Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, spoke to participants in an April 20 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the threat posed by Iranian precision-guided munitions (PGMs).
Over the past two years, Israel has been conducting frequent "preemptive strikes" intended to disrupt Iran's efforts to qualitatively upgrade the threat to Israel posted by its proxies in Lebanon and Syria by arming them with "game changing" PGMs.
This campaign has been dubbed the "war between wars" (or "campaign between wars") by the Israeli defense establishment.
Although the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah organization has stockpiled tens of thousands of rockets, most are unguided and thus highly inaccurate. Israel's Iron Dome tracks the trajectory of incoming rockets and ignores the majority that are projected to miss their intended targets, while intercepting those few that are projected to be a threat. Upgrading large numbers of these rockets into PGMs likely to hit their targets would therefore enable Hezbollah to overwhelm Israeli defenses.
Even a small number of PGMs getting through could be devastating, Schanzer explained:
One PGM getting through to, for example, the chemical plant in Haifa could be the equivalent of a chemical weapons attack. An attack on the purported nuclear facility in Dimona would be the equivalent of a nuclear attack. And then of course there exists the possibility of simply striking high density civilian targets, apartment buildings in Tel Aviv or even the Kirya, the "Pentagon of Israel" in Tel Aviv.
Thus, Iran's PGM project "is second only to the Iranian nuclear program in terms of the threats that [Israel] face[s] right now in the region," said Schanzer. "The fact that Iran has been transferring this technology into the hands of non-state actors is a gross violation of the existing norms."
Israel has taken it upon itself to not only target the munitions themselves, but also the facilities where the munitions are built or upgraded and the engineers responsible for building them. This is not so difficult in Syria, as the Russian air force is "willing to stand down when the Israelis have things that they need to clean up," Schanzer explained. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has begun building these facilities underground in civilian-populated areas, so "it's much harder for the Israelis to strike without prompting a full blown war."
"Transferring this technology into the hands of non-state actors is a gross violation of the existing norms."
Israel is not the only one threatened by Iranian PGMs, said Schanzer, noting that PGMs were used in the attack on Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq oil-processing facility last year, which took much of its production offline for several weeks, and in Iran's January 8 missile strike on U.S. forces in Iraq following the killing of Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
The PGM capabilities of Iranian proxies are "likely to be the cause of the Middle East's next war, unless we're able to find out a way to get the Iranians to stand down," Schanzer concluded. Alongside its kinetic efforts to degrade these capabilities, Israel has made diplomatic efforts through intermediaries to mitigate the threat. Unfortunately, "right now we don't see any sign of [Iran] letting up."
Gary C. Gambill is general editor at the Middle East Forum. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.