This post is part of a series of forecasts of possible scenarios under the Iran Deal. In this scenario, Iran decides to use the deal to maximize its chances to destroy the nation of Israel.
There is some debate about whether Iran is serious in its long-term slogans “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” United States Secretary of State John F. Kerry calls the language disturbing, but believes it is rhetorical. Larry Cohler-Esses, the first journalist from a pro-Israel publication allowed into Iran since 1979, has recently said that he sees little evidence of a strong popular sentiment aimed at destroying Israel. On the other hand, the Supreme Leader of Iran has recently published a long book not only contemplating but spelling out an ostensible strategy for both destroying the state of Israel and ethnically cleansing the region of Jews. Ehud Yaari, writing at The American Interest, points out that the theocratic government of Iran seems to be committed to this goal for more than rhetorical reasons, but as part of its overall justification for its existence. For the purpose of this scenario, we will assume that the Supreme Leader is serious in his intent, but wedded to his stated strategy only insofar as better options do not become available. The Iran Deal looks as if it will improve his capabilities in substantial ways.
Yaari believes that Iran will elect to operate through proxy Shi’a militias, in order to create a “resistance wall” surrounding Israel that might allow it to bring ballistic missiles to bear as a strategic weapon. Yaari’s analysis is that the Palestinian Authority would need to be destroyed and replaced with a puppet Palestinian government less independent from Iran’s theocracy. The Ayatollah could then make good on his stated strategy of forcing the Jewish residents of Israel to sell their land, and then expelling them. Indeed the Ayatollah’s book does call for an Islamic revolution modeled on Iran’s to occur within Israel and Palestine, and presumably this revolution would install a government similar to (and supported by) Iran’s own. As Yaari points out, however, Iranian proxy forces including Hezbollah are aware that they are no match for the IDF, and Iran’s conventional forces are aging and would have long supply lines through territory currently held by ISIS.
Although Iran has been successful at greatly increasing its networks of loyal Shia militias in both Iraq and Syria, it is unlikely to be able to use them to destroy Israel in the way that it might succeed in destroying ISIS. Iran’s ballistic missiles are not yet accurate enough to be much more than a minor deterrent against an Israeli offensive. Thus, the Ayatollah’s stated strategy of fomenting an internal revolution within Israel that would allow it to move its proxy forces in as supporting agents is currently its best option. Israel has a strong counterintelligence and internal policing capacity that makes this strategy unlikely to succeed in the non-deal world.
With the deal, however, the ballistic missile restrictions and heavy weapon restrictions on Iran fall away — either after a few years or, as Senator Menendez argues, immediately. The release of large sums of cash in the P5+1 deal will permit Iran to begin to invest in its conventional forces as well as to improve its ballistic missile capabilities. Iran may also receive foreign investment in its space program, which happens to also improve both the range of its booster engines for missiles and especially the accuracy of its missiles — the two chief problems it needs to overcome to have ballistic missiles capable of erecting a plausible nuclear umbrella, should it elect to proceed with nuclear weapons.
Iran thus has several options for destroying Israel under the deal that are currently closed. It could build a conventional force that is capable of fighting the IDF under cover of improved ballistic missiles as supporting fires. It could develop nuclear weapons and use the improved missiles to destroy Israel’s cities with nuclear fire. The need to foment a successful revolution in the face of Israeli counterintelligence would evaporate. Iran could simply stand up a puppet state among the wreckage.
However, these moves might not be necessary, and would in any case require some years of investment before they became available as options. Much more immediately, Iran could use the cover of shipping its spent fuel to Russia for reprocessing to allow a proxy group to capture the right materials for a radiological “dirty” bomb. As that scenario envisions:
…a dirty bomb’s death rate will be much lower than a nuclear attack due to the fact that only around a millionth of the radiation will be released, as well as far less plain energy from the explosion. However, the death rate could still be quite high if evacuation is not carried out in a timely manner. Even once evacuation has occurred, it is still unclear just how long an affected area would need to remain evacuated, or what standards would have to be achieved before people could re-inhabit the area.
For this reason, a dirty bomb attack on the United States would be effective but far from crippling. There are a few targets, such as Manhattan, that it would be expensive to abandon for several years. Nevertheless, America has the potential to resettle large internal refugee populations and absorb them into local communities. By contrast, dirty bombs pose a particular threat to Israel, a country with a very small land area. A dirty bomb in Tel Aviv would be devastating to the nation’s economy, and the refugee problem would be much more difficult to tackle.
Under this scenario Iran could even maintain plausible deniability: the “theft” of the radiological material would officially be a criminal act by a false-flag terrorist group, and the subsequent explosions in major Israeli cities would create a refugee crisis while also destroying the infrastructure necessary to handle that crisis. Even with American help, such as aircraft carriers capable of desalinating water for thirsty refugees, this strategy could create a crisis that was too big to handle without removing large parts of the Jewish population from Israel.
The Ayatollah would thus get his seizure of Jewish land without having to pay for it, and would get his ethnic cleansing without having to have the stain on his hands. Indeed, under cover of providing aid to Palestinian refugees, it could very quickly stand up an effective revolutionary force via direct military assistance at a time when Israeli government counterintelligence efforts would be disrupted by the loss of their infrastructure. The crisis could also provide cover for moving in large numbers of proxies, such as Hezbollah, which has already worked to develop a reputation for being able to deliver social services.
Such a strategy would be much more in keeping with Iran’s long history of unconventional warfare. It would achieve a number of the Ayatollah’s stated objectives at a very low cost, while maintaining international respectability. It would allow for a follow-on “revolution” that could finish the work of wiping Israel off the map, and the erection of a new puppet state that would complete the promise of the Iranian revolution.
Was this the plan that Qassem Suleimani, commander of Quds (“Jerusalem”) Force, went to Moscow to discuss with the Russians? It was almost certainly some joint Iranian/Russian unconventional warfare plans, as that is Suleimani’s major responsibility and a favorite of Putin’s as well. We may not know, but it would be wise to plan for the scenario, as it is a particularly effective way that Iran could leverage the powers it is about to inherit under the deal.