The shadow war between Israel and Iran

Note de la FRS n°21/2023
Pierre Boussel, October 30, 2023

Download (PDF)


The cold war between Iran and Israel is hardly a secret. The two are engaged in a battle of special operations, targeted assassinations, and drone strikes. Although Tel Aviv is not in the habit of talking about its foreign operations, the level of conflict is such that former Israeli chief of staff, Aviv Kohavi, admitted that Israel conducts an operation against Iran roughly every month. Israel has earmarked 2 billion USD for the preparation of an open conflict against TehranAnna Ahronheim, “Israel is capable of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities - Benny Gantz”, The Jerusalem Post, November 9, 2022..

Nevertheless, Israeli forces were unable to stop the first wave of the Hamas movement’s attack on Israeli territory on 7 October. The Palestinian activists neutralised Gaza’s border surveillance systems and then carried out a complex attack reminiscent of the operations of the Revolutionary Guards’ al-Quds Force. The hypothesis of an “Iranian Involvement in the Attack on Israel”Sarit Zehavi, “Iranian Involvement in the attack on Israel: A sequence of meetings to approve plans between Iran and terrorist organizations in Lebanon and Gaza”, Alma Research and Education Center, October 11, 2023. is widely shared by Israeli analysts, at least the idea that such a large-scale operation could not have been carried out without Tehran’s approvalSima Shine, Raz Zimmt, “The Dilemma of the Iranian Octopus: The Considerations in Tehran Regarding Expansion of the Fighting”, Institute for National Security Studies, October 15, 2023..

In May 2003, Tamir Pardo, commander of the Mossad’s Rainbow Unit and future director of Israel’s foreign intelligence and special operations, presented to the High Command Forum three options for stopping Iran’s nuclear program: “First: conquer Iran. Second: bring about regime change in Iran. Third: convince the current regime that the price of continuing the nuclear project is greater than what they can gain by stopping itAsa Kasher, “What’s Missing from ‘Rise and Kill First’”, Mosaic Magazine, June 13, 2022.. Realism prompted the choice of the third option.

Iran has always been a favorite target of Benjamin Netanyahu. Since he became Prime minister, security (bitakhon) has been at the center of his discourse. Tehran’s influence over Palestinian factions and the Shia community in the Middle East puts Tel Aviv within range of rockets and missiles. The recurring theme repeated by Netanyahu of an existential struggle against Iranian denial of Israel’s legitimacy has also been fueled by advances in Iran’s nuclear program.

For now, the belligerents are showing restraint. Civilians are being spared. Only the enemy’s symbols of power are being targeted. Tehran and Riyadh, also sparring, agree on at least one point: the war is secret. At least partly – information is scarce and only trickles out.

Covert attacks began in 2010 with the Stuxnet malware infiltration on Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges. More recently, the Iranian defense ministry announced (August 31, 2023) that it had foiled a complex operation by Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, aimed at introducing defective components into Iran’s missile production process“Iran Declares Thwarted Israeli Plot to Sabotage Missile Industry”, Al Quds, August 31, 2023.. A network of infiltrators operating on Iranian territory had been uncovered.

Key figures in Iran’s nuclear industry were assassinated, including Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, deputy director of commercial affairs at the Natanz plant, or Hassan Sayad Khodaei, an IRGC colonel who was due to take command of Unit 840 of the al-Quds Force, involved in planning attacks against Israeli interests in Turkey, Cyprus and Colombia. The targeting and professionalism of the attacks (magnetic bomb, motorcycle bomb, IED explosion) project the familiar shadow of the Mossad.

The targeting of Israeli attacks is all the more precise because secrecy allows them to carry out operations of rare audacity. In February 2016, Israeli agents broke into a warehouse storing documents on Iran’s nuclear programרה"מ נתניהו בהצהרה על התפתחות משמעותית בעניין הסכם הגרעין עם איראן” [Prime Minister Netanyahu in a statement on a major development regarding the Iran nuclear deal], IsraeliPM (Isr), Youtube, April 30, 2018.. They stole half a ton of files, reports, and CDs, which they returned to Israel overnight. The Israeli message was the possession of a real capacity for high quality operational intelligence gathering and operations at a depth previously unknown.

Iran remains suspicious of infiltrations by Israeli services. When Tel Aviv sent aid to Turkey after the 6 February earthquake, a photo (following) of the humanitarian team was taken for security reasons on the tarmac of an unidentified airport. Many pro-Iranian netizens looked closely at the picture and noticed that the faces of some of the aid workers were blurred. They concluded that Mossad agents were present.