PM Netanyahu will be judged by how Israel confronts Iran militarily

In what many described as a global public relations coup, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week delivered a televised 20-minute prime-time presentation in which he unveiled a cache of more than 100,000 nuclear-related files stolen from a secret facility in Tehran earlier this year in a . The spies in February 2016 reportedly discovered a warehouse located in the Shorabad district of the Iranian capital where the documentation was being stored; kept the building under surveillance for two years; and, recently, devised an operation to break into the structure and smuggle back to Israel half a ton of material in less than 24 hours. The Israeli agents are believed to have used "an expansive infrastructure within Iranian territory" to flee the country with local authorities "[hot] on their tails."

"This was perhaps the greatest intelligence operation in history, as I do not remember any instance when a complete archive was moved from one part of the world to another," Eliezer Tsafrir, former head of the Mossad station in Iran, contended to The Media Line. While he declined to elaborate further on the mission itself or the extent of Jerusalem‘s clandestine network in the Islamic Republic, Tsafrir stressed that "the message is clear: Israel can operate on Iranian soil, which is significant.

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"Moreover, from what I know," he expounded, "the events prove that there is a principle [in Islam] called Taqiyya that the regime operates in accordance with, which means the [Mullahs] are religiously authorized to lie when it is convenient to do so."
In fact, this may have been the core message of the Israeli premier‘s address, during which he used props and a slide-show to demonstrate that the Islamic Republic, despite its frequent denials—which, most significantly, includes not having come clean when the 2015 nuclear accord was forged with world powers—in 1999 created "Project Amad" with the specific goal of developing atomic weapons.

In 2003, amid rumors that then-US president George W. Bush was considering attacking Iran‘s nuclear installations, the regime decided to split Project Amad into an overt program and a hidden one that, according to Prime Minister Netanyahu, remained engaged in developing atomic technology under the banner of “scientific know-how.” Jerusalem contends that this work is, to some degree, still being carried out today by an organization inside Iran’s Defense Ministry named SPND, which is headed by the same person who led Project Amad, Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Notably, the Israeli premier did not provide any "smoking gun" that Iran violated the 2015 nuclear agreement forged with world powers. Indeed, most of the information he "exposed" was already revealed years ago by the International Atomic Energy Agency, thereby raising the possibility that , but, rather, to highlight Iran’s propensity to deceive. In doing so, he not only placed Tehran on the docket—this, while shaming the Iranians, which, from their perspective, is no small blow—but also those countries that he views as enabling the Islamic Republic through their continued promotion of an atomic pact “based on lies.”

The revelations out of Jerusalem come less than two weeks before a May 12 deadline for US President Donald Trump to decide whether or not to re-impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic, a move that would in all probability kill the deal. In this respect, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that Israel’s discoveries reinforced an American intelligence assessment that Tehran had “a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.” For his part, President Trump described the circumstances as “not an acceptable situation” before reiterating that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it is formally known, is a “horrible agreement for the US”

Accordingly, it appears that Jerusalem and Washington were already on the same page, an indication that the Israeli premier’s target audience was, perhaps, the other parties to the nuclear deal; namely, Russia, China and especially France, Britain and Germany, or the “E3,” which reportedly will send a combined delegation to Israel to examine the acquired atomic files. President Trump, with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s firm backing, has for months been lobbying these European nations to devise a follow-on pact to eliminate the JCPOA’s so-called “sunset clauses—which remove limitations on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium in about a decade—as well as to curb the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program and regional expansionism.

Just hours after the secret Iranian documentation was revealed, US media reported that Israel is preparing to engage Tehran militarily in Syria and has sought American support for any prospective mission. Three unnamed officials told NBC News that of all the hot-spots in the world, a major conflict was most likely to erupt along the Jewish state‘s northern border. They also attributed to Jerusalem responsibility for this week‘s massive air assault on army bases in the Syrian cities of Hama and Aleppo that killed more than two dozen personnel, mostly Iranians.

Responding to the latter accusation, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman quipped, "I don’t read foreign publications," adding that the IDF would do everything needed to combat against an Iranian regime that "routinely threaten[s] the state of Israel, promise[s] to wipe it out and continue[s] to support terror."

