The past year was very good for Israel, security-wise. The number of attacks was relatively low, and the intensive focus on the pandemic (and elections) pushed aside issues that in normal times would have made headlines. But the country’s security challenges are here to stay. The new government, when it is formed, will not be able to avoid them, and topping the list is Iran. Behind the scenes, preparations are already underway for these marathon discussions, which take place mainly within the Israel Defense Forces, and specifically in the new unit formed last year to deal with Iran and strategic issues—the Strategy and Third-Circle Directorate.
The man heading this unit, Maj. Gen. Tal Kalman, a former fighter pilot, is one of the most cautious members of the IDF General Staff. His statements here, in his first and exclusive interview, portray exactly the threats and possible responses—including military—but are also a warning: to avoid dealing with these problems could pose a strategic threat for Israel.
According to Kalman, 2020 was a good year for the battle against Iran.
“I don’t want to call it a turning point year, but it was a year of major changes,” he said.
It began with the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq by the United States, and continued with “a sequence of events that I mostly can’t elaborate on, which made the balance positive, even very positive,” he added.
The dimensions of the challenge
Iran, he said, represents not a specific operational challenge, but a challenge to Israel’s entire national security doctrine.
“We had a tendency to be cynical in recent years, due to the idea that Iran is being pushed into the discussion for other things, but I really think this is about dealing with a country with the potential to become a regional power, headed by an extreme regime with a real goal of destroying Israel,” he said.
The overall challenge can be broken down into four components, according to Kalman: the extremist regime, the nuclear issue, military buildup and last, Iran’s attempt to grow its regional influence. Moreover, Iran’s size and distance from Israel’s borders add complexity to the equation, he added.
A: For a country on our border, I build up the force, prepare for war, sometimes act to thwart threats, and I [amass] a very large [amount of] intelligence … with the aim of [defeating the enemy] in war. With Iran, it’s not about defeat. It’s a competition, and therefore the components that need to be dealt with are not only military. They’re also military, but also diplomatic, economic … and more. That’s how big the challenge is.
Q: Can Iran be defeated?
A: When you’re in a strategic competition with a state, you’re not concerned about defeat. What you try to achieve is supremacy at any given point in time, supremacy that … will give you security and deter the other side from acting against you.
Q: And yet, Jerusalem and Washington had hoped for defeat—that the regime would collapse under the sanctions.
A: A strategic competition is not about … tomorrow morning, but [the] long term. It requires synchronizing all the national efforts, some of which are not managed by the IDF but rather other bodies. Israel has room for improvement in this area.
This is precisely the process that Kalman has been advancing this past year. Together with the Mossad, the Foreign Ministry, the Atomic Energy Commission and other bodies, an orderly process is taking place which will eventually submit to the state leadership a long-term strategic doctrine on Iran, and will subsequently bring about the synchronization of all the national efforts.
Q: What have you already learned?
A: We understood that we need to deal with all the components of the problem. You can’t just look at the nuclear, or just at the military, or just at the regional. You need to deal with everything. These past years we were very focused on the nuclear, which is of course on top because there’s a difference between dealing with a nuclear Iran and a non-nuclear one.
‘Longer and stronger’
The Iranian regime is interested in nuclear capability primarily to secure its own stability, but for Israel, this is an existential issue, he said. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, he added, it will change the Middle East, sparking a nuclear arms race. While the challenge Iran presents for Israel has multiple aspects, Kalman believes that when it comes to the negotiations around the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, the focus should be on that aspect alone.
“We have to achieve the maximum on that one,” he said, adding, “We know how to deal with the rest.”
“It’s not that we’re not asking the international community to deal with those as well, but there’s a clear priority. First of all: nuclear capability.
With regard to the nuclear negotiations with Iran, Kalman believes Israel can influence what a deal with Iran will look like. The way to achieve that, he said, is through dialogue with the new U.S. administration, which is already underway.
Q: And they agree with us?
A: I think that in very high percentages they see the situation as we do.
Q: And can you understand the fear in Israel, based on the fact that these are the same people who were involved with making the deal last time?
A: It’s true that in some of the cases these are the same people, but it’s not the same administration. So far, this administration is keeping its promises. It has come to listen, not rush to a new deal. So, I think there’s a space of a few months to try to influence the administration’s policy. Even the Americans are clearly saying they will not allow Iran to achieve nuclear capability. Now, the question is how to act in this situation.
Q: What should Israel be demanding?
A: I can’t go into detail, but basically we’re saying “yes” to a deal that is longer and stronger [than the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action].
Q: What do you say to those who think Iran is closer to the bomb than it was under the [JCPOA]?
A: As we see it, the actions Iran has taken are reversible, and were made to signal to the international community … It’s not that Iran has run away and headed towards a bomb. Furthermore, if the deal still existed, the Iranian issues wouldn’t be on the agenda. Under Biden’s national security doctrines, the Middle East is in fourth or fifth place. The United States is looking at other regions and doesn’t want to invest as much in ours. Leaving the deal actually left the Iranian issues on the agenda very clearly.
Q: Let’s discuss the military option.
A: I’ve been dealing with this for 25 years. I know the plans from the tactical level to the systemic and strategic level where I am today. [In recent] decades it was always in gear. During the first years of the deal the level of attention to this dropped somewhat, but over the past year we’re back in fourth-fifth gear.
Q: So one should ask if Israel has the ability to militarily thwart Iran’s nuclear plan. To attack and completely destroy it, like in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.
A: The answer is yes. When we build these capabilities, we build them to be operational. It’s not that there aren’t many strategic dilemmas, since the day after Iran can go back to the plan, but the ability exists. Definitely.
Q: Many in the defense community believe that instead of fighting the Iranians on our border, we should move the battle to their territory.
A: One of the conclusions in the process we’re carrying out now is that we need to strengthen that component in the set of actions we’re taking.
Q: That means that if things explode on our border, Iran won’t be able to sit quietly back at home?
A: We need to develop such tools. Definitely. When you’re competing against an intelligent, strategic actor who plays long term, you need to act to influence his intentions. For that you need to act also in other places and in other ways.
‘What’s made in Iran doesn’t stay in Iran’
Kalman, 52, is married and the father of three. In 2018 he was appointed head of the Strategic Division in the IDF Planning Directorate, and last year was appointed head of the new division responsible for Iran. A former fighter pilot, he continues to fly and is considered a leading candidate to command the Israeli Air Force.
He believes that despite Israel’s efforts to prevent Iran from entrenching itself in Syria and stop the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah, Tehran has not abandoned its plans to these ends. However, he added, Soleimani’s death in January has made things more difficult for Iran, which is now “looking for other ways.”
Iran is not where it had thought to be at this time, and as a result has “dramatically” changed its plans, he added. However, he reiterates that the confrontation with Iran is about the long term, and that as such will require a solution that goes beyond the merely military.
With regard to Syria, “there needs to be a diplomatic component, that is missing now,” he said.
“Assad is very dependent on the Iranians economically, and we are thinking about how to bring Syria to the end of its civil war without Iran being there. It’s a complicated event that needs to be managed between the powers,” he said.
Kalman believes Iran’s conventional military buildup is not getting enough attention. The concern, he said, isn’t tanks and artillery, but mostly long-range missiles and rockets, many of them guided, as well as drones and advanced aerial defense weapon systems that could challenge the Israeli Air Force. Furthermore, he said, Iran doesn’t keep these weapons to itself, but supplies them to its proxy groups. Iranian-produced weapons quickly make their way to Syria, Lebanon, and potentially to the Gaza Strip, he said.
Precision rockets and missiles pose a strategic threat, and have been the focus of intense Iranian activity in recent years, he said. Tehran is working to equip its proxy groups with these weapons, he said, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis Yemen.
“There is this tendency, which is wrong, to speak of these precision missiles and Hezbollah in the same sentence,” he said. “It’s much more widespread and worrying. We’re speaking of a technological trend that has become fairly … available to all those around us,” he added.
Due to Israel’s small size, precision missiles constitute a “grave strategic threat,” he said, albeit not as grave as that posed by nuclear weapons.
“What many don’t understand is that it’s not just Hezbollah. It’s what’s being built in Syria, and maybe in the future in the Palestinian arena, and in Iraq and Yemen, and of course in Iran itself. It’s a very challenging puzzle,” he said.
Q: What you’re saying is that if there’s a war in the north, your working assumption is that we’ll have to deal with precise weapons firing on us from every place in the region.
Q: Israel needs to define red lines that it will not cross?
A: Defining red lines is very problematic.
Q: Why? You defined red lines when it comes to the nuclear issue.
A: Red lines tend to rub out. Israel knows how to respond to complicated challenges, and I believe that with our technology and capabilities we’ll know how to respond to this complicated challenge. But as I said, it’s not just Hezbollah but a wider regional problem, which must be part of our strategic discussions with the Americans and others, because nobody in the world is dealing with it. They talk about nuclear bombs, chemical weapons, but nothing about the precision weapons, and this must become part of the discussion.
Israel’s security paradox
In conclusion, Kalman says Israel is in a “security paradox.” On the one hand it enjoys strategic supremacy, but on the other the threats it faces have grown more dire.
“We’re credited for the security, the daily quiet, but it is our duty to also look to the long term,” he said, adding, “There is no doubt that 2020 ended in a very positive strategic balance for Israel.”
Looking ahead, he believes that the Abraham Accords normalization agreements are a very hopeful sign, and that if a few more can be signed “we’ll have potential for a different Middle East”
Israel’s overall strategic outlook, however, will remain dependent on the dynamic with Iran, he said.
“If we succeed in getting the international community on board for a longer and stronger nuclear deal, we’ll be in a very positive situation.”
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.