Israel has been abandoned by the United States to deal with the Iranian-Russian-Turkish axis by itself. Obama's American isolationism, which Trump is now following, continues to focus on hollow and meaningless gestures. The "Jerusalem Game of Thrones" of the Washington-based Baron Munchausen was the pinnacle of this approach. Not only did Trump's declaration fail to contribute to the unity of Jerusalem, but it also hindered Israel's attempts to form an informal coalition with the Sunni states.
In contrast to the United States, the Russian and Iranian strategies are astounding. Iran, reading the map correctly, has been remarkably successful in establishing itself as an effective regional power, continually expanding its influence.
Iran views Israel as a hindrance to its hegemony in the Middle East. In this context, Tehran had reached a crossroads. Is a direct military conflict a viable option for Iran and Israel in the near future? This question is particularly important when we consider the IDF's force buildup. In the past 20 years, the IDF has been operating under the assumption that it is facing a reality of low-intensity confrontations against guerrilla forces, rather than inter-state wars.
The ayatollahs' regime presents itself as a revolutionary Muslim regime. In reality, however, the ayatollahs' regime has been pragmatic in the realization of its objectives and has undergone a number of significant fundamental processes that have led it to this decisive point.
The Khomeinist revolution underwent three fundamental stages:
The Defensive Phase: The long stage of defense included dealing with both domestic and foreign threats, including the Iraq-Iran War. This stage began at the break of the revolution and lasted for about thirty years until 2009 when the ayatollahs faced the threat of civil disobedience that preceded the Arab Spring. After the suppression of this short "Iranian Spring," the ayatollahs became even more anxious to find ways to cope with the unrest among their citizens.
The Establishment Phase: After suppressing any sign of rebellion, Iran has reached the second stage of the Khomeinist revolution – the stage of establishment. The consolidation phase included restoring the economy, developing military capabilities in various fields – including long-range missiles and nuclear advancements, and sowing seeds for future proxy organizations throughout the Middle East. Such proxies have been cultivated for decades in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Yemen (Houthis), as well as outside the Middle East, in places like Australia, Argentina, and even Africa. The peak of the establishment stage was the nuclear deal signed with the United States and other countries – an agreement that resulted in the lifting of sanctions against Iran imposed over its nuclear program and enabled Iran to accelerate its rearmament programs and accumulate more influence.
The Proactive Imperialism Phase: Trump's continuance of Obama's isolationist approach left Russia as the only effective global power in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. While Israel has good reasons for depending exclusively on the United States, Iran has succeeded in joining the relevant power in the region, namely Russia. With the help of Russia, ISIS, Obama, and Trump, Iran has successfully achieved the phase of proactive imperialism. In the eyes of the ayatollahs' regime, the development of nuclear capabilities and the imperialistic behavior are not merely for "show of strength," but essential means of survival.
The Iranian success in moving from the defensive phase to the phase of proactive imperialism may lead to one of three options. A very unlikely possibility is that the regime's growing sense of success and security will lead it to warm the relations with the West and eliminate the hostility with the United States (similarly to Vietnam and China when they became market-oriented economies). A far more realistic scenario is that Tehran will choose to continue the slow yet determined quest for regional domination while striving to fulfill its nuclear ambitions. This option means delaying a full-scale conflict with Israel or the United States to a much later time. The third option, which is also highly probable – is to assume an aggressive position vis-à-vis the elements who threaten the expansion of the Iranian hegemony – i.e., Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. This option paves the way for a direct military conflict.
As far as Israel is concerned, all of the aforementioned possibilities are very dangerous. Iran, under a certain degree of patronage from Russia and with the help of its proxies, poses a direct threat to the State of Israel in a way that the IDF is not fully prepared for. While the IDF has been building low-intensity warfare capabilities in the past 20 years, designed against terrorist organizations, the Shi'ite crescent led by Iran can bring a full-scale, state-level military to Israel's borders within days or weeks. It is not clear to Iran nor most Israelis how Israel would react if Iran suddenly decides to introduce armored divisions, long-range artillery, and missiles to the border region, 5 to 40 kilometers from Israeli soil.
There is no way of knowing whether the Iranians might choose to make dramatic moves that would constitute a direct military threat to Israel. Therefore, Israeli decision-makers must make sure that their Iranian counterparts understand that Israel can cause significant damage to Iran, should the latter decide to take aggressive actions. In order to achieve such deterrence, several elements must be taken into consideration.
Resources: While Israel has about eight million residents, Iran is home to more than 80 million. The GNP of Iran is four times that of Israel.
