penetrating (bunker-buster) bombs, having since 2010 received 500 from the United States. Since the last war with Israel in 2006, Hizbollah has progressively used underground storage for many of its missiles, so any data on the IDF's actual capabilities in this regard will be priceless.
At first sight the recent exchange of fire was a clear victory for the IDF against an incompetent enemy. At second sight it was much more than that. The Iranians will now be much better prepared for what might be to come.
Paul Rogers, Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016)
Abbas Amanat, Iran: A Modern History (Yale University Press, 2018)
Matthew Levitt , Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God (C Hurst, 2013)
Christopher Phillips, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East (Yale University Press, 2016)
Ahmed S Hashim, Iranian Ways of War From Cyrus the Great to Qasem Soleimani (C Hurst, forthcoming, 2019)