Dangers ahead: The Mideast as it really is (Tom Gross in conversation with Shmuel Bar)

July 06, 2020


[Note by Tom Gross]

Below, as part of my “informal conversations with friends” series, is a discussion with Shmuel Bar.

Shmuel worked for Israel’s government for 30 years in various analytical and operational capacities in a number of countries. He is a leading expert in a variety of fields. (Of course, it may be easier listen to these talks while out for walk or in the car, rather than watch them.)




At the start, Shmuel speaks for a few minutes about current developments in America before we discuss the Mideast and Europe.

(As I mention, a senior Iranian Ayatollah gleefully said last week: “We’ve calling for ‘Death to America!’ every week at Friday prayers for 40 years, and now the Americans are shouting ‘Death to America!’ themselves.”)

Among topics discussed with Shmuel is the failure among too many Western decision makers, particularly in Europe, to understand the threat level from religious extremism. Just because “the west no longer does religion” it doesn’t follow that others are not very much living in a religious reality similar to that of past centuries, including in its militant Jihadi form. “Quintessentially rational societies like the Dutch have been slow to understand this,” explains Shmuel.


We also discuss the seeming lack of awareness among many in Europe that the likely further destabilization in Algeria may mean greatly increased migrant / refugee flows into Europe; and the fact that there is no clear successor to Palestinian President Abbas (who is very ill) and in Shmuel’s view, no one is likely to assert control and there will be competing war lords and clans in the West Bank for some time after Abbas dies. (Another reason why Israel cannot afford to give up the Jordan Valley until security is guaranteed.)


We also talk about Iran. Our discussion took place on Thursday at about the same time that there was an explosion at Iran’s secret underground nuclear facility in Natanz, so those events are not discussed.

The accident (or more likely attack) at Natanz, as well as the massive explosion last week at a military base in Parchin and/or the nearby Khojir missile and fuel production complex, has damaged Iran’s nuclear and military programs.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security describes the enrichment facility at Natanz as “a critical part of Iran’s plan to deploy thousands of advanced centrifuges.” (It’s where the newer, faster centrifuges that accelerate the rate of uranium enrichment are assembled.)

As is well known across the Mideast, the Iranian regime was greatly emboldened by the (from a western point of view) ill-judged 2015 nuclear deal and other elements of appeasement towards the Islamic regime by US President Barack Obama and his west European allies.

The provision by Obama of enormous amounts of cash to the regime, as well as his virtual green light for it to act with impunity in Syria and Iraq, allowed the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to greatly increase its control over (and killing in) Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and to some extent Gaza, not to mention more recent attacks on Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure.


That appeasement is now being rolled back by the Trump administration together with its Arab, Israeli and other allies, with renewed sanctions and the assassination of IRGC head General Soleimani earlier this year. The explosion at Natanz, and the killing of Soleimani, has been welcomed across the Arab world as well by Israel and by Iranian pro-democracy activists.

No one has claimed responsibility for the fires at Natanz and Parchin but they are believed to have been carried out using cyber methods, and not by an airstrike as some Kuwaiti and other Arab media have claimed, nor by a bomb as the New York Times claimed.

Iran initially downplayed the damage, but Iran’s atomic agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi last night admitted that “there were no casualties as a result of the incident, but significant damages were incurred … there were advanced equipment and precision measurement devices at this site that were either destroyed or damaged.”


It’s a sign of the extent to which many western journalists don’t want to understand just how grave Iran gaining nuclear weapons would be, not just for the Mideast but for the west, that the events at Natanz have not been more widely covered in the western media over the last three days. This is a regime that has repeatedly cajoled its Syrian puppet Assad into using chemical weapons against Sunni civilians in recent years and, given its enormous level of worldwide aggression, were it to go nuclear would leave little choice for the Saudis, Egyptians, Turks and others to get nuclear weapons of their own to defend themselves from Iran. (Many Israelis too, regard the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat.)


Natanz was also targeted by the Stuxnet computer virus from 2005 until it was discovered by the Iranians in 2010. Stuxnet was jointly developed by IDF Intelligence and the US National Security Agency. It damaged the control over the centrifuges and caused them to break down without leaving any trace. The explosion at Natanz on Thursday occurred in a building that housed centrifuges which are far more advanced than the centrifuges that were damaged a decade ago.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz yesterday denied Israel was behind the explosions that have rocked Iran’s missile and nuclear sites in recent days. “Not every incident that transpires in Iran necessarily has something to do with us,” he said.

-- Tom Gross



Shmuel Bar adds today, in a note that he is happy for me to share with my readers:

The Iranian calculus in accusing Israel of executing a cyber-attack on its strategic installations is complex. On one hand, the regime has been embarrassed time and again for the last half year by events that exposed its incompetence (the killing of Solemeini, the Ukrainian Airline incident, the approach to the Corona epidemic etc.) and ostensibly it should not have an interest in exposing its vulnerability to attacks by its arch-enemies.

On the other hand, it may believe that it can rouse patriotic support by creating a public perception that Iran is under attack. In any case, the moment it has declared that Israel is responsible and that it will retaliate, the regime has painted itself into a strategic corner and take some retaliatory action. This is most likely to take the form of a cyber-attack on Israeli targets. Iran’s ability to breach Israel’s cyber-defenses and cause significant damage to its public infrastructure is negligible, but the very publication of such attacks could serve the regime’s need for domestic public diplomacy.

Another option could be to activate Hezbollah or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad for what may be seen as strategic terrorist attacks. This would serve Hezbollah’s need to stem the trend in Lebanon of seeing the organization as an international liability and to strengthen its status as the “defender” of Lebanon against Israel. An attack from Gaza would also serve the interests of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad against the Hamas regime there.


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