Since abandoning its “strategic patience” policy in May 2019, which Iran adopted following the announcement by U.S. President, Donald Trump, in May 2018, to withdraw from the JCPOA and re-impose sanctions against it, Tehran initiated a number of offensive operations in the Persian Gulf region. The steps taken by Iran in recent months are intended to exact a price from the United States and its allies for their “maximum pressure” strategy. These steps also aim to drive up the price of oil through sabotage of oil tankers and oil-related infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, in an effort to reduce the economic pressure brought to bear on Iran. In our assessment, Tehran wishes to gain bargaining leverage it can use in future negotiations with the United States.
Iran’s patterns of behavior indicate growing preference for direct action (even if one with deniability) over deployment of proxy organizations to achieve Iran’s current strategic goals. This does not mean that Iran stopped utilizing proxies in the ongoing escalation in the Gulf. However, most military actions attributed to Iran in recent months were carried out by Iranian military units or led by them, including: the attack on oil tankers in the Gulf (May and June 2019), the downing of the American unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) (June 2019); the takeover of the oil tankers of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and UK (June and July 2019); the attack on Saudi oil facilities using cruise missiles and UAVs (September 2019). To the best of our knowledge, these attacks were carried out without significant involvement of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) headed by Qasem Soleimani, which is responsible for overseeing Iran’s regional campaign utilizing proxy organization. In the Syrian arena too in the past two years, a change has been occurring in the patterns of Iranian activities against Israel, with Tehran showing increasing willingness to carry out direct offensive actions, using UAVs and rockets, although Iran does strive to downplay the involvement of the IRGC in these actions.
The apparent shift in Iran’s strategy can be attributed to several possible reasons:
– The supreme importance Iran attributes to its efforts to bring about the lifting of U.S. sanctions. Iran’s leadership sees the removal of the economic pressures placed on it as the top national interest. It therefore prefers to act directly through Iranian forces rather than relying on proxies.
– The effectiveness and quality of the proxy organizations is generally lower than that of Iranian forces. Carrying out complex operations by different bodies and at different locations requires high levels of coordination and control by senior command and utilizing military capabilities that are usually the hallmark of Iranian forces alone. Therefore, Iran prefers to reduce the reliance on proxy organizations, or at most, to use them as part of operations that are carried out under the leadership of Iranian forces.
– Increasing Iranian sense of confidence, which encourages it to make direct and bolder offensive actions, with a greater willingness to take risks (which it perceives as calculated risks). This is, in part, due to an assessment that the U.S. president, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are not interested in military confrontation.
– Personnel changes at the helm of the IRGC, including the appointment of Hossein Salami at the commander of the organization, which contributed to the change in Iranian military strategy.
– Internal struggles among Iran’s military leadership and a significant effort by senior commanders, including Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, the Commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, to prove their determination and abilities to realize the guidance of the Iranian Supreme Leader to respond to the “maximum pressure” policy pursued by the United States by increasing “resistance” from Iran.
– Despite the significant change in Iran’s modus operandi, in our assessment, Iran does not strive for an all-out confrontation with the United States or Israel, preferring instead to pursue a policy of brinkmanship, constantly testing the “rules of the game.” Nonetheless, it is evident that Iran is willing to take calculated risks to achieve its strategic goals, by carrying out direct offensive operations, and not through the deployment of proxies.
The changes to Iran’s strategy may have direct repercussions for Israel, which is also facing Iran and its proxies in the region. In our assessment, the latest attack on Saudi Arabia included a message to Israel regarding Iran’s willingness to directly respond to attacks attributed to Israel utilizing advanced weaponry. Meanwhile, senior IRGC commanders have recently voiced renewed vows to wipe Israel off the map.
Iran’s Offensive Operations as Part of the Escalation in the Gulf
The Goal of the Offensive Operations
– Since abandoning its “strategic patience” policy in May 2019, which Iran adopted following the announcement by U.S. President, Donald Trump, in May 2018, concerning US withdrawal from the JCPOA and the re-imposition of sanctions against it, Tehran initiated a number of offensive operations in the Persian Gulf. The steps taken by Iran in recent months, in addition to its gradual withdrawal from its obligations under the nuclear deal are intended to achieve a number of goals: exact a price from the United States and its allies for their “maximum pressure” strategy and demonstrate Iran’s ability to harm them; try to raise the price of oil through sabotage of oil tankers and oil-related infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, in an effort to relieve the immense economic pressure on it due to the significant challenges Iran faces in exporting oil; and gain bargaining leverage it can use in future negotiations and as part of the discussions ahead of the renewal of such negotiations.
