Tensions between Iran and Israel have recently escalated. The stand-off between both countries has taken a different turn from "naval war" to "remote targeting," i.e., targeting one another in different countries such as Syria, a common hotspot between both countries. Tel Aviv is skeptical towards any Iranian positioning near the Syrian border. However, remote targeting between both countries has also extended to other territories outside the Middle East.
Both countries consider "remote targeting" a cost-effective approach compared to a direct military confrontation. Moreover, both countries have easier access to the security systems of other countries than either has to one another’s. In other words, Tehran is struggling to launch attacks inside Israel in response to increased Israeli operations in Iran over the past period.
Remote targeting between Iran and Israel can be described as follows:
1. Civilian assassination attempts in third countries: Israel announced a failed assassination attempt against Israeli businessmen in Cyprus on 4 October 2021, accusing Iran of being behind this attempt. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett directly threatened to retaliate against Iran, explaining that this attempt was "a terrorist incident directed by Iran."
The Embassy of Iran in Cyprus denied the Israeli accusations and described them as "groundless," despite the Mossad spokesperson’s claims of Iranian involvement in the incident, who stated that investigations indicate that Iran orchestrated the incident.
2. Secret activities near the enemy’s borders: Israel strongly opposes Tehran’s continuous attempts over the past years to turn the buffer zone with the Syrian border into an Iranian positioning zone, as this threatens Israel’s national security. Tel Aviv has adopted a similar approach to Tehran’s attempts by utilizing its strong ties with Azerbaijan to position itself near Iran, given the long 765km border between Azerbaijan and Iran.
Iran launched military maneuvers on its border with Azerbaijan on 4 October 2021. Iran’s Foreign Ministry warned Azerbaijan against supporting "third parties" against Iran. Baku condemned the Iranian maneuvers and shut down a mosque belonging to the Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei on 5 October 2021.
3. Turning embassies into resilient targets: In February 2021, Israel announced an alleged Iranian plot to implement a terrorist attack on one of its embassies in East Africa without naming certain countries. It also unveiled an Iranian attempt to send some of its supporters to gather information on Israeli embassies in several countries to target them later. This came in response to the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian military officer who served in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhri Zadeh, who was also killed last year.
Additionally, an explosion occurred near the Israeli embassy in New Delhi, India a few days before the announcement of Iran’s plot, without any reported casualties. In this instance, Israel also accused Iran of being behind this attack.
4. Targeting agents in conflict zones: Israel has intensified its air raids over the past year against Iranian militants in Syria, amid Tel Aviv’s mounting concerns towards the Iranian positioning near the Israeli borders.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said in September 2021 that Tel Aviv will not tolerate Iran’s military presence in Syria. Air raids targeted different points belonging to Iranian Revolutionary Guard militants, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the Liwa Fatemiyoun Brigade (Liwa Fatemiyoun).
There are several indicators that Iran and Israel’s preference for remote targeting will increase tensions between them:
1. Possibility of targeting tourist groups: Israeli tourists could be a target for Iran, which prefers to target civilians. Should this happen, tensions will increase between Iran and those countries wherein the attack takes place, which concerns the Israeli intelligence community. Following Fakhri Zadeh’s assassination, some officials expressed their concerns about Israeli tourists in the Gulf being targeted.
2. Searching for vulnerable areas: Africa could turn into a battleground between Iran and Israel, as Iran’s targeting of Israeli embassies in East Africa was not without precedent. In 2012, a diplomatic row started between Iran and Kenya after Kenyan authorities arrested two Iranians who possessed a large amount of explosives. Kenyan sources announced that the two Iranians were members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and planned to attack Israeli as well as American targets in Kenya. Moving forward, Iran could use countries in East Africa with a weak security system to attack enemy targets.
3. Upscaling qualitative intelligence: Intelligence gathering is expected to increase between Iran and Israel in countries like Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Syria. This comes amid Iran’s concerns that Israeli intelligence is expanding near its borders, especially in Azerbaijan. Reportedly, Israel is using an Azerbaijani military base for monitoring and surveillance near Iran’s borders.
4. Intensifying naval war: The two countries will not stop attacking each other’s naval targets, especially amid Israel’s willingness to ban weapons and oil transfers from Iran to conflict areas like Syria. Meanwhile, Iran is striving to deter Israel, especially near the Omani and Arabian Gulf borders. It is also threatening violence to strengthen its position in the upcoming nuclear talks.
In conclusion, escalation triggers between Iran and Israel exist and are multiplying, as Israel fears Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons, as well as the prevalence of its supporters in the region. On the other hand, Tehran considers these tensions with Israel as a matter of survival, not just a border dispute. International powers are overlooking the possibility of de-escalation between both countries, which encourages remote targeting between them in the medium-to-long term, likely affecting regional stability at large.