Monday, May 27, 2024

Israel’s long-simmering conflict with Iran moves out of the shadows. Will it spark a wider war?

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A planned evening address by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was canceled, according to an Israeli official. The pending Israeli response was described as ‘measured.’


Israel has yet to make a decision on how to respond to an attack by Iran that saw waves of missiles and explosives-laden drones, most of which were intercepted, launched toward its territory, according to an Israeli official.

But multiple officials said Sunday there will be some kind of retaliation. And not only does that move Israel’s long-simmering conflict with Iran fully out of the shadows, it risks sparking a wider, direct military escalation that could draw in the U.S. and other countries and also potentially alter the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

Even if Iran’s attack does not lead to “immediate escalation, it effectively brings the Middle East into a new era,” said Paul Salem, president and CEO of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

The ratcheting up of the conflict comes after Iran’s leaders vowed revenge following a suspected Israeli airstrike on an Iranian consulate building in Damascus, Syria. The strike killed seven Iranians, including a senior commander of its Revolutionary Guards. Israel hasn’t admitted responsibility for the attack.

Iran has been attacking Israel via militant groups it backs in Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza for years. Israel has repeatedly hit targets inside Iran associated with Tehran’s nuclear program, conducted cyber attacks and assassinated its officials more than four decades after the two adversaries abandoned all diplomatic and commercial ties in the wake of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

After multiple threats by Iran and a warning from U.S. President Joe Biden, Iran on Saturday launched a barrage of weapons into Israel. It was the first time Iran had directly attacked Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chaired a meeting of his war cabinet Sunday, but there was no immediate announcement on what retaliatory approach Israel would take, if any.

A planned evening address by Netanyahu was canceled, according to an Israeli official familiar with the proceedings but not authorized to speak to the media.

The official said no decision has yet been made about how Israel will respond to Iran’s attack but if and when it came the Israeli response would be “measured.”

Preventing an escalation

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, urged Israel to be cautious in its response to Saturday’s attack to avoid a larger, bloodier conflict involving Iran and its proxy forces.

“One of our major goals there is to prevent escalation,” Reed said in an interview Sunday. “And I think the Israelis should be very careful in their response and do so in a way that doesn’t see another barrage, even a bigger one, perhaps from Iran and its satellites.”

Reed also noted that the attack was complex. Thwarting the attack, or minimizing its damage, could allow for tensions to ease.

The number of drones and missiles Iran fired, at different speeds and altitudes, demonstrated that Iran intended to cause harm, Reed said. The attack involved 300 weapons, including one-way attack drones, cruise and ballistic missiles.

“It was not just a one-off shot at Israel,” Reed said. “It was a very complicated operation.”

Defending against the attack was complicated as well. The Navy deployed guided-missile destroyers to the region with Aegis ballistic missile defense system, which combines sensors, computers and weapons to destroy missiles in flight. American warplanes shot down drones, U.S. officials said. Forces from the United Kingdom and France also helped defend Israel.

Neighboring Jordan allowed Israel to use its airspace to defend against incoming missiles, Reed said. Army Gen. Erik Kurilla, the commander of U.S. Central Command, last week advised the Israeli military on defending against an attack from Iran.

Mounting the defense of Israel was “extraordinarily difficult and it just shows the cooperation and the collaboration not only between the United States and Israel, but also other nations in the region and around the world,” Reed said.

Iran’s foreign minister claimed his country gave Israel and its allies 72 hours’ notice, though U.S. officials disputed that point.

The Iranians appear to have targeted Israeli military installations, Reed alleged. The target of the missiles can be discerned by their trajectory, he said.

Shielding Israel from widespread destruction means a bloody counterpunch isn’t required, he said.

“Now we have the ability to respond not with a massive counterstrike, but with a more nuanced approach,” Reed explained. 

‘We don’t have to react right now’

A senior Israeli security official said that among the options Israel is considering are cyberattacks, attacks on Iran’s oil fields and its political institutions and symbols, though the official stressed that nothing has been decided, and these may not form part of Israel’s response. The official said that Israel has previously conducted cyber attacks on Iran’s gas stations and that this is something that is also being considered.

“We don’t have to react right now,” the official said.

“Sometimes you have to plan three or four moves in order to understand what is the right way,” the official added, making a comparison to the game of chess, whose early rules were partly developed in what is now modern-day Iran. 

The official said “there are great dilemmas at play and it’s clear that Israel needs to respond, but it’s not clear how to respond and if immediately.” The official said the war cabinet has asked Israel’s Defense Forces to draft potential response scenarios.

Perhaps the most serious response would be if Israel attempted to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, long a source of friction between the two foes.

Another Israeli official said that Iran’s conflict with Israel is now in uncharted waters.

“Many things could happen. The Middle East post-Oct. 7 is a different Middle East,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The official said that Israel was effectively facing three options: “One, take the win. We’ve defeated this attack. Now continue with the main problem we have in Gaza; two, ‘you attacked us, we’ll attack you’; the third is all hell breaks loose.”

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said that he does not believe that Iran or Israel wants a full-blown Iran-Israel war.

“I think the players on both sides, whether they admit it or not, wanted this to be contained. And I think everybody understood that after Damascus, the Iranians were going to need to do something,” Himes said. “And they did, and hopefully that’s the end of it. Above all else we have to avoid an escalatory spiral.”

With so little damage, did Iran telegraph its intentions?

Two former Israeli officials who left the government recently dismissed the idea that Iran telegraphed its intentions before striking, calling the Saturday attacks unprecedented – and a serious breach of international laws and norms that needs to be met with a strong international response.

“They crossed all of the lines,” said Eyal Hulata, Israel’s national security adviser until last year. “We are really thankful that we have the best air defense in the world and that we also had wonderful coordination with Centcom and the Brits and other countries in the coalition.”

“If this wasn’t in place, with the amount of rockets they fired at us we would have had massive damage and a lot of death,” Hulata said.

Some Arab countries also provided some intelligence and help with intercepting the 300 drones sent by Iran, Hulata said.

Hulata said Israel is formulating its response and trying to build an international coalition to do it by telling allies that such a significant attack against Israel is an attack on all countries.

The scope of the attack by Iran surprised Israeli officials even with the amount of intelligence it was gathering, Hulata said. “I would be astonished if anyone was NOT surprised by the amount of rockets they fired,” he said. “And I assume that so was the (Biden) administration.”

Retired Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a former Israel Defense Forces international spokesman and combat commander in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, also discounted that Iran blunted or foreshadowed its intentions in any way.

“People are trying to explain how could Israel have been so successful and how could Iran have failed so badly after they fired about 300 missiles, drones from Iran towards Israel,” Conricus said.

The explanation is simple, he said: “There was good intel, there were good preparations by Israel and the coalition.”

Going forward, Conricus said, Israel will try to “translate this tremendous tactical achievement of defending Israel and intercepting 99% of the incoming projectiles” into a broader strategy to punish Iran for decades of Tehran using proxy fighting forces to attack Israel.

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