By Victor Kotsev
Despite all the noise of the past few weeks, Israel is unlikely to attack Iran in the immediate future – but the escalations are remarkable indeed, and the warning has been received, not just by Iran, but also by Europe and to a lesser extent by the United States. It is a well-timed warning which serves both offensive and defensive goals – it concerns not only the Iranian nuclear program, but also all other developments in the Middle East that threaten Israel’s security.
It is hard to tell how much is true of speculation that Israel was behind the explosion at an Iranian missile base on Saturday.  Iranian officials themselves have made contradictory claims to the media. Surely, however, the incident was a major setback for the Iranian missile program, one of the worst in recent years. ”The incident happened during a research program which could have become a severe punch on Israeli regime’s mouth,” a high-ranking
Iranian military official reportedly acknowledged on Wednesday. 
A top Iranian missile expert, General Hassan Moghaddam, was killed, alongside at least 16 other Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Dozens were wounded, and the blast – according to some sources, two separate blasts – was so powerful that it reverberated throughout Tehran, over 40 kilometers away.
A probable alternative to the theory that Israel was behind it, acting through local Iranian militants, is worth noting: the Iranians may have unsuccessfully tested a new missile, or at least a new warhead for an existing missile (the base where the blast occurred is reported to store Shehab-3 and Zelzal missiles, both of which can reach Israel). The presence of Moghaddam at the base seems to suggest that something unusual was going on.
”Testing new types of ballistic missiles is dangerous,” American think-tank Stratfor writes. ”Numerous instances of failed missile launches have caused significant casualties, most notably the October 24, 1960, death of Soviet Marshal of Artillery Mitrofan Nedelin during a failed test of the newly introduced R-16 ballistic missile. It is not inconceivable that Moghaddam died during a similar missile test mishap.”
The truth could also be somewhere in the middle: sabotage could take many subtle forms, including cyber-warfare and supply of faulty equipment. It is not inconceivable that Russia or China, two of Iran’s main suppliers of sophisticated technology, helped (or at least closed their eyes to) a clandestine effort to sabotage the Iranian missile program.
What makes the incident particularly important is its timing – the mere suggestion that Israel was involved amplifies the Israeli threats against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. Israeli war games over the past weeks have included simulations of long-distance air strikes and home-front drills of attacks with chemical weapons. More recently, on Monday, the Israeli Air Force leaked information to the press that its new unmanned long-distance drone which can reach Iran, the Eitan, would become operational shortly. 
These developments come on top of some ever tougher Israeli rhetoric. ”[Last week's] IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] report [alleging that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons] only detailed information that can be proven; facts that can be presented in court,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly announced at a government meeting on Sunday. ”In practice there are many other things we see, and hence the leading states in the world must decide what to do in order to stop Iran … The efforts thus far did not prevent Iran from progressing towards a bomb, and it is closer to acquiring it, sooner than what people think.” 
Netanyahu seemingly did not forget those analysts who are more concerned when Israeli leaders fall silent than when they make loud proclamations, either. (In terms of military strategy, Israel has generally preferred to use surprise when launching daring military operations in the past). For them, the Israeli propaganda machine provided a media leak; on Wednesday, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz wrote:
According to sources in Jerusalem, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned to [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak and [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman asked them not to give speeches on Iran, which is one of the main subjects of the conference [the Saban Forum in Washington in December], due to the current international sensitivity of the issue and Israel’s desire to keep a ”low profile” on the matter in order to avoid harming efforts to impose further sanctions on Iran. 
Even the admonitions of Meir Dagan, the legendary former chief of the Mossad [Israeli spy service] who has been preaching to Netanyahu publicly not to attack, could be seen as a kind of bluff, a way to amplify the Israeli threats. All this suggests that there is more rhetoric than real intent to act on the part of the Israelis at present, but the balance is clearly delicate, and could tilt the other way.
The message behind the Israeli muscle-flexing seems to have several layers. On the one hand, Netanyahu is clearly telling the world to do something about Iran unless it wants Israel to do it. The more loudly the Europeans protest a possible Israeli attack (France and Germany, among others, have spoken out against it),  the more clearly they demonstrate they have understood the message. It will be hard, later, to claim that an Israeli attack took them unaware, and to criticize the Jewish State for not letting others try out peaceful means first.
Just as importantly, in the meantime Israel could reap some diplomatic benefits by allowing the European protests to seemingly stay its hand. In the context of the Palestinian bids for international recognition and internal reconciliation, as well as of the Jewish State’s relative diplomatic isolation, an extra bargaining chip is more than welcome to its leaders.