The Move to Direct Military Actions
– Some of the major attacks Iran has carried out in recent months include the attack on oil tankers in the Gulf (two of them Saudi, one Norwegian, one belonging to the UAE), near the emirate of Fujairah in the Port of Oman on May 12, 2019; sabotage of oil tankers in the Port of Oman on June 13, 2019; the downing of the American UAV on June 20, 2019; the takeover of the MT Riah oil tanker of the UAE; the takeover of the Stena Impero sailing under a UK flag on July 19, 2019; and the attack on Saudi oil facilities using cruise missiles and UAVs on September 12, 2019.
– The pattern of Iranian actions indicates a growing preference for carrying out direct military attacks (even if enjoying some deniability) over the use of proxy organizations to achieve Iran’s strategic goals. However, this does not mean that Iran has stopped using proxies as part of the ongoing escalation in the Gulf. For example, the attack by explosive-laden UAVs against two pumping stations belonging to the Saudi national oil company Aramco, on May 14, 2019, was apparently carried out by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who enjoy Iranian support (Reuters, May 14, 2019).
– Although Iran has not totally abandoned the reliance on proxy organizations, it appears that most of the actions recently attributed to Iran were carried out by or led by Iranian armed forces. It appears that these attacks were carried out without significant involvement of the Qods Force of the IRGC under the command of Qasem Soleimani, which is responsible for Iran’s regional campaign through the use of proxies that receive military assistance, finance and guidance from Iran.
– The attack near Fujairah was in high likelihood carried out by a force belonging to the naval commando forces of the IRGC, which sabotaged the four oil tankers. The findings of an international investigation, which was carried out under the leadership of the UAE, found that the highly sophisticated and well-coordinated attack was carried out by several crews of divers, who moved using speedboats to reach the tankers and damage them by placing limpet mines on the sides of the tankers.
– The sabotage of two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on June 13, 2019, was apparently carried out by a naval force of the IRGC. Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, blamed Iran for the attack based on U.S. intelligence, the type of weapon used, the high degree of expertise required to carry out the operation, previous Iranian attacks against vessels in the region, and the fact that no proxy organization operating in the region has the resources and skills to carry out such a highly sophisticated attack. A few hours after the attack, the U.S. Navy published video showing an IRGC force removing a limpet mine that had failed to detonate from one of the sides of the targeted tankers.
The attack on the Saudi oil installations in mid-September was particularly brazen and reflected an Iranian willingness to take greater risks than it did before to reduce the pressure brought to bear on its ability to export oil. Iran attempted to present the attack as part of the ongoing campaign by the Houthi rebels of Yemen, who claimed responsibility for the attack. However, information about the attack indicates there was direct Iranian involvement in the strike on the Saudi oil facilities. An intelligence report, revealed on October 1, 2019 by the Iranian opposition (which may have served as a conduit for information originating in foreign intelligence services), indicated that the decision to strike the facilities was approved by the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, and under the direction of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. According to this report, the attack was planned by the commander of Khatam-al Anbiya Central Headquarter, Gholam-Ali Rashid, and the Commander of the Aerospace Force of the IRGC, Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, and was carried out from the Iran-Iraq border region, with the involvement of senior officials in the IRGC’s air and surface-to-surface missile forces of the IRGC. The operation is particularly extraordinary because since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran has used the missile systems from within its borders against its enemies only rarely. It has never launched missiles from its territory toward American, Israeli or Saudi targets, but only against targets of the Iranian opposition, the Kurdish rebels, and ISIS targets in Syria.
Shifts in Iranian Activities against Israel
Although most of the direct Iranian attack were carried out as part of the overall escalation between Iran and the United States and its allies in the Gulf, a shift has also occurred in the pattern of Iranian activities against Israel in the past two years. This shift manifests in growing Iranian willingness to carry out offensive operations directly against Israel from Syria, although Iran tries to downplay the involvement of the IRGC in these attacks.
– This growing willingness manifested in a number of offensive operations, carried out of Syrian territory, utilizing attack UAVs and rockets. Below are summaries of the attacks:
– On February 10, 2018, Iran launched an attack UAV toward Israel, which was shut down by the IDF. The UAV was launched from the T4 air base near Palmyra in Syria. In response, the IDF struck several targets in Syria, including the Iranian control booth that oversaw the operation. As Israeli jets conducted the retaliatory strikes, they were met with anti-aircraft missiles, resulting in the downing of an F-16 fighter jet over Israeli territory. In response to the downing of the jet, the IDF carried out a wide-ranging attack against Syria’s air defense systems and Iranian targets in Syria. The official responses from Iran to these developments reflected an Iranian effort to downplay its involvement in the events. The Spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bahram Qasemi, labeled the Israeli claims about the incursion of the Iranian UAV and Iranian involvement in the downing of the Israeli jet “preposterous” (ISNA, February 10, 2018). The Secretary General of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, also denied the reports about the incursion of the Iranian UAV, stating that these are false claims made by Israel (Fars, February 11, 2018).
