international affairs

Could War With Iran Be an October Surprise?

A damaged building at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility after a fire on July 2. Photo: Handout/AP/Shutterstock

Over the past few weeks, a series of suspicious fires and explosions have occurred at Iranian civilian and military facilities, including the country’s main missile-production and nuclear complexes. While a few of these incidents might have been accidental, the timing and specific targets suggest that at least some were the result of sabotage by Israel, and the provocations raise the possibility of a spiraling conflict in the Middle East just in time to become an issue in the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

Via anonymous leaks to major media outlets, Israeli intelligence sources have more or less copped to the country’s involvement in some of the incidents. After an explosion at the Natanz nuclear-fuel-enrichment complex in early July, which may have set back Iran’s progress toward a nuclear warhead by months or years, a “Middle Eastern intelligence official with knowledge of the episode” told the New York Times that Israel was behind the attack. Right-wing Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman implicitly accused Mossad chief Yossi Cohen of being the Times’ source, suggesting that the leak was part of Cohen’s campaign to succeed legally embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as head of the Likud Party.

If Cohen is leaking, though, he’s not the only one. A former Israeli defense official told Insider that it was common knowledge in Israeli intelligence circles that some of these events were Israeli intelligence operations. “I don’t know which ones exactly and wouldn’t tell you anyway because the entire point is for the Iranians to feel considerable stress trying to decide what might have been our work,” they said. A European Union intelligence official echoed that understanding, calling it part of a campaign of “maximum pressure, minimal strategy” to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel isn’t the only party anonymously taking credit for these attacks. A hitherto unknown Iranian dissident group calling itself the Homeland Cheetahs emailed the BBC shortly after the incident at Natanz occurred but before it became public, claiming to have attacked the plant as part of an ongoing campaign of sabotage against Iranian strategic sites. The email from the group, allegedly composed of dissidents within Iran’s military and security forces, contained details that aligned with what was soon reported, suggesting that the authors had foreknowledge of the attack. However, this could also have been an act of misdirection to sow doubts about who was responsible. It’s also not an either/or proposition: Israel has in the past carried out joint operations against Iran with domestic anti-regime elements like the Mujahideen-e Khalq.

In any case, with so much smoke leaking out of Israel’s military-intelligence Establishment, the presence of fire is very likely. In further reporting from the Times, more “officials familiar with the explosion” compared the complexity of the Natanz attack to Stuxnet, the sophisticated joint U.S.-Israeli cyberattack on Iranian nuclear facilities uncovered in 2010. It is unclear whether the explosion was the result of a physical bomb or a cyberattack used to ignite the plant’s gas supply. Either way, Israel is generally considered the only one of Iran’s regional adversaries with the intelligence capabilities to pull off an attack of this magnitude on such a sensitive, closely guarded facility.

Nor is there much mystery as to why Israel would be pursuing this campaign at this particular moment. Iran has been in a weakened state, its economy hobbled by U.S. sanctions and its regime facing domestic discontent, including a massive protest campaign last fall. Those protests raised hopes among Iran hawks in the U.S. that their dreams of regime change might soon be realized. The regime did not, in fact, collapse, but its weak position was revealed when it was unwilling or unable to mount a meaningful response to the assassination of its special-operations commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad by a U.S. drone strike in January — then provoked widespread outrage among Iranians by shooting down an airliner filled with its own citizens and initially lying about its responsibility.

Iran was also the first Middle Eastern country to experience a major outbreak of COVID-19 in February, and its case count and death toll are both believed to be significantly higher than the government is reporting. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani issued a puzzling statement on Saturday, saying that about 25 million Iranians had already been infected with the virus, while 30-to-35 million others were at risk of getting infected. That number was orders of magnitude greater than Iran’s officially reported number of infections (271,606) and would appear to make the reported death toll of around 14,000 seem minuscule. Indeed, downplaying the impact and threat of the coronavirus may have been Rouhani’s intent, though again, Iran is already widely suspected of undercounting its coronavirus deaths. In any case, the pandemic has further damaged Iran’s stability and its already shaky economy.