Whether Israel can convince Russia or China of its seriousness is another matter altogether, and we ought to pay close attention to any developments at the United Nations Security Council. The US is reportedly trying hard to twist the arms of Russia and China into allowing tougher sanctions against Iran,  and Israel seems happy to supply the bells and whistles – or, to put it more precisely, the sticks in the “carrots and sticks” metaphor – as needed.
Proponents of ”soft” pressure against Iran claim that there is still a chance to convince the leaders of the Islamic Republic to give up their nuclear program.  Failing that, however, the Israeli show of force might convince US President Barack Obama to grudgingly take tougher unilateral measures against the Islamic Republic. These may include, down the road, military strikes.
According to prominent analyst David Rothkopf, an American strike on Iran is not inconceivable:
[I]n the end, as dangerous as an attack might be militarily and politically, if the President believes there is no other alternative to stopping Iran from gaining the ability to produce highly enriched uranium and thus manufacture nuclear weapons, he will seriously consider military action and it is hardly a certainty he won’t take it. From a domestic political perspective, right now Obama’s strong suit is his national security performance … [I]f Iran were to detonate a nuclear bomb, Obama would be blamed and fiercely attacked for a policy of engagement that ultimately proved to be toothless. 
On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that the US Air Force had received a new bunker-buster bomb that weighs 15 tons, or six times as much as its most powerful predecessor.  It is hardly a coincidence that this is precisely the kind of bomb that would be useful in an attack against Iran’s heavily fortified nuclear facilities.
A military confrontation between the US and Iran, moreover, could potentially start on several other fronts, including in Iraq or Syria. Over the weekend, the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership, starting a dialogue with opposition groups based in Turkey.
According to Israeli analyst Zvi Bar’el, this could serve to legitimize a future foreign intervention in Syria. ”[T]he Arab League is assuming the role of ”regime maker,” which acts rather than merely responds,” he writes. 
On Wednesday, the League gave Assad three days to stop the crackdown, without making any specific threats. Simultaneously, France withdrew its ambassador to Syria, while some of the rebels in the country, the so-called Free Syrian Army, announced they had formed a special military council.
Meanwhile, the clashes on the ground escalated further, with dozens of civilians and soldiers killed. Days ago, mobs reportedly stormed the embassies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Damascus, as well as a number of consulates in the country. With the country in chaos and the economy in tatters, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s days seem numbered, but the manner in which he will go is uncertain.
”Al-Assad does not want to create a situation in which the regime’s external rivals, from the United States to Turkey and France, reach the limits of their rhetoric,” wrote Stratfor in an analysis from last week. Given the spiraling violence, that limit might be very close.
In this context, the Israeli muscle-flexing serves also as a general warning to its regional enemies to refrain from striking it in the event of limited hostilities. Those limited hostilities may or may not initially involve Israel, and could take place in Iran, Syria, or even in Gaza, where the last days have witnessed a new spike in violence.
1. See 1 Was Israel Behind a Deadly Explosion at an Iranian Missile Base?, Time, November 13, 2011 and 2. Mossad – In Eulogy of ‘Martyred’ Revolutionary Guard Commander, Tehran Mayor Concedes Enemies Killed Him, Tikun Olam, November 15, 2011.
2. Top Iran general: Blast disrupted anti-Israel weapons program, Ha’aretz, November 16, 2011.
3. Israel’s giant UAV becomes operational, Ynet, November 14, 2011.
4. Netanyahu: Iran closer to bomb than assumed, Ynet, November 14, 2011.
5. Barak, Lieberman to skip U.S. forum to avoid public debate on Iran, sources say, Ha’aretz, November 16, 2011.
6. Germany, France join opposition to attack on Iran nuclear program, Ha’aretz, November 15, 2011.
7. US says discussing more Iran sanctions with Russia, Ynet, November 9, 2011.
8. How to target the Islamic Republic diplomatically, Jerusalem Post, November 13, 2011.
9. The world is misreading Obama on Iran, Foreign Policy, November 4, 2011.
10. B-2 Bomber Gets Boeing’s New 30,000-Pound Bunker-Buster Bomb, Bloomberg, November 15, 2011.
11. Arab League may pave way for military action in Syria, Ha’aretz, November 13, 2011.
12. Free Syrian Army forms military council to oust Assad, Ma’an, November 16, 2011.