The Iran-Israel War Is Just Getting Started


Apr 25, 2024

Apparent remains of a ballistic missile lie in the desert after a massive missile and drone attack by Iran on Israel, near the southern city of Arad, April 24, 2024, photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

Apparent remains of an Iranian ballistic missile lie in the desert near the southern city of Arad, Israel, April 24, 2024

Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Policy on April 22, 2024.

In the early hours of April 13, two minor miracles happened. First, in a remarkable display of technical prowess, Israel—with help from Britain, France, Jordan, and the United States—intercepted some 170 drones, 120 ballistic missiles, and 30 cruise missiles fired primarily from Iran toward Israel, reportedly with 99 percent effectiveness and minimal damage to lives and infrastructure. Second, after many months of largely negative media coverage and mounting international pressure, Israel enjoyed some sympathy and positive press. Given the double success of a repulsed attack and an improved image for Israel, U.S. President Joe Biden reportedly counseled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “You got a win. Take the win.” A host of other allies and experts had similar advice for Israel.

Israel, however, has shown little interest in taking this advice. While it reportedly called off an immediate counterattack and seems content to “slow things down,” as Biden requested, Israeli leaders—including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Israel Defense Forces chief Herzi Halevi, war cabinet member Benny Gantz, and Netanyahu himself—all promised retaliation. And Friday morning, Israel conducted a counterstrike on an air defense system at an Iranian air base in Isfahan in central Iran. Although the strike appears to have been largely symbolic, it nonetheless raises the question: Why is Israel bucking the United States and its other allies yet again, especially after those very same countries just came to Israel's aid?

Ultimately, there are a lot of bad reasons floating around for why Israel struck back. But there is also one good and overarching one, and that is the fact that Israel and Iran remain locked in war, which will continue beyond today. As long as that conflict goes on, the operational logic of that conflict will push toward escalation.

Israel and Iran remain locked in war, which will continue beyond today. As long as that conflict goes on, the operational logic of that conflict will push toward escalation.

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For some, the answer to why Israel struck back boils down to Netanyahu's ambitions. According to this narrative, he is simply trying to save his own skin. Netanyahu is deeply unpopular inside Israel; he has a mere 15 percent approval rating. His principal source of political legitimacy—his claim to guarantee Israeli security—has been badly battered by Hamas's October 7 massacre and everything that has come in its wake. And so, unsurprisingly, some observers, including the Iranian regime, argue that Netanyahu wants war with Iran in order to restore his image domestically—or, at the very least, to prolong the political reckoning from the October 7 catastrophe—and, in the process, increase his chances of political survival.

Netanyahu may be a desperate man, but the push for retaliation is not coming solely from him. Indeed, some of the louder voices inside Israel calling for a counterattack came from Netanyahu's political rivals, such as Gantz, Gallant, and others who have the most to gain politically from Netanyahu's demise. According to polling, Gantz likely would be prime minister if elections were held today.

Nor is it clear that striking Iran is a good political move for Netanyahu or anyone else. According to Hebrew University polling published last week, some 74 percent of Israelis opposed a counterattack “if it undermines Israel's security alliance with its allies.” The same poll found that 56 percent of Israelis said their country “should respond positively to political and military demands from its allies” in order to “ensure a sustainable defense system over time.” Even within Netanyahu's coalition, Israel's limited counterstrike on Friday was not a clear-cut political win. Right-wing National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, for example, criticized the action on X as “lame.”

By contrast, Israel's stated reasons for counterattacking ring hollow. Israeli officials talked about the need to “send a message” to Tehran and “teach them a lesson.” But Israel's own recent history shows that tit-for-tat violence rarely has the intended pedagogical effect. Israel's four limited military operations in Gaza before the current war—with even more limited strikes in between—failed to dislodge or deter Hamas, as the October 7 massacre so vividly demonstrated. And Iran has used almost identical language—about needing to “teach” Israel about not striking its operatives in Syria or elsewhere—to justify its attack. All of which, in turn, raises the question of whether Israel would be any more effective trying to “teach” Iran.

