Update from AIJAC
Update 11/18 #05
This Update is devoted to some new revelations about both the Iranian nuclear archives – captured by Israel earlier this year and revealed publicly on April 30 – and about an alleged Iranian nuclear storage warehouse revealed by Israeli PM Netanyahu on Sept. 27. It also features a report on concerns in Israel that Iran is preparing to escalate violence along Israel’s northern border with Syria and Lebanon.
We begin with the latest report on the alleged nuclear warehouse from the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, run by two former senior UN weapons inspectors. The Institute commissioned their own satellite photos of the site, from which they draw a number of conclusions, including the imagery, tends to corroborate Netanyahu’s claim it is an undeclared nuclear equipment warehouse, Iran has been emptying it since the nuclear archives was revealed in April, Iranian claims the site is a carpet cleaning factory are untrue, and widely-quoted claims by two anonymous US officials saying the site was an archive, not an equipment warehouse, are almost certainly wrong. The Institute is also critical of the failure of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect the site, arguing this failure raises questions about its ability to enforce the JCPOA nuclear agreement. For this important report – with all the photo evidence – CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, the US Administration has reportedly promised to push harder for the IAEA to act on the Israeli intelligence on the alleged warehouse.
Next up is an earlier report from Foreign Policy on the latest findings from expert reviews of the captured nuclear archives – including that Iran was much closer to a nuclear bomb than Western intelligence agencies and the IAEA realised. Based also in part on research done by experts from the Institute for Science and International Security, the story says that past estimates that it would take a year or more for Iran to make a deliverable nuclear bomb were wrong, and it was more like three months, according to the archive’s documents The story also says the archives proves that current Iranian President Rouhani was a “central, ongoing figure” in Iran’s past nuclear program, and there is little evidence that this has changed today. For this complete story, CLICK HERE. More on Iranian nuclear plans as described by the archives is here.
Finally, veteran Israeli Arab affairs report Yoni Ben Menachem reports that there is concern in Israel that Iran is planning to escalate its confrontation with Israel from both Syria and Lebanon, and Israel may have to act preemptively – which could risk a major conflict. He says Iran appears to have concluded from the recent Israeli fighting with Hamas that Israel is weak, and is thus both trying to set up terrorist infrastructure along the Golan border for attacks into Israel and to construct factories in Lebanon to upgrade the accuracy of Hezbollah’s massive rocket arsenal. Ben Menachem also canvasses the problem of Russia supplying Syria with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft systems which will make any Israeli preemptive airstrikes more difficult. For all the details of this threatening situation, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Ben Menachem is looking a bit prescient, with reported Israeli strikes on pro-Iranian militias in Syria overnight.
Readers may also be interested in…
- British columnist Melanie Phillips excoriates the European approach to Iran.
- Israeli economics academics Sason Hadad and Tomer Fadlon evaluate the effects on the global oil market of the latest round of US sanctions on Iran.
- Khaled Abu Toameh argues the Palestinians should rightfully welcome renewed US sanctions on Iran.
- A detailed report on renewed Iranian terrorism in Europe from Israel counter-terrorism expert Ely Karmon.
- Isi Leibler criticises Israeli PM Netanyahu for keeping the defence portfolio himself and for his policies toward Gaza.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Colin Rubenstein in the West Australian arguing that the openly antisemitic Malaysian PM Mahathir is the last person Australia should be listening to about a possible Jerusalem Embassy move.
- Oved Lobel on how the ABC got a story about the Israel-Lebanon border completely backwards.
- Plus, AIJAC is hiring in both Melbourne and Sydney.
Revealed: Emptying of the Iranian “Atomic Warehouse” at Turquz Abad
by David Albright, Olli Heinonen, Frank Pabian, and Andrea Stricker
Institute for Science and International Security, November 29, 2018
- Satellite imagery and statements presented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been corroborated using commercially available imagery
- After the Iranian Nuclear Archives were revealed, Iran started to empty the separate Atomic Warehouse site
- The warehouse site does not appear to be a carpet cleaning factory as claimed by Iran
- The IAEA should ask to visit the site, inspect the removed containers and contents, and take samples from both containers and the site.
Figure 1. Location of the “Atomic Warehouse” relative to the “Atomic Archive” site and central Tehran to the north.
Figure 2. Close-up of the Atomic Warehouse in the Turquz-Abad District and the Atomic Archive that is located in the Shoor-Abad District. The two locations are roughly five kilometers apart and easily accessed via the Tehran Second-Bypass Expressway.
