Operation Pillar of Defense: The opening phase of an Iran-Israel War?

How would Israel launch an attack on Iranian military and nuclear facilities? On Friday 16 November 2012, two days after the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense” (OPD), we at IranPolitik argued on our Facebook page that this Israeli military action could in part be the opening move to an Israeli strike on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s military and nuclear facilities. We attempted to lay out what Israel’s larger strategy could look like and the logic behind this strategy. This article summarizes and refines our arguments one week after our original Facebook post and two days after the ceasefire ending OPD.

Disclaimer: It should be noted that there is no “smoking gun” indicating that this was Israel’s real intention in carrying out OPD. However, this possibility should be explored as the light of recent events may give us insights about what the opening phases of an Iran-Israel War could look like.

Operation Pillar of Defense and an Iran-Israel War: The Conventional Thinking

There are currently two lines of reasoning for the timing of the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, code-named Operation Pillar of Defense. Before moving forward, readers should take into account that these two lines of reasoning, and the third proposed by IranPolitik, are not mutually exclusive. All three could to varying degrees be goals of OPD.

The first line of reasoning, quite logically, links the operation to the rocket threat from Gaza. According to Daniel L. Byman, deputy director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy: “Its [OPD] goal is to compel Hamas to stop shooting rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip and to crack down on other groups who are also doing so.” The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) own statistics indicate a gradual increase in rocket attacks since a previous high point in 2008 and 2009 during “Operation Cast Lead”. Their numbers show 231 rocket attacks from Gaza in 2010, 627 attacks in 2011, and 1435 in 2012 thus far. If the IDF’s numbers are accurate, this trend of increasing rocket attacks is sufficient to warrant a response from the perspective of Israeli national security.

However this does not adequately explain the question of timing: Why now? To this some point to the upcoming Israeli general elections, arguing that Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition is looking for a boost prior to the crucial vote. This argument too has its merits, but relies on the reader to have a cynical perspective of Israeli politics and the ruling Likud-centered coalition.

A third possibility, albeit more remote than the other two at this point, is that this is the opening phase of an Israeli strike on the Islamic Republic’s military and nuclear facilities. Currently, many of the simulations of a possible Israeli strike either focus on the period immediately after an attack on Iran’s facilities or assume that if a wider attack were to take place it would happen simultaneously or in relatively quick succession. In light of Operation Pillar of Defense however, we can now more easily imagine this third scenario which may make strategic sense for Israel.

Neutralizing Iran’s offensive capabilities and avoiding a three front war

This third scenario entails an understanding of the Islamic Republic’s offensive military capabilities. The bulk of the Iranian regime’s military forces, including the regular military (ground forces, navy, and air force) as well as the Basij Mobilization Force (BMF), are useful for territorial defense of the Iranian homeland, but lack the logistical and technological capabilities to project power far beyond Iran’s borders. Even on the defensive, the regular military would likely be unable to succeed in conventional warfare against First World militaries like the United States Armed Forces or the IDF, although the BMF could potentially carry out successful unconventional operations.

For its offensive military capabilities, the Islamic Republic mainly relies on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its proxies who mainly utilize unconventional warfare. The IRGC’s tool-kit includes the IRGC Navy, IRGC Qods Force (special forces) and its proxies, and the ballistic missile force. Even with this tool kit, Iran’s large-scale military power projection is limited to sub-regions of the Middle East, including the Persian Gulf, Levant, and Israel-Palestine. In the instance of an Israeli strike on its military and nuclear facilities, Iran’s immediate retaliatory capability would likely include a rain of rockets by its proxies in Gaza (Hamas/Islamic Jihad) and Lebanon (Hezbollah) and a rain of missiles from Iran itself. Under these circumstances, it is possible that Israel and its Arrow and Patriot anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems, despite their apparent effectiveness, would become overwhelmed by an initial Iranian assault on three-fronts. Furthermore, the IDF would like be overstretched dealing with all three fronts at once, especially if these included ground operations in Gaza and Lebanon that would require air support.

One elegant solution to this problem may be dismantling Iran’s short-term missile-rocket-based retaliatory capability by neutralizing each front through a series of mini-wars. Operation Pillar of Defense could be the first of these mini-wars and in many ways the most straightforward. OPD appears to have been successful in destroying part of Hamas/Islamic Jihad’s rocket stockpile on the ground and getting them to launch much of the rest of it during the 11 day conflict. Critically, the IDF was able to de-fang Hamas and reach a ceasefire without engaging in ground operations, decreasing the cost of a war with Iran versus a three-front war scenario where a ceasefire could more complicated. In this scenario, Israel’s timing would be decisive in at least one other sense: Iran and Hamas have fallen out over the last year as the latter has moved closer to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and away from the increasingly unpopular regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the latter being a key Iranian ally. It is unlikely that Hamas would be able to rebuild its rocket capacity anytime soon, even if it wanted to, because of icy relations with Iran.

In the next phase, Israel would engage in a mini-war in Southern Lebanon against Hezbollah. Although this mini-war would be longer and more intense, it would still be a limited operation (like OPD) aimed at de-fanging Iran/Hezbollah’s retaliatory capability. Israel’s timing would once again be  decisive given that Hezbollah is preoccupied with the Syrian civil war and may have dispatched important elements of its military-wing to this conflict. With the second front knocked out, the path would be open for Israel to strike Iran, beginning with the latter’s missile force (namely Shahab IIIs) and other military assets and finishing with its nuclear facilities.

By dividing an attack on Iran into three smaller operations rather than one large one, Israel would gain at least three benefits. First, by fighting three mini-wars spaced out over time, Israel can engage its foes much more effectively by fighting them one-on-one rather than three-on-one. It can tailor its tactics and strategies to each mini-war and would have breathing space in between to rest and resupply. Second, the cost is potentially lower for Israel in the short-term in regards to lives lost and physical destruction to the Israeli homeland. Although Israel’s ABM systems were effective against a limited number of Gaza-based rockets, they could be overwhelmed under a hail of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iranian rockets and missiles. Finally, three mini-wars may entail a lower political cost for Israel when compared to one large-scale region-wide conflagration. If this strategy were to be successful, Iran would be left impotent to defend its nuclear facilities or respond militarily, at least in the short-term. With some of its own intelligence and special forces assets deployed in Syria for the civil war in that country, it would take some time for Iran to mount an alternative unconventional response, such as a series of terrorist attacks against Israeli and Jewish Diaspora ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ targets.

If Israel is convinced that Iran is closed to the nuclear threshold, and that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear ‘capability’ represents an existential or strategic threat, this is one strategy that makes sense, maximizing gains while minimizing losses. Of course, such a strategy makes certain assumptions about the Iranian adversary which may not be true, such as its options for strike-back against Israel. Regardless, Iranian military leaders are likely aware of this possibility, and are considering what Israel’s next steps could be. While Lebanon may seem like a natural target, we should not underestimate Israeli military planner’s ability to surprise us.