Israel Enters the Gray Zone

REVIEW: 'Target Tehran: How Israel is Using Sabotage, Cyberwarfare, Assassination—and Secret Diplomacy—to Stop a Nuclear Iran and Create a New Middle East'

Israeli UAV (Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images)
October 15, 2023

A pitched battle is underway in the Middle East. After a murder orgy perpetrated last weekend by the Iran-backed terrorist group Hamas—one that left more than a thousand people dead—Israel is on a counteroffensive. It's unclear what will be left of Hamas when the guns fall silent. But to understand the headlines, one must first understand the history.

In the 1980s, Iran launched a proxy campaign against Israel, deploying terrorist groups like Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas to wage asymmetric wars against the Jewish state. For years, Israel struck back at these proxies while the clerical regime remained safe. Then, about a decade ago, spurred in part by Iran's nuclear advances, Israel began to take the fight to the regime.

Target Tehran by journalists Yonah Jeremy Bob and Ilan Evyatar is the story of Israel's long-overdue gray zone war against Iran. The campaign includes hundreds or possibly even thousands of daring airstrikes in war-torn Syria, where the Iranians have been operating under the fog of war to arm Hezbollah with advanced weaponry. But it doesn't end there. It also includes high-stakes cyberattacks, clever psychological operations, the exfiltration of valuable intelligence, complex military strikes inside Iran, attacks on Iranian vessels out at sea, and more. Many of the targets have been directly tied to Iran's nuclear program, including the assassination of nuclear scientists.

As the Israeli strategy evolved, however, Iran's nuclear program would not be the only target. As former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett noted, the goal was to consistently weaken the regime that has consistently called for the destruction of Israel. The goal was to convey to Iran's theocratic leaders, in no uncertain terms, that aggression against Israel would be not only futile. It would also come at a cost.

This resulting body of work, which some Israelis call the "campaign between the wars," has gained the admiration of Sunni Arab nations that historically viewed Israel as an enemy state. One reason for their change of heart: The centuries-old animus between the Sunni states and Shiite Iran is even more acrimonious than the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, the Arab states slowly came to realize that aligning with Israel, the region's undisputed power, was the best way to hedge against an aggressive Iran.

This epiphany, after more than six decades of futile efforts to boycott or even wage war against Israel, yielded diplomatic breakthroughs in 2020. That was when the administration of Donald Trump brokered landmark normalization agreements between Israel and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan. Today, the Biden administration thinks it might be able to broker an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia (although the fate of these negotiations hangs in the balance after the Hamas assault last weekend).

In writing this book, the authors gained access to some of the Mossad's top people. The spy agency has undeniably been a primary player in Israel's shadow war. But, as the authors note, Aman (military intelligence), Unit 8200 (cyber), and other agencies have played important roles, too. Nevertheless, it is Yossi Cohen, the dapper and cunning Mossad director from 2016 to 2021, who emerges as the book's protagonist (probably because he granted the authors more time). His predecessor, Tamir Pardo (2011-2016), earns some credit for the early stages of the gray zone campaign. Meir Dagan (2002-2011) is also justifiably acknowledged as a pioneer of the tactics and strategies deployed in the gray zone. Today, the new Mossad director, David Barnea, continues the fight.

The authors begin the book by describing the 2018 operation that exposed the existence of a secret warehouse outside of Tehran. The facility contained hundreds of thousands of documents with technical details about Iran's march toward a nuclear bomb. After two years of surveillance and planning, the Israelis broke in and spirited out many of those documents, only to reveal their contents and prove that the Iranian regime had been lying for years about the peaceful or civilian nature of their program. As the authors note, it was "perhaps the largest physical heist of intelligence materials from an enemy capital in the history of espionage."

Another chapter is devoted to the 2020 assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the "Robert Oppenheimer of Iran," who was cut down in the town of Absard, 40 miles east of Tehran, by a "remote-controlled, satellite-linked machine" that identified him using facial recognition technology, pumped him full of 13 bullets, and then self-destructed. Unfortunately for Israel and the West, the authors correctly note that Fakhrizadeh "created a network of scientists that will continue his work." This, of course, means that Israel's gray zone campaign must continue, as well.

Yet another chapter explores the "virtual battlefield." Both sides of this conflict have landed their punches in cyberspace. Iran has penetrated the phones of Israeli leaders, hacked Israel's water network, and infected Israeli companies with ransomware. But the Israelis have the edge in cyber, with multiple successful penetrations of the nuclear program, hacking operations that have thrown the Iranian economy for a loop, and psychological operations that have served to rally the Iranian people against their reviled regime. But the authors warn that "Israeli society is much more dependent on technology. Hence, they have … much more to lose." Cyber is therefore a realm to watch closely as the gray zone war drags on.

On balance, the authors appear rather sanguine (with some caveats) about Israel's efforts to "Target Tehran." It's not hard to understand why. But in this part of the world, there are no permanent victories—only permanent battles. The terrorist assault by Hamas last weekend only underscores this.

Even before the mass murder perpetrated by Hamas, a fascinating debate began to unfold in Israel's security establishment about whether the "Campaign Between the Wars" is a sufficient substitute for a major operation that delivers a crippling blow to the regime, its proxies, and its nuclear program. Expect that debate to heat up after Hamas is neutralized in Gaza. Israel will be looking further downrange.

Target Tehran: How Israel is Using Sabotage, Cyberwarfare, Assassination—and Secret Diplomacy—to Stop a Nuclear Iran and Create a New Middle East
by Yonah Jeremy Bob and Ilan Evyatar
Simon & Schuster, 368 pp., $28.99

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at the nonpartisan think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.