On September 27, 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel revealed at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly the existence of a secret warehouse in the Turquz Abad district in Tehran, which he said held a range of equipment and materiel (as much as “300 tons”) in 15 shipping containers related to Iran’s past or possibly on-going nuclear weapons efforts.3 He also stated that the facility had held 15 kilograms of radioactive material that Iran had since dispersed around Tehran. He criticized the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for not being willing to inspect the site after Israel had quietly provided the IAEA with evidence of the “Atomic Warehouse” and information about Iran’s efforts to empty it. This emptying appears to have followed public revelations that Israel had seized a portion of Iran’s separate “Atomic Archive,” or alternatively called the “Nuclear Archive,” containing nuclear weapons files and documentation.4 Even after Netanyahu’s UN speech, and Iran’s continued efforts to empty out the site, the IAEA has still not inspected it. It should be encouraged to explain why it failed to do so and has yet to conduct a belated visit and ask for explanations from Iran on the purpose of the site and recent activities that have taken place there.
Imagery of the Warehouse
Figures 1 and 2 show the location of the Atomic Warehouse site in Tehran in September 2018 imagery as well as its relation to the site of the Nuclear Archive seized by Israel earlier in 2018 (and publicly revealed on April 30, 2018).5 The images show that they are separated by about five kilometers and that both are easily accessible via the Tehran Second-Bypass Expressway. Figure 3 shows the atomic warehouse site on September 26, 2018 just prior to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s UN speech revealing the site. Figure 4 shows the site in December 2017 before Israel hoisted documents from the Atomic Warehouse. At that time, several shipping containers of various sizes can be seen. There were five long shipping containers and ten short shipping containers present in open storage at the site, which matches the number of shipping containers described by the Israeli Prime Minister. Those containers are also seen in satellite imagery from May 2018 obtained by the Institute from the Israeli government. Based on Google Earth imagery, the site was unchanged from February 2017 until mid-2018, when changes began following public revelations about the Nuclear Archive.
Figure 3. Image of the Turkuz Abad atomic warehouse in Tehran on September 26, 2018 with an inset from the Iranian News Agency showing a ground view of the entrance. Shipping containers, present earlier, are no longer visible, but three white sedans and one small, dark-toned truck are inside the walls near the entrance.
Figure 4. Image of the Turkuz Abad atomic warehouse in Tehran on December 18, 2017. Many shipping containers are visible in the yard and it is apparent that the facility across the street is for cleaning carpets. The trailer may serve some specific support purpose, such as for electricity or to store gas bottles. Source: Google Earth
Iran denied having such a warehouse and stated that the site was a carpet cleaning facility, releasing ground images of carpets on the ground at a similar looking site as the atomic warehouse.6 However, photographs and photographic analysis by Israel show that the carpet cleaning site is directly across the street from the actual atomic warehouse (see Figure 5). Carpets can even be seen lying on the ground within that compound in a December 2017 commercial satellite image viewable on Google Earth (see Figure 4). Figures 6 and 7 show images of the gate to the Atomic Warehouse. These images show that the entrance to the Atomic Warehouse does not match that of the carpet cleaning site across the street.
Figure 5. Comparison of atomic warehouse to a carpet cleaning site across the street, which Iran falsely claimed was the atomic warehouse. Key indicators in the images show that the ground images from INSA are from the site across the road from the atomic warehouse. Source of satellite image: Israel and Google Earth. Ground images: ISNA
The image comparisons show that the Iranian government’s claim is false. Furthermore, while the Iranians did show the outside of the entrance gate and perimeter wall of the Atomic Warehouse site, they provided no photographs from inside the actual site. One possible reason was that the Iranians had not finished completely emptying or cleaning the warehouse site by the time Netanyahu spoke at the United Nations.
Figure 6. September 28, 2018 close-up image of the gate to the Atomic Warehouse, showing the warehouse in the background and the yard in front of it. This gate is not the same gate to the carpet cleaning site across the street. Source: ISNA
Figure 7. Another image of the front gate of the Atomic Warehouse, showing electrical poles and equipment not visible in front of the carpet cleaning site. Source: ISNA
Israel learned that the warehouse site was nuclear-related sometime after its discovery of the Nuclear Archive in the Shoor-Abad District prior to April 2018. At some point, Israel learned that Iran was hiding equipment and nuclear material within the warehouse site. After Israel’s seizure of a portion of Iran’s nuclear archive earlier in the year, Iran apparently decided to disperse the contents of the warehouse site and hide evidence of its purpose. Israel watched the site as Iran started to modify it.