– On May 10, 2018, the Iranian Qods Force launched over 30 Grad and Fajr rockets from Syrian territory toward IDF outposts in the Golan Heights. The rockers were fired in response to strikes, attributed to Israel, against the T4 air base on April 9, 2018 and an attack on Iranian ammunition depots on April 29, 2019, which killed IRGC fighters and destroyed a large quantity of Iranian arms.
– On January 20, 2019, Iranian forces stationed in Syria launched a rocket toward the Golan Heights, which was intercepted by the “Iron Dome” system. According to the IDF, the rocket was fired by a Qods Force unit after prolonged preparations and following a decision to launch the attack, which was made months in advance.
– On August 24, 2019, the IDF struck several targets in the town of Aqraba (47 km southwest of Damascus). The attack foiled an attempt of a Qods Force cell to strike Israeli military and infrastructure targets using armed UAVs, which were set to be launched from Syrian territory. On August 27, the IDF spokesperson revealed that the commander of Iranian forces in Syria, Javad Ghaffari, who belongs to the Qods Force of the IRGC, oversaw the unit of the UAV operators. According the the IDF spokesperson, Ghaffari personally recruited the Shi’ite Lebanese militiamen involved in the attack, ensured they receive training in Iran, and oversaw the attempt to launch the armed UAVs toward Israeli territory. In this case too, the responses of senior Iranian officials, who expressed support for Hezbollah’s retaliation to the “Israeli aggression,” reflected a propaganda line intended to disguise Iran’s role in the attack. As part of this strategy, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, stressed that the IDF attack targeted a Hezbollah facility and not a Qods Force one.
Possible Reasons for the Shift in Iran’s Military Strategy
Over the years, Iran has preferred to operate through proxies to conceal its involvement and responsibility, reducing the risk of having to pay a political or military cost for its actions. This pattern has changed, although Iran still strives to maintain a degree of deniability to reduce the risks such attacks entail. Iran is able to maintain a degree of deniability by acting clandestinely, using bases located in Iran’s border regions, and placing responsibility on proxy organizations (the Houthis, Hezbollah) for actions that are in fact carried out directly by Iran.
In our assessment, the possible reasons for this shift are:
– The utmost importance Iran sees in its efforts to extricate itself from the American sanctions. Iran’s leadership sees curtailing the economic pressure on it as a vital national interest of utmost importance. It therefore prefers to act directly, by using Iranian forces, instead of relying on proxies. The use of proxies facilitates Iran’s efforts to conceal its involvement in attacks, but proxy organizations have their own interests, and are not always wholly subservient to Iranian interest and priorities.
– The efficiency and quality of proxy organizations is, as a rule, lower than those of Iranian forces. Carrying out complex operations by different bodies across different locations requires command and control from high-ranking officers, and use of high-quality military capabilities, which are usually reserved for Iranian forces alone. Therefore, Iran prefers to reduce the reliance on proxy organizations, or at most to incorporate them as part of operations, which are carried out under the command of Iranian armed forces. The limitations entailed in using proxies, for example the Houthi rebels in Yemen, in achieving Iranian goals in the Gulf, chief among them interrupting the flow of the global oil supply and thus driving up the cost of oil, forced Iran to raise the stakes and use more advance tools, including sophisticated weaponry.
– Iran’s desire to overcome the limitations entailed in relying on proxies also manifested in Iran’s campaign in Syria. Until September 2015, Iran’s involvement in Syria encompassed several hundreds of Iranian advisers and several thousands of Shi’ite foreign fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah, Shi’ite Iraqi militias and Afghani and Pakistani fighters recruited by the IRGC. The Iranians avoided, at that stage, from using Iranian military units against the Syrian rebels, and largely avoided direct involvement in the fighting. The growing strength of ISIS and Syrian rebel groups in northwestern Syria in 2014-2015, however, aroused fears in Tehran that the Assad regime may not survive in power for long. This led Iran to significantly increase its support for the Assad regime and alter the patterns of its assistance to Syria. Due to the growing weakness of the Syrian regime, in mid-2015, Iran bolstered its forces in Syria, at least by between 1,500 to 2,000 fighters who took an active role in combat.
