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Countdown at Six and a Half: Israel’s Standoff with Iran

PUBL0124 blog

Countdown at Six and a Half: Israel’s Standoff with Iran

Following Iran’s assault on Israel, this article analyzes the context surrounding the attack and the potential avenues for Israel's response, emphasizing the need to restore deterrence.

Since 1979, Iran’s jihadist regime has been undermining freedom and peace both domestically and internationally[1]. Its harsh rhetoric has consistently called for the destruction of Israel and the US, while Iran has provided support to fundamentalist militant groups worldwide, including Hezbollah in Lebanon[2] and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

For years, Israel has been engaged in a shadow war with Iran, monitoring the development of its nuclear and military programs, including its ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel. It has been striking facilities and materials related to Hezbollah that it evaluates as threats, as well as operatives of the warfare program coordinated by Iran through its Lebanese and Syrian proxies.

On April 1, 2024, following previous eliminations of Iranian operatives in Syria and Lebanon, General Zahedi was killed in an airstrike on a Damascus IRGC military headquarters camouflaged as an Iranian consular building. Zahedi served as the senior contact between Iran, Hezbollah, and the Military Syrian Intelligence. A leader in the IRGC Quds Force, which deals with special operations and intelligence and is designated as a terrorist organization by the US Director of National Intelligence[3] , he himself was under OFAC sanctions.

Not only was General Zahedi the most preeminent IRGC Quds commander eliminated since the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani by the US military in 2020, but it was also the first time that Israel struck an official building “with the flag of the Islamic Republic raised on top of it”[4]. That attack was the straw that broke the camel’s back, making the Supreme Leader lose face. They promised retaliation, which they delivered on the night of April 13, 2024.

Hence, for the first time, assisted by its proxies from Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, Iran conducted a direct assault on Israel with around 300 drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. One casualty and minimal damages were recorded, including at an Israeli Air Force base. With the help of the US, as well as the UK, France, and even Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Israel succeeded in intercepting more than 99% of the aerial projectiles. They all came to shoulder the burden of the Hebrew state with intelligence, maritime, and aerial operations.

Following the attack, Israel considers its options for a retaliatory strike against Iran. The majority of the international community calls for Israel to exercise restraint to prevent an escalation of the conflict. US President Joe Biden leads the charge by presenting the successful interception rate of the anti-aircraft warfare as a “win”, while reaffirming America’s ironclad commitment to Israel’s security[5]. The White House statements are clear: the US will not participate in any attack on Iranian soil.[6]

Some hawkish voices in the US and Europe express opposing views and support Israel’s right to self-defense, advocating for immediate retaliation.[7]

In Israel, following the trauma caused by the Iran-backed Hamas attack, Israeli citizens want to feel safe. It is more than ever the raison d’être of the State of Israel. They cannot sit and wait for the next Iranian salvo. A stitch in time saves nine. Many advocate for immediate retaliation—if successful. Others advise focusing on building a coalition for a future attack against Iran, while simultaneously increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions. They fear that a “solo” action could open a risky front with Iran, facing opposition from the US and the international community.[8] All fear that Iran’s next bombardment could come without prior notice and at a higher intensity.

The Israeli administration and the IDF promise a retaliatory action “at the time they choose.” [9] The notion of timing in warfare, its tension with politics, and its consequences on military options and risks are not new to them.[10]

Anyhow, restraint is not an option for Israel. It has never been part of its ethos. On October 6, it could have been a priority to heed the Allies’ advice for “limited containment.” However, October 7 showed Israel that it cannot trust an appeasement policy with terror entities. Israel finds itself somewhere between Six and Seven—Six and a Half.

The main issue is to restore deterrence. Despite intercepting 99% of the Iranian shots, “Israel and the US failed to deter Iran from attacking.” Furthermore, “Iran managed to harm Israel without compelling the United States to respond with an attack, despite Israel’s cooperation.” [11]

How to retaliate without risking an all-out war with Iran and thwarting the US and the international community?

The IDF is currently busy on two fronts: In Gaza, it operates to return hostages, ensure security to the south of Israel, and eradicate Hamas. These military steps are crucial for the viability of any political solution in the strip. In parallel, the IDF is busy securing the northern border with Syria and Lebanon, threatened by Iran’s proxies, to allow the return of around 100,000 Israeli citizens evacuated due to Hezbollah’s attacks. Still, the IDF could technically be operating on a third front, as ground forces would not be activated in Iran.

