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The Shadow War Between Israel and Iran


Israel’s goal now is to put an end to Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons, despite the fact that in the past it was willing to sell Iran nuclear missiles.


GS Paper 2: International Relations

  • Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting the Indian interests
  • Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests, Indian diaspora

Mains Question:

The Geopolitics in middle east is nothing but a puppet of Global superpowers. Comment.

The ‘Secret’ Talks of the Past

  • In July 1977, Iran’s Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, dispatched Lieutenant General Hassan Toufanian, his Deputy Minister of War and Armaments, to Israel to hold secret talks with Menachem Begin’s newly formed Likud government.
  • In April of that year, the Shah signed six “oil for arms” contracts with Shimon Peres, the previous Labor government’s Defense Minister.
  • One of the contracts, codenamed ‘Flower,’ asked Israel to modify and sell advanced surface-to-surface missiles to Iran.
  • The mission of Gen. Toufanian was to ensure that the deal would not be jeopardised by an Israeli government change.
  • He met with Major General Ezer Weizman, the Defence Minister in the Begin government, and the two agreed to establish a military co-production line, with Israel providing technical know-how and Iran providing finances and test sites.
  • As part of the agreement, Israel promised to supply Iran with 700-kilometer-range ballistic surface-to-surface missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

A Paradigm shift in West Asia

  • The 1979 revolution that deposed the Shah’s monarchy and established Iran as a theocratic republic radically altered not only Iran, but the entire region.
  • West Asia experienced a paradigm shift. The revolution transformed Iran, one of the region’s natural powers in terms of resources, geography, and population, from an ally to a top adversary.
  • A Shia theocratic republic across the Gulf waters posed not only geopolitical challenges, but also existential and ideological threats to the Sunni Gulf monarchies.
  • For Israel, the region’s sole nuclear power, its most prominent rival has only recently been born.
  • Despite their shared concerns, these three pillars could not come together immediately because Israel and the Arab world had pre-existing contradictions.
  • Four decades later, as Iran’s regional profile rises despite American sanctions, Israel and the Arab world are banding together to counter their common foe under the auspices of the US.
  • If Israel was willing to provide nuclear missiles to Tehran in the 1970s, its primary foreign policy goal today is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capability.

The Octopus Doctrine

  • Between Israel and Iran, a shadow war is already in progress.
  • In what former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett referred to as the “Octopus doctrine,” Israel carried out covert operations inside Iran targeting its nuclear and missile programmes — hit the octopus at its head, not just its tentacles.
  • Iran has responded with drone strikes, claiming to have hit a compound used by Israeli operatives in northern Iraq.
  • In recent years, Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes inside Syria, targeting Iranian supplies and proxies, while a naval conflict between the countries has escalated, with ships linked to them being attacked in the Gulf, Arabian, and Mediterranean seas.

The West Asian Consensus

  • There is agreement among West Asia’s anti-Iran axis (the United States, Israel, and the Gulf monarchies) that Iran’s nuclear programme should be halted.
  • If Iran develops nuclear capabilities (even if it does not develop a bomb), it has the potential to shift the regional balance of power, which is currently favoured by Israel. However, there is no agreement on how to address this challenge.

The US Tactics and Israel’s Wish

  • In 2015, the Obama administration signed a nuclear agreement with Iran, effectively cutting off its path to nuclear capability.
  • However, Israel and the Gulf monarchies were dissatisfied with the JCPOA (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), because in exchange for limiting Iran’s nuclear programme, the agreement promised economic benefits to the Islamic Republic, which could transform Iran into a non-nuclear conventional, mainstream power in West Asia.
  • Not only does Israel want Iran’s nuclear programme to be halted, but also its rise.
  • When the Trump administration unilaterally exited the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018, Israel’s concerns were heard in Washington.

Maximum Pressure Agenda

  • President Donald Trump believed that the administration’s “maximum pressure” approach would cause Iran to flinch and return to the negotiating table to renegotiate the deal.
  • Mr. Trump sought concessions from Iran on its nuclear programme and regional activism (support for non-state actors).

Policy of Maximum Resistance

But, in response to Mr. Trump’s maximum pressure, Iran launched attacks in Saudi Arabia and Gulf waters, increased support for its proxies, particularly the Houthis in Yemen, who now pose a direct security challenge to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and began enriching large amounts of uranium to higher purity and developing advanced centrifuges.

As a result of this,

  • The current situation is more complicated than it was in 2015.
  • Iran is facing domestic pressure over its economic woes, but the regime, which is now controlled by hardliners in all branches, is unlikely to compromise on its nuclear programme or regional policy.
  • The United States wants to address the nuclear programme, but it wants to do so through talks because it does not want to be drawn into another conflict in West Asia, especially now that its priorities are in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

Multi-pronged strategy

  • Different stakeholders in this geopolitical vortex have different ideas about how to resolve it.
  • Iran wants the sanctions lifted in exchange for returning to its 2015 commitments.
  • But it also wants to come out of the crisis stronger economically.
  • The US wants to end Iran’s nuclear programme through negotiations, but it wants a “stronger and longer” agreement that addresses not only Iran’s nuclear programme but also its “destabilising” activities in the region.
  • One of the reasons for the Vienna talks’ failure was the Biden administration’s refusal to reverse Trump’s decision to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation.

Israel’s Objectives

  • Israel’s (and its Gulf partners’) goals are far more ambitious: it wants to scuttle Iran’s nuclear programme, cripple its military programme, strengthen regional defences against its proxies, and contain its rise.
  • Furthermore, it does not necessarily believe that Iran should be stopped through negotiations.
  • While the US and Europe continue to hold talks with Iran, Israel has devised a multi-pronged strategy to escalate the shadow war with Iran and forge a stronger security partnership with the Gulf kingdoms, which could prepare them both for any future full-scale war.
  • This strategy elevates Israel’s role as a new Gulf security provider at a time when the US is preoccupied with other priorities.


  • The Israeli strategy is fraught with danger.
  • True, the rise of a more cohesive anti-Iran axis poses a significant threat to the Islamic Republic.
  • Iran is clearly under pressure following the Israeli attacks, as evidenced by the recent firing of the powerful IRGC spy chief.
  • The US assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the elite Quds Force commander, in January 2020 appears to have blunted Iran’s clandestine operations abroad.
  • Nonetheless, Israel’s repeated sabotage attempts have not deterred Iran from enriching uranium, which is now a step away from weapons grade, or from building advanced centrifuges.
  • Aside from a few setbacks, the attacks have not derailed Iran’s ballistic missile or armed drone programmes.
  • So, if the nuclear talks fail, Israel will be left with few options. To achieve its objectives, it would have to escalate its shadow war even further. It’s a treacherous incline.

December 2023