Expect more covert Israeli operations against Iran after nuclear talks stall, say experts

Tehran confirms one of its ammunition depots in Isfahan was attacked in drone strike

This image grab taken from a UGC video reportedly shows an explosion in Iran's Isfahan province. AFP
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Iran face more covert operations against targets in the country and its proxies in the region as the United States and Israel look to deter Tehran from building a bomb, defence experts told The National on Monday after strikes on an Iranian ammunition depot and the convoy of an Iran-backed militia in eastern Syria at the weekend.

The drone attack on the warehouse in Isfahan on Saturday night, confirmed by Iran, and air strikes on a convoy of lorries carrying arms into eastern Syria from Iraq on Sunday night, came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken began a three-day visit to Egypt and Israel.

“I believe it is true what is being reported that the strike was done by Israel because if things were to escalate, having the Carrier Strike Group 10, the Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, all of those bombers, all of those F-35s, all of that material in the region could help the Israelis if things got hot,” said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East Security Programme at the Centre for New American Security.

“I get the sense that the timing of the attack was probably calibrated to a time when they thought they had an insurance policy in the region in case things went poorly or continued to escalate."

The strikes come on the heels of the largest joint military exercise between the US and Israel, involving 6,400 US troops, more than 1,500 Israeli troops, more than 140 aircraft, 12 naval vessels, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and multiple-launch rocket systems.

Israeli reminder to Iran

Analysts view the joint exercises and attacks against Iran as a way for Israel to send a reminder that it will not hesitate to influence the use of non-diplomatic routes if Tehran continues to stall talks with Western powers on an reviving the 2015 agreement to curb its nuclear programme, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“We’re at a very sensitive time: the Iran nuclear talks are at an impasse; Iran is closer to a nuclear breakthrough than ever; Israel just got a new Benjamin Netanyahu-led government that clearly stated it would do everything to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb; and the protests in Iran have weakened the Islamic Republic and may cause it to lash out to balance that perception,” Michael Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst, told The National.

Footage of the drone attack on what Iran identified as a “warehouse” and its aftermath corresponds to a site near a shopping centre in Isfahan.

Isfahan, 350km south of Tehran, is home to both a large airbase built for its fleet of American-made F-14 fighter jets and its Nuclear Fuel Research and Production Centre.

“In the absence of a real diplomatic option to curtail Iran’s nuclear programme, other countries, including Israel and perhaps the US will have to deter Iran from building a bomb through deterrence and covert actions — all of which bear a risk of escalation,” Mr Horowitz said.

Neither Israel nor the United States claimed responsibility for the latest attacks, Israel has acknowledged carrying out hundreds of air and missile strikes against Iran-backed and government forces in Syria, where the US military is also active.

A US official who spoke to the Wall Street Journal said Israel appeared to have been behind the drone strike.

Precedence of attacks

Damage seen in footage released by Iranian state media suggests that bomb-laden quadcopter drones were used to strike the target in Isfahan. Last February, Israel sent six quadcopter drones carrying explosives into a manufacturing and storage plant for military drones near the city of Kermanshah.

In 2021, a similar attack using quadcopter drones targeted a centrifuge-manufacturing plant in Karaj, while in 2019, quadcopters were used against a Hezbollah shipment in Lebanon.

There is a belief that Israel wants to send a message to Iran that it can reach anywhere in the country, especially sensitive areas.

“The joint [Israel-US] military exercise is a reminder that if it fails and the regime further ramps up its nuclear activity — for example, if it raises enrichment levels further and is seen to be moving towards weaponisation — there are non-diplomatic options to try to contain that threat,” said Naysan Rafati, senior Iran analyst at the Crisis Group.

On Monday morning, further drone strikes killed three people including a pro-Iran commander as they were been inspecting the site of the previous evening's strikes near the Iraq-Syria border that killed seven people, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"A commander in an Iran-backed group and two of his companions, all of them non-Syrian, were killed this morning after renewed drone strikes," the opposition war monitor said.

According to experts, the latest strikes on the border crossing between Al Qaim and Al Bukamal in Syria has hallmarks of the air campaign Israel has sustained over Syria since January 2013 that has targeted various Iranian weapons shipments.

In November, Israeli military chief of staff Lt Gen Aviv Kochavi confirmed a strike by Israeli warplanes on a convoy of lorries at the same crossing based on what he called “perfect intelligence”.

“Stepped-up attacks, especially inside Iran, could be a result of Israel ratcheting up the pressure as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is all but dead and Iran continues uranium enrichment — Rafael Mariano Grossi of the IAEA warned last week that Iran already has enough enriched uranium to build ‘several’ nuclear bombs, undoubtedly crossing Israeli red lines,” Paul Iddon, a columnist who writes about Middle East military and political affairs, told The National.

Sunday's strike targeted five white refrigerated lorries with missiles in the Hari area of Al Bukamal, one kilometre from the border crossing with Iraq, an officer who defected from the Syrian regime's military and who monitors the area said. The lorries were carrying Syrian number plates and yellow fires erupted in the area.

"They could have been carrying weapons, or spare parts for weapons, or primary material for narcotics," the officer told The National. "It is impossible to know, but they definitely were not hauling frozen food from Iraq."

‘Reminding Europe’

The drone strikes in Isfahan drew a reaction from Ukraine, which accuses Iran of supplying hundreds of drones to Russia to attack civilian targets in Ukrainian cities far from the front. A senior aide to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy linked the incident directly to the war there.

"Explosive night in Iran," Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted on Sunday. "Did warn you." Mr Podolyak’s comments led to Iran to summon Ukraine's charge d'affaires in Tehran on Monday.

Dr Hamidreza Azizi, an expert on Iran and the Middle East at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said the attack could be a ploy by Israel to advertise its tough-on-Iran credentials to partners who might otherwise criticise it over its policies against Palestine.

"Considering Iran's involvement in the war in Ukraine by supporting Russia, even the Europeans and the United States are feeling the importance of addressing these elements of Iran's activities more strongly than before. In the past, especially Europe was mostly concentrated on Iran's nuclear programme," he told The National.

"Now that this sense of threat is also there in Europe, by doing this kind of activities Israel can remind its European and American allies that it can help them contain the Iranian threat. In return, of course, what Netanyahu and the Israeli government in general would expect from its allies is to sort of ignore what's going on in Palestine and the Israeli violence against the Palestinians."

Updated: January 31, 2023, 1:02 PM