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Iran's Hidden Hand in Gaza By: Avigdor Haselkorn
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, March 19, 2008


The recent escalation of fighting between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip must be viewed in a broader context that centers on Iran’s effort to shield its nuclear weapons program from a possible Israeli military strike.

It is often agreed that Tehran would retaliate strongly if its nuclear facilities were attacked. Yet the tacit assumption is that, Iran would not seek to prevent such an assault in advance. This view is fallacious as it overlooks the fact that Iran can act to prevent an attack without itself resorting to military means. Indeed, the evidence suggests that Iran is energetically pursuing a strategy to divert and deter the IDF from striking its nuclear installations.  Iran is also seeking the capability to preempt an IDF attack if these efforts fail. In short, while the rest of the world dithers, Iran is preempting the preemption.

The targeting by Hamas militants based in the Gaza Strip of the Israeli city of Ashkelon by Grad Katyusha rockets, which intensified during the recent fighting, indicates the diversionary aim of this strategy. Indeed, introduction of the Grad into Gaza highlights the length to which Tehran will go to distract the IDF. With a range of more than twenty kilometers Iran was able to treble the number of civilians in southern Israel under rocket threat to some 250,000. The Iranians specifically manufactured the rockets to fit the narrow confines of smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza.

Hamas and Iran were certainly aware Israel could not tolerate such a threat for long. Indeed, Iran has sought to assure that the Gaza Strip’s Islamic radicals amas will not retreat in its will keep up their attacks of indigenously- produced Kassam rockets and mortars against southern Israeli population centers, fully aware of the potential escalation a large-casualty hit can cause. The Iran news agency ISNA reported January 19, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Hamas political bureau chief, Khalid Mashal to announce that “supporting [the Palestinian nation] is a religious duty and that Iranians would stand by their side to the time of victory.”

Tehran it must be concluded is not averse to the IDF launching a large-scale ground operation to silence the rockets that will entangle it in the Gaza Strip for a prolonged period. The idea is to sap Israel politically and militarily elsewhere rather than allow it to focus its energies against Iran.

While the Islamic radicals of the Gaza Strip are used mainly as a diversionary ploy in Iran’s preventive strategy, Hizballah on Israel’s northern border has been assigned the task of deterring the IDF from attacking Iran’s nuclear sites. For this purpose Hizballah’s strategic rockets—such as the Zelzal-2 and newly acquired Fatah 110-- are under Iran’s final say so. The haste with which Tehran acted to rebuild Hizballah’s long-range arsenal after the IAF destroyed most of it during the 2006 Lebanon war, and its feverish efforts to extend the range of the organization’s rocket threat to Tel Aviv and beyond strongly indicates its interest in restoring its deterrence vis-à-vis Israel. In fact, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported March 5, that Brigadier General Yossi Beiditz, head of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence research department, told European Union ambassadors in a briefing that some of the missiles Iran transferred to Hezbollah have a maximum range of 300 kilometers, "capable of reaching the Dimona area from Beirut." Iran, it turns out, was not satisfied with threatening Israel’s main cities, but sought to directly link attacks on its nuclear program to Hizballah’s ability to target the nuclear reactor in Dimona to deter the IDF.

The third leg in Iran’s strategy is the undertaking of preparations to preempt conventionally an Israeli attack if one was imminent. For example, in September 2006 during the final stages of military maneuvers dubbed "The Blow of Zolfaghar," Gen. Amir Amini, deputy commander of Iran's air force, told state TV Iran test fired a one-ton flying bomb that “can be used as a guided long-range air-to-surface missile.” He added the bomb, named Qassed or Herald, was “a special weapon developed for penetrating military, economic and strategic targets located deep underground on the soil of the enemy. “

Moreover, Ha’aretz on February 8, 2008 cited “briefings recently presented to senior [Israeli] ministers” as saying Tehran helped Syria, its ally, to upgrade the Iranian-made Zelzal rocket and improve its accuracy so as to become a credible threat against  IDF command and control installations, air and naval bases and military depots. With a 250 km range and a 600 kg warhead the weapon is another indication that Iran is developing the capacity to launch a conventional counterforce strike against Israel’s strategic targets.

The bottom line is that Iran has been able to seize and maintain the strategic initiative in its conflict with Israel. It has put in place a wide-ranging preventive strategy along Israel’s northern and southern borders designed to impede the IDF from going after its nuclear program or at least foil an attack. Already this strategy has forced Israel to shift vast resources to defensive missions. Yet Iran has suffered no penalty and its strategic moves remain unhindered. Nor of course is its progress toward nuclear weapons. Worse yet, if Israel was to reoccupy most of the Gaza Strip even temporarily Iran would be rewarded and its strategic plan revalidated. Given the recent hostilities, the Mullahs must be tapping themselves on the shoulder already —deployment of the Grad in Gaza has dragged Israel willy nilly into the Strip, precisely as they had hoped.


Dr. Avigdor Haselkorn is the author of The Evolution of Soviet Security Strategy, 1965-1975 and The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence (Yale University Press).



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