By May, Iran may have decided to burn some items. Annotated satellite images obtained by the Institute from Israel from May and June 2018 suggest the creation of a location at the site for burning objects, but the Institute was unable to corroborate this assertion.
Israel learned that Iran had disposed of radioactively contaminated material stored at this site in the metropolitan area of Tehran. If true, by releasing the radioactive material, albeit likely low-level radioactive material, into the public domain, rather than disposing of it in an official nuclear waste site, Iran likely disregarded its own national nuclear waste disposal practices. Iran has a regulated nuclear waste disposal site in the vicinity of Tehran, according to IAEA reports on Iran. This action also implies that the militarily-controlled nuclear program is strong enough to ignore civilian nuclear regulatory authorities, since Iran’s civil nuclear programs exercise due caution with radioactive materials.
Commercial satellite images purchased by the Institute, Figures 8-14, show the steady progression of containers disappearing from the site from July into September, when the last container had been removed. The Institute was able to independently corroborate that five long containers (40 feet long) and ten short containers (20 feet long) were removed from the open storage by late September via analysis of commercial satellite imagery and Google Earth imagery spanning the period from early May to late September. Figure 14 is the most recent image available from Google Earth (dated September 26, 2018) showing that all 15 shipping containers had been removed by that date, and only the single trailer and one possible crate remain in the open area. A 40-foot container has payload capacity of 27,600 kilograms and volume of 67.7 cubic meters. A standard 20-foot container can carry a 25,000-kilogram payload, but has a smaller volume, 33.2 cubic meters. If used to store removed equipment and other materials, they would likely not be tightly packed to facilitate retrieval of items from the containers.
Figures 8-14, showing the gradual removal shipping containers from the alleged atomic warehouse between June 8 and Sept. 26, 2018. Image Source: Digital Globe via Google Earth
After Israel realized the significance of the site and the apparent effort of Iran to empty and clean up the site, it briefed the IAEA. This information likely also contained satellite evidence about the movement of the containers. Israel produced a series of unclassified satellite images, obtained by the Institute and motivated it to write this report, showing the containers leaving the site over the summer. It is unfortunate that the IAEA did not act on this, since, if the information is correct, the IAEA may have lost a remarkable opportunity to have asked to go to the site while shipping containers remained there, and irretrievably lost its capability to find the equipment and confirm its true purpose. The IAEA’s lack of action or explanation of its inaction undermines its credibility and raises questions about its effectiveness in its Iran safeguards mission. This lack of action also undermines the implementation of the provisions of Section T of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The United States, with the support of the Congress if necessary, and IAEA member states, should request the IAEA to explain the rationale behind not acting on information about nuclear-related materials, which it likely saw in its own satellite imagery, were irretrievably disappearing. The United States has a responsibility, as a member state of the IAEA, to ensure that such inaction does not continue.
The imagery shows that the comments of two anonymous U.S. officials who were quoted widely at the time of Netanyahu’s announcement were dubious and likely reflect ignorance of the Israeli findings and the warehouse.7 Both officials (who were not speaking for the U.S. government which did call for the IAEA to investigate the findings) claimed that the warehouse was used to store “records and archives” from Iran’s nuclear program and was “full of file cabinets and paper, not aluminum tubes for centrifuges.”8 Israel was mainly raising the issue of equipment related to nuclear weaponization, and not paper or gas centrifuges. The sheer volume represented by all the shipping containers visible in the images of the warehouse site, and comparing those to the volume of documents in the Nuclear Archive discovered and photographed earlier by Israel, indicate that any documents stored at the warehouse would entail only a small fraction of the available volume of the shipping containers, not to mention that of the double warehouse also located onsite. While documents may be included in the containers and in the warehouse, it would defy logic to assert that all these shipping containers were packed with documents. Moreover, Israel stated categorically that it had intelligence information that the containers held nuclear-related equipment and materials.
One has to ask if the two anonymous officials understood the question from Reuters or were poorly informed about the atomic warehouse. In any case, the statements by these anonymous officials should be discounted as moot.
It is urgent to learn where all nuclear-related equipment and material, and any associated documentation previously stored at the Atomic Warehouse, are presently located. There is no evidence that Iran systematically destroyed all these items. While Iran razed buildings, such as at the Physics Research Center, and emptied out others, such as the Parchin high explosive testing site, it preserved their unique and valuable equipment, documentation, and materials.9 It remains important for the IAEA to visit the warehouse that allegedly held these items, take environmental samples, and insist that Iran produce the shipping containers removed from the site and their contents for inspection. The IAEA should request, if not already done, that Iran explain their whereabouts and not further move or destroy any of these materials before the IAEA has been able to examine them.
This event directly contradicts those who hoped and proclaimed that the JCPOA would make it easier to mount inspections when concrete evidence would arise. Israel has certainly brought forth actionable, credible evidence to the IAEA. Yet, nothing has happened. This failure underlines critics’ concerns about the JCPOA and its implementation and enforcement. It also validates their concerns that the JCPOA has distorted the IAEA’s routine safeguards mission and investigations that it would normally carry out pursuant to Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement.
1. Olli Heinonen is Former Deputy Director General of the IAEA and head of its Department of Safeguards. He is a Senior Advisor on Science and Nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.↩
2. Frank Pabian is a retired Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Fellow from both the Global Security and Science-Technology-Engineering Directorates, most recently in the Geophysics Group, Earth and Environmental Sciences Division, with 45 years of experience in satellite remote sensing for nuclear nonproliferation. He also served in the 1990s as a United Nations Nuclear Chief Inspector in Iraq for the IAEA.↩
3. See John Irish and Arshad Mohammed, “Netanyahu, in U.N. speech, claims secret Iranian nuclear site,” Reuters. September 27, 2018,https://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-assembly-israel-iran/netanyahu-in-un-speech-claims-secret-iranian-nuclear-site-idUSKCN1M72FZ. A video of Netanyahu’s presentation at the UN General Assembly is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s1X39WjzTVQ↩
4. In Institute reports, we refer to this facility mainly as the nuclear archive instead of the atomic archive, although the names can be used interchangeably.↩
6. ISNA, “Turquzabad District; there is no secret atomic warehouse,” September 29, 2018, https://en.isna.ir/photo/97070703850/Turquzabad-District-there-is-no-secret-atomic-warehouse↩
7. Reuters, “Netanyahu, in U.N. speech, claims secret Iranian nuclear site, September 27, 2018.↩
9. Based on examining Google Earth images, many containers showed up in 2014 and were then removed that same year. The significance of this is hard to assess. However, in 2014 the IAEA was asking regularly for access to the Parchin site. In addition, serious negotiations with the P5+1 intensified and activities associated with the Parchin site may have been under negotiation, at least indirectly. In response, Iran may have moved equipment and material from Parchin to the Atomic Warehouse.↩
Iran Was Closer to a Nuclear Bomb Than Intelligence Agencies Thought
If Tehran pulls out of the 2015 deal, it could have a weapon in a matter of months.
BY MICHAEL HIRSH
Foreign Policy, Nov. 13, 2018
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a press conference in New York on Sept. 26. (Jim Watson/ AFP)
A secret Iranian archive seized by Israeli agents earlier this year indicates that Tehran’s nuclear program was more advanced than Western intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency had thought, according to a prominent nuclear expert who examined the documents.
That conclusion, in turn, suggests that if Iran pulls out of the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal that U.S. President Donald Trump has already abandoned, it has the know-how to build a bomb fairly swiftly, perhaps in a matter of months, said David Albright, a physicist who runs the nonprofit Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C.
Iran would still need to produce weapons-grade uranium. If it restarts its centrifuges, it could have enough in about seven to 12 months, added Albright, who is preparing reports on the archive.
Before the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal mainly negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, that would have taken only two months, but under the accord Iran was required to ship about 97 percent of its nuclear fuel out of the country and dismantle most its centrifuges.
Experts say the revelation that Iran had more advanced capabilities to make nuclear weapons themselves—as opposed to its ability to produce weapons-grade fuel, the main focus of the nuclear pact—is a surprising and troubling finding in the new intelligence.
“The archive is littered with new stuff about the Iranian nuclear weapons program,” Albright told Foreign Policy. “It’s unbelievable how much is in there.” One of his key conclusions from studying the documents was that the Iranians “were further along than Western intelligence agencies realized.”
