Correspondents and pundits, when they first witnessed the extent of the destruction wrought in the Gaza Strip during Israel's 22-day conflict with Hamas, decided Israel had gone all out to restore its deterrence for the future after the battering it took in the 2006 Lebanon War. After viewing the mountains of rubble, they figured no Palestinian householder would ever again let Hamas store arms in his home, let them fire missiles from his backyard or dig tunnels under his kitchen. Even Hamas' senior operatives must have been horrified by the sights meeting their eyes when they came out of hiding Sunday, Jan. 18, after Israel halted its military operations.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources take issue with this interpretation.
Israeli forces went overboard on the devastation for a broader purpose, they maintain, which was to smash the military machine Iran fashioned for Hamas, while impressing on Tehran the stark price its surrogates and sponsored organizations would pay for starting a war with Israel.
The ruins of Gaza's towns broadcast the following message to the Islamic Republic:
Carry on fighting Israel through your proxies, whether Hizballah or Hamas, and this is what shall befall them. You can stop meddling in other Middle East nations' affairs and building proxy armies to attack us. Or else, we will destroy those armies and flatten their lands, thereby forcing you to come out from sheltering behind them and confront us directly face to face.
Mubarak lays into Iran
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak grasped what Israel was after and quietly cheered, encouraged to come out of his long inertia and lead Arab resistance to Iran.
When he visited Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh on Jan. 15, he told him that from, now on, Egypt would go all the way to stop Iran throwing its weight around the Middle East and Arab world. He showed the Saudi monarch the speech he meant to deliver at the Arab league summit in Kuwait on Jan. 19, holding Tehran's meddling in Lebanese and Palestinian affairs responsible for the political calamities raining down on the Arabs.
Abdullah advised Mubarak to soften the text and refrain from pouring more oil on troubled regional waters.
In the event, Mubarak delivered a sharp jab at the conference without mentioning Iran by name:
“It's regrettable,” he said, “that we allow the ambitions of foreign forces to impose their hegemony on the area, to penetrate our Arab world and traffic in the blood of Palestinian souls.”
Israel and Egyptian intelligence have both picked up signs of Iran's coming encroachments in the wake of the Gaza War.
A veiled threat came from the IDF''s OC Southern command, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, commander of the Gaza operation. At a meeting with his senior officers after the Jan. 18 ceasefire, Galant remarked that Israel had not invested all its military capabilities in the contest with Hamas. He particularly cited the IDF's long-range resources, a reference to its air force, navy and special units.
Israel is no longer Tehran's sole target of hatred in the eastern Mediterranean. Egypt and its president are now anathemized by Iran for the sin of joining forces with the Jewish state to fight Hamas.
Sudan's Bashir in the wings
Cairo and Tel Aviv fully expect Tehran to relocate hostile jumping-off bases for attacking both countries from places bordering on Israel to more remote sites, like Iraq, Sudan and Eritrea, well out of striking range of Israel's army. Iran would arm them with sea vessels, aircraft and missiles.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that some Israeli strategists would not be bowled over to discover a new Iranian surrogate operating far from Israel's borders: The Iraqi Hizballah, which keeps a low profile today, shows signs of getting ready to serve Tehran on the Middle East scene when American forces quit Iraq some time in 2011. Trained by sister movement, the Lebanese Hizballah Its operatives, it would be equipped with new Iranian long-range missiles for striking Israel.
Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who has signed a military-intelligence pact with Iran, would not be averse to the use of his country by Tehran as a back door for spiriting armed men into Egypt and setting up covert groups to subvert the Cairo regime.
This potential threat from its southern neighbor is not lost on Egyptian intelligence.
Last week, after the Gaza conflict added Egypt, another key Western ally, to Iran's list of enemies, Washington agreed to go along with Israel and European governments for a pooled intelligence-naval operation to keep fresh supplies of smuggled Iranian arms from reaching Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Patrols of the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa would impose a virtual blockade on Iranian ports and its sea lanes for smuggling consignments.
Egypt would be a silent partner in the endeavor, guarding its own territorial waters.
Choking off all Iran's arms deliveries to surrogates old and new
Wednesday, Jan. 21, debkafile first revealed that the American Combined Task Force (CTF) 151established Saturday, Jan. 17 to police the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Red Sea for pirate activity, had also been directed to intercept and board Iranian arms ships.
This will be the first military operation to be launched against Iranian arms smuggling to Hamas after the Gaza offensive. It will be headed by the CTF 151 leader, the USS San Antonio.
This operation has the broad objective of choking off all Iranian arms routes to old and new proxies to prevent both the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah and the Palestinian Sunni Hamas from spawning offshoots in any Mediterranean or east African country in the future.
The expanded front against Iran opens the door to a potential direct Israeli-Iranian clash because of another development.
Ex-president George W. Bush exited the White House for the last time Tuesday, Jan. 20, without honoring a formal pledge he made to Israel and the Arab rulers of the Persian Gulf, not to leave the Iranian nuclear issue unsolved before bowing out of office.
Israeli no longer looks to an American president for salvation against this existential threat. Most Israeli strategists concur that if clearing up the problem is left to Israel, the sooner Iran is confronted the better, certainly before Tehran has a chance to lay in a stock of ballistic rockets and nuclear warheads.
The third confrontation between Israel and Iran therefore appears to be in the making. This one is unlikely to be confined to slivers of territory like the Gaza Strip or South Lebanon.