Even as it engages in nuclear negotiations, Iran continues to arm and train Hizbullah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Central to the Iranian effort are rockets and missiles (surface-to-surface), as well as UAVs and advanced anti-aircraft weapons, mainly for Hizbullah, intended to constrict the Israeli Air Force’s maneuvering room in Lebanon.
According to Supreme Leader Khamenei, “All Palestinian areas have to become armed…. We looked at our main goal and we offered help. We managed to strengthen the fists of our Palestinian brothers in Gaza and by Allah’s favor we will continue to do that. I announced that the West Bank should be armed like Gaza and be prepared for defense.”
Under Khamenei’s direction, Iran views the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as a single unit under the leadership of Hamas. Iran seeks to encircle Israel from the north (Hizbullah), the south (Gaza), and the east (the West Bank) and to turn the rocket threat into an unbroken ring around Israeli territory.
Iran views itself as setting the stage – on the propaganda, ideological, and military levels – for an inevitable confrontation with Israel and the West.
Taken from Khamenei’s Twitter account
In recent months, parallel to the key stages of the nuclear negotiations, Iran has completely removed the secrecy surrounding its provision of rockets and missiles to anti-Israeli terror organizations. Today, Iran frequently and publicly acknowledges this assistance, with no fear of the West’s reaction.
In Iran’s eyes, Operation Protective Edge, the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas and the other Gaza-based Palestinian organizations, provided further proof that its long-term investment in supplying rockets and know-how for their manufacture to Hizbullah and Palestinian organizations is bearing fruit. As the end of the time allotted for the nuclear talks drew near (before it was decided to extend them again to June 2015), Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other senior Iranian officials made threatening statements about Iran’s rocket and missile capabilities and those of the organizations it supplies – indicating that in light the possible outcomes of the nuclear talks, Iran’s fears of an Israeli attack had grown.
The Encirclement of Israel
Iran does not obscure its security concept but rather gives it public expression. Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank form inseparable components of this doctrine, which Iran updates from time to time. In Iran’s view, the steadily developing rocket capabilities of both Hizbullah and the Palestinians – capabilities that Iran, with Khamenei’s encouragement, is striving to extend to the West Bank as well – constitute a main element of the deterrence against Israel that Iran seeks to develop. The aim is to deter Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities – or, if Israel nonetheless decides to attack, to use these rocket capabilities as a key part of its retaliatory response.
In this context, under Khamenei’s direction, Iran views the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as a single unit under Hamas’ leadership. Consequently, Iran is gradually improving its relations with Hamas after they hit a nadir with the eruption of the Arab Spring in Syria and the removal of Hamas’s headquarters from Damascus. Iran now hopes that Hamas will rule the West Bank as well as Gaza, and will develop similar capabilities in the West Bank to threaten Israel.
From a broader perspective, Iran, as statements by its senior officials suggest, is working to encircle Israel from the north (Hizbullah), the south (Gaza), and the east (the West Bank) and to turn the rocket threat into an unbroken ring around Israeli territory.
This Iranian activity is incessant, and it includes persistent smuggling of weapons into Gaza as well as shipments and convoys to Hizbullah via Syria. According to foreign reports, sometimes Israel thwarts these weapons shipments in Syrian territory; they are viewed as posing a threat to the IDF’s freedom of action in Lebanon or to Israeli naval craft and strategic sites. These reports note that some of the weapons destroyed in an attack on December 7, 2014 included advanced Russian-made antiaircraft systems (perhaps the S-300 SA), Fateh-110 missiles (see below), and Iranian UAVs.1
Syria and Iran have long wanted to purchase the advanced S-300 antiaircraft system from Russia. In an unusual manner, Russia protested the recent operation and demanded explanations from Israel. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said at the beginning of November 2014 that Russia was providing Syria with the advanced S-300PMU2 system for defense against attacks by American planes operating against ISIS. According to foreign reports, in January 2013 Israel also attacked a convoy at the Al-Jamraya Research Center that was on its way to Lebanon carrying advanced Buk-M2E (SA-17) antiaircraft missiles. In May 2013 Fateh-100 missiles were attacked at the airport in Damascus; in July 2013, at the port of Latakia, Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles (P-800 Oniks) with upgraded radars were attacked; and in October 2013 weapons were again attacked at Latakia that apparently were intended for Hizbullah.2
A few hours before the most recent alleged Israeli attack, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov, met with Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah as part of the activities marking the seventieth anniversary of Russian-Lebanese diplomatic relations. Iran, Russia, and Hizbullah have a common interest – the survival of Bashar Assad. To that end Hizbullah is paying with hundreds of casualties on Syrian soil, but it is also gaining greater access to advanced weapons from Iran and Russia, some of which it is trying to transfer to Lebanon.
