Is Israel at War With Iran?

When Meir Dagan was appointed chief of the Israeli Mossad, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon assigned him the responsibility of disabling Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons program. It was Dagan’s belief – and he practiced it often – that the most effective and efficient way to do that was to locate key players in the Iranian nuclear program and assassinate them. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would grow to oppose that approach. Netanyahu insisted that covert killings could only go so far and that what was really needed was significant bombings of Iranian nuclear facilities. Israel has decided in the past few months, it seems, that it was never really necessary to choose: you can do both.

On January 23, 2020, while in Baghdad on a diplomatic mission, Iranian general Qassem Suleimani’s vehicle was struck by American hellfire missiles. Saudi Arabia and Iran were beginning to talk, and Iraq was playing the role of the intermediary. Saudi Arabia had sent Iran a de-escalation letter and, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the Iranian general was in Baghdad to deliver Iran’s reply.

Suleimani was on a diplomatic mission, not a military mission; he was on civilian ground, not a battle field. This missile strike, then, looked a lot like an extrajudicial assassination and not a casualty of war. Four days after the killing, Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, requested that U.N. Secretary General António Guterres “establish an impartial inquiry into [the] lawfulness of Soleimani’s killing” under Article 99 of the UN charter, which gives the Secretary General the power to bring any matter to the Security Council that “may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security."

The inquiry was necessary, according to Callamard, because the “targeted killings of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis are most lokely [sic] unlawful and violate international human rights law.” Callamard explained on Twitter that “To be justified under international human rights law, intentionally lethal or potentially lethal force can only be used where strictly necessary to protect against an imminent threat to life.”

On July 9, 2020 the U.N. inquiry reported that the assassination was a violation of international law. It concluded that in the absence of "an actual imminent threat to life, the course of action taken by the U.S. was unlawful."

But how does this unlawful killing of a high-level Iranian official by American hellfire missiles implicate Israel? Alone amongst all American allies, Prime Minister Netanyahu knew about the operation: he had been briefed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. According to an "Israeli army officer with knowledge of Israeli military assessments," the assassination of Suleimani "did not come as a surprise" because, according to Israeli military and diplomatic analysts, "Israel had advance notice of the US plan." Channel 13’s Barak Ravid reported that "the United States informed Israel about this operation in Iraq, apparently a few days ago."

Knowledge of an act of war may not make you a warrior. But participating in it does. Israel did more than know about the assassination of Qassem Suleimani: Israel participated in it. "Israeli intelligence was instrumental" in the assassination. Suleimani was killed when his vehicle was struck by American hellfire missiles. But it was Israeli intelligence that "confirmed and verified" informants’ information tipping the US off to which plane Suleimani was on.

If Meir Dagan would be proud of the assassination, Netanyahu would be proud of what was to come.

On June 26, 2020 a site claimed to be a missile production facility near Parchin exploded. Citing the Kuwaiti paper Al-Jarida, The Times of Israel attributed the Parchin explosion to missiles dropped by Israeli F-35 stealth fighters. The Parchin story has drawn little media attention and remains undeveloped.

A week later, on July 3, though, a second Iranian cite was obliterated by an explosion. Picking up a story again from the Kuwaiti Al-Jarida, The Jerusalem Post, citing an unnamed senior source, reported that the explosion at Iran’s civilian Natanz nuclear enrichment facility was caused by an Israeli cyber attack. Iranian officials have confirmed that, though none of the underground centrifuges were damaged, the above ground damage is extensive, and that their centrifuge program has been substantially set back. More recent reports are suggesting that the Natanz facility may have been blown out of commission – possibly even completely destroyed – and that the month’s long set back may actually be years.

Though unnamed Iranian officials seemed at first to side with the cyber attack theory, some experts sided with a different theory: that the Natanz explosion was not a cyber attack but an actual physical attack. In a rare piece of mainstream reporting, The New York Times seems to confirm the physical attack theory. Relying on a "Middle Eastern intelligence official with knowledge of the episode," the Times reports that the Natanz nuclear complex was not hit by a cyber attack, as it has been previously, but by a "powerful bomb." The intelligence official added that "Israel was responsible for the attack." The Times report supports the intelligence source by adding that a "member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who was briefed on the matter also said an explosive was used." According to the Revolutionary Guards source, it is likely that someone carried the bomb into the building. There is also the possibility that a cyber attack was used to trigger the bomb.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz has said that "Not every incident that transpires in Iran necessarily has something to do with us. . . . All those systems are complex, they have very high safety constraints and I’m not sure they always know how to maintain them." Leaving aside that Gantz’ statement is short of a denial and leaving aside the humor that Israel is so worried about Iran developing a nuclear weapons program that it doesn’t even have the knowledge or capacity to perform maintenance on, the explosion was not the result of an accident.

The BBC reports that they received an email from an unknown group called the Homeland Cheetahs claiming responsibility for an attack on the Natanz nuclear site two hours earlier. It was only several hours later that Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization announced that there had been an explosion at the Natanz nuclear plant. The group is likely not real, but its email shows that someone knew about the act of sabotage long before it happened, eliminating Gantz’ accident explanation. A Middle Eastern security official cited by The Washington Post said "There was an opportunity, and someone in Israel calculated the risk and took the opportunity."

Three acts of war in the past few months: missile dropped from planes, bomb attacks, assassinations and possibly cyber attacks. Meir Dagan and Benjamin Netanyahu can both be proud.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.