Is Iraq the New Front Line in Israel’s Conflict with Iran?

Nearly four decades after taking out Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor, Israel once again faces threats emanating from Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.

An Israeli F-35 fighter jet performs during an air show at the graduation ceremony of Israeli pilots at the Hatzerim Israeli Air Force base on June 27.
An Israeli F-35 fighter jet performs during an air show at the graduation ceremony of Israeli pilots at the Hatzerim Israeli Air Force base on June 27. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Israel’s 1981 airstrike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq was historic in that it set the precedent for what became known as the “Begin Doctrine.” Named for then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, it mandated that Israel prevent a hostile state calling for its annihilation from acquiring nuclear weapons. 

The plan in 1981 was to keep the strike secret, and Israel was not to take responsibility. But it was only weeks before Israeli elections, and taking credit proved too tempting for Begin. The Israeli operation aroused considerable irritation in Washington, and the U.S. response was to condemn the strike and embargo the delivery of a third F-16 squadron to Israel.

Now, 38 years later, it appears Israel has once again carried out an attack on Iraqi territory. The Aug. 20 strike near Balad air base in Iraq was the fourth in a series of recent explosions on bases controlled by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias. The explosions have targeted Iranian missile shipments as well as upgrade kits for advanced guidance. The rest of the incidents remain unattributed. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is just three weeks away from elections, and his usual right-wing bloc appears to be lagging in the polls. When asked if Israel would strike Iranian targets in Iraq if needed, he declared, “We are operating—not just if needed, we are operating in many areas against a state that wants to annihilate us. Of course I gave the security forces a free hand and instructed them to do anything necessary to thwart Iran’s plans.” If not explicitly taking responsibility for last week’s strikes, this is pretty close to it.

Washington’s response to the latest events was also similar to its reaction to the Israeli strike in 1981: leaking information regarding the responsible party and implicit condemnation. U.S. President Donald Trump has not done this directly, and it seems safe to assume that he was not surprised by the strikes and that they were coordinated with top figures in his administration, but other elements in the U.S. government appear displeased about alleged Israeli activity in Iraq, which they view as placing American soldiers stationed there at risk.

To understand the logic behind the recent strikes, it is important to view them within the broader Israeli counter-effort to prevent Iran from deploying precision missiles, some accurate to a 15-foot to 30-foot radius, throughout the region for use against Israel. These weapons are considerably more dangerous than nonprecision missiles, which require firing massive quantities to hit their intended targets—if they ever do hit them. Iran seeks to provide thousands of advanced missiles with ranges from 100 to 600 miles to its allies in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

Israel sees advanced weapons being supplied to Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in Syria as a strategic threat. Iran’s determination to provide them and the U.S. dismay with Israeli activities to destroy them may force Israel to consider the extent to which it is willing to go in order to disrupt Iran’s precision project—and if these weapons pose enough of a threat to be included in the Begin Doctrine, which previously covered only nuclear weapons.

Capitalizing on the weakness of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s government, which it had propped up throughout the civil war, Iran has sought to build another front against Israel on Syrian territory since 2017. But the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, failed to take into account Israel’s intelligence and air superiority in that theater, given its proximity to Syria. According to Israeli officials, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has launched over 200 airstrikes in Syria targeting Iranian weapons stockpiles and production facilities since 2017, sometimes exploiting Iranian attempts to strike Israel by launching extensive retaliatory campaigns and wiping out dozens of targets. 

Despite what appears to be a decisive Israeli victory in the first round of the Iranian struggle to entrench its forces in Syria from 2017 to 2018, Tehran remains determined and patient. It will try to learn lessons regarding Israeli capabilities and limitations and implement them in the future. More important, Iran will seek different venues that are less advantageous to Israel in order to advance its precision missile project. The latter approach has led Iran to move a significant portion of its missile-related activity to Lebanon—where it believes Israel is less inclined to strike so as to avoid instigating a conflict with Hezbollah—and Iraq. 

Iran gains several important advantages from operating in Iraq rather than in Syria. First, Iraq is farther from Israel’s borders, and it has not been ranked by the Israeli defense establishment as a primary area of focus since Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003, so Iran presumes that Israel’s intelligence and aerial superiority advantages there are not as great. Second, Israel has benefited from establishing and maintaining the precedent that it can strike Iranian targets in Syria without eliciting a response beyond anti-aircraft fire, but no such precedent exists in Iraq, and establishing one, as Israel might seek to do, is complex and fraught with risks of miscalculation.

In contrast to when Israel set the rules of the game in Syria, the situation in Iraq is made far more complex by the fact that the landscape there includes countless hostile local actors as well as both U.S. and Iranian forces at a time when tensions between the two countries are extremely high. Third, the U.S. military forces stationed in Iraq present obvious targets for pro-Iranian militias seeking an alternative way to avenge airstrikes against them, which could cause tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

U.S. forces stationed in Iraq present obvious targets for pro-Iranian militias seeking an alternative way to avenge airstrikes against them, which could cause tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Yet, it is important not to overstate the benefits Iran reaps from shifting its missile activity to Iraq. If Israel is capable of collecting high-quality intelligence in Iraq and executing low-signature strikes, which the targeted groups initially preferred to deny by attributing them to human error and extreme weather conditions, then it appears to maintain considerable intelligence and aerial abilities.

While the U.S. Defense Department appears irritated by the strikes, Trump may view them as attacks on shared enemies. Washington is certainly not interested in allowing pro-Iranian militias to subjugate Iraq and turn it into a missile launchpad or weapons supply hub for attacks against Israel. If Israel was able to establish a deconfliction mechanism in Syria with Russia, which is not an ally, it should seek to develop a more sophisticated and deeper mechanism for coordination and communication with its U.S. ally in Iraq.

Finally, Iran has not signaled it is willing to escalate against U.S. forces either directly or through a proxy, likely because it views taking steps that could provoke a head-on conflict with the United States as an unacceptable risk, the occupant of the Oval Office as unpredictable (even if not inclined toward another war in the Middle East), and its deployment of precision missiles targeting Israel as secondary to the economic and nuclear challenges with which it is already seeking to cope.

Iran’s efforts to launch an explosive drone attack against Israel from Syrian territory last Saturday night—which the IDF preempted and foiled—may have been a response to the incidents in Iraq, providing a preliminary indication that Iran’s reactions will not be directed at the United States.

The toughest dilemma facing the next Israeli government, however, may be the Lebanese Hezbollah component of Iran’s precision missile project. If Iranian-built facilities in Lebanon become operational so transfers through Iraq and Syria are no longer necessary, then Israel will be faced with an unenviable decision: either strike to disrupt Hezbollah’s acquisition of dangerous weapons and incur a high risk of war in Lebanon, or seek to upgrade its missile defense capabilities (including systems such as Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and the Arrow) and ensure that deterrence holds to reduce the likelihood of another Israel-Lebanon war.

Amos Yadlin, a retired major general in the Israel Defense Forces, served as the chief of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate from 2006 to 2010 and is now the director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel. As an air force pilot in 1981, he participated in the strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. Twitter: @YadlinAmos

Ari Heistein is a Research Fellow and Chief of Staff to the Director at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. Twitter: @ariheist

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