– A growing sense of confidence by Iran’s leadership is leading it to take more direct and bolder operations, showing an increasing willingness to take risks (which Tehran perceives as calculated). This stems, in part, from to an assessment that the U.S. president, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are not interested in military confrontation. This assessment was only bolstered when the U.S. avoided any military retaliation for Iran’s previous attacks, including the downing of the American UAV.
– Personnel changes at the helm of the IRGC, including the appointment of Hossein Salami at the commander of the organization, which contributed to the change in Iranian military strategy. Salami, who served the deputy commander of the IRGC over the past decade, replaced Mohammad-Ali Jafari, who served in his position since September 2007. Jafari was set to end his term in office in the summer of 2020, after his posting was extended by three years. It is possible that the personnel change was made a year early due to the growing tensions between Iran and the United States. Over the past decade, Salami has come to be known as one of the prominent commanders of the IRGC, renowned for his extremist rhetoric and defiant statements against the United States and Israel. Salami opposes any U.S. presence in the region. He also argues that U.S. power in the region is fading, and that the regional balance of power is today tilting toward Iran and the “Resistance Front.” With regards to Iran’s policies in the international arena, Salami also presents hardline and uncompromising views, grounded in total refusal for any Iranian concessions to Western demands. He insists on Iran’s right to continue developing long-range missiles, which he sees as central to Iran’s deterrence capabilities. He also threatened to expand the range of the missiles Iran is developing, if the West keeps pressuring Iran to give up on its ballistic missile capabilities.
– Internal power struggles at the helm of Iran’s military leadership and attempts by senior commanders to prove their resoluteness and ability to implement the orders of the Supreme Leader to respond to the American “maximum pressure” policy by increasing Iranian “resistance.” It is apparent that the commanders of the different Iranian forces, including the air force and ballistic missile force, the navy and intelligence, wish to play a growing role in the Iranian military campaign and are unwilling to leave it in the hands of the Qods Force under the leadership of Qasem Soleimani.
– In this regard, Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, the Commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, appears to be one of the prominent Iranian commanders leading the current campaign. In recent months, the senior commander issued a number of statements boasting about Iran’s advanced aerial capabilities and threatened the United States and its regional allies. In August 2019, Hajizadeh declared that Iran is currently ranked number one in missile development technology in the region and is positioned along the superpowers in this sphere. He stated that Iran’s success in downing the American UAV is a testament to Iran’s advanced aerial defense technological capabilities (Press TV, August 18, 2019). In September 2019, Hajizadeh threatened to target American forces in the Gulf. In an interview to Iranian television (September 14, 2019), the high-ranking commander stated that all American bases and their aircraft carriers that are located within 2,000 kilometers (1243 miles) of Iran are within the strike range of the IRGC’s missiles. A few days later, Hajizadeh proclaimed that Iran achieved significant progress in developing UAVs and threatened to retaliate forcefully to any military action against his country (Tasnim, September 21, 2019).
Despite the risks entailed in the new Iranian approach, in our assessment, Iran does not strive for an all-out confrontation with the United States of Israel, despite the significant change in its modus operandi, preferring instead to pursue a policy of brinkmanship, constantly testing the “rules of the game.” Nonetheless, it is evident that Iran is willing to take calculated risks to achieve its strategic goals, by carrying out direct offensive operations, and not through the deployment of proxies.
– The changes to Iran’s strategy may have direct repercussions for Israel, which according to foreign media reports, recently expanded its strikes to Iraq and Lebanon as part of the ongoing campaign against Iran and its regional proxies. The latest attack on Saudi Arabia included a message to Israel regarding Iran’s willingness to directly respond to Israeli attacks while utilizing advanced weaponry. Meanwhile, senior IRGC commanders have recently voiced renewed vows to wipe Israel off the map of the earth. For example, the Commander of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, declared during a conference of commanders of the force that in the initial stage of the Islamic Revolution, Iran was prepared to destroy “the faked Zionist entity,” and that in the second state of the revolution, Israel needs to be erased from the map. He argued that this is not a dream but a realizable goal (Tasnim, September 30, 2019). A few days later, Salami declared during a meeting between senior IRGC commanders and the Supreme Leader Khamenei that the deterrence capability of the IRGC ensures that any mistake “the Zionist regime” makes vis-à-vis Iran will be its last, since if a new war erupts, this regime will be wiped off the face of the earth (IRNA, October 2, 2019)
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