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Why Iran's unprecedented strike on Israel could start an escalation spiral

A tense regional situation is becoming even more fraught. And this is not a low-cost scenario for the U.S.

Iranian retaliation against Israel was inevitable the moment Israeli aircraft bombed an Iranian diplomatic facility in the heart of Damascus on April 1, killing one of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) top generals and several other Iranian military advisers in the process.

Iran’s political and religious leadership telegraphed as much immediately after the Israeli strike occurred. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called it a “cowardly crime” that wouldn’t go unanswered. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used his weekly speech to declare that Israel would be “punished.” The Biden administration took Khamenei’s words seriously: U.S. government employees in Israel were ordered to stay in the major cities; Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Arab foreign ministerial colleagues and asked them to urge Iran to de-escalate; and the Defense Department repositioned two U.S. Navy destroyers into regional waters, at least one of which carries a sophisticated missile defense system.

The leaders of Israel and the U.S. must now weigh the risks and rewards of an Israeli counterstrike.

The question was never whether Iran would respond but rather how. Now we know: At the time of writing, over 100 drones and missiles were launched by Iran toward Israel. Further drone or even ballistic missile strikes by the Iranians could follow, although this is hardly assured. Either way, a tense regional situation is becoming even more fraught. The leaders of Israel and the U.S. must now weigh the risks and rewards of an Israeli counterstrike. And if counterstrikes are approved, the leaders of both countries will need to determine how long they will tolerate a dangerous escalatory spiral.

This is not a low-cost scenario for the U.S. There are tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East, from Syria and Iraq to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. All of these troops are within range of Iranian missile fire or Iranian proxy attacks. U.S. military installations in the region would make for tempting targets in the event of a regional conflagration, and no number of air defense systems would be able to shoot down every projectile fired their way.

In January 2020, when the Trump administration assassinated Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, Iran waited five days before settling on its response (more than a dozen ballistic missiles were launched against two U.S. military facilities in Iraq). This time, Iran took more time, deliberating options over a span of two weeks. 

It’s not difficult to see why. Iran had a number of options on the table, ranging from the symbolic to the escalatory. For instance, the Iranians could have utilized their proxy network in the Middle East as they often have against Israel and U.S. troops in the past. Tehran’s conventional military is weak compared to U.S. and Israeli standards, but Iran can still do considerable damage thanks to strategic relationships with nonstate actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Palestinian militant groups in Gaza and the West Bank, the Houthis in Yemen, and militias in Iraq and Syria.

In January, three U.S. troops were killed in northeastern Jordan after Iranian-linked militias conducted a drone strike on a U.S. base there. Alternatively, Iran could have tasked its intelligence service with attacking Israeli diplomatic facilities or Israeli diplomats abroad, as it tried to do in Azerbaijan, India, Thailand and Georgia more than a decade ago. An Iranian strike against Israeli territory was the extreme option. It is also unprecedented — Iran has never before authorized a direct attack against Israel from its own soil, let alone one that included a barrage of drones.

An Iranian strike against Israeli territory was the extreme option. It is also unprecedented.

Khamenei couldn’t afford not to retaliate after such a bold Israeli attack. From his perspective, doing too little or doing nothing at all would have exposed the Iranian government as weak, and may have dared Israel to execute more decapitation strikes against high-profile Iranian targets in the future. Doing too much, though, risks blowback and debilitating Israeli counterstrikes. The Iranian military establishment is already antiquated relative to its adversaries. Khamenei, Raisi, the IRGC brass and the Iranian defense apparatus writ large may be rash in their rhetoric, but they know Iran isn’t ready for a full-scale conflict with the region’s most capable military power, let alone one that boasts an intricate military relationship with a global superpower. Indeed, if Tehran’s attack sparks even stronger Israeli military action in Iran, what exactly was the point?

Now Israel has a choice. On Thursday, April 11, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli pilots that Israel was prepared for war if need be: “We set a simple principle: Anyone who hits us, we hit them.” Ditto Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant: “We are prepared to defend ourselves on the ground and in the air, in close cooperation with our partners, and we will know how to respond.”

Can Netanyahu, his political career currently hanging on by a thread courtesy of an ultranationalist coalition government, afford to order the Israel Defense Forces to stand down? This will likely depend in large part on how bad the damage assessment is.

From Washington’s view, Iran’s attack on Israel is inexcusable. President Joe Biden’s frustration with Netanyahu’s Gaza policy may be growing, but he has been clear that the U.S. stands with Israel unequivocally in the event of an Iranian assault. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the same thing to the Israeli defense minister during an April 11 phone call, insisting Israel could count on “full U.S. support.” What that actually means, and whether the U.S. would join Israel in a hypothetical military operation against Iran, was left for us outsiders to prognosticate about. The implication, however, probably wasn’t lost on Khamenei.

Netanyahu has critical decisions to make. So does Biden. America’s instinct after this incident will be to support Netanyahu unconditionally if he in fact decides to hit Iranian soil.

In this case, however, those instincts would be wrong — not because Israeli action would be unjustified but rather because it has a decent chance of precipitating the very regional war Biden is ostensibly interested in avoiding. U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria have been fortunate to see a two-month downturn in militia rocket and drone attacks on their positions. During a wider war, though, this informal cease-fire could be at risk of rupturing.