The archive, which is well over 100,000 pages long, covers the period from 1999 to 2003, a decade before negotiations on a nuclear deal began. But the trove of documents demonstrates that Washington and the IAEA were constantly underestimating how close Tehran was to a bomb.
Former UN Weapons Inspector Dr. David Albright says archives shows both US and IAEA were wrong about how close Iran was to a bomb.
“The U.S. was issuing statements that it would take a year at least, perhaps two years, to build a deliverable weapon. The information in the archive makes it clear they could have done it a lot quicker,” said Albright. He added that the French government, which was then saying Iran could achieve a weapon in three months, was much closer in its estimates.
Analysts were still sifting through the archive, said Albright, who is also known for tracking North Korea’s nuclear program and for investigating Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs going back to the 1990s. “I don’t think even the Israelis have gone through it all,” he said. “Every day when they go through it they see something new.”
Mossad agents seized the archive in a daring nighttime raid on a warehouse in Tehran at the end of January. In late April, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed some of the content in a speech that was panned as a melodramatic attempt to prod Trump into leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name for the Iran nuclear deal. “These files conclusively prove that Iran is brazenly lying when it said it never had a nuclear weapons program,” Netanyahu said.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, called Netanyahu’s presentation “a prearranged show with the aim of impacting Trump’s decision, or perhaps it is a coordinated plan by him and Trump in order to destroy the JCPOA.”
Trump announced the United States was withdrawing several days later.
In the period described in the Iranian archive, current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani—who later signed off on the JCPOA—was national security advisor. According to a draft of the first report by the Institute for Science and International Security, which was obtained by FP:
“Rouhani was a central, ongoing figure in the nuclear weapons program in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It is difficult to find evidence that his support for nuclear weapons ever ended.”
While Netanyahu’s presentation highlighted Iran’s deceptiveness, the institute’s analysis focuses on how Iran managed to “put in place by the end of 2003 the infrastructure for a comprehensive nuclear weapons program” intended to initially produce five nuclear warheads, each with an explosive yield of 10 kilotons, according to the draft.
The analysis was done by Albright, Olli Heinonen, the former deputy director-general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Andrea Stricker, a senior policy analyst at the institute. The three concluded that by the late 1990s, Iran had already developed “a full range of technical competences and capabilities, not just some, as characterized by the IAEA in late 2015.”
The authors also indicate that much is still unknown about what remains of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. “The program’s remains, and likely some activities, have continued up to today. The question of where all this equipment and material is now located is more urgent to answer.”
Albright, who has gone to Tel Aviv several times to comb through the archive—most recently two weeks ago—says he is certain the information, which has also been verified by the U.S. government, is authentic. It is consistent with “the thrust of what the IAEA had collected,” he said, but more detailed.
The archive casts no light, however, on whether Iran was observing the 2015 deal, and most experts say Tehran was cooperating at the time that Trump withdrew.
Alexandra Bell, a former Obama administration official who worked on compliance reports for the JCPOA, said that even if the intelligence from the archive is accurate and Tehran lied in the past, its behavior should be judged by whether it is complying with the deal now. “There shouldn’t be oversight through media reports,” Bell said. “As with any agreement, issues come up and they should be dealt with in the proper channels. They should be addressed by the JCPOA parties.”
She noted that before it withdrew from the deal, the Trump administration twice declared Iran in compliance, and the IAEA has done so 15 times. “The JCPOA is working,” Bell said.
Even so, the existence of the archive under the authority of a mysterious Iranian organization has raised concerns among some governments and the IAEA over whether Iran is preserving its ability to build nuclear weapons in the future. Under the JCPOA, Iran must mainly relinquish its ability to enrich and reprocess weapons-grade fuel, subject to rigorous IAEA inspection.
Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a former Bush administration official who worked on Iran, said the revelation that Iran “never came clean on all this, where they were on the weapons back then, that’s a biggie. The question is where they were at the time of the JCPOA. That’s why some people in the intelligence community were so keen on getting a deal—Iran had so much breakout ability at the time of the deal.”
As to what happens now, with Tehran still nominally observing the nuclear pact, “the likelihood that Iran does anything very publicly is very small,” Levitt said. “The question is how far do they go in a clandestine fashion, given that they know what we know.”
Iran Prepares for Escalation on Israel’s Northern Border
Yoni Ben Menachem
Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, Nov. 28, 2018
Satellite images of the S-300 batteries in Syria. (ImageSat International ISI)
- Israel is concerned that Iran is beginning preparations to inflame its northern border with Syria via Hizbullah.
