Iranian missile launch shows Israeli deterrence is working

There was a lot of spin in the coverage of Iran’s missile strikes on ISIS in Syria last week. We can learn more from what Israel’s leadership didn’t say than what it did.

By Shemuel Meir

An Israeli ‘Arrow II’ ballistic missile interceptor battery deployed in southern Israel. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
An Israeli ‘Arrow II’ ballistic missile interceptor battery deployed in southern Israel. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

An extraordinary strategic event took place last week in the Middle East, when Iran launched surface-to-surface missiles against targets in Syria. This was the first-ever missile strike directed by Iran at a country bordering on Israel. Amazingly, all hell didn’t break loose. What happened? How did Israel view the launch of the missiles? Did it grasp its full implications? How did it respond to this dramatic turn of events? Let us try to find out.

Initial reports in Israel in the hours following the launch of the missiles on June 18, 2017 mentioned four ballistic Shahab-3 missiles, whose range of up to 1,500 kilometers can reach targets in Israel. An official Iranian statement on the launch, which said that six Zulfiqar ballistic missiles had been launched at Islamic State (ISIS) targets in Deir a-Zor, Syria, immediately brought down the anxiety levels in Israel. With their 600-kilometer operational range, Zulfiqar missiles cannot reach targets in Israel.

The next day, reports started to appear in the Israeli media, which were soon picked up worldwide, according to which there were seven missiles rather than six, only two of which struck in the vicinity of the target in Syria — three fell outside Syrian territory and two ended up way off target. The similarity of these reports seemed to be telltale sign of their common origin in a briefing for military correspondents.

Even the commentary on the reports seemed to speak almost in unison, blatantly downplaying the importance of the missile launch from Iran. Channel 2 analyst Ehud Yaari was among the first to set the tone, calling this an Iranian “failure, a flop.” Amos Yadlin, Director of The Institute for National Security Studies was quick to minimize the importance of the Iranian move, tweeting that the U.S. Air Force operation carried out the same day in Syria was “more significant than the Iranian missiles.” Yedioth Aharonoth’s senior military analyst, Alex Fishman, wrote of “an operational fiasco,” saying that Iran’s military industry had “failed miserably.” Amos Harel, military analyst for Haaretz, wrote about “a great deal less impressive than the media noise being made in Iran.” A few days later, Israeli army Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot and Head of Israeli Military Intelligence “Herzi” Halevi used similar terms when speaking at the Herzliya Conference. The missile launch was seen in Israel as a tactical display, causing more of a media splash than any real damage.

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It seems that the military actors and the commentators in Israel tended to overemphasize tactical-operational aspects as well as technical failures of the Iranian missiles and their low accuracy, while understating the significance of the actual occurrence. Tactical and technical malfunctions can be fixed in subsequent launches. The key strategic message that night was the missile itself: no more testing missiles inside Iranian territory, but a first operational launch of mid-range missiles from Iran into a country bordering on Israel. Iran had crossed an invisible yet strategically huge line.

The Iranian decision, it might be assumed, was taken at the highest political echelon. Making a strategic decision to fire missiles on another country is no simple thing (for any country), but what made this easier was that it came in reprisal for an obvious act of aggression committed against Iran — the terrorist attack on the parliament building in Tehran. From Iran’s standpoint, which might be supported from an international relations perspective, firing those missiles constituted defensive rather than offensive action. Iran was not perceived as the instigator. The international system had a hard time refuting the argument that the missile incident amounted to anything more than an act of self-defense as part of the global war on ISIS.

Surprisingly, the political echelon in Israel also tended to make light of the Iranian missile launch. Netanyahu, who had previously never missed a single opportunity to chastise Iran, within hours, every time it tested missiles on its territory, now chose to hold his horses. This time around, we were spared the usual statements about a flagrant violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which, according to him, does not allow Iran to launch missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Also absent were the urgent Israeli requests addressed to Washington’s UN Ambassador UN Nikki Haley to call an urgent meeting of the Security Council and the demand new sanctions and punitive measures against Iran for what he usually defines as “flagrant violations on the missile issue.” Only a day later did we hear Netanyahu’s moderate comment — “Our security forces constantly monitor Iranian activity in the area…their actions and their words” — with no specific reference to the missiles fired the night before. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman also responded to the missile attack with an atypical shrug of the shoulders, saying: “Israel is not worried. We are following all the developments and the events.”

