For the first time in several months, Iranian critical military infrastructure again came under attack from an unknown assailant, with one of the workshop complexes of the Ministry of Defense (MOD) targeted by foreign combat drones on Jan. 28, 2023. The official statement from Iran’s MOD claimed the strike was unsuccessful, saying anti-aircraft systems destroyed one quadcopter and two others exploded after being caught in anti-drone traps. In contrast, The Jerusalem Post called the attack a “phenomenal success.”
Gray zone operations are characterized by their plausible deniability, yet there are few countries capable of damaging or destroying a protected site deep inside Iran. The likeliest suspects, namely Israel and the United States, have so far declined to comment or take responsibility for the raid, despite reports circulating that single out Israel as the mastermind behind it.
These uncertainties aside, the drone attack appeared designed to deliver a politico-strategic message to the target country rather than imposing a tactical cost on the Islamic Republic’s military. That presumed message is difficult to delink from the rising tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and Iranian support for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Namely, it signals a willingness by the attacker(s) to take measured risks, reset thresholds, and show readiness to use every means available to compel the Islamic Republic’s leaders into revising their policies.
The strike may mark the beginning of a more unstable post-Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) security environment in the Middle East characterized by a return of deterrence and risk-taking behavior.
An attack with limited impact on Iran’s military capabilities
Small-scale attacks, such as last week’s drone assault on an MOD complex, cannot meaningfully impact the Islamic Republic’s military and nuclear capabilities. Tehran has faced such sabotage and limited strikes for years now, suggesting a failure by the country’s security services to protect critical infrastructure. Finding it difficult to prevent such incidents, Iran’s military-industrial entities seem to have taken an alternative approach — accepting that attacks on their facilities will happen but taking various technical and administrative steps to minimize their impact.
For example, Iranian arms producers have adopted “passive defense rules,” relying on dispersion, concealment, and redundancy of assets. In practice, this means parallel sites exist that can quickly switch their operations to replace a damaged factory; extra supplies and machinery are kept in dispersed, remote, and mostly distanced locations; and critical supply chain infrastructure is distributed across a vast geographic area. These passive defense measures can mitigate disruptive effects on logistics and core military-technical capabilities caused by damage to one or two production or supply centers. Scarce material deposits or limitedly deployed industrial assets remain much more vulnerable to strikes capable of causing tactical difficulties and delays. However, even those facilities are usually built based on indigenous designs and know-how, and the Islamic Republic retains the capacity to immediately rebuild or restore them.
In previous instances of strikes against or sabotage of Iran’s nuclear and military sites, Tehran was able to restore their functions rather quickly. In the case of the former, Iran responded by either further building out its nuclear infrastructure or crossing new red lines prohibited by the JCPOA. Attacks on the military-industrial sector were similarly ineffectual. The May 2022 strike on Iran’s drone production facility, which claimed to destroy hundreds of Iranian drones, did not halt progress on Tehran’s drone program; while similar alleged Israeli sabotage of sensitive missile complexes, including the 2011 explosion that killed Iran’s missile architect Maj. Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghadam, failed to stop Teran’s missile development.
Small-scale strikes — even highly lauded success stories like the Stuxnet cyberattack on the Natanz nuclear enrichment facilities — can only work as a delaying tactic, slowing down Iranian advancement in specific areas for a short period of time. And in turn, the Islamic Republic’s leadership has learnt to buy itself more time to build back stronger by not publicly acknowledging the extent of the damage.
The challenge of strategic signaling
It is hard to imagine that the planners behind these attacks were not aware of the above-mentioned limits of such operations. So presumably, the attacker(s)’s objective went beyond inflicting a tactical cost on the Islamic Republic. However, even strategic signaling through small-scale strikes presents its own challenges if the ultimate goal is to change the target country’s policy direction.
In fact, previous low-level attacks uniformly failed to alter the Islamic Republic’s strategic assessments. Israeli strikes in 2020-22 did not convince Tehran to revise its nuclear policy, nor did they dissuade the Iranian leadership from resorting to nuclear brinkmanship with the United States. Instead, Iran further diminished its nuclear transparency and is gradually shifting toward nuclear ambiguity even in the face of possible renewed sabotage or strikes. Similarly, the aforementioned Israeli attack on an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) factory last May did not deter Tehran from exporting combat drones to Russia.
Previous attempts failed to bring about a policy shift due to a combination of factors. First, the Iranian leadership, as a matter of course, seeks to avoid any major concessions amidst a heightened threat, believing it, instead, needs to proportionally respond by imposing its own threat on the adversary. Second, Iran’s leadership makes decisions under a siege mentality. The ruling elite have psychologically adapted to their environment marked by constant low-scale tensions; thus, attacks don’t look quite as threatening in Tehran as external observers might imagine. Third, and lastly, concerns in the U.S. and European Union over the costs of an armed confrontation with Iran had for years restrained Euro-Atlantic approaches to dealing with the threat, leaving Israel alone to carry out kinetic operations against the Islamic Republic. In other words, hopes for a diplomatic solution and a lack of consensus among Israel and its Western partners regarding the use of force largely reduced the effectiveness of signals sent by limited strikes.
What is changing?
But the latest attacks have taken place in an entirely different security environment: Hopes for renewing the JCPOA are almost dead after months of stalled talks, and EU-Iranian relations are at a historic low because of Iran’s security assistance to Russia along with its brutal suppression of protesters at home. As a result, the European desire and capacity for diplomacy with Iran is currently on ice. Brussels might be happy to see Tehran punished.
But most importantly of all, the U.S. and Israel are increasingly coordinating their Iran policy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Tel-Aviv this week notably included talks on Iran. Moreover, on Jan. 26, only two days before the drone attack on the Iranian MOD facility, the U.S. and Israel concluded their largest partnered exercise in history, Juniper Oak, telegraphing both sides’ readiness to engage in complex operational scenarios that involve even striking an Iranian nuclear site. As Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief Herzi Halevi declared, “The IDF and CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] share the same outlook on the threats facing this region.” The failure of President Joe Biden’s Iran policy and the need for a new start seems to be playing a role in the U.S. tilting toward the Israeli position.
In this changed security environment, last Saturday’s attack on the Iranian arms production facility may implicitly reflect a shared desire gradually emerging among the Western powers to show a collective willingness and readiness to use preemptive force to stop Iran’s nuclear program if diplomacy fails. While Israel has, time and again, proven its capability and capacity to carry out such operations alone, the apparent broader international consensus in support of this approach is novel — something Tehran should surely note.
Abdolrasool Divsallar is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute and a visiting professor at Cattolica University in Milan.
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