In the absence of being able to actually strike at Israel, Iran's regime may invent stories of "successful" operations in the wake of the Natanz incident.
Tehran painted itself into a corner this week by claiming that it would take action after an incident at its nuclear enrichment facility. A full-court press was unleashed by Iran's media. But then the question remained whether the Islamic Republic has any real options to strike at the Jewish state without escalating tensions too much.
What we know is that Iran has said, at the foreign ministry and government spokesperson level, that it wants revenge. It has also said it will now enrich uranium to 60%. It then sent its government propaganda, English language media Press TV to publish claims of an attack on an Israeli ship off the coast of the UAE. The details have been downplayed in Israel.
This would be the third alleged attack in the last month-and-a-half on Israeli-owned ships in that area. Since these are commercial ships, Iran's attacks are a flagrant violation of basic international laws. Iran's Press TV says that Israel "awaits" the Iranian response. It likely knows that Israel's Memorial Day is on April 13, so it is timing these news items for the solemn day.
Iran's Press TV claimed that "Israel's Mossad spy agency has come under attack in Iraq."
A stranger story emerged on April 13 alleging that Iran was targeting "Israel" in Iraq. Press TV claimed that "Israel's Mossad spy agency has come under attack in Iraq, security sources say, with a number of Israeli forces killed or wounded in what was described as a 'heavy blow' on the Zionist regime."
The story actually began at Sabereen News, which claimed that the "resistance" forces in Iraq struck at a "Mossad safe house" in northern Iraq. It said it would show pictures. It said that Israeli "spies" were hit.
This is a generalized account because "northern Iraq" is a big place and an "Israeli spy" could be a random person. A "safe house" can be any house that the pro-Iran militias have identified. The wording is important here. The "resistance" in Iraq is made up of pro-Iran militias such as Badr, Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and others. They have threatened Israel before.
Iran has provided them ballistic missiles in 2018 and 2019. They have even blamed Israel for a strike on a Kataib Hezbollah house in Albukamal in Syria in the summer of 2018 and four airstrikes in Iraq in 2019. Asaib's leader even went to Lebanon in 2017 and met Hezbollah and vowed to help the terrorist group fight Israel.
Online accounts that track open-source intelligence, like Aurora Intel, note that official "news agencies Arabic RT, Al-Alam News Agency, Fars News Agency and Press TV are all reporting the story." Their source is Sabereen news. An account named Intel Sky was one of the early ones to publicize the report. But many are skeptical. Nevertheless, Israeli radio picked up the Iranian reports as well.
Is Iran merely claiming to have "retaliated" so it can say it did something?
The question that remains is whether Iran, along with its widespread media network and militias that it uses as proxies from Yemen to Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, will attempt retaliation against Israel, or merely claim to have "retaliated" so it can say it did something. This has happened in the past.
In July 2020, Hezbollah vowed retaliation after a member was killed in Syria. It claimed to keep Israel on alert and several incidents took place, but nothing major actually happened. In another incident in 2020, Hezbollah "retaliated" by cutting holes in a fence. In 2019 it even fired missiles but ended up harming mannequins.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.