This non-vehement, unexpected line in Israel’s response to Iranian missiles is an intriguing novelty. Here is a blatant case of “the dog that didn’t bark that night,” a detective-story metaphor used by Sherlock Holmes to explain to the Scotland Yard detective how he had solved the mystery based on a fact (the dog bark) that did not occur that night, i.e. a case of trying to find a logical explanation based on the absence of prominent facts that one would expect. And what can be more conspicuous than the “missing fact” in this case — the absence of a uniform, belligerent Israeli response to an event involving Iranian missiles?

There are a few possible explanations for the “missing fact.” The first would be that Prime Minister Netanyahu and analysts close to his view agree with the analyses offered on my Strategic Discourse blog hosted by Haaretz.  In my view, the Iran Deal removed the only potential existential threat to Israel. Contrary to Netanyahu’s “bad deal” approach, it is a good one. According to my analysis, conventional missiles in Iran are not a violation of either the nuclear deal or Security Council Resolution 2231 which encompasses it. Contrary to the old sanction decisions (revoked as part of the nuclear deal), with their binding prohibition on the development of missiles, Security Council Resolution 2231’s language is non-binding on the missile issue. And let us recall: in the wake of the Iran deal, which blocked the nuclear-weapon option for Iran and subjected it to a highly intrusive inspection regime, the missiles in question are conventional by definition.

Many countries in the world have conventional missiles, and Netanyahu’s axiomatic conviction that missiles are intrinsically meant to carry nuclear warheads is unfounded. Saudi Arabia also possesses conventional missiles with a range of over 1,000 kilometers. According to Iran’s security doctrine, as reflected in the statements of senior spokesmen (some of them from the Revolutionary Guard) following the agreement, its conventional missiles are there for purposes of defense and deterrence against any threat. Surprisingly, the world’s pioneering intellectual groundwork for achieving deterrence through conventional missiles can be found in the teachings of Israeli strategic thinkers Yigal Alon and Israel Tal.

Another possible explanation — and maybe much more valid — draws on the internal grammar of the strategy: communication by transmission of nonverbal messages and signals to the other side. Under this logic, the firing of the Iranian missiles at Syria was deliberately engineered in such a way as not to be perceived by the IDF as a threatening launch against targets in Israel. This signal was conveyed by the choice of missile type — a missile whose reach of several hundred kilometers does not cover Israel — and launch site. The Iranian launch site in the Kermanshah region in western Iran is geographically aligned with ISIS targets in Syria’s Deir a-Zor, and with the Mediterranean coastal strip of North Syria further down that line. This was not a direct line that continues south toward Israel.

What this explanation means is this: Israeli deterrence is working, and Iran is not keen on entering a confrontation with Israel. This is a preferred modus operandi that has also characterized Iran since its first (and so far only) direct military contact with Israel in the Quneitra sector of the Syrian Golan Heights, in an incident where the IDF killed a general from the Revolutionary Guard two years ago. Israel’s nonverbal deterring message in that incident did send a signal. There has been no direct Iranian military presence vis-à-vis Israel in the Golan ever since.

So much for the missile incident that was. Under a forward-looking analysis, it should be emphasized that the failed tactical outcome of the Iranian missile strike last week is not the crux of the story. A new strategic equation has been created, one that needs to be addressed within a complex strategic reading that must avoid uni-dimensionality: the missile issue has moved from testing and domestic showcasing of capabilities to a new phase, that of capabilities that have gone through a baptism of fire outside the Iranian border.

Shemuel Meir is a former IDF analyst and associate researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Today he is an independent researcher on nuclear and strategic issues and author of the “Strategic Discourse” blog, which appears in Haaretz. Read this post in Hebrew here.