Land access to enemy borders: While Iranian ground forces can advance to Israel's borders within days, Israel has no practical way of bringing divisions close to Iran's borders.
Superpower support: While Iran's sponsor is the emerging global superpower, namely Russia, Israel is entirely dependent on the United States. The Americans, with all their military might, have been making their way towards separatism for the past nine years under two different administrations. The objective balance of power, in this case, does not bode well for the Jewish State.
Force buildup: Israel, as we mentioned before, has been focusing in the past few decades on the war on terrorism. Towards a possible war with Iran, the notion that Israel no longer faces a state-level threat must be revised. It is quite likely that Israel is facing such a threat from the north. From now on, Israel is required to be prepared for a battle against a state military accompanied by highly motivated commando fighters of Hezbollah and Shi'ite militias. A fundamental condition for deterring the Iranians is that Israel possesses significant and effective ground force capabilities.
IDF preparedness: The Yom Kippur War is supposed to be a constitutive event in Israel's national security concept. From a strictly military standpoint, the IDF was significantly ill-prepared for the 1973 war. Alarmingly, similar failures occurred in the Second Lebanon War and even in Operation Protective Edge in 2014. In order to deter Iran, Israel must show that it knows how to deal with these failures.
Ground forces: Israel lost dozens of tanks during the Second Lebanon War when limited forces of Hezbollah fighters operated as tank hunters. In fact, the Second Lebanon War repeated in this sense one of the failures of the Yom Kippur War, when Egyptian commando tank hunters caused substantial damage to Israel's armored force. It is quite possible that in the war to come, the IDF will have to fight against Iranian tanks accompanied by Hezbollah tank hunters.
Logistic preparedness: In both the Yom Kippur War and the Second Lebanon War, the IDF set out to war with embarrassing equipment shortages and improper logistical capabilities. Not only were the soldiers severely unequipped for battle, but critical communication systems operated poorly or in some cases failed to work. During the 2014 Gaza War (Operation Protective Edge), the US Department of Defense confirmed that Israel had asked the Pentagon for mortar shells and grenades, fearing the existing munitions are outdated. Bear in mind that in that time, the IDF fought a terrorist organization in a short strip of land (only 4 km wide) for about 50 days. Unless the elementary issue of IDF logistic preparedness is resolved – deterring Iran from an all-out war along Israel's entire northern border will be difficult.
The Air Force: In the Yom Kippur War, for various reasons, the Israeli Air Force did not deal with the threat of surface-to-air missiles (SAM) properly, thus crippling its ability to assist the ground forces effectively and achieve other goals. In the past few years, despite Israeli efforts to thwart such a move, Iran and Hezbollah equipped themselves with S-300S SA-17 missiles. Should those missiles be introduced in significant numbers to the battlefield, the IAF will be forced to neutralize that threat.
The Israeli home front: The Israeli rear could be subject to numerous threats, from missiles, precision-guided munitions and drone attacks, to raids and takeovers of settlements, strongholds, and strategic junctions. Is there any way to be really prepared for such threats?
The head of the snake: Iran, to a large extent, is a country serving a regime. This is one of Iran's weak points that Israel could use a deterrent.
Deterrence by targeting high-ranking officials: Some Arab states are based entirely on the rule of a single family representing a minority, such as the Assad family and the Alawites in Syria and Saddam's family in Iraq. The Iranian regime is different and relies on a broad Shi'ite majority and an organizational structure, which includes the Revolutionary Guards. We can assume that eliminating individuals, high-ranking as they may be, will not affect the regime's ability to keep its power.
Deterrence by promoting counter-revolutionary actions against the regime: Democratic states are not very successful in forcing authoritarian changes in totalitarian and autocratic states. That is also true when democracies conquer the target countries. Such occupations often bring chaos to the country or pave the way for a worse regime to take power. We all need to remember that the conquest of Iraq and its liberation from the burden of Saddam led to the expansion of ISIS.
Deterrence by direct threats to Iranian territory: The underground currents in Iran that erupted in 2009 to form a relatively broad public outcry may still resurface. So far, Israel has not ensured that Iran believes that a significant strike on Israel would lead to a direct Israeli threat to Tehran. Implicit threats by Israel were limited to Iran's nuclear facilities and missile factories.
In order to create deterrence, Israel must seriously consider taking military and awareness-raising measures that will pose direct threats to Iran in case of an all-out war. A clear message must be conveyed: Should Iran choose to unleash its proxies (Hezbollah, Shia militias) on Israel's border or launch a missile campaign on Israeli cities and strategic sites – will Tehran remain intact?
The author is a researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in IDC Herzliya, specialized in deterrence strategies