Israel-Iran Confrontation Ascends to a New Pitch of Escalation

Is Jerusalem Hedging Against a Possible Trump Defeat in November?

While the world reels from the ongoing impact of the coronavirus, the Israeli-Iranian confrontation has ascended to a new pitch of escalation. A string of as-yet-unexplained explosions has struck sites in nearly a dozen Iranian cities in the last six weeks. Most prominent among them, an explosion effectively ruined Iran’s main centrifuge facility in Natanz, potentially setting back Iran’s nuclear ambitions by a year or more. While some analysts are reading the phenomenon as a revival of the joint U.S.-Israeli sabotage campaign that targeted Iranian assets in 2008-’10, others interpret these developments as Jerusalem’s hedge against a possible Trump defeat in November.

“WE TAKE ACTIONS THAT ARE BETTER LEFT UNSAID”

In the last month, Iran has suffered a string of no less than four major explosions targeting critical infrastructure and its nuclear program. Several detonations rocked Parchin, home to a major missile production facility, on June 25; Iran’s main centrifuge production facility at Natanz was effectively destroyed on July 2; an underground facility employed in chemical manufacturing exploded in Tehran on July 9; and a power station in Isfahan was struck on July 19. In the same time period, seven other civil industrial sites witnessed explosions of varying severity. Through it all, Tehran has addressed each incident as an isolated episode, to be dismissed as the result of, variously, “gas explosions”, “damaged equipment”, or “flaws in safety measures”. 

By contrast, even though no state has officially claimed responsibility for this campaign, in both Jerusalem and Washington there is little doubt as to the ultimate origin of Tehran’s recent string of misfortunes. As Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi put it during a July 5 press conference, with regard to Iran, "We take actions that are better left unsaid." Still, Jerusalem has not fully shed its traditional posture of cultivated ambiguity. As Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Army Radio on Sunday,  “Not every incident that transpires in Iran necessarily has something to do with us... All those systems are complex," he said. "They have very high safety constraints, and I’m not sure they always know how to maintain them.”

A HEDGE AGAINST NOVEMBER?

In certain circles, it is believed that Israeli decision-making is tightly tied to the American election calendar. As one EU official confided, "there would be a lot less appetite for adventures and secret missions to blow up nuclear facilities under a Biden administration." In consequence, some believe that Jerusalem has accelerated the campaign to degrade or damage the Iranian nuclear program before the November elections and a possible loss by President Donald Trump. For the time being, in the words of one former Israeli official, "it's been decided to follow the Trump administration's lead of exerting 'maximum pressure' on the Iranians."

In several respects, the July 2 strike on Iran’s Centrifuge Assembly Center may have already proved to be among the more enduring developments in the regional balance of power. In the assessment of one independent research firm, “Although the explosion and fire at the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center does not eliminate Iran’s ability to deploy advanced centrifuges, such as the IR-2m’s, its destruction must be viewed as a major setback to Iran’s ability to deploy advanced centrifuges on a mass scale for years to come.” Indeed, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council took the unusual step of announcing that the cause of the Natanz explosion had been determined, but would not be released "due to security considerations.”