For its part, the Islamic Republic continues to maintain that the nuclear accord is non-negotiable, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently having reiterated that his country “will not accept any restrictions beyond its commitments.” Iran has threatened to “vigorously” jump-start its uranium enrichment program if Washington abandons the agreement, and, perhaps most acutely, the Mullahs have vowed to respond to Israeli "aggression" in Syria, which raises the specter of a direct confrontation between the two arch-foes.

On Thursday, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres addressed this possibility, warning that "there is a real risk of war" if the US walks away from the nuclear deal.

This past February, a potentially devastating confrontation was averted following Iran‘s attempt to penetrate Israeli air space with a payload-carrying drone. This, in turn, prompted the IDF to respond with a dozen air strikes targeting military infrastructure in Syria, during which an Israeli jet was downed for the first time in three decades. While tensions have since been somewhat diffused, Israeli forces continue to conduct cross-border operations to uphold Jerusalem‘s red lines; namely, to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah and, increasingly, to curb the Islamic Republic‘s efforts to establish a permanent military foothold within striking distance of Israel‘s border. As such, both sides remain on the precipice, one mistake away from the situation spiraling out of control.

In this respect, former Israeli defense chief Amir Peretz—who served in the post during the 2006 confrontation between the IDF and Tehran‘s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah—stated on Tuesday that the Jewish state was not prepared for the outbreak of war, adding that at least $500 million needs to be invested in order to fortify positions along the northern borders with Lebanon and Syria. In March, Liberman made a similar assertion, urging the government to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars annually over a years-long period "to bring the north to the level of the south," where Jerusalem has expended vast resources to secure its citizenry against the threat posed by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

"All of these statements should be taken very carefully as they are highly colored by positional bias," according to Uzi Rubin, former head of Israel‘s Arrow defense program, developed jointly with the United States to neutralize the threat posed by longer-range ballistic missiles. "Peretz is a politician with his own interests and as regards Liberman, every minister believes he or she is under-budgeted so his comments are very typical. While they may reflect elements of truth," he continued, "they do not represent the full truth as no official would be willing to expose the IDF‘s capabilities. It is also important to keep in mind that Israel was not supposed to win [the wars in] 1948, 1967, 1973 and so on and so forth."

In terms of a possible escalation, Rubin believes that "there is a very high potential for an intensification, but that does not mean it will be realized. Iran has spoken of a reprisal but the question is how it will be expressed, either directly in the north or possibly abroad. The Iranians are very calculating," he concluded. "They are good chess players and will do something that will give them the maximum benefit with minimum damage."

Efraim Kam, a former colonel in the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence and currently a Senior Fellow at Israel‘s Institute for National Security Studies, concurs that "it is more likely than unlikely that the Iranians will respond. The main issue," he communicated to The Media Line, "is that they understand now that Israel is determined to contain their intervention in Syria. Since it is strategically important for Iran to achieve this goal, the regime might decide that there is no way to stop Israeli strikes other than by retaliating."

Nevertheless, Kam qualified, "I don‘t think there will be a major war, but instead a [tit-for-tat] exchange. At the moment, Israel‘s main interest is for the Trump administration to modify the nuclear deal or withdraw from it. Any big encounter would undermine this."

But if Iran follows through on its threat to attack Israeli assets, the IDF will, in accordance with Jerusalem‘s strategic doctrine, almost certainly react with great force. Coupled with the growing likelihood that President Trump will nix the nuclear deal, Tehran may find itself in a position whereby it has little to lose by unleashing its proxies on Israel. The Mullahs may even determine that such a move is in their interest, using a major conflict as justification—and cover, given that history suggests the international community‘s ire would inevitably be directed against the Jewish state—to renew its uranium enrichment program, if not make a full-out dash for the bomb.

In such an eventuality, Prime Minister Netanyahu will have little choice but to shift from stunt-filled rhetoric to concrete military action. The fate of millions of people—in addition to his own legacy—will then depend on a totally different sort of grand performance, this one with life-and-death consequences.