In June 2020, Iran experienced a series of explosions and fires that extended to military sites (including an explosion that shook the Parchin military complex, an explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility, and news of a series of explosions that extended to military sites east of the capital Tehran) and industrial zones (including an explosion in a power plant in Ahwaz in southwest Iran, a petrochemical company near Mashhad in northeast Iran, and a fire that broke out in a factory south of the capital Tehran), thereby raising serious questions about the nature of those incidents, their consequences, and the causes behind each one of them.
Incidents of a different nature
The incidents of June 2020 in Iran are distributed within several different axes:
Who is behind the explosions in sovereign locations?
While the explosions that extended to those military sites are important in themselves, what is more important is the significance that could be associated with the succession of the explosions, the nature of the sites where they occurred, and the actors that stand behind them:
A review of the positions announced by informed monitoring centres on those incidents indicate that the most likely scenarios would be the ones underlining that Israel was behind those incidents in light of Israeli assertion that the Iranian nuclear programme constitutes the most significant source of threat to Israel and in light of previous Israeli attempts to target sites that are related to the Iranian missile and nuclear programmes.
Theoretically, Israel is capable of targeting the two sites with cruise missiles or invisible planes that can penetrate the Iranian missile defence system. The Sayyad and Khordad-3 systems constitute the backbone of the Iranian air defence. These are two advanced versions of the Russian Tor-M1 system which dates back to the 1980s and 1990s, which is capable of matching modern flying objects, in addition to the S-300 and Bavar-373 air defence systems mostly deployed along Iran’s southern border. Theoretically, Israel is also capable of targeting both sites through security penetration. Iranian security agencies indicated that the Parchin explosion might probably have resulted from targeting the computer systems controlling the site, while the Natanz explosion could have resulted from a bomb planted in the centrifuge warehouse.
The timing and the significance: questions on the content of the attacks
The similarities between the attacks of June 2020 and previous attacks that targeted similar sites between 2009 and 2011 drive towards favouring the possibility that Israel is behind those attacks, especially in light of Israel’s strong motives to carry out such operations. This raises questions on the timing of the attacks and their significance from the Israeli perspective:
The apparent ease with which the Iranian military targets were accessed and such attacks were executed raise the question about the reasons why such attacks had not been carried out in the past. However, this question that links the timing of the attacks to technical obstacles hides more important aspects, including the following:
In addition to the significance of the assumed Israeli attacks in terms of the shift from the policy of international organizations to the policy of decisive unilateral action with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue, such attacks have another significance that should be taken into consideration:
What will the Iranian response be?
Initially, newspapers close to the Revolutionary Guards establishments referred to a strong Iranian response to Israel. However, a close look at subsequent Iranian positions and previous historical experience indicates that it is unlikely that Iran will respond to Israel, even if Israel’s involvement in the latest attacks is proved. The reasons favouring this estimation include the following:
1- The main reason for favouring non-response by Iran to Israeli attacks is the lack of any Iranian strategy to confront Israel. A close look reveals that over the last decade, Iran had practically remained content with launching slogans in the face of Israel. Despite a few hostile Iranian actions against Israel, these did not develop into a well-articulated strategy. The lack of a strategy in the face of Israel is partially attributable to the fact that Iran has built its general strategy on confrontation with the US, and that it does not have an independent regional strategy. Rather, it considers regional countries as small parts on the margin of its strategy to counter Washington and as cards within the framework of that strategy. In the context of focusing on countering the US, Iran is likely to continue with its policy of silence with respect to the Israeli security stings.
2- Iran knows that any escalation against Israel may lead to mobilizing the global public opinion against Iran, even if the escalation was at the level of political rhetoric. Earlier experience has shown that such an escalation would mobilize the views of all the European countries against Iran and make the Russian ally distance itself from Iran and drive Russia in the direction of defending Israel. This would negatively affect Iran’s scheme to counter the US in general and at the nuclear level in particular. Based on this concern, Iran is unlikely to take action against the Israeli attacks on its nuclear and military sites (experience demonstrates that Iran has taken the same position with regard to all Israeli attacks on Iranian interests in Syria).
3- There are numerous technical determinants that prevent the Iranian response to Israel. Apart from the propaganda, Iran is incapable of reaching Israeli targets on its own since it does not have a modern air force that could fly long distances and hide from radar systems. Field experience has also shown that the medium-range missiles relied upon by Iran to hit targets outside its borders are incapable of reaching Israeli territory. This would force Iran to use the territories of countries hosting pro-Iran militias such as Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. This option is also implausible considering the consequences it may have for Iran in terms of mobilizing the world’s public opinion against Iran’s regional influence and also considering that the countries hosting the militias would oppose the idea of using their territory to launch attacks on Israel.
The above reasons, in addition to other determinants, would drive towards favouring that Iran would remain silent with regard to Israel in case Israel’s involvement in the Parchin and Natanz attacks are proved. Such a conviction may explain the attempts made by official references and newspapers close to the Revolutionary Guards within the framework of rejecting the accounts that attribute the incidents to Israel (despite earlier signs in this direction), underlining that this news is fabricated by the pro-Israel propaganda machine that seeks to confer on the Israeli military establishment a power that it does not possess.
On the assumption that the incidents witnessed by Iranian military and nuclear sites are a result of attacks launched by Israel, the following scenarios could be conceived:
First scenario: direct Iranian response: this scenario assumes that Iran would respond directly by launching an attack on targets inside Israeli territories from within Iranian territories, although this would be totally symbolic, similar to the attack launched by Iran on the Ain al-Assad air base in Iraq within the tit-for-tat strategy underlined by both the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards. However, this scenario remains implausible, not just in view of Iran’s experience of silence in response to the Israeli escalation against its sites in Syria (assuming that distinction could be made between the attacks on Iran’s interests outside its borders and the attack on targets inside Iranian territories), but also due to a technical inferiority that would prevent Iran from responding and to Iran’s awareness that getting caught in the trap of escalation against Israel would have damaging implications for Iran at the international level.
Second scenario: indirect Iranian response: this scenario would overcome the technical obstacles preventing the direct response and get support from inside the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards, some of whose commanders have underlined that the Iranian troops and allied militias deployed close to the borders with Israel (in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq) could be used to launch a strike against Israel. However, this scenario is also implausible because the countries hosting those militias would favour opposing such a move and considering the possibility that Iranian relations with those countries would be disturbed in case an attack is launched against Israel from their territories without their knowledge. Within the framework of the same scenario, reference could be made to an indirect Iranian response in the form of targeting Israeli interests in the world. While Iran has shown such a desire (considering that Israeli authorities have announced thwarting Iranian attempts to hit Israeli diplomatic interests in Europe), the implications of such a response at the political level and the mobilization of the global public opinion against Iran, in addition to the mismatch between the Iranian response and the Israeli attacks, would make this option highly implausible.
Third scenario: continued silence by Iran: this scenario assumes that Iran would not respond to the attacks for several reasons. Within the framework of this scenario, Iran would seek to manage the home media to play down the attacks and avoid focusing on the Israeli role, considering the assertions by international centres regarding the likely Israeli role as part of the psychological warfare. Iran would also seek to take symbolic positions such as supporting Palestinian factions while seeking to repair the deficiencies of its missile defence systems and ensuring the replacement of old systems with new ones. Within the framework of the same scenario, Iran would seek to focus on its military relations with Syria and portraying the Iranian presence (through Iranian troops and allied militias) as a challenge to Israeli presence.
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