Clipping the wings of Iran and its militias
The recent drone attack on an Iranian military compound in Isfahan was not the first of its kind and is unlikely to be the last. It was one of many that have hit Iranian arms depots and convoys across the region, including in Syria and Lebanon. Just hours after the Jan. 29 attack in Iran, for example, trucks that had crossed from Iraq into Syria were also reportedly attacked with drones. While many see these strikes as part of an undeclared war on Iran’s nuclear program, they should be viewed more as a regional counterterrorism effort.
Israel has rarely admitted carrying out these attacks, but it is widely understood that it is behind them and that the goal is to prevent Iran from building up the asymmetric war capabilities of its militias. According to US law, “premeditated, politically motivated, violence,” committed by “subnational groups (militias) against noncombatants,” are acts of terrorism. This legal definition makes it hard to argue against the fact that Israel is helping combat terrorism across the Middle East.
Iran, for its part, seems to have been too embarrassed to admit the extent of the damage these strikes have caused. Tehran has downplayed them, while its militias have often denied that they even took place.
In Syria, Bashar Assad’s weak grip on power has forced Israel to act with a high frequency to prevent Iran from building a military infrastructure in Syria’s southwest — a region that shares a border with Israel. At first, the Assad regime tried to hide the Israeli strikes, mainly through claiming that the explosions were caused by an electrical short circuit, an explanation that invited widespread sarcasm. As it became known that Israel was targeting Iranian militias in Syria, the Assad regime stopped commenting. Israel, for its part, started to open up about the strikes, without elaborating on any one of them in particular.
In Lebanon, things are different. Iran-backed Hezbollah rules with an iron fist and an overt Israeli strike might ignite a full-scale war that neither side wants. Hence, bombings targeting Hezbollah’s weapons caches have remained mysterious.
Israel has long accused Hezbollah of storing weapons in Lebanon’s civilian neighborhoods. During the 2006 war between the two sides, Israel hit Lebanese houses, saying that it was responding to spots from where Hezbollah had launched missiles.
In September 2018, Israel released photos of facilities located close to Beirut airport, where Hezbollah “converted regular missiles into precision-guided ones.” Two months later, Israel “exposed and destroyed” a series of tunnels dug “from within civilian houses in Lebanon into Israel.” These were the only times when Israel talked publicly about Hezbollah’s military sites, until December, when Israel threatened “to strike the Beirut airport over Iran’s arms shipments.”
In September 2020, a weapons depot exploded in the southern Lebanese village of Ain Qana. The pro-Iran militia borrowed one of Assad’s favorite excuses, blaming an electrical short.
Iran seems to have been too embarrassed to admit the extent of the damage these strikes have caused.
Since December 2021, a series of explosions have rocked Lebanon. One was heard in Janta, a Hezbollah stronghold in the east. Two weeks later, locals near the southern village of Homin Al-Fawqa were woken by an explosion. Six days later, a bang was heard near the coastal city of Tyre.
Hezbollah reacted the same way to all these blasts. It sealed off the area, sent in its own ambulances to transport the dead and the injured to undisclosed medical facilities, and invented cover stories. In Homin Al-Fawqa, Hezbollah said an overheated generator detonated its diesel reservoir. The last of the explosions went off last week, again in Homin Al-Fawqa, where a Hezbollah “social services” office was hit.
Hezbollah is not the only pro-Iran militia in Lebanon to see its arms caches go up in flames. In December 2021, an explosion rocked a Hamas weapons depot at the Burj Shemali Palestinian refugee camp, near Tyre. Hamas also blamed, you guessed it, an electrical short. A day later, the Palestinian organization, which is designated as a terrorist group by the US, Israel and Europe, held a funeral for its militants killed in that “short.”
Like Iran, Hezbollah has been suppressing news about explosions to avoid a war that could ravage a country that is already falling apart. The bombings have also shown that Iran and its militias are heavily infiltrated by foreign intelligence agencies and that they have been irresponsibly storing arms and ammunition in civilian neighborhoods.
Whoever has been continuously clipping the wings of the pro-Iran militias has been doing so impressively, selecting secret targets and bombing them discreetly when needed and less so when circumstances — like in Syria — permit.
Without the ongoing attacks, like the one on Isfahan and the airstrikes that followed on convoys that crossed from Iraq into Syria, pro-Iran terrorist groups would have improved their capabilities enormously. Not long ago, the US was the one that led such counterterrorism, but it has now given up on the role. Israel, or whoever is responsible for bombing Iran and its militias, has stepped up to fill the American void.
• Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.