Stepping Closer to a War in the Middle East

John Bolton

Recent testimony on Capitol Hill by Daniel R. Coats, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) looked at the intelligence community’s assessment of threats to the America’s national security.  One of the focuses of this year’s Worldwide Threat Assessment is Iran; in this posting, I want to pick out a few salient points that may help us gain a better understanding of what lies ahead in the Middle East as the war in Syria appears to be winding down, particularly given the recent attacks by Israel’s Air Force against alleged Iranian military sites in Syria.  

In the 2019 edition of the Worldwide Threat Assessment, Iran is mentioned 72 times behind the 85 for China and 81 for Russia.  This compares to 32 for Syria, 27 for North Korea, 7 for Libya, 6 for Cuba and only 4 for Venezuela.  Let’s focus on the threats from Iran with particular emphasis on the relationship between Iran, Syria and Israel:

A.) Cyberthreats:

“Iran continues to present a cyber espionage and attack threat. Iran uses increasingly sophisticated cyber techniques to conduct espionage; it is also attempting to deploy cyber attack capabilities that would enable attacks against critical infrastructure in the United States and allied countries. Tehran also uses social media platforms to target US and allied audiences, an issue discussed in the Online Influence Operations and Election Interference section of this report. 

1.) Iranian cyber actors are targeting US Government officials, government organizations, and companies to gain intelligence and position themselves for future cyber operations. 

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2.) Iran has been preparing for cyber attacks against the United States and our allies. It is capable of causing localized, temporary disruptive effects—such as disrupting a large company’s corporate networks for days to weeks—similar to its data deletion attacks against dozens of Saudi governmental and private-sector networks in late 2016 and early 2017.” 

B.) Weapons of Mass Destruction Development:

“We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device. However, Iranian officials have publicly threatened to reverse some of Iran’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) commitments—and resume nuclear activities that the JCPOA limits—if Iran does not gain the tangible trade and investment benefits it expected from the deal.

1.) In June 2018, Iranian officials started preparations, allowable under the JCPOA, to expand their capability to manufacture advanced centrifuges.

2.) Also in June 2018, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced its intent to resume producing natural uranium hexafluoride (UF6) and prepare the necessary infrastructure to expand its enrichment capacity within the limits of the JCPOA.

3.) Iran continues to work with other JCPOA participants—China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom—to find ways to salvage economic benefits from it. Iran’s continued implementation of the JCPOA has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about one year.

Iran’s ballistic missile programs, which include the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the region, continue to pose a threat to countries across the Middle East. Iran’s work on a space launch vehicle (SLV)—including on its Simorgh—shortens the timeline to an ICBM because SLVs and ICBMs use similar technologies.”

What the Threat Assessment fails to mention is that it would be highly unusual that Iran would use a space launch vehicle for an ICBM since it has a significant satellite program and wishes to become the “go-to” satellite launching nation for the Middle East.

The United States is also concerned that Iran is in non-compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and that it may not have declared all of its chemical weapons capabilities.  That said, the authors of the report neglect to mention this:

C.) Regional Threats:  

This part of the report looks at the potential challengers to American hegemony and include Russia, China, North Korea and, of course, Iran.  Here’s what the report has to say about the status of Iran’s threats to American interests:

Iran’s regional ambitions and improved military capabilities almost certainly will threaten US interests in the coming year, driven by Tehran’s perception of increasing US, Saudi, and Israeli hostility, as well as continuing border insecurity, and the influence of hardliners.

We assess that Iran will attempt to translate battlefield gains in Iraq and Syria into long-term political, security, social, and economic influence while continuing to press Saudi Arabia and the UAE by supporting the Huthis in Yemen.

In Iraq, Iran-supported Popular Mobilization Committee-affiliated Shia militias remain the primary threat to US personnel, and we expect that threat to increase as the threat ISIS poses to the militias recedes, Iraqi Government formation concludes, some Iran-backed groups call for the United States to withdraw, and tension between Iran and the United States grows. We continue to watch for signs that the regime might direct its proxies and partners in Iraq to attack US interests.

Iran’s efforts to consolidate its influence in Syria and arm Hizballah have prompted Israeli airstrikes as recently as January 2019 against Iranian positions within Syria and underscore our growing concern about the long-term trajectory of Iranian influence in the region and the risk that conflict will escalate.

Iran continues to pursue permanent military bases and economic deals in Syria and probably wants to maintain a network of Shia foreign fighters there despite Israeli attacks on Iranian positions in Syria.  We assess that Iran seeks to avoid a major armed conflict with Israel.However, Israeli strikes that result in Iranian casualties increase the likelihood of Iranian conventional retaliation against Israel, judging from Syrian-based Iranian forces’ firing of rockets into the Golan Heights in May 2018 following an Israeli attack the previous month on Iranians at Tiyas Airbase in Syria.”  (my bolds)

Let’s look at a little-reported statement from a Brigadier General Hossein Salami of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps from January 28, 2019 in reposes to Israel’s repeated attacks against so-called Iranian installations in Syria:

We announce that if Israel takes any step to start a new war, without a doubt, this war would be the same war, which would end in its elimination and the occupied territories will be retaken.  Whoever threatens to destroy us will bear the full responsibility.”

…and, from this report from Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, it looks like Iran will not be leaving Syria anytime soon:

…and, lastly, this interview with Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of the Lebanon’s Hezbollah in which he warns Israel to be very careful in using its military to remove Iran from Syria and that Benjamin Netanyahu’s bet on the fall of Bashar al Assad and Syria as a whole has been an abject failure:

Note this quote:

At any moment a decision could be taken to deal differently with Israeli attacks on Syria.

You will also note that Nasrallah makes the rather interesting observation that Netanyahu has attacked Syria as a strategy to help him win the upcoming Israeli election.

While the U.S. intelligence community has many fears about Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East and how it threatens American hegemony, one of Washington’s bigger concerns should be Israel since Benjamin Netanyahu’s pathological hatred for all things Iranian and the growing likelihood that he could find himself removed from office in the April 2019 election has created a man that is desperate for a “win” in Syria, a “win” that could well create the next Middle East war.  The American intelligence community’s concerns about Iran’s cyberthreats and its mothballed nuclear weapons program pale in comparison to the growing odds of an Israeli-created war in the region. 

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