On another front cultivated by Iran – Gaza – about a week after the attack in Lebanon that was attributed to Israel, and during a rally on December 14, 2014 to mark the anniversary of Hamas’ founding, Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida specially thanked those who had aided the organization during Protective Edge and “first and foremost Iran, which was unsparing in its financial and military and other assistance and provided us with missiles that pulverized the defense of the Zionist enemy and with antitank weapons that shattered the myth of the Merkava tank.”3 During the rally, Hamas showcased a UAV of the Ababil model (developed in Iran) as well as advanced sniper rifles it had received from Iran.
Hamas media outlet Al-Risalah suggested that mending fences with Iran will help Hamas solve some of its finnencial difficulties4. Nasser Al Sudani, head of the Majlis’s Palestine committee, added that Khalid Mashal, Head of Hamas political bureau, will visit Tehran soon. Al Sudani said that Iran regards Hamas as the “first line of defense” in confronting Israel and supporting Hamas is one of Iran’s revolution key principals. “Destroying Israel will only be possible by arming Palestinians, including in the occupied West Bank….The death of the occupation is near and Tehran supports this5
Khamenei: Arm the West Bank
Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei – and following his lead, the heads of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Majlis, and other senior spokesmen – continue to express support publicly for “all who fight against Israel” in general and for the Palestinians in particular. As Khamenei said during the “International Congress on Extremist and Takfiri [apostasy] Orientations from the Viewpoint of Islamic Scholars”:
…We have passed through the barrier of denominational discord. We helped Hizbullah of Lebanon – which is a Shia group – in the same way that we helped [Sunni groups] Hamas and Islamic Jihad [PIJ] and we will continue to do that. We did not become a prisoner of denominational limits. We did not differentiate between Shia, Sunni, Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi’i and Zaidi denominations. All Palestinian areas have to become armed…. We looked at our main goal and we offered help. We managed to strengthen the fists of our Palestinian brothers in Gaza and by Allah’s favor we will continue to do that. I announced – and this will definitely happen – that the West Bank should be armed like Gaza and be prepared for defense….6 (emphasis added)
“We Love Fighting Israel”
At the same platform, Khamenei marketed his “We Love Fighting Israel” campaign, saying, “Our people love fighting against the Zionists and the Islamic Republic has proved this as well.” Social networks both within and outside of Iran occasionally post caricatures and pictures in the “spirit of the Leader.” On Twitter and on Instagram, for example, the hashtag #fightingthezionists was launched; it features pictures vilifying Israel and Zionism and calls of “death to Israel.”7
Khamenei’s Military Solution
Khamenei’s combative spirit has also permeated Iran’s political and military echelons, and appears to provide a basis for an overall Iranian plan of action that is part of its national security strategy. Majlis Chairman Ali Larijani, at a meeting in Tehran with Mohammad Nasr, a member of Hamas’ Political Bureau, again promised that Iran would keep supporting the Palestinian people and the resistance movements until the final victory over “Israeli forces.”8
Ahmad Bakhshayesh, a member of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, emphasized the fact that Iran is arming the West Bank as a lever for exerting pressure on Israel. He explained that Khamenei, by calling for the arming of the West Bank, is signaling to Israel that it cannot attack Iran, and that Iran, by means of weapons transfers to the West Bank, “can easily strike an effective blow against Israel’s security.”9
Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Hussein Dehqan declared in an interview published on December 20, 2014,10 “The resistance movement in occupied Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria have remarkable military [and] industrial infrastructure, and they are capable of designing and producing missiles.” In his interview to the Iranian Arabic-language Al-Alam TV, Dehqan continued, “At some point, following Khamenei’s orders we cooperated with the resistance movement in the fields of industry and technologies. We have officially announced that we will cooperate with the resistance in these fields. The Supreme Leader has also said that the western bank of Jordan River must be armed just like Gaza Strip. Supporting resistance is within the general strategy of the Islamic Republic of Iran and we will follow this.11”
Hussein Sheikholeslam, secretary-general of the Tehran-based Committee for Support for the Palestinian Intifada, an adviser to Larijani, and a former ambassador to Damascus, was more clear-cut about the purpose of the aid Iran is providing to Hizbullah and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank:
