LONDON — Israel's suspected strike against the Natanz nuclear plant in Iran has taken its shadow war with the Islamic Republic to a new high. It is a battle that began in the 1980s with Iran creating the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and which continues today, fueled by the Islamic Republic's ideological, ballistic and atomic expansionism.
If Israel's Mossad agency did indeed play a role in this incident, then it marks a timely move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to rob Iran of its last bargaining chip against the Biden administration and its allies, with which Iran has resumed talks to revive the 2015 nuclear pact. It is also part of Netanyahu's wider policy to tighten the screws on Islamic Iran, with this last turn coinciding with incipient talks in Vienna.
Israeli and U.S. intelligence agents believe the plant's enrichment capabilities, a principal concern of Israel and Western powers, are now badly damaged, in spite of Iran's claim that it will ramp up uranium enrichment to the 60% (weapons-grade) level.
Will the Natanz attack spell the end of the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions?
Whether the incident will significantly delay enrichment, or fail to, the question remains: Will Israel continue such actions to curb Iran's nuclear program? Will the Natanz attack spell the end of the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions, seeing as its knowhow is now native, and independent? How will Israel deal with Iran from now on?
To answer these, we must consider aspects of what I would term the "Netanyahu doctrine" toward the Islamic Republic. It has similarities and some fundamental differences with the Begin doctrine, as pursued by another prime minister, Menahem Begin (1977-1983), to curb Iraq's nuclear program under Saddam Hussein.
Netanyahu reiterated at an April 12 press conference in Israel with the visiting U.S. defense secretary that Israel would not let the Islamic Republic obtain nuclear weapons, once more qualifying the regime as the chief threat to the Middle East.
Four decades earlier, just after Israeli jets had destroyed Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981, Begin also insisted that his country would never allow its enemies to make weapons of mass destruction.
The strike on Osirak was no last-minute act. It followed four years of tracking Iraq's nuclear program and other preliminary moves, including killings of Iraqi nuclear scientists. Natanz too is anything but a first shot. Israel's 2007 strike on the al-Kibar nuclear site in Syria was an early and incidental warning to Iran.
In the light of other developments like the recent killing of a key Iranian scientist and Israeli concerns about Iran's talks with the West, one may ask if Netanyahu has revived the Begin doctrine.
Arguably he has undertaken, in tandem with the United States, a restrictive strategy toward the Islamic Republic at various levels including its nuclear program. This has seven broad elements, namely:
- The killing of prominent figures related to the nuclear program
- Sabotage of installations
- Theft of suspect shipments and attacks on Iranian ships
- Selling Iran damaged or vulnerable equipment
- Cyber warfare
- Strikes on Iran's proxy militias in Syria
- Forging the Abraham Accords with Arab states
On the first front, research suggests that the assassinations were the work of Mossad's infamous Kidon unit. Reports attribute the agency's direct or indirect involvement in the killings of five Iranian nuclear scientists or senior program figures: Mas'ud Alimohammadi (January 2010), Majid Shahryari (November 2010), Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan (January 2012), Dariush Rezaynejad (July 2011), and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi (November 2020).
With regards to sabotage, actions include the explosions in October 2010 in the Shahab missile production plant in the Zagros mountains, which killed 18 people. The following year, Iran saw four explosions on military-nuclear installations, including the Bidgoneh explosion (in November 2011), which killed Hassan Tehrani, a Revolutionary Guards general dubbed the country's "ballistic father."
On the third front — nabbing suspect items and shipments — incidents include the hijacking of the Arctic Sea ship in 2009, which some papers suggested was taking Russian weaponry to Iran, and the theft of Iranian nuclear documents in 2015. Since late 2019, furthermore, Israel has targeted at least 12 Iranian ships with mines. Most were taking oil to Syria, but the latest target was a ship in the Red Sea suspected of spying for the Revolutionary Guards.
On the fourth front, Western and Israeli intelligence agencies have on occasions used intermediate firms to sell damaged or vulnerable equipment to the Islamic Republic. These pieces have "infected" Iranian nuclear installations and made them more vulnerable to hacking. The Tinners, a family of Swiss engineers, reportedly sold Iran faulty equipment a decade ago that may have damaged 50 centrifuges in Natanz.
Israeli military intelligence (AMAN) is involved in the fifth strategy approach to curb Iran's nuclear program, through cyberattacks that have intensified of late. In one early operation in 2007, Israel introduced the Stuxnet virus into Natanz, three years before the plant suffered a viral attack that destroyed about 1,000 centrifuges.
In addition, Israel has not hesitated to strike at militias in Syria and taken bold steps, with the aid of the Trump administration, to normalize ties with several Arab states. And so, lastly, the Abraham Accords are unlikely to be reversed under the Biden administration.
Several Arab states are equally fearful of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Israel, in other words, has been able to strike at the Islamic Republic on all seven fronts, with actions whose scope and results have clearly surpassed the limits of any unspoken war in the shadows.
Three months into the Biden administration and with Iran showing an interest in reviving its pact with the Powers, the Netanyahu government fears the Iranian side will use enrichment to cajole the West into lifting sanctions. Several Arab states are equally fearful of a nuclear-armed Iran, and unless the United States can provide them with security assurances, we can expect more sabotage, cyberattacks or even military action against Iran.
Fakhrizadeh's killing and the Natanz breakdown clearly express Israel's concerns at the prospect of any nuclear détente with Iran, and are warnings both to Tehran and the Biden team.
Netanyahu wants them to know that if Israel's security is ignored and a new pact effectively paves the way for Iran's progression toward nuclear weapons, then war between Israel and the Islamic Republic will come out of the shadows.
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