On Thursday, August 22, members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force took a drone to an area near the Golan Heights, seeking to attack Israel. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) monitored the men, took video of them walking through a field, and struck back two nights later. The air strikes targeted a villa in southern Syria that Jerusalem says was being used by the IRGC and Shiite militias. This includes Hezbollah, a Lebanese ally of Iran that has played a major role in Syria in recent years.
The air strike is part of an increasingly firm stand Israel is taking against Iran’s regional ambitions in the Middle East. This includes several recent air strikes in Iraq that Iranian-linked paramilitaries have blamed on Israel. It also includes near-daily reports in media from Lebanon to Kuwait asserting that Israel is targeting Iran’s network of proxies and their bases in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. Jerusalem is no longer secretive about this widespread campaign. In January former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot said Israel had carried out thousands of air strikes on Iranian targets.
Now IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani has warned Israel that these strikes will be Israel’s last. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah has threatened retaliation. This is part of a rising Iranian-backed chorus against Jerusalem, which includes real threats such as continuing rocket fire from Hamas in Gaza. It also includes threats by Iranian proxies such as Iraqi-based Kata’ib Hezbollah against U.S. forces in Iraq.
What is Israel’s strategy in all this? The goal is to draw Iran and its allies out of the shadows. Over the past decade, inflamed by the 2015 Iran deal, Tehran has increased its weapons transfers to Hezbollah, sent thousands of advisers to support the Syrian regime, and helped mobilize a network of militias in Iraq. Some of this was used to fight ISIS, or enemies of Bashar al-Assad. But with the ISIS war and Syrian conflict winding down, these groups are turning their threats toward Iran’s adversaries. Tehran is obsessed with destroying Israel, as can be seen in its frequent statements and militaristic parades. It has launched drones from Syria into Israel in February 2018, rockets in May 2018, and a rocket in January 2019. Hezbollah threatens that its 150,000 rockets can strike all of Israel.
Air strikes on Iran’s network of proxies force the network out of the shadows. It can’t hide in villas in southern Syria, or launch drones at night, or stockpile ballistic missiles in Iraq if it is looking over its shoulder and increasingly making mistakes through its aggressive and open threats. Iran is used to playing a double game of moderates and hard-liners, sending its smiling foreign minister to the recent G7 while boasting of its allies’ drone technology striking Saudi Arabia.
The Israeli air strikes couple well with the Washington-led campaign of “maximum pressure.” Iran now faces two fronts, the sanctions and strikes, that together are designed to blow the lid on its regional strategy. Tehran will be tempted to make a misstep in its otherwise calculated reactions. Iran has a playbook: If a Western power seizes its tanker, as the U.K. did in July, Iran seizes a tanker. It downed a sophisticated U.S. drone in June but hasn’t harmed anyone in six sabotage operations on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. More than anything, Iran wants to preserve its regional power, based in proxies and allies that are often Shiite coreligionists. Its long-term goal is to get Hezbollah and its Shiite paramilitary allies in Iraq into more government positions and build up their parallel-state structures of armed fighters and bases. A war with the U.S. or Israel, or a direct confrontation with Saudi Arabia, as opposed to using proxies such as the Houthis, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, is not in Tehran’s interest. This is the strategic calculation that underpins Israel’s actions, but it can go only so far. A game of whack-a-mole against Iran’s drones and missiles is just a setback for Tehran. If Tehran doesn’t gamble on a major conflict with Israel, it will continue its creeping annexation of neighboring states.