Change Region:Papua New Guinea

FRIDAY FEATURE - The Dog That Didn’t Bark

Main Takeaways from this week’s Spike in US-Iran ‘Shadow War’

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Posted on: 
10 Jan 2020
FRIDAY FEATURE - The Dog That Didn’t Bark
Headlines in Israel and much of the rest of the world were dominated this week by the fallout (and lack of fallout) from last week’s assassination by the US of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and his key Iraqi disciple Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, head of the Kataib Hezbollah terror militia. News analysis shows and newspaper editorial pages in the US and many other countries were filled with commentary mostly composed of severely overwrought predictions (some of which crossed the line into bizarre absurdity) of calamitous events which were sure to follow, from all-but-guaranteed massive numbers of civilians casualties from Iran’s retaliation to the oft-repeated possibility that America and its longsuffering friends and allies were staring down the barrel of a potential Third World War.

When Iran’s retaliation came, however, it took the form of an almost comically impotent barrage of 12-15 (depending on whose intelligence reports you believe) medium-range ballistic missiles aimed at two military installations in Iraq where US forces were deployed. Partly due to the fact that four of the missiles broke up in flight before reaching their targets and partly due to the fact that they were tracked by US radar from the moment they were launched, giving the soldiers at the targeted bases adequate time to get into fortified shelters, the Iranian strike caused no casualties and little material damage.

However, in a transparent attempt to assuage a domestic Iranian audiences anger, state-run media outlets boasted of dozens of US soldiers killed in the strikes amidst devastating damage to the bases and the military equipment deployed there. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that America had received an appropriate “slap to the face” that it would not soon forget and various other Iranian officials warned the US not to make any more grievous errors which would prompt even more catastrophic consequences.

Without bothering to respond to these ludicrously absurd falsehoods and posturing, US President Donald Trump gave a press briefing a few hours later in which he declared that Iran appeared to be backing away from the fiery rhetoric of retribution, having made their point, and that he would therefore not order any further military action against Iran in the immediate future since he had also made his point and accomplished what he’d set out to do.

However, in the ensuing hours, videos began being posted by various news outlets showing the same pundits who had, the day before, been warning of doom and gloom appearing on the same news analysis shows but displaying little evidence of contrition or any acknowledgement that they had been mistaken in their assessments of what was likely to happen. Instead, many of them doubled down on their declarations that the actions taken by the White House had had a “destabilizing effect” on the Middle East, with some even issuing fresh warnings about what terrible retribution Iran was still able and likely to take against America and its allies in the Middle East and around the world.

However, at least one commentator this week astutely noted that Soleimani was such an important chess piece for Iran, that in targeting him the Trump administration had already ‘maxed out’ the escalation cycle to the point Tehran risked all-out war with the United States if they retaliated in true measure to his worth to the regime.

Many in Israel’s strategic community took note of all these developments and even some of the usually dovish voices among them expressed concern at the odd behaviour of their colleagues in the US and Western Europe. The following is a short list of key takeaways from recent events.

Background:

The recent escalation started on December 27th, when one of Iran’s foremost Shi’ite proxy militias in Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah, carried out a rocket attack on US military forces at the K-1 base which left an American contractor dead and scores of soldiers and civilians wounded. The US responded two days later by targeting Kataib Hezbollah in air strikes and killing two dozen of its fighters. Iran retaliated by organizing a mob of Iraqi militiamen from Kataib Hezbollah and the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to storm the American Embassy compound in Baghdad. This move was orchestrated by Soleimani and al-Muhandis as a calculated reminder of the Iranian storming of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979. 

However, US President Donald Trump decided this embassy siege would turn out quite differently by ordering a drone strike on Soleimani, the central figure behind Iran’s drive for regional hegemony, as he landed at Baghdad airport. The successful hit also took out al-Muhandis, who had come to greet Soleimani at the airport and plan further attacks on US forces in the region. Iranian leaders were livid and vowed revenge, which initially took the form of the ballistic missile strikes. But in a tragic fallout to the escalation, Iran appears to have mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner taking off from Tehran, killing some 180 passengers and crew, including over 30 Canadians as well as dozens of its own citizens.

The Israeli Pattern:

We can expect the Iranians to steer away from engaging in a more direct, sustained, intensified confrontation with the US because that has been the pattern Tehran has followed in its hostilities towards Israel. Over recent decades, Israel has been forced into its own shadow war with Iran due to Tehran’s renegade quest for nuclear weapons with which to threaten the Jewish state, as well as its arming and financing of anti-Israel terror militias throughout the region, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. 