Our main enemy [Israel] possesses nuclear weapons and missiles, and therefore the main strategy we have adopted to counter these threats is a missile and rocket capability…. By transferring technology for missile manufacture and by providing training [in the launching of missiles], Iran is building up the capabilities of its friends in the region who are fighting its enemies. The use of missiles and rockets enables Iran to create a balance of terror and a defensive shield against a possible attack by Israel. We hope the missile strategy that Iran is inculcating in Hizbullah in Lebanon and in Gaza, will also spread in the direction of the West Bank in the near future…. The latest campaigns in Gaza and in Lebanon proved that this strategy is very well suited to dealing with the Zionist enemy.12
“There Is Not a Single Secure Place in Palestine from the North to the South”
The top leadership of the IRGC has also extensively addressed the issue of the arming of West Bank Palestinians. IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said there is not a single place in Palestine, from the north to the south, that is safe from the missiles of the Palestinian resistance movements and that this heralds “the coming collapse of this filthy, wicked, and illegal regime.” Jafari added that the liberation of Jerusalem is high on the Islamic Revolution’s order of priorities and that the final victory is assured.13 He further stated, “Iran also detects the signs of American surrender both from a political and a military standpoint, as in the [nuclear] negotiations…. America’s capitulation to Iran is clear in every step it takes toward Iran.”14 On the ideological plane, Jafari said on a different occasion that “the exporting of the Islamic Revolution to the world, the security and the stability that Iran enjoys and its pride and dignity were obtained thanks to its sacrifices in battle” and now it is at the forefront of the struggle against Israel.’’15
IRGC Deputy Commander Hussein Salami added in a similar vein that “the Palestinians on the West Bank will continue to uphold their principles and it is not long before the day when the Palestinians in Gaza and on the West Bank will join hands and the West Bank will become a hell for Israeli security.” He added that Israel can no longer achieve security because “the entire territory of occupied Palestine is within range of Hizbullah’s missiles (from Lebanon) and those of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”16 The IRGC’s aerospace commander, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, noted in this regard that with Iran’s help, Tel Aviv had become susceptible to crossfire between Hizbullah’s missiles from Lebanon and the Palestinian organizations’ missiles from Gaza.17
Hajizadeh also asserted that Iran’s missile capabilities, which it makes available to Hizbullah and that also include surface-to-sea Khalij-e Fars, Hormuz 1, and Hormuz 2 missiles, pose a threat to Israel’s advanced naval craft and to its natural gas facilities and reserves in the Mediterranean, and could cause great destruction to Israel’s navy and its gas fields.18
Likewise the IRGC’s public relations director, Ramazan Sharif, declared, “The main duty and mission of the Quds Force under the leadership of its commander, Qasem Soleimani, is to make Islamic society powerful so that it can pave the way to the liberation of Jerusalem – which is the duty of every Muslim…. That is the goal for which Soleimani and the Quds Force that he leads strive ceaselessly.”19
Iran Is Playing a Leading Role in Expanding Hizbullah’s Missile Arsenal and Capability
In November 2014 the Tasnim News Agency, identified with the IRGC, interviewed Nasrallah’s deputy Sheikh Naim Qassem, who acknowledged that Iran is playing a leading role in expanding Hizbullah’s missile arsenal and capability in Lebanon both in terms of quality and quantity, and that this involves training, maneuvers, and the creation of various missile units. Qassem remarked, “Israel is well aware that Hizbullah has missiles of pinpoint accuracy [a broad hint at the Fateh-110 missiles] and thanks to the Iranian materiel and aid, the next round of warfare will be very difficult for Israel.” He emphasized that: “When we are talking about the missile capability, it does not mean that only a number of Iranian missiles are delivered to the resistance [movement], but such capability includes the entire necessary items for missiles.” Qassem also referred to the missiles that Hizbullah fired during the Second Lebanon War (Fajr, Raad), which helped move the fighting into Israeli territory. He added that rockets had also played a central role in the Palestinians’ rounds of warfare with Israel in 2008 and in 2014, when rockets struck the heart of Tel Aviv and other sensitive locations in Israel.20
“Fateh-110 for All”
IRGC’s aerospace commander Hajizadeh’s deputy, Seyyed Majid Mousavi, said that Palestinian and Lebanese (Hizbullah) resistance organizations possess Fateh-110 missiles developed in Iran, and that Hassan Tehrani Moqaddam, the head of the IRGC Missile Research Center who was killed in an explosion in 2011, had helped these organizations develop their capabilities in the missile and rocket field. Mousavi claimed that given the range of these missiles, the organizations can now hit targets in all parts of Israel from north to south. He further remarked that some of the capabilities (involving the use of the Fateh-110) are under wraps and they will be put in action when the time comes. Musavi added that the Fateh-100 is manufactured in plants in Syria that were built by Iran, which also trained Hizbullah and the Palestinian organizations in its use and manufacture. These organizations, according to Mousavi, have become very skilled in this area.21 Iran periodically upgrades the Fateh-110 mainly for accuracy.
As part of Iran’s effort to demonstrate its missile capabilities at various ranges, Iranian media have published diagrams of the ranges of rockets that are in the hands of the Palestinians in Gaza and of Hizbullah in Lebanon, including solid-fuel, surface-to-surface, 300-km Fateh-110 missiles with a 500-kg warhead, and Khalij-e Fars solid-fuel, surface-to-sea, 300-km missiles with a 450-kg warhead. It has been noted in publications that the nuclear reactor in Dimona is within range (from Gaza) of the Fateh-110, and a number of large towns (Haifa, Netanya, Herzliya, Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Beersheba) have also been mentioned as being within range.22
In sum, at the same time that it engages in the nuclear talks, Iran continues to arm and train Hizbullah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Central to the Iranian effort are rockets and missiles (surface-to-surface), as well as UAVs and advanced antiaircraft weapons, mainly for Hizbullah, intended to constrict the Israeli air force’s room for maneuver in Lebanon. Other weapons Iran provides include antitank weapons, sniper rifles, mortars, and more. This issue, along with the issue of human rights in Iran, is not part of the nuclear talks and Iran maintains a resolute refusal to discuss these subjects. The West, for its part, does not want to “pressure” Iran and seeks to avoid “complicating” the already complicated negotiations.
Decision-makers in Tehran are creating a direct link between progress in the nuclear negotiations and the effort they are investing in supplying advanced offensive rocket capabilities to Hizbullah and the Palestinian organizations that operate in Israel’s vicinity. The various spokesmen now highlight what they preferred to keep secret in the past: that they view Gaza and Lebanon, and ultimately the West Bank as well, as part of Iran’s envelope of defense, deterrence, and response with regard to its nuclear program. Thus, Iran promotes the goals of a Hamas takeover of the West Bank and the strengthening of the anti-Israeli rocket capability, via assistance to Hizbullah and to the Hamas Quds Force.
Over the next half-year of the extended nuclear negotiations with the West, Iran will intensify its efforts to equip Hizbullah and the Palestinian organizations with advanced rockets and missiles. In parallel, the political and military leadership will continue to shore up Iran’s deterrence by threatening “a painful response” and “the destruction of Israel.”
The tense relationship between President Hassan Rouhani and the IRGC plays an important part in the externalization of the threats to foreign actors, as the IRGC tries to signal that it is not Rouhani who sets Iran’s policy in the domain of foreign relations and exporting the revolution. Recently it was also reported that the IRGC is maintaining a kind of shadow cabinet to counteract the Rouhani government, with former ministers of Ahmadinejad’s government as members. The matter was brought to Khamenei’s attention, and he chose to ignore it.
The IRGC and Khamenei also support the “militant economy.” The dramatic decline in oil prices to less than $60 a barrel has further intensified the internal struggle and has worsened the difficult budgetary straits (the Iranian budget is planned according to revenues of $130 a barrel) that hamper Rouhani’s ability to advance the welfare policy he promised Iranian voters.
It should be emphasized that, along with its threats against Israel, from time to time Iran also boasts of its capacities to strike – using long-range (2000-km) missiles and asymmetrical swarm attacks by speedboats – U.S. bases and ships in the Persian Gulf area and beyond.23
The weakening of the American presence in the Gulf and the strengthening of Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, along with the Palestinian organizations’ successes, from Iran’s perspective, in the recent rounds of conflict with Israel, inspire great confidence in Iran. In the window of time left until the nuclear talks expire, Iran is likely to escalate its declarations while on the ground boosting its assistance to the “resistance front.” Iran views itself as setting the stage – on the propaganda, ideological, and military levels – for an inevitable confrontation with Israel and the West.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Foresight Prudence. See more of his writings here.
2 “Syria reports another attack by Israel,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, December 8, 2014
6 https://www.facebook.com/www.Khamenei.ir/photos/a.415551031851170.95270.415541435185463/764135696992700/?type=1&theater ; http://english.khamenei.ir/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1985
9 Fars News Agency, December 6, 2014
19 Fars News Agency November 30, 2014
20 Tasnim News, November 11, 2014; http://www.tasnimnews.com/English/Home/Single/566135