TEL AVIV, Israel, May 24 (UPI) -- Despite the prospect of a diplomatic breakthrough in talks about Iran's nuclear program between Tehran and a U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad, Israeli military officials say covert operations against "enemy countries" are on the rise.
The military says it has also stepped up security for senior officers and military delegations traveling abroad amid intelligence that Iran and its key Arab proxy, Hezbollah in Lebanon, are plotting attacks on such targets, The Jerusalem Post reports.
"You almost won't find a point in time where something isn't happening somewhere in the world," Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the armed forces chief of staff, observed recently. "I'm escalating all those special operations."
He declined to give any details of the highly classified operations but declared 2012 would be a critical year in the confrontation with Iran over its contentious nuclear program.
That was in sharp contrast to a report in late March that Israel's foreign intelligence service, the Mossad, had cut back on covert activity inside Iran.
That included assassinations, sabotage and recruiting agents, all aimed at slowing down Iran's nuclear program, which Israel, the United States and most Western powers say is aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons.
It wasn't clear why the Mossad, blamed for the assassination of at least four Iranian nuclear scientists, would scale down such high-priority operations.
Israel's hawkish prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been pushing for pre-emptive strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities for some time.
The cutback could be linked to a visit to Washington earlier this year by Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish enclave that borders Iran and where the Mossad has long run clandestine operations.
Barzani, a staunch U.S. ally, was visibly cool about the Kurds' links with the Mossad that date back to the 1950s when Barzani's father, the legendary Mullah Mustafa Barzani, fought the Baghdad regime for a Kurdish homeland.
He made it clear that Iraq's Kurds, with whom the Israelis cooperated as part of their intelligence war against hostile regimes, don't want to be associated with Israeli efforts to wreck Iran's nuclear project.
"I don't think the Kurds want to irritate Iran too much," said Professor Robert Olson of the University of Kentucky who specializes in Kurdish affairs. "After all they live next door."
But, according to Gantz, the military's Special Forces are stepping up their operations amid concerns of a new Middle East conflict between Iran and Israel, the Persian Gulf monarchies and the United States.
Those fears may be alleviated if the current talks in Baghdad between Iran and a U.S.-led coalition make progress.
But Gantz, who became Israel's top soldier in February 2011, has made clear he favors covert military operations and in December announced the formation of a Special Forces command dedicated to carrying out strategic strikes deep inside hostile territory.
The new unit is known as Deep Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. Shai Avitai, a former commander of the Israeli army's elite Sayaret Metkal unit.
Gantz, himself a former paratrooper and Sayaret Matkal member with extensive experience in Special Operations, has put other officers with unconventional warfare experience in command positions for the next conflict.
The new corps will integrate elite commando units into a single command. These include Sarayet Metkal; the Israeli navy's Flotilla 13, the equivalent of the U.S. Navy's SEALs; the air force's Shaldag target designation unit, and other specialized units.
They will combine for operations "beyond the immediate and intermediate circles of enemy states, to the outer so-called outer circle of threats."
Military sources say that includes the Horn of Africa and other zones around the Middle East and its environs where Iranian, Palestinian and al-Qaida groups operate.
A senior Israeli officer noted that the Deep Corps will be active under a new operational concept within the military known as "the operational arena between wars."
That implies deep-penetration reconnaissance, counter-terror, assassination and sabotage missions inside hostile territory.
"Before all these changes in the region, the Israeli military fluctuated between planning for war and fighting wars in parallel to our routine anti-terror operations," the senior officer explained.
"But in the new reality, we understand that there's also a war between wars … and this is much more quiet and extends to much wider circles."