Israel has been able to land important blows to Iran’s ambitions in the region, such as the assassination of Hezbollah’s primary military strategist Imad Mughniyeh in 2008, serious blows to IRGC bases and weapons convoys inside Syria and even Iraq, and the Mossad’s ingenious heist of its nuclear archives from a Tehran warehouse. 

In each instance, the Iranians have issued very loud, enraged vows of revenge. But most of their retaliatory attacks were exposed and thwarted, or failed to inflict major damage, and the ayatollahs quietly returned to their long-term strategy: Using proxy militias to harass Israel rather than risking direct military confrontations, while slowly and steadily building its military presence and expanding its dominance throughout the region.

Israel’s Laser Breakthrough:

The latest US-Iran confrontation came the same week that Israel announced a breakthrough in laser weapons technology. The IDF said it has made important advances recently in developing an electrical laser defense system capable of shooting down enemy planes, drones and missiles at a more effective and much cheaper rate than Iron Dome and other current anti-missile systems. This is good news for Israel and its allies confronting Iran, but in the short term it could actually increase the likelihood of Iran and its proxy militias triggering a war. 

Hezbollah, for instance, has stockpiled more than 150,000 rockets and missiles in Lebanon to use against Israel, an arsenal that could overwhelm the IDF’s current anti-missile capabilities. But if an effective and cheap laser system can be deployed within five years or so, as hoped, it would render Hezbollah’s rockets ineffective. Until then, Iran might calculate that it is better to use them now rather than lose them later. 

Against this background, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a prominent Israeli think tank, posted a report this week pointing out that contrary to the rhetoric surrounding Soleimani being a “man of the people” who bravely served his country and selflessly sacrificed for it, he had a strategy (which he never made any attempt to hide) of using non-Iranian proxies to do all the dirty work for the clerical regime which rules Iran.

The report pointed to the over 100,000 members of the IRGC’s “Shiite foreign legion” from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere which it trained and equipped before deploying it to Syria to prop up the Assad regime. The prosecution of that conflict by IRGC officers included, according to various reports, the sending of these non-Iranian militias in costly “human wave” style suicide charges against fortified positions. Lebenese Hezbollah is reported to have lost 2,000 troops killed and over 8,000 wounded in the Syrian conflict, including dozens of senior officers who were veterans of past conflicts with Israel and whom it had doubtless been hoped would lead the fight against Israel again in the future.

According to Israeli intelligence, Soleimani personally murdered a Hezbollah officer who dared to object to the careless way his troops were being used in battles led by IRGC officers.

Another takeaway from this weeks events, which was noted by another Israeli think tank, the Begin – Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, was how Soleimani’s death was widely celebrated in the Sunni Arab world with the exception of the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror militias in the Gaza Strip all issued statements mourning his death and condemning the US for killing him. These statements were met with outrage by the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab powers, who rebuked the Palestinians for mourning the death of a man they considered to be a deadly enemy. Many prominent commentators in Arab media outlets begged to point out that Soleimani had been responsible for the deaths of many Sunnis, including Palestinians, and it was therefore quite strange that the Palestinian factions should take the positions they did.

To sum up, the reactions and fallout from the US strikes which took out Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and his key senior aides provides a useful barometer to gauge the prevailing political and strategic atmosphere in the US, Western Europe, Israel and the wider Middle East. The almost hysterical anxiety expressed by many in the West’s “chattering classes” and their accompanying condemnation of what they described as the “recklessness” of the present US Administration can be contrasted with the praise the move elicited in Israel and the Sunni Middle East.

However, open questions remain about what long-term effect recent events, particularly the revelations about Iran’s accidental shootdown of a civilian airliner in the midst of their otherwise impotent attack on US forces stationed in Iraq, will have on events going forward. One particularly sharp rebuke came from an Iranian opposition group which issued a statement sarcastically congratulating the IRGC for killing more Iranians this week than Americans or Israelis.

In any event, as Israelis prepare for the Sabbath this Friday evening, they can take comfort from the proverbial “dog that didn’t bark” as the dire predictions of imminent catastrophe made by so many “experts” in the wake of last Friday’s assassination of Iran’s most famous terrorist leader did not come to pass.

 

Share this: