Is Israel's Gaza Campaign Laying the Groundwork for an Attack on Iran?

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From Operation Pillar of Cloud to the Islamic Republic's nuclear program

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Amir Cohen/Reuters/The Atlantic

A close observation of the recent developments in Gaza might reveal broader implications for the region: Israel's operation Amud Anan ("Pillar of Cloud") in Gaza could be preparation for an Israeli strike on Iran.

The story begins late October when a mysterious blast destroyed the Sudanese military base Yarmouk on the outskirts of the capital, Khartoum. The Yarmouk was a base camp to receive arms shipments from Iran and stolen weapons from Libya that were smuggled continentally to Hamas and the Iranian terror proxy in Gaza, Islamic Jihad. The Sudanese authorities hurried to accuse Israel, which remained silent. Satellite images of the site indicate that the bombing of Yarmouk was executed from the air. As The Atlantic reported at the time, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) is the only one in the region with the capabilities to execute such a strike.

The immediate impact of the Yarmouk's destruction on Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza were the cutting of a planned shipment of additional arms, primarily the Iranian-made Fajr 3 and Fajr 5 artillery rockets that can cover a range of approximately 47 miles and easily reach Tel Aviv. These are the exact rockets that Hamas has recently launched at the vicinities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Operation Pillar of Cloud is not aimed at destroying the Hamas regime in Gaza, but rather at paralyzing it militarily.

The operation in Sudan, assuming that it was an Israeli one, sent two clear messages to Tehran: First, that the Israeli intelligence follows Iran's whereabouts in the region, even deep into Africa. Second, that if the IAF can safely reach and destroy a target some 1,120 miles from Israel, it can make the 1000 miles journey to Iran's nuclear facilities. To be sure, an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be infinitely more complex than the Yarmouk operation. But it can be interpreted as a possible rehearsal for a long distance strike similar to one that would be required to attack on Iran.

Operation Pillar of Cloud is not aimed at destroying the Hamas regime in Gaza, but rather at paralyzing it militarily. Aside from the immediate respite it would provide southern Israel from rocket fire, this would also ensure that Hamas and Islamic Jihad stay out of the conflict in case Israel strikes Iran. It undermined Hamas's command structure by starting its operation this month with the assassination Ahmad Jabari, chief of Hamas's armed forces. Shortly after, the IAF destroyed most of Hamas' Fajr missiles. With both the Yarmouk facility and most of the Fajr missiles eliminated, Israel has severely limited the capability of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to fire beyond southern Israel and threaten high population concentrations around Tel Aviv.

Regardless of the damage Israel inflicts on Hamas, the movement's leaders will portray their resilience as a victory. But it will take Hamas and Islamic Jihad some time to regroup and restock their long-range missiles inventory, making it almost impossible for them to engage in a second round of intense fire in the near future. Though this may seem like a short- or medium-term achievement for Israel, it does provide important breathing room for an imminent operation against Iran.

Beyond neutralizing Hamas, the current operation is helpful in other ways in preparing for an Iran attack. If Israel were to attack Iran, the likelihood of a direct Iranian or a combined Iranian-Hezbollah response against Israeli cities is high. The heavy exchange of fire with Gaza is an excellent opportunity for the Israeli authorities to examine the preparedness of its home front, emergency infrastructure, defensive military capabilities, and Hezbollah's response. Immediately after the Thursday attack near Tel Aviv, many Israelis have begun preparing their shelters in case the fight escalates.

Psychologically, the longer the fire continues, the broader the media coverage will be, the more alert the Israeli public becomes. A responsive public, who closely follows the instructions of the home front authorities, is an utmost important element in minimizing the number of potential victims in case of an Iranian strike. Militarily, a large scale operation enables the Israeli forces to examine the coordination between the different units as well as the capabilities of its air defense system, the Iron Dome. And, as of now, aside from a declaration of support to Hamas, Hezbollah has refrained from joining the fray. While it is difficult to imagine that Israel launched its current offensive primarily to gauge these factors as a test-run for an attack on Iran, it certainly provides important ancillary benefits toward that end.

The heavy fire on southern Israel and Tel Aviv strengthens Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak's argument that possibility of terror from Gaza backed by a nuclear Iran demonstrates the urgency of stopping the latter's nuclear program. Israel actions also send a strong message to the reelected President Barack Obama: Israel is ready to act against its enemies and to bear the consequences. If the United States dithers in dealing with Iran, Israel will not hesitate to take action unilaterally.

Not overlooking the immediate threat of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to Israel's security, the Israeli operation in Gaza may also be preparing the ground for a more ambitious goal: Iran. By the time the current round of violence ends, the Israeli general elections will be just around the corner. With a smooth victory for Benjamin Netanyahu's hawkish bloc and a relaxed southern front, the path to Tehran will be as open as ever.

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Moran Stern is a lecturer at Georgetown University's program for Jewish civilization in the School of Foreign Service.

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