Five Iranian Weapons of War Israel Should Fear

An Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities wouldn't go unanswered. What are the most dangerous tools at Tehran's disposal?

Editor’s Note: Please see previous works from our “Weapons of War” series including: Five NATO Weapons of War Russia Should Fear, Five Russian Weapons of War NATO Should Fear, Five Chinese Weapons of War America Should Fear, Five American Weapons of War China Should Fear, Five Japanese Weapons of War China Should Fear, Five Best Weapons of War from the Soviet Union and Five Taiwanese Weapons of War China Should Fear.

Israel has its hands full at the moment in Gaza. But Gaza’s rockets aren’t the only thing that keep Israeli strategists up at night. Last week, the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 were extended into late November. A deal is still a very real possibility. But failure is, too. There’s broad agreement across the Israeli political spectrum that letting Iran get the bomb is an unacceptable risk. Many in the Israeli national-security establishment, particularly around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have entertained the notion of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities if diplomacy fails and Iran makes a move toward the bomb. Iran would surely retaliate.

Iran has a problem, though. If you’ve looked at a map lately, the Islamic Republic doesn’t share a border with the Jewish state. They’re more than 550 miles apart at their closest, and the two countries’ cores are nearly one thousand miles apart. That’s a big challenge for Israel, whose powerful air force would have to fly to the limits of its range just to reach Iran’s nuclear facilities. But it’s a bigger challenge for Iran, whose air force, held back by decades of sanctions, is far too feeble to break into Israel’s well-defended airspace.

Iran’s response to these challenges has been to develop a range of tools, many of them underhanded, that would allow it to hit Israel back. But not all weapons are created equal. Prior lists in our “Five Weapons” series have tried to rank weapons systems not just by how advanced they are or how widely they were used. After all, an advanced weapon might be too expensive and draw resources away from other systems, reducing overall military effectiveness (see Germany in the Second World War). A ubiquitous system might not be very good, also cutting its utility. And a weapon that doesn’t have a good crew behind it might as well not be good. But so many of Iran’s tools are highly asymmetric and highly secretive. Their impact on the strategic balance is the only criterion we can rely on. So what can Iran count on to mitigate the risk of an Israeli strike—and to hurt Israel if it does attack?


5. Iran’s Palestinian Proxies

Iran always tries to take the toughest line in the Muslim world in its support for Palestine. Tehran is a key supporter of rejectionist elements that refuse to recognize Israel and are ready to take up arms against it. Iran’s traditional best buddy in this has been Hamas. Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip and its growing rocket capabilities—they’ve shown they can hit Tel Aviv—make it a difficult foe. But events in Syria seriously damaged Iran’s relationship with Hamas—the Sunni Palestinian group didn’t like watching Iran back the Alawite Bashar al Assad to the hilt as he brutalized the heavily Sunni opposition. Iran cut off the tens of millions of aid it sends to Hamas each month—and Hamas answered by announcing that it would not become involved in a conflict between Iran and Israel. But things turned south fast for Hamas when Mohamed Morsi’s government was overthrown in Egypt. Hamas is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, so Morsi was a kindred spirit. The virulently anti-Brotherhood Sisi government, not so much. Egypt’s taking a much harder line toward Hamas now, including by cracking down on its lucrative networks of smuggling tunnels. This pushed Hamas back into Iran’s arms.

But how much of a hammering would Hamas be willing to take on Iran’s behalf? Not so clear. That’s why Iran has sought ties with Palestinian movements more extreme than Hamas, chiefly the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). PIJ has rockets and fighters and a long history with Iran. It’ll be a more reliable ally than Hamas. Yet with both militias, a question remains: How much of an impact can they have? The current conflict has shown that Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system can catch most of the Palestinians’ rockets.