Skip to main content

Israel could strike in Lebanon if Iran renews weapons smuggling

Iran’s suspected intention to launch an aerial smuggling route from Tehran to Beirut, using civilian flights of an airline operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has prompted concern in Israel.
Lebanon's Middle East Airlines planes are parked on the tarmac of Beirut International Airport amid restrictions to combat the coronavirus across the country, Lebanon, March 19, 2020.

Israel’s security system is concerned over attempts by Tehran to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah in Beirut via civilian flights from Tehran, a senior Israeli intelligence official told Al-Monitor this week. 

“This is not a cat and mouse game. It is more a skirmish between a cat and a snake. Both sides have pretty good capabilities and they know each other very well,” the official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, referring to the campaign Israel has been waging over the past decade against extensive Iranian smuggling of arms, ammunition and precision missile components to Hezbollah.

The latest round in this ongoing campaign was prompted by Israeli concerns over Iran’s suspected intention to launch an aerial smuggling route from Tehran to Beirut using civilian flights of Meraj Airlines, operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which started direct flights from Tehran to Beirut in mid-November. This corridor would reportedly complement or replace the smuggling carried out in recent years through Syria, shipments that Israel has reportedly targeted repeatedly.

“On the one hand, this is serious and we will deal with it,” the intelligence source told Al-Monitor. “On the other hand, let's not forget that passenger flights have a limited load capacity and therefore the smuggled equipment weighs no more than passengers’ hand luggage so that the threat it poses is not significant. Nonetheless, we do not treat this lightly.” 

The source sidestepped the question of whether such limited load capacity is nonetheless sufficient to smuggle Iranian kits being used to turn Hezbollah’s unguided rockets into precision missiles, which pose a strategic threat to Israel.

Israel faces a weighty dilemma. According to foreign media reports, it has carried out hundreds of aerial, naval and ground strikes against Iranian and Iranian-allied targets in Syria and elsewhere in the region in what is being dubbed as “the war between the wars.” But Lebanon is the one locale that has been immune to most such strikes, reflecting the balance of deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah and the unwritten rules governing mutual attacks on each other’s territory.

That said, Israel views Hezbollah’s growing precision missile arsenal as a concrete strategic threat no less dangerous than Iran’s nuclear program. The London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported earlier this week that Israel had conveyed messages to Lebanon warning that it would consider bombing the Beirut airport if it serves as a destination for weapons smuggling from Iran. Such an attack could potentially set off a conflagration from Tehran, to Damascus and Beirut, and all the way to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It is too soon to tell whether Israel’s incoming government would adopt such a fateful decision.

The undeclared war between the sides is also being waged in the media and psychological arena. In a rare disclosure, military Chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi hinted broadly this week that Israeli military intelligence enabled an air force attack several weeks ago on a truck convoy at an Iraq-Syria border crossing. “We could not have known a few weeks ago about the Syrian convoy passing from Iraq to Syria. We could not have known what was in it, and we could not have known that out of 25 trucks, that was the truck. Truck No. 8 is the truck with the weapons,” Kochavi told a university conference.

"Iran hoped to deploy an array of hundreds of relatively long-range surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles in Syria and Lebanon, along with the deployment of tens of thousands of Shiite militia fighters in Syria and the establishment of a kind of Hezbollah 2 along the border with Israel on the Syrian Golan Heights,” Kochavi said.

He continued, “These three things have been significantly disrupted, though not absolutely. Most arms smuggling routes are completely closed and the enemy fails to transport [weapons]. And the self-production in this space has also been hit very deeply, in such a way that it disrupts the pace at which the Syrians and Hezbollah have equipped themselves with missiles, rockets and cruise missiles."

Kochavi leaves office next month and his revealing comments might have been designed to sum up the achievements of his four-year term, and at the same time convey threatening messages to Iran and Hezbollah. He might also have been driven by a desire to bolster the military’s budget allocations by pointing to Israel’s qualitative advantage over its enemies and the need for financing to preserve them. Regardless of his motives, the Israel Defense Forces are convinced that its effective campaign over the past decade to disrupt Iran’s weapons smuggling to its proxy in Lebanon has resulted in its plans to launch a new smuggling corridor using an ostensibly civilian airliner.

Israel is also targeting Iran on social media. For example, Twitter users and other sources considered associated with Israeli intelligence recently reported that Israel has the names of 63 pilots employed at another Iranian airline — Mahan — who participate in or are supposed to participate in flying weapons from Tehran to Beirut. The tweets promised to post the pilots’ names and photos soon. Is this a hint of future plans to harm them? Is this the first step before an Israeli drive to lobby for sanctions on the pilots or on the airlines?

The main question is where these trends are leading Israel, Hezbollah and Iran. The sixth government of Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu is shaping up to be the most radical and right wing in Israeli history. This would seem to greatly increase the prospects of the low-intensity warfare between the sides turning into an all-out regional war. Israeli officials dub such a potential flareup as “the First Northern War.”

On the other hand, the incoming government could also have a chilling effect on Israel’s plans. Netanyahu will be isolated in the international arena due to his coalition allies’ radical policies and under heavy attack by the domestic opposition. The last thing he needs is a deadly, damaging war. A hostile Democratic administration in Washington and the continuing rioting in Iran could also serve to rein in the combatants and prevent all-out war.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

Text Alerts - Be the first to get breaking news, exclusives, and PRO content.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial