As Iran and the United States square off in the Persian Gulf, Israel will need to take into account that any significant escalation could result in Iranian-ordered attacks on its territory and on Israeli targets overseas.
Even before the latest tensions began, Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau released its annual spring travel advisory in April, which is based on the latest intelligence assessments.
The advisory contained the following warning: “Iran and elements of the Iranian front continue to act, [and] try and to build infrastructure for carrying out terror attacks. They operate mainly against ‘regime dissidents’ in Europe—[yet] in line with an Iranian decision, this infrastructure could also be used to carry out terror attacks against Israelis.”
The advisory, which is in effect from Passover to the holiday of Shavuot (June 8 to June 9), contains a summary of key threats to Israeli citizens and Jews abroad, in addition to recommendations about how to stay safe.
Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) in Herzliya, told JNS that Iran could seek to use its terror cells to hit Israeli targets abroad. However, he added that he was not sure whether “we are the first priority. But there is no doubt that they can do this. We are in a period in which the Iranians are trying to pass messages to all sides, including to us.”
Karmon noted the heightened tensions in the Gulf, the Iranian-orchestrated attacks on oil targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the sensitive period of “Nakba Day”—the annual Palestinian day of mourning for the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948—as well as the Eurovision song competition being held in Tel Aviv, which the Iranians could seek to disrupt.
“They are capable of conducting provocations,” he cautioned.
‘The Iranians have trained thousands’
Karmon recalled how, in July 2018, two Iranian suspects were arrested by Belgian police just before they were able to launch a bomb attack. Their intended target was a meeting held by Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, which was also attended by Rudy Giuliani, the personal attorney of U.S. President Donald Trump. The suspects, a couple, reportedly had 500 grams of homemade explosive TATP and a detonation device in their possession.
As part of that same plot, German authorities arrested an Iranian diplomat who was based in Iran’s embassy in Vienna. The planned attack was reportedly due to take place just as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was visiting Switzerland.
In October 2018, Danish security forces announced that a Norwegian man of Iranian origin planned to assassinate a leader of the Danish branch of an Arab-Iranian separatist group, which supports the establishment of an Arab state in Iran’s Khuzestan Province.
“There is no doubt that some of this Iranian infrastructure in Europe has been exposed,” said Karmon. “The center was in Vienna, including the handlers. The European Union placed sanctions on Iran’s Intelligence Ministry in response.”
This is just the type of Iranian terrorism infrastructure in Europe that Israeli authorities have warned could also be used to hit Israeli targets. Karmon said he assumed that Israel’s intelligence community is “the one that stopped these attacks in Denmark and France. It was an Israeli alert that led to the arrest of the Belgian couple and to the arrest of the Iranian diplomat in Germany,” he said.
Iran’s Intelligence Ministry is traditionally in charge of attacks against opposition and dissident targets’; this has been the case since the 1980s, said Karmon. The Islamic Republican Guards Corps is in charge of attacks on Israeli targets overseas, and it has used Hezbollah for these efforts.
“This infrastructure has not been totally destroyed, but it has been reduced. Still, they have been operating in Europe for so long that they have no problem bringing operatives from Lebanon or other places in the Middle East,” explained Karmon. “The Iranians have trained thousands, including Iraqis and Afghans.”
Last year, German intelligence identified 950 Hezbollah operatives operating on German soil, according to reports.
A series of raids by German anti-terrorism police occurred in recent months, but did not result in any known arrests.
Iran’s terror cells in Europe could become more relevant as tensions between Iran and Europe rise as well. In addition to issues over the nuclear deal, Europe has called on Iran to halt the development of its ballistic-missile program. In the past, Iran has threatened to increase its missile range and place Europe in range if it concludes that Europe becomes a threat.
More recently, the Islamic Republic has given the Europeans 60 days to try to rescue the nuclear deal, and shield Iran from American sanctions. But Karmon said Iran already “shot itself in the foot” by trying to pull off the bomb attack during Rouhani’s visit to Europe last year.
Karmon warned that terrorism is “one of the easiest ways” that Iran can retaliate against its adversaries, adding that attacks could also materialize against Israel from the Syrian Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip, where Iran’s proxy, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, is based.