Without commenting on Iran’s accusation that Israel sabotaged the nuclear facility at Natanz on 11 April, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a news conference with US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin in Jerusalem this week that “Iran has never given up its quest for nuclear weapons. I will never allow Iran to obtain nuclear capability.”
He added that Israel wanted to avoid a direct war with Iran.
Netanyahu’s statement summarised the “unconventional war” that has been taking place between the two countries since 2004. While it is a war that has clear goals, it does not take place directly between military forces on defined battlefields. Instead it occurs in cyberspace, via local proxies in other countries, by attacks on commercial shipping, and through diplomatic pressure.
It is a war that is unlikely to be decisive, and neither party is likely fully to achieve its goals. But there are concerns that an escalation between Israel and Iran of such unconventional means could turn into a direct and open war between the two countries.
The unconventional methods that Israel has been using against Iran have included cyber-attacks, assassinations and psychological warfare. Other methods, such as the use of proxy wars, the sabotage of commercial shipping and diplomatic actions, are less effective since they also rely on other parties that may not be fully on board.
Israel’s tactics in this unconventional war have been attributed to Meir Dagan, the tenth director of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad between 2002 and 2010. In 2004, Dagan and deputy Tamir Pardo held a meeting attended by the other Israeli security agencies Shabak and Aman to discuss how to halt the Iranian nuclear programme.
The view was that if Iran truly wanted to manufacture nuclear weapons, it would eventually succeed. “What can we do [to change this],” Dagan asked.
The answer given was to try to change the Iranian regime or to convince the Iranian leaders that the price they would have to pay to pursue their nuclear ambitions would be too high and would plunge the country into a deep economic crisis and risk sanctions against it.
But Dagan felt that these solutions would not be enough to convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear aspirations. “This brings us [the Israeli security agencies] to our primary mission: to work on significantly slowing down Iran’s nuclear programme to prevent them from possessing nuclear weapons,” he said.
Dagan presented a plan that did not ignore the importance of diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions against Iran, but focused on covert operations such as using Israel’s technological capabilities to launch cyber-attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities, assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, and psychological warfare aiming to portray Iran as a weak country incapable of protecting itself or of responding to attacks by Israel.
Towards the end of his tenure at Mossad, Dagan clashed with Netanyahu and then Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak who were preparing military plans to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities using air and missile strikes.
Based on consultations with US and Israeli army commanders, Dagan believed that Netanyahu’s and Barak’s plan could turn into a security disaster for Israel because the form or size of any Iranian counter-attack could not be predicted. Washington also strongly objected to any such action.
Dagan pointed to Israel’s successes in the covert war against Iran to convince Netanyahu to change his mind about an all-out war with Iran. In 2010 alone, Israel succeeded in infiltrating the Natanz and other nuclear facilities in Iran by installing a malicious computer worm known as Stuxnet in computers that control Iran’s uranium-enrichment centrifuges, causing havoc and a loss of control.
Dagan also cited successful assassinations by Mossad of two top Iranian scientists working on Iran’s nuclear project, namely Masoud Mohamadi, assassinated in Tehran in January 2010, and Majid Shahryari, assassinated in Tehran in November 2010.
Dagan’s strategy did not claim to end Iran’s nuclear programme, but it did claim to postpone Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The success of this strategy has been apparent over the decade since he left office, and Iran was unable to proceed with its programme until it had reached a nuclear agreement with the West in 2015, even though some intelligence reports had predicted Iran would reach its goals by 2011 at the latest.
The most recent attack by Israel on Iran on 12 April demonstrates that Dagan’s strategy is still in play with regard to Iran’s nuclear programme. After a cyber-attack on the Natanz nuclear facility on 2 July last year, which halted uranium enrichment at the reactor, and the assassination of prominent scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on 27 November, the most recent attack on Natanz cut off the power supply to its centrifuges.
There has been disagreement among Israeli experts about the impact of this attack. Some believe it did not disrupt the enrichment process because it did not directly affect the centrifuges, meaning that they can quickly resume operations.
Arik Barbing, former head of cybersecurity at the Israeli intelligence agency Shabak, believes the attack was part of Israel’s psychological warfare rather than the sabotage of the Iranian reactor. It delivered the message that Israel can infiltrate vital Iranian facilities.
Barbing also believes that Israel will not carry out further large-scale sabotage operations against Iranian nuclear reactors for now, because it wants to conceal its military and technological capabilities to surprise Iran when there is no other choice.
Israel’s Channel 13 TV channel quoted intelligence sources as saying that the attack on Natanz had caused more damage than Iran had claimed, adding that “the cyber-attack resulted in serious damage to the heart of the Iranian uranium-enrichment programme” and “fixing the damage could take from several months to up to one year.”
Since Iran has not revealed the extent of the damage, and there are no trusted outside parties to evaluate it, Barbing’s opinion is thought to be accurate and that the attack only cut off the power supply and did not damage the enrichment units.
It seems likely that Israel’s intention was a limited attack. First, it does not want to provoke Iran into a direct war, and second, it does not want to clash with the US Biden administration, which is trying to return to the nuclear deal with Iran that former president Donald Trump withdrew from in May 2018.
Iran is also convinced that Israel would not attempt to carry out an attack without first coordinating with Washington.
How will Iran respond to Israel’s attacks? Iranian statements after the Natanz attack were no different from the ones Tehran has been making since Israel began attacking its reactors and assassinating its scientists ten years ago.
The official Iranian response has been that it will choose the appropriate time and place to respond to Israel’s actions. But Tehran has not responded to any of Israel’s attacks since 2010, and attacking shipping cannot be considered a strong enough response to what Tehran has described as “Israel’s crimes.”
The war at sea could end quickly, but it is unlikely that Israel will stop attacking Iranian reactors or killing Iranian scientists.
One way Iran could try to save face would be to attempt to kidnap or assassinate Israeli figures abroad, especially in the UAE. Iranian intelligence agencies believe the ongoing normalisation of relations between Israel and the Gulf countries could be an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.
It could target Israeli businessmen, tourists and intelligence officers in these countries, and it could attack the Gulf Arab countries that have recently began normalising their relations with Israel under the pretext of strengthening the anti-normalisation camp.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly