The annual Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Military Intelligence assessment shared with decision-makers at the start of each year and presented to the public on Jan. 14 has never been vaguer. Even senior intelligence officials conceded the difficulties and virtual impossibility of issuing a sober threat and development assessment these days with any reasonable degree of accuracy. “The pace of events occurring in the region is dizzying, surprise follows surprise and decision-making is not rational the way it was in the past,” a former senior intelligence source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.
Indeed, the past year has been marked by dramatic surprises, culminating in the reverberating Jan. 3 assassination of Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who engineered the expansion of the Shiite axis in the region. “The US willingness to assassinate a key figure such as Soleimani surprised the Iranians,” an Israeli intelligence official told Al-Monitor this week on condition of anonymity. “On the other hand, Iran’s September 2019 strike on the Saudi oil infrastructure, its magnitude and precision, surprised the Americans, the Saudis and everyone in the West. God only knows what surprises await us as 2020 proceeds.”
The headline of the official assessment by the Military Intelligence Directorate for 2020 still focuses on Iran’s nuclear arms race. By the end of the year, the intelligence experts believe, Iran will have sufficient enriched uranium to manufacture one nuclear bomb. According to Israel’s assessment, Iran continues to gradually withdraw from the nuclear agreement with world powers, which could result in its collapse. There is a possibility that the Europeans, too, will exit the agreement later this year, depriving it of any content, and Iran will be able to quickly resume its nuclear program at full speed, the report’s authors noted.
Having said that, the issue that mostly troubles Israeli security officials is not expressed publicly. Rather, it is shared with decision-makers at closed security Cabinet meetings. This unanswered question is whether Iran has a clandestine channel enabling it to install the nuclear warhead it manufactures on a missile and turn overnight into an immune nuclear power. Israel’s Mossad is intensely focused on locating and exposing such clandestine channels, of the type revealed in the past in what was known as Iran’s “weapons group” that devoted itself to developing the country’s nuclear infrastructure.
Along with troubling concerns, Israel sees some positives. True, the Iranian regime is still considered stable and protected by a powerful range of self-preservation tools, but this stability is eroding over time and the cracks in it are advancing at a faster pace. The anti-regime protests, renewed last week after Iran admitted to downing the Ukrainian passenger jet, are no longer only a socio-economic demonstration against various price hikes; they are specific calls for a change of regime, including cries such as “Death to Khamenei” and “Death to the Dictator.”
The military intelligence experts cannot say or fathom what the prospects are that masses of Iranians will take to the streets and overcome the Revolutionary Guards, the paramilitary Basij militia and the other powerful forces at the disposal of the regime to guarantee its survival. On the other hand, the writing is already on the wall and the regime’s immunity is no longer automatically guaranteed as it was until now.
Given the current state of affairs, Israeli intelligence is describing a fateful race by two ticking clocks: one ticking toward the nuclear bomb completion and the other toward the regime’s collapse. “Iran is clearly advancing toward these two events at the same time, the regime will not survive forever and the bomb is growing closer all the time. The question is what will come first. If the bomb is completed first, it could extend the regime’s survival, while deeply and historically altering the strategic situation in the Middle East and Israel’s situation,” an intelligence official said on condition of anonymity.
However, the nuclear program is not the only Iran-related issue troubling Israel, whose biggest headache in recent years has been caused by Iran’s expansion westward and completion of the Shiite axis from Tehran to the Mediterranean via Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and the Syrian port of Tartous. Israel perceives Soleimani’s violent departure from the scene as a game-changer, a historic event with long-term broad and in-depth implications — “a formative blow” is how the American assassination is being described in Israel, which defines Soleimani as one of those rare people for whom there is no replacement. In a previous Al-Monitor article, Israeli experts described Soleimani as not only carrying out the orders of Iran’s supreme leader and implementing the vision of the Shiite revolution, but also as an instigator creating and pushing policy while dragging the leadership along, and not vice versa. In that respect, Israeli intelligence experts explain, finding a true replacement for Soleimani is far from a sure thing.
In that context, Israel regards Soleimani’s killing as an operational opportunity, or as the intelligence assessment describes it, “There may now be feasibility for increased attacks against Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.” Whether a coincidence or not, on the night between Jan. 14 and 15, four missiles directly hit targets at Syria’s T-4 air base. According to the Syrian army, Israel fired the missiles. Israel itself generally does not comment on such reports. The likeliness of a war instigated by the enemy against Israel, according to the annual assessment, is still considered very low. Nonetheless, there is a growing likeliness of all-out war breaking out as a result of events veering out of control on both sides. Such a war would result in an unprecedented extent of destruction and join the strategic surprises that have shaken the Middle East over the past year.