There are, to be fair, a handful of cases where Israel did indeed succeed in teaching its adversaries a lesson. The best example, perhaps, is the 2006 Lebanon War, which started after Hezbollah operatives crossed into Israel, killed eight Israeli soldiers, and kidnapped two others. After the conflict, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah told reporters that he regretted his decision to launch the operation. “You ask me, if I had known [before] that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.” But the teaching of this lesson involved a 34-day, full-fledged, highly destructive war that cost the lives of 121 Israel soldiers, hundreds of Hezbollah fighters, and more than a thousand civilians and displaced well over a million people on each side of the border—hardly the limited strike Israel just conducted against Iran.

Of course, there is a more basic motive behind Israel wanting to strike Iran: revenge. After all, even if the attack was ultimately ineffective, Iran hurled some 60 tons of explosives directly at Israel, shattering the unwritten rules of the Israel-Iran shadow war and keeping an entire nation on edge, if only for one night. Understandably, some Israelis wanted—and continue to want—to hit back.

But, as Bret Stephens reminded readers in the New York Times, “revenge is a dish best served cold.” In general, emotional decisions do not make for a prudent strategy. That's particularly true here, given the military and diplomatic stakes for Israel, and the region as whole, should a regional war break out. And indeed, the Isfahan strike appears deliberately calibrated to not provoke such an escalation.

Moreover, on some level, even before Isfahan, the balance sheet was already even. Iran, after all, lost seven Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members—including Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the highest-ranking Quds Force member to be killed since the United States killed Qassem Suleimani in Iraq in 2020—in Israel's strike on the Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus; Israel has lost nothing comparable at the hands of Iran.

But if there are a lot of bad reasons for current and future Israeli strikes on Iran, there is at least one good one: Israel and Iran are at war. This war has been mostly covert for years, but since October 7, it has come out of the shadows. The common denominator between Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and other groups that have attacked Israel for more than six months now is that they are all—to varying degrees—funded, trained, and equipped by Iran. Consequently, when seven IRGC operatives—including Zahedi, who coordinated Iran's relationship with Hezbollah and the Assad regime—showed up in Damascus in late March, Israel concluded—probably correctly—that they were not there to sample the Syrian restaurant scene.

After Iran's retaliatory barrage and Israel's response, the ball is in Iran's court in this weirdly performative display of military might. Initial indications are that Iran may let this one go, at least for the time being. If so, both the United States and the region will breathe a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, though, any respite is unlikely to last. Israel will likely still need to continue to strike Iranian operatives abroad, if only to disrupt or perhaps even sever the flow of material and strategic support from Iran to its proxies. Contrary to Iran's claims that “the matter can be deemed concluded,” as long as Iran continues supporting its proxies and those proxies remain engaged in conflict with Israel, the operational need for such strikes—like the one on the Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus—will remain.

After Iran's retaliatory barrage and Israel's response, the ball is in Iran's court in this weirdly performative display of military might.

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And if the simmering conventional conflict is not a sufficient reason to drive Israeli military action vis-à-vis Iran, then there is an even larger reason looming on the horizon: the Iranian nuclear program. Since the collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—also known as the Iran nuclear deal—Tehran has been inching closer to a bomb. Israeli leaders have long worried that a nuclear-armed Iran would be emboldened to raise its support to its proxies, if not use the weapons to outright attack Israel. For many Israelis, Iran's strike last weekend has only reinforced such fears. After all, if Israel's widely suspected nuclear arsenal proved insufficient to deter an Iranian conventional strike now, then why would Israel believe that it can successfully deter Iran once it has nuclear weapons? This makes Israeli preemptive action against the Iranian nuclear program all the more likely, despite some significant military challenges.

From its perspective, Israel will need to continue to strike Iranian targets, even if one strips away the dubious political motives, fuzzy deterrence thinking, or just plain raw emotion. As long as Israel and Iran remain engaged in conflict, they will continue to trade blows—no matter what the United States and other allies may counsel Israel to avoid escalation.

Ultimately, if the United States and Europe wish to forestall the chances of a regional war in the Middle East, they will need to convince Iran to rein in its proxies and do something about its nuclear program. Otherwise, the conflict will continue to spiral.

Raphael S. Cohen is director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program at RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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