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What the US should learn from Israel's aerial tit-for-tat with Iran

What the US should learn from Israel's aerial tit-for-tat with Iran

The bottom line is that the potential for regional war is high as long as the Palestinian conflict remains an open regional wound

Analysis | Middle East

The recent exchange of aerial attacks between Israel and Iran was a salient enough event to stimulate much commentary about the episode being a turning point in Middle Eastern affairs. The attacks were indeed sufficiently significant to have implications wider than the physical damage they caused. But it is important not to overstate how much turned at this turning point as well as to understand lessons the episode holds for future U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

Although Iran’s missile barrage on April 13 has been highlighted as the first direct Iranian attack on Israeli territory, it is best understood as part of a graduated response to repeated Israeli use of violence, including sabotage and assassinations, on Iranian territory. Considering the provocations, the overall Iranian response has been restrained.

Even the Iranian response two weeks ago — although impressive in terms of the number of drones and missiles employed — was more restrained than it would have been had Iran intended to inflict significant damage and casualties. That the great majority of the projectiles were shot down cannot have been a surprise to Iranian leaders. They are aware of the capabilities of Israel’s repeatedly used air defense systems. The Iranians telegraphed their intentions. And they began the attack with slow-moving drones, giving both Israel and the United States time to activate an effective defense.

An Iranian operation intended to inflict a more damaging blow would have been much different, probably featuring a large, unannounced barrage of ballistic missiles, which would have given only a few minutes of warning. Iranian leaders felt obliged to respond somehow to Israel’s escalation in attacking the equivalent of Iranian territory — the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus, which Israel bombed two weeks earlier, inflicting multiple casualties — but had no desire to escalate the overall conflict further.

Another theme heard in commentary about the exchange of attacks between Israel and Iran is that it brought closer to reality a U.S.-backed anti-Iranian alliance that includes Israel and key Arab states. That theme is overstated. Differences between Israel and the Gulf Arabs regarding policy toward Iran remain stark, with Arab states’ rapprochement with Tehran contrasting sharply with Israel’s continued policy of promoting maximum isolation of Iran. Moreover, anger over Israel’s infliction of mass suffering in the Gaza Strip remains intense throughout the Arab world, and the Israeli assault on Gaza shows no sign of ending.

The severe limitations of any U.S.-backed anti-Iran alliance were underscored by Gulf Arab states warning the United States not to use their territories or airspace to launch any attacks against Iran. The prime objective of Arab governments during the whole Israeli-Iranian crisis of the past two weeks has been to avoid escalation into the sort of regional war that could significantly harm their own economic and security interests. The assistance that Jordan and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia rendered in defending against the Iranian drones and missiles was in pursuit of this objective. Far from denoting any increased fondness for Israel, the aid was aimed at minimizing Israeli damage and casualties so that Israel would not feel obliged to up the ante further with a devastating attack on Iran.

Several implications can be more confidently drawn from the events of the past two weeks and hold lessons for U.S. policy:

The U.S. disinclination to say “no” to Israel encourages reckless and destabilizing Israeli behavior. The most destructive such behavior during the past year has been what Israel has been doing to the Gaza Strip, but the attack on the Iranian embassy compound was an extension of that. Failure to flash any red lights to Israeli decision-makers gets taken as an implied green light. Lavishing aid without conditions has conditioned those decision-makers to expect that Israel will not suffer any consequences no matter what it does.

Using military force to change the narrative works, and the technique probably will be used again. Probably a primary objective of Israel’s attack on the Iranian embassy was to provoke an Iranian counterattack that would divert the international spotlight from the catastrophic Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip and turn it to what other regional states, especially loathed Iran, do to Israel. The tactic succeeded. Media coverage and political discussion about the Middle East promptly became much less about what was happening in Gaza and more about Iranian missiles fired at Israel. Much of that coverage and discussion treated the Iranian action as if it were a bolt out of the blue, barely mentioning that it was retaliation for an Israeli attack on an Iranian embassy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government must be pleased with that result, and have been given reason to use the tactic again.

Except for Israel, Middle Eastern states do not want a wider war. Arab states do not want it, and clearly Iran does not either. Discussion in general terms about whether the United States is staying in the Middle East, whether it is leaving a “vacuum,” and how regional states are dissatisfied with the level of U.S. commitment often overlooks this fact. Middle Eastern states generally want serious U.S. engagement to address problems of the region but generally do not want (again with the exception of Israel) more U.S. military activity in their backyard and with it more war.

Offense is different from defense. The former is likely to be destabilizing in ways that the latter may not be. Although many military capabilities can be applied to either offensive or defensive purposes, the Biden administration, to its credit, drew a clear distinction between the two in the recent crisis. It reaffirmed U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and even participated in shooting down Iranian missiles and drones while making clear it wanted no part in any offensive action against Iran. Unfortunately, U.S. military aid to Israel, including the additional $14 billion that is part of the aid package that President Biden just signed, is likely to be used more offensively than defensively, especially as long as the Israeli assault on Gaza continues.

The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be a major source of violence and instability in the Middle East. The horrors taking place in the Gaza Strip alone constitute some of the worst violence and suffering the region has seen in recent decades, but such violence also metastasizes into other problems, including the attention-diverting Israeli attack in Damascus that touched off the Israeli-Iranian exchange of aerial attacks this month.

Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari speaks to the media as Israel's military displays what they say is an Iranian ballistic missile which they retrieved from the Dead Sea after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, at Julis military base, in southern Israel April 16, 2024. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

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