JERUSALEM - Israel sought Thursday to justify a recent wave of strikes on Iranian-linked targets in three countries by pointing to an accelerated Iranian effort to supply Hezbollah in Lebanon with the tools necessary to acquire precision-guided missiles.
In a briefing to reporters in Jerusalem, Israeli spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus stopped short of admitting that Israel had carried out the strikes in Lebanon and Iraq, although it had previously acknowledged bombing a target in Syria over the weekend, a base that Israel said was preparing a drone attack on Israel.
The accusation against Iran came amid signs that Israel has expanded to Iraq and Lebanon a long-running campaign of airstrikes in Syria aimed at preventing weapons deliveries to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has warned that it will retaliate for the strike last weekend on a target in Beirut's southern suburbs, prompting fears in Lebanon that any further military activity could quickly spiral into a new war that might also draw in the United States.
U.S. officials on Thursday indicated that they had not discouraged Israel from expanding the scope of its military activity, although they did not say they had encouraged it.
"It is our position that Israel is only acting because of Iran's actions," said a senior administration official. "If Iran was not pouring heavy weapons and fighters into Israel's neighbors with the express purpose of threatening Israel, I don't think Israel would be needing to take these actions."
The official spoke, on a condition of anonymity imposed by the Trump administration, during a briefing on new U.S. sanctions against Hezbollah and Hamas.
"I'll leave it for the Israelis to comment on what they did or didn't do," a second senior official said. "The United States believes that the government of Israel has a right to defend itself from threatening activities throughout the region."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking to U.S. radio interviewer Hugh Hewitt, suggested that the United States stands ready to offer full support to Israel in the event of a war with Iran. He said he had "every confidence this president who moved our embassy and who made clear Israel's rights in the Golan Heights will do all that is necessary to ensure that our great partner in Israel will be protected."
"Each time Israel has been forced to take actions to defend itself, the United States has made it very clear that that country has not only the right, but the duty to protect its own people," Pompeo said. "And we are always supportive of their efforts to do that."
Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria over the past seven years that mostly targeted either weapons-storage sites or transportation routes used by Iran to ferry weaponry and equipment to Hezbollah. Israel's biggest concern, Israeli officials say, is a program, acknowledged by Hezbollah, aimed at developing the capacity to produce missiles capable of hitting Israel with pinpoint accuracy.
Israel has recently noted an attempt by Iran to "enhance the pace" of its effort, Conricus said. He added that the program is accelerating "faster in terms of buildings, facilities, locations, conversion-and-manufacturing facilities - and it means more people, operatives, involved in doing so."
Conricus said that Hezbollah "does not yet have an industrial capacity" to manufacture the missiles in question on a mass scale. It does, however, possess a small number of such missiles, he said, affirming a statement by the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah earlier this year that Israel's attempts to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring them have failed.
The attempt to acquire more is "endangering Lebanese civilians," he added, an apparent warning that civilians could be caught up in any further Israeli strikes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces a second round of contentious elections in mid-September, said in a news conference that Thursday's revelations should "make clear that we will not stand idly by and let our enemies arm themselves with deadly weapons. Already this week, I told our enemies: Watch your actions. And today we say to them: 'Dir balak - pay attention.' "
As the regional tensions soar, Lebanon is bracing for Hezbollah's threatened retaliation. A report in the Times of London that Israeli officials have not refuted said the strike carried out by two small drones targeted a piece of machinery that could have been used to make precision missiles.
Nasrallah vowed on Sunday to retaliate both for the drone attack in Beirut and for the killing of two Hezbollah members in a separate airstrike in Syria a few hours earlier. He hinted that the response could come soon.
"I tell the Israeli army on the border, be prepared and wait for us," he said. "One day, two days, three days, four. Wait for us."
After such a specific commitment, it is certain that Hezbollah will carry out some form of retaliatory strike on Israel, said Mohammed Obeid, a political analyst who has close ties with Hezbollah.
"Nobody could convince Hezbollah not to respond, ever," he said. "There are efforts to convince it, but this is not going to happen. That they will respond is not in question."
But there are also indications that any response may not be imminent. Officials in the Lebanese government, in which Hezbollah has ministers, have called for restraint. A report in Lebanon's Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is known to be close to Hezbollah, quoted Nasrallah as telling his aides that Hezbollah is "not in a hurry" to retaliate.
"A delay in the response is only a tactic, and a delay of one or more days will not make it less severe," the newspaper further quoted Hezbollah insiders as saying.
If Hezbollah does retaliate, the response will probably be carefully calibrated to ensure that it will not justify a further Israeli escalation toward a full-scale war that could jeopardize its support, said Sami Nader of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs. At a time when Lebanon's economy is unraveling, "the Lebanese don't want any war," he said. "This is why I am not sure Hezbollah will retaliate anytime soon, because the reward is very low and the risk is very high."
Some security analysts in Israel voiced skepticism about the value of air and drone strikes as a long-term way of fending off Iran's shadow influence in the region.
"Tactically, there have been successes, but in a broader strategic sense, definitely not," said Jonathan Spyer, a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
"Iranian projects in Syria and Lebanon and Iraq are broad and deep. It's about entering the state institutions of those countries and creating proxy political and military factors," he said. "None of that is close to being destroyed by airstrikes. That's a large question mark remaining over Israeli strikes."
Conricus, the army spokesman, said that the number of accurate missiles Hezbollah has now is not substantial.
The strike outside Beirut last weekend, for which Israel has not officially taken responsibility, meant that Israel was making a preventive effort "without shedding any blood," said Yoram Schweitzer, a former senior military intelligence officer. "Although," he added, "Israel knew that it would be perceived by Hezbollah the way it has."
"It's part of an overall strategy that looks at Hezbollah's operations, and it reached a certain stage when Israel decided to send a yellow card to Hezbollah - without shedding any blood," he said.
Israel named three members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and one Hezbollah operative as the masterminds of the operation.
The Iranian officials were identified as Muhammad Hussein-Zada Hejazi, commander of the Lebanon corps in Iran's Quds Force; Majid Nuab, the technological manger of the missile project; and Ali Asrar Nuruzi, the operations' chief logistics officer.
The Hezbollah operative was identified as Fuad Shukr, a senior operative wanted by the U.S. State Department for planning and carrying out a 1983 attack on U.S. Marines in Beirut that killed 241 service personnel.
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Sly reported from Beirut. The Washington Post's Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
This article was written by James McAuley, Liz Sly and Karen DeYoung, reporters for The Washington Post.