Is War Between Israel and Iran Inevitable?

Why the IDF must be cautioned against overconfidence.

In Israel’s Defense Forces (IDF) annual assessment of the security situation and challenges to be faced in 2022, it appears that a moderate improvement in the security situation surrounding Israel is expected. The Israeli government approved the proposed budget submitted by the Defense Ministry. “Israel’s defense establishment will receive NIS 58 billion, an increase of NIS 7 billion.” The extra allocation takes into account the possible operations against the Iranian nuclear facilities and other maligned Iranian schemes. According to reports, Israel would purchase various types of manned aircraft, intelligence-gathering drones, and unique munitions needed for a possible attack on Iran’s heavily fortified underground nuclear sites.

The evolving strategic cooperation Israel has now with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, is a definite positive development for Israel. In addition, halting the Iranians and their proxies from advancing toward Israel’s Golan Heights, and the support Putin’s Russia is giving to Israel’s operations against Iran is clearly a positive development. The Russians have not obstructed Israeli aerial operations against Iran’s shipment of arms to Hezbollah, nor the Israeli attacks on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) bases and their proxies in Syria.

What is difficult to predict, however, is when Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terrorist groups in Gaza would choose to launch another mini-war with Israel. During the May 2021 war, or as Israel calls it, Operation Guardian of the Walls, Hamas, and the PIJ suffered significant losses in personnel and arms. Many of their top engineers were eliminated, and their “secret weapons” (mini-submarines, and drones carrying bombs) were destroyed, along with a large quantity of their rocketry. The IDF has recommended a tough approach against Hamas’ attempts to rearm.

Although the Lebanese Shiite-Muslim Hezbollah is far more powerful than its fellow terrorist group in the Gaza Strip, Sunni-Muslim Hamas, it is exercising far more restraint in operating against Israel. Having achieved supreme political and military power in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah knows that a war with Israel at this time would jeopardize all that he and Hezbollah have managed to accomplish. The 2006 Second Lebanon War Hezbollah waged against Israel was a devastating one for the Lebanese. A war now would be even more costly for the suffering Lebanese. While both Hamas and Hezbollah’s raison d’être is the destruction of the Jewish state, Hezbollah, unlike Hamas, will be held accountable in the confessional Lebanese system of government. 

The chances for a war initiated by Israel’s enemies, i.e., Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas are projected to be low in 2022. The explosive situation that existed in the last few years on Israel’s northern border has been reduced, and it appears that neither Iran nor Hezbollah are ready for a full-scale war with Israel. Addressing Israel’s Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last month, Israel’s Chief-of-Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi asserted that Hezbollah and the pro-Iranian militias in Syria were obstructed from receiving precision strategic weapons including additional missiles, drones, and air-defense batteries that could hinder the maneuverability of the Israeli Air Force. But, given the US and its western allies reluctance to use the military option against Iran, and the possibility that the US and the other JCPOA western members might settle for a partial deal is certain to provide Iran with incentives to incite a war against Israel either directly or through its proxies.

At this juncture, the Iranian regime does not have the support of the Iranian people to engage Israel in a devastating war. Iran has not fully recuperated from the 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the US imposed sanctions have created a sharp contraction in the economy. We might also add the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on Iran’s economic woes. The dictatorship of the Ayatollahs, while being less concerned with the hardship of its people, is very much concerned about preserving its power. As such, witnessing recent demonstrations throughout the country with calls such as “down with the dictator,” a reference to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the regime is fearful of an uprising among its repressed, predominately Sunni minorities, including Kurds, Ahwazi-Arabs, and Baluchis, in addition to the culturally deprived large Azeri minority. Urban Persians and those classified as the educated middle-class are also resentful of the regime.

Once Iran becomes a verifiable “threshold nuclear state,” Jerusalem is likely to change its security assessment, and Israel might act unilaterally to stop the existential threat a nuclear Iran poses to the Jewish state. In that case, war with Iran is inevitable. Although the Biden administration has been consulting with Israel regarding the ongoing negotiations in Vienna, Washington has been dead set against any Israeli unilateral action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel’s Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, pointed out that Israel’s defense establishment “is committed to safeguarding a strong, stable, fortified Israel, and ensuring that Iran does not develop an existential threat to Israel. We will continue to act with responsibility and to safeguard our independence of action in any place and sector, and secure Israeli citizens.

The IDF has taken into consideration that an operation to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities would more than likely create a major conflagration, involving Hamas, and Hezbollah. Israel is counting on its three-pronged missile defense systems: short-range Iron Dome, medium-range David’s Sling, and long-range Arrow III missiles. In addition, Israel has the use of the Patriot surface-to-air interceptor missiles. Iran does have the ability to deploy missiles, drones, and cruise missiles, though its Air Force still deploys older generation US aircraft, and the US sanctions curtail Iran’s ability to acquire updated western military technologies. Israel’s technology, on the other hand, is at least a few steps ahead of the Iranians, and it has the capabilities (albeit not absolute) to protect its civilians and military personnel. In the near future, and in view of the increase in the defense budget, projects that were delayed will now be reactivated. Israel’s high-tech industries will be moving into laser technologies and electromagnetic beams, as well as cyber and artificial intelligence (AI). 

The fifth annual Blue Flag drill was held in Israel’s Negev last October with thousands of troops and dozens of aircraft from around the world including the US, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, as well as personnel from Australia, Croatia, Finland, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, and South Korea. Israel’s Air Force (IAF) commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, invited as his personal guest the commander of the United Arab Emirates Air Force, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Nasser Mohammed al-Alawi.

Gen. Norkin believes that the international drill reaffirms the IAF’s legitimacy to act against external threats. He said, “We are living in a very complicated region, and the threats to the State of Israel from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran are only increasing. Holding the international exercise in this current reality, while continuing our public and overt operational activities on all fronts, is of utmost strategic importance, and has an extensive impact over the IAF, the IDF, and the state of Israel.”

Finally, security cooperation and intelligence sharing with regional states, and in particular the Gulf states of UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, provides Israel with a new sense of confidence. Yet, one must caution Israel and the IDF in particular, not to resort to overconfidence, or reducing its vigilance.

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