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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Iran’s strike on Israel creates military uncertainty, diplomatic opportunity

Demonstrators show their support for Iran’s attack on Israel in Palestine Square in Tehran, Iran, Monday, April 15, 2024. Analysts feared Iran’s strikes might set off a wider war. But with Israel still weighing its response, the attack’s military and diplomatic consequences have yet to be determined. (Arash Khamooshi/The New York Times)

By Patrick Kingsley

The enormous salvo of Iranian weapons fired at Israel this weekend turned the countries’ long-running shadow war into a direct confrontation, raising fears that the countries’ old paradigm of trading carefully measured blows had been replaced by something more overt, violent and risky.

But by Monday, Israel had yet to respond to the Iranian assault. Rather than preparing the public for a showdown with its archrival, the government signaled a return to relative normalcy, lifting restrictions on large gatherings and allowing schools to reopen.

Some right-wing Israeli politicians, dismayed by the lack of an immediate response, have argued that Israel needs to strike back forcefully — and soon — or risk losing its deterrence. Other more centrist officials have argued that Israel should instead bide its time before responding and capitalize on the support it has received from allies and regional actors, who are otherwise angry about Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip.

Any forceful Israeli response would risk angering President Joe Biden, who has pressed Israel to de-escalate and whose military support Israel would need in the event of a major confrontation. Israel has drawn the president’s criticism for dragging out the war in Gaza, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel must weigh the perceived benefits of retaliation against the risk of further displeasing Biden, along with the potential cost — both human and financial — of fighting two wars at the same time.

An Israeli official briefed on Cabinet discussions who requested anonymity to discuss security matters said that as of Monday several options were being considered, ranging from diplomacy to an imminent strike, but gave no further details.

In short, the next steps in the conflict remain uncertain.

The nature of Israel’s response, analysts said, could increase or decrease the possibility of a regional war. And it could improve or strain Israel’s ties with Arab nations that share an antipathy for Iran but have been critical of the war in Gaza.

It’s also possible Israel and Iran simply return to well-established norms of their shadow war — with Israel assassinating individuals, Iran’s proxies firing volleys at Israel and both sides trading cyberattacks.

“It’s too early to tell,” said Dana Stroul, who until recently was a senior Pentagon official with responsibility for the Middle East. “From an Israeli security perspective, it’s hard to see how they can let it stand,” Stroul said. “The question is: What does that look like, and how can a clear line and signal be sent to Iran while avoiding World War III in the Middle East?”

If the trajectory of the coming days remains frustratingly opaque, the events of the past 48 hours have brought some new clarity to the conflict.

Sunday’s strike, in which Iran sent hundreds of exploding drones and missiles — primarily from its own soil toward Israeli territory for the first time — were in retaliation for Israel’s killing of seven Iranian officials in Syria this month.

In military terms, the Iranian strikes signaled its willingness to confront Israel directly rather that through the use of regional proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, thereby upending Israel’s assumptions about Iran’s threshold for risk.

In diplomatic terms, Iran’s strikes and Israel’s robust defense of them, in coordination with Western and Arab partners, has helped shift international attention away from Israel’s war in Gaza, where the reported death toll of more than 33,000 has prompted accusations, strongly denied by Israel, of genocide.

At a time when Israel’s closest allies had become increasingly critical of the Israeli military’s conduct in Gaza, Iran’s attacks prompted those partners to work closely with the same Israeli air force that has carried out devastating strikes in Gaza.

“You can see that not just among the Arabs but also among the western Europeans, Israel’s diplomatic standing is somewhat improved because it was a victim of Iranian aggression, not an aggressor,” said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. “By being ‘the victim,’ it improves your position.”

Analysts said that it remained unclear how Israel’s defenses would function without the several days of warnings that Iran gave before its weekend attacks, which allowed Israel and its allies crucial time to prepare. And while Iran has said that any future Israeli “mistake” would be met with a “considerably more severe” response, that threat also remains untested and was vague enough to leave room to maneuver.

Should Israel fire back at Iran in a way that would drag the region into war, the goodwill Israel has recently accrued with its allies could quickly vanish, analysts said.

For Iran’s leaders, the strikes, which caused limited damage and critically injured one child, were nevertheless a domestic and diplomatic victory because of the way they allowed Iran to present itself as standing up to Israel.

Domestically, Iran’s leaders have had to face accusations that they had been too passive after previous attacks by Israel on Iranian officials. Analysts said the salvo also reassured Iran’s allies and proxies in countries such as Lebanon and Yemen that Iran was willing to bear the risk of attacking Israel from its own territory. And, they said, it allowed Iran to show up rival Middle Eastern leaders, who have publicly criticized Israel often while working quietly with its government.

Iran wants “to take the mantle of the protector of the Muslim world,” said Narges Bajoghli, an Iran expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “They’re basically flexing their muscles for regional audiences and simultaneously showing the weakness of Arab leaders in the region,” she said. “Arab nations have not confronted Israel in this direct way that Iran has.”

The opposite was true: At least one Arab country, Jordan, was directly involved in repelling the Iranian strikes, and others are thought to have quietly assisted Israel either through sharing intelligence or sending data gathered from missile-detecting sensors.

Jordan, Israel’s eastern neighbor, has a large Palestinian population and has regularly criticized the war in Gaza. But it still acknowledged that Iranian targets had been “dealt with” in Jordanian airspace and that its military would repel similar attacks in the future.

The announcement was a reminder of how, before the Israel-Hamas war, shared fears of Iran had begun to smooth Israel’s diplomatic integration within the Middle East as well as allow greater military coordination between Israel and some Arab countries, including arms deals and joint training exercises.

For some Israeli analysts, this is why Iran’s attack could yet help Israel’s acceptance in the Middle East, even as its reputation plummets because of Gaza.

“The full details of how Sunni Arab regimes helped protect Israel, without doubt saving Israeli lives from Iranian missiles and drones, may not be known for a while. But this is a historic shift,” wrote Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli commentator, in a column for Haaretz, a left-leaning newspaper. “Arab cooperation against the Iranian attack proves that the trend in the region is still toward an Arab-American-Israeli alliance against Iran and its proxies.”

In particular, some hope it may give fresh momentum to U.S.-led efforts to seal diplomatic ties for the first time between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which seemed close to success before the war in Gaza.

But the chances of such a deal remain remote while the war in Gaza endures and Israel’s right-wing government shuns any discussion about creating a Palestinian state after the fighting ends — a key Saudi demand.

“Diplomatically, I would seize on this and try to revive and invigorate regional cooperation,” said Rabinovich, the former Israeli ambassador. “But the obstacle remains,” he added. “What do you do with the Palestinian issue?”

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