Then, there is the long-time strategic monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which poses a significant danger for Israel and is drawing closer[12]. Diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program have limited effectiveness due to Iran’s alliances with countries interested in trading beyond the sanctions for economic gains.

In fact, even Israel’s best allies are contributing to replenishing Iran’s coffers, making sanctions seem less and less useful[13]. Therefore, for the moment, striking a nuclear or missile facility seems like a more useful operation, albeit highly risky.

Some have advised for more covert operations, such as cyber-attacks and strategic infrastructure sabotage. These methods have been shown to be efficient in slowing down the development of nuclear and missile programs. However, due to the extraordinary nature of Iran’s attack, Israeli retaliation should be proportionally unprecedented and exceptional in resetting deterrence.

Finally, the overall threat to Israel is the Iranian regime itself. It funds the proxies operating at Israel’s borders, the nuclear program, and its associated military developments.

However, Israel is not the only state to be threatened. The entire West and its allies, especially the neighboring Gulf monarchies, dream of Israel conducting the “dirty job” for them, and liberating them from an unstable and threatening Iranian regime.

A democratic Iran would also open the possibility of economic development and trade for all the neighbors, erasing the danger of seeing the Hormuz and Bab-al-Mandab Straits, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea subject to the whims of Iran and its proxies. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, and even Jordan would breathe a sigh of relief. Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon would look completely different on the world geostrategic, trade, and democracy maps. Even Russia and China would find more benefit in cooperating with a democratic Iran than with the current regime in Tehran.

The integration of Saudi Arabia – and others – within the Abraham Accords is potentially poised to become the priority of the region once again. It was before October 7 and may be the main reason for Iran to have cooperated with Hamas in preparing the attack on Israel[14]. Saudi Arabia is also threatened by Iran[15], which has an increasing influence in the Eastern Province.

Security-wise, aside from other benefits, a shift in the existing paradigm for the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel would allow for a security alliance between them and their neighbors. Together, they would know how to convince the US to join their alliance and suppress the growing Iranian threat along with its military power.

In conclusion, in the short term, a covert and spectacular sabotage operation in Iran, significantly decreasing its ability to deploy missiles and drones, would be a sight to behold. Simultaneously, the integration of Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords would represent the optimal response to Iran’s regional threats and escalating destructive capabilities.

Preferably before it acquires nuclear weapons. It is still 90 seconds to midnight on the Doomsday clock. Six and a half Israeli time.

  1. Vitenberg, Jerome. “Iran’s Hit-and-Run Strategy with U.S. on Nuclear Ambitions.” Washington Times, February 20, 2014

  2. Mandelker, Sigal. “Speech before the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.” U.S. Department of the Treasury Press Release, June 5, 2018

  3. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “Foreign Terrorist organizations”, March 2022

  4. Ambassador Akbari, Hossein (Ambassador of Iran to Syria) Interview on CNN, April 1, 2024

  5. President Joe Biden. “Statement on Iran’s Attacks against the State of Israel.” The White House Briefing Room, Statements and Releases, April 13, 2024

  6. Kirby, John. (US National Security Communications Adviser). Interview by NBC’s Meet the Press. April 14, 2024

  7. Sokolyanskaya, Ksenia, and Anton Zolotykh. “Former U.S. National-Security Adviser Says Strong Israeli Response To Iran Attack Would Be Justified.” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, April 15, 2024

  8. Toosi, Nahal, and Jonathan Lemire. “US Tells Israel It Won’t Join Counter-Strike on Iran, Urges Caution.” Politico, April 14, 2024

  9. The Times of Israel and Reuters. “Response to Iranian Attack a Must, but Israel Will Be Smart about It, Officials Say.” The Times of Israel, April 16, 2024

  10. Givhan, Walter D. “The Time Value of Military Force in Modern Warfare: The Airpower Advantage.” Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Air University Press, March 1996

  11. Hayman, Tamir. “The Iranian Attack: A Great Operational Success—Alongside Strategic Complexity.” INSS, April 14, 2024

  12. Warrick, Joby. “Nuclear Deal in Tatters, Iran Edges Close to Weapons Capability.” The Washington Post, April 10, 2024

  13. Biden Allows Iran to Access Another $10 Billion Amid Gaza War.” Iran International. November 15, 2023

  14. The Times of Israel. “500 Hamas, PIJ terrorists trained for October 7 attack in Iran last month – report.” The Times of Israel, October 25, 2023

  15. Blitzer, Ronn. “US, Saudi Arabia on High Alert over Intel of Impending Iranian Attack: Report.” Fox News, November 1, 2022

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