And on Sunday, the regime in Iran suspended the executions of three men linked to anti-government protests in November after a massive social-media campaign calling for their release last week. That decision suggests that Tehran is wary of provoking more civil unrest. Meanwhile, there were a few more mysterious explosions and so-called industrial accidents in Iran this weekend:

With the regime apparently on the ropes, Israel sees an opportunity to set back Tehran’s military and nuclear ambitions, especially at a moment when Netanyahu’s hawkish government is actually being criticized for not having done enough to counter the Iranian threat. Israel’s current Iran policy is known as the “campaign between wars”: a targeted effort to counter Iran’s ability to threaten Israel through proxies in Syria, Lebanon, and (increasingly) Iraq. These short-of-war actions are intended to prevent Iran from establishing an advantageous position in a more direct conflict that Israel eventually expects to break out.

That campaign has expanded over the past few years with the blessing of President Donald Trump, who shares Netanyahu’s interest in fomenting regime change in Iran but would prefer not to commit U.S. military personnel directly to that project. Israel’s new approach since 2018, called the “octopus doctrine,” has entailed targeting the Iranian advisers and officials who direct and support proxy forces in other countries (like Soleimani), rather than targeting the proxies themselves.

The meeting of the minds between the Netanyahu and Trump administrations on Iran is another likely motivation for the timing of its covert sabotage campaign. The Israeli government is as aware as anyone of the polls showing that Trump seems likely to lose reelection in November and exit the White House in January (nightmare constitutional crises and soft-coup scenarios notwithstanding). A potential Biden administration would probably not continue Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach to Iran and would not be as solicitous of Israel’s covert operations. It is unclear whether the U.S. has explicitly or tacitly blessed the past month’s attacks, but the administration certainly isn’t condemning them. Israel may have a limited window of time to act with carte blanche from Washington and is perhaps seeking to do as much damage to Iran as possible before that window closes.

The danger, of course, is that these provocations could escalate into the all-out war Israel has been trying to avoid. Uncorroborated reports are emerging that Iran is preparing to retaliate militarily against Israel and the U.S. for these attacks, amid other threatening statements from Iran’s military over Israeli attacks on Iranians in Syria. However, Iran declined to take major retaliatory measures after the assassination of Soleimani and is arguably in an even worse position to escalate conflict now than it was in January. Some experts told Vox they doubted Iran would see these acts of sabotage as a reason to mount a forceful response, especially from its current position of weakness.

Nonetheless, the E.U. official who spoke to Insider expressed fear that “the Israeli plan here is to provoke an Iranian response that can turn into a military escalation while Trump remains in office.” Indeed, it may be Israel, not Iran, that makes the decision to escalate. Perhaps Netanyahu decides that war with Iran is the lever he needs to secure his political future; perhaps Trump, who has been trying to obfuscate his disastrous mishandling of the pandemic, comes to the same conclusion for himself. More likely, Israel’s military leaders consider war with Iran a risk they are willing to take to severely set back its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, as long as they know they would have the backing of the U.S. in any such conflict.

If Israel goes all in on crippling Iran’s military capabilities over the next three months, the likelihood of war will continue to increase whether or not Israel intends to start one or Trump wants to join in. That danger becomes greater if either Netanyahu or Trump sees a political opportunity in confronting the Iranian regime head-to-head. Whether such a confrontation would actually redound to Trump’s electoral benefit is doubtful, as opinions on Iran are already baked into the partisan cake and more proximate domestic crises are more likely to decide November’s outcome. Still, any event that escalates the sense of chaos and national emergency in the U.S. will be unwelcome in the run-up to what is already likely to be a historically dysfunctional presidential election. As we all wait with bated breath to find out if there will be some kind of “October surprise” this fall, we unfortunately can’t rule out the possibility of another destructive war in the Middle East.

Could War With Iran Be an October Surprise?