- Despite tension on the southern border, the IDF can deal with several fronts at the same time.
- The possibility of Israel launching a preemptive military strike should not be ruled out.
Commentators on the Arab world are watching Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot with interest following media reports that he cancelled an important meeting in Germany called for next week, and the reasons for his cancellation remain obscure.
They believe it is connected to developments on the northern border, and not specifically to the situation in Gaza following the renewal of Egyptian contacts with Israel and Hamas to advance the understandings for calm.
The Iranian leadership is sure that Israel is weak, and this is the right time to strike against it.
At the 32nd International Islamic Unity Conference, which took place in Tehran on November 24, 2018, Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei made the following statements about Israel:
“The Zionist enemy crumpled against the Palestinian resistance after only two days… All this proves that the Zionist regime is significantly weakened… The pace of weakening is increasing.”
What Are Iran and Hizbullah Planning?
Senior security sources in Israel are suspicious of secret activities by Gen. Qasem Soleimani, leader of the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Lebanon, who is planning to inflame the northern sector against Israel in two ways:
Deploying Hizbullah and pro-Iranian forces close to the border fence on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, with the assistance of local (Druze and pro-Iranian) elements, which, in exchange for financial payment, would construct terrorist infrastructure for attacks against Israel. These include laying mines and IEDs, firing anti-tank missiles at IDF patrols, and launching mortar attacks on Israeli communities in the Golan Heights.
Gen. Soleimani and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah prefer this option, instead of the attacks launched from southern Lebanon as it would neutralize Israel’s possible counterstrike and the destruction of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure.
Opening a new front against Israel from the Syrian Golan Heights would also divide IDF forces among several fronts.
Constructing factories inside Lebanon to upgrade the missiles in the possession of Hizbullah to become more accurate and capable of hitting strategic targets deep in Israel more accurately. These targets include Ben-Gurion airport, the atomic reactor in Dimona, refineries in Haifa, and various IDF bases.
The working assumption of Hizbullah and Iran is that Israel would not dare to launch a preemptive strike on these factories out of fear that this would lead to an all-out war.
An Iranian soldier in Lebanon in 2014. Note his “Iran” and “Hizbullah” patches.
Syrian opposition groups left southern Syria in September, and the entire region is now under Syrian army control.
In the past, Hizbullah’s Nasrallah attempted to open a new front against Israel in the Golan Heights using a local infrastructure. He gave this mission to Samir Kuntar (a Lebanese terrorist who sat in an Israeli prison for nine years) and Jihad Mughniyeh (son of the infamous arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh). However, according to foreign news reports, the IDF assassinated both of them in 2015, before they carried out any attacks.
The Hizbullah leader has apparently placed this issue at the top of his priorities in order to settle his accounts with Israel. Israel is aware of Nasrallah’s intentions, and this was reflected in Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot’s tour of the border area in the Golan Heights in November, 2018.
Israel shares fully with the Trump administration all of its concerns about possible developments on the northern border.
Can Any Scenario Be Ruled Out?
The possibility cannot be ruled out that Iran, via Hizbullah, is planning a new war of attrition against Israel from the Golan Heights border at the same time as the war of attrition with Hamas on the southern border through its “Return Marches” campaign.
The developments on the northern border are worrying. Israel’s freedom of aerial action in Syrian airspace is limited following the incident when a Russian spy plane was brought down by a Syrian air defense system in September, 2018. Russia blames the Israeli air force for the interception.
Russia transferred S-300 missile batteries to Syria, and with Russian guidance, these have been integrated gradually into the Syrian air defense system.
The possibility that Israel will launch a military preemptive strike on the Hizbullah weapons factories in Lebanon, before they become operational, seems very far off, but not illogical.
Iran and Hizbullah constructed these factories after Israel managed methodically and over a period of time to destroy game-changing advanced weaponry being transferred in convoys from Iran to Lebanon.
With the weapons’ destruction, Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani decided to construct the weapons factories inside Lebanon to prevent Israeli attacks.
We are now in a very tense period regarding security on the southern and northern borders, and with growing Iranian intervention in the region, no possible scenario can be ruled out. The IDF can handle several fronts at the same time. It has done so in the past, and it can also do it again in the future.
Israel is determined to protect the security of its citizens. But it may have no other choice other than to carry out actions that may not seem to be rational right now.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs.