Israel sounds these days as though it is almost goading Iran into an attack. Ever since Israel’s missile strike on the Syrian T-4 air base, which struck down eight Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers in charge of its drone fleet in Syria, top Iranian officials and generals and Hizballah leaders have ceaselessly warned Israel that payback was on the way. None mention a date, but security and intelligence circles in Israel are convinced it is just a few days away. But dire threats from Iran belong to the usual neighborhood environment. The side acting out of character, DEBKA Weekly’s sources observe, is Israel. Suddenly, the tight-lipped Israeli intelligence is spilling right and left normally confidential prognoses on the shape of Iran’s retaliation for the T-4 strike. They range from an attack by “a swarm of armed drones” to a massive barrage of precise surface missiles against a key Israeli city. Al Quds chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Middle East warfronts, is named openly for the first time by Israel officials as the master strategist of the coming assault. For once, Israeli intelligence, which jealously guards its reputation for being a step or two ahead of the opposition, is sticking its neck out with predictions. Our sources find three objectives for this unprecedented attitude:
- To deter Tehran by demonstrating that its game is an open secret.
- To publicly warn Iran that its planned attack would quickly escalate into a wholesale, no holds-barred conflict in which Israel would confront Iran, Syria and possibly Hizballah in Lebanon as well as Syria.
- A challenge to Tehran: Let’s stop pretending. You started the war on Feb. 10 by sending an armed drone to cross into Israeli airspace and hit a military target. We, too, are taking the gloves off and are ready to fight.
Most of all, transcending Israel’s overriding opposition to Iran’s military grip on Syria, is a specific threat. DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources have discovered Iran clandestinely engaged in a crash program, known as Precision Project, for upgrading almost one-tenth of Hizballah’s missiles to convert them into longer-range, more accurate weapons with enlarged warheads. Israeli surveillance detected hundreds of missile engineers and technicians landing in Syria in February, their numbers subsequently swelling to hundreds. Posing at first as pilgrims bound for Shiite shrines in Syria, they were secretly driven to Iranian and Hizballah bases in Syria and Lebanon and put to work on the upgrading of Hizballah’s arsenal. They were supplied with all the equipment and components they needed from clandestine acquisitions by Iranian shell companies in Europe and the Far East. Soleimani is the master planner of the Precision Project, which Israeli intelligence estimates may already have finished around 7,000 to 8,000 missiles and reach their 10,000-missile target this summer. The project has wider connotations than the direct Iranian-Israel front.
Our military sources see the recent upsurge of Yemeni Houthi ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea (See DEBKA Weekly: Iran Spreads its Options for a US Syrian attack to Gulf Oil) as serving partly for testing the newly upgraded weapon systems piling up in the Hizballah arsenal. The missiles fired at Saudi oil tankers sailing through the Bab al Mandeb Straits and the Red Sea are believed to be trial runs for the missiles newly outfitted for targeting tankers and other shipping bound for Israel’s Mediterranean ports as well as its offshore gas rigs closest to Lebanon.
Our military sources have obtained a list of the Hizballah missiles upgraded in Iran’s Precision Project: Fajr-5, Fateh-110 guided ballistic missiles, Scud-D, M-600 Zelzal- 2 and 5, Syrian B-302, long-range Katyusha rockets. Hizballah has also received the first few Iranian Zolfaghar short-range ballistic missile, which is a variant of the Fatteh-100 SRBM family. The solid-fuel powered Zolfaghar is being developed as part of a wide campaign to improve the range and accuracy of current missile systems. The new version is reported to have a range of 700km ad a cluster-bomb warhead. Hizballah has also ben supplied with a large quantity of C-802 anti-ship missiles, part of the batch undergoing upgrading.
For four years, Israel has allowed the Hizballah missile stocks to accumulate, except for occasionally intercepting some of Iran’s precision missiles consignments in Syria before they reach Lebanon. And thus far, too, the IDF or Mossad has not obstructed Iran’s shell companies acquisition of equipment for the upgrading project; or tried to stop the large teams of engineering and technical staff from reaching their clandestine work-places.