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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Israel weighs response to Iran attack, with each choice a risk

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 Ronen Bergman, Isabel Kershner, Julian E. Barnes and Russell Goldman

Israeli leaders earlier this week were debating how best to respond to Iran’s unprecedented weekend airstrike, officials said, weighing a set of options calibrated to achieve different strategic outcomes: deterring a similar attack in the future, placating their American allies and avoiding all-out war.

Iran’s attack on Israel, an immense barrage that included hundreds of ballistic missiles and exploding drones, changed the unspoken rules in the archrivals’ long-running shadow war. In that conflict, major airstrikes from one country’s territory directly against the other had been avoided.

Given that change in precedent, the calculus by which Israel decides its next move has also changed, said the Israeli officials who requested anonymity to discuss Iran.

“We cannot stand still from this kind of aggression,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the spokesperson for Israel’s military said Tuesday. Iran, he added, would not get off “scot-free with this aggression.”

As Israel’s war cabinet met to consider a military response, other countries were applying diplomatic pressure to both Israel and Iran in the hopes of de-escalating the conflict.

Almost all of the missiles and drones fired in Iran’s attack early Sunday were intercepted by Israel and its allies, including the United States and Britain.

The attack, Iran said, was a response to an Israeli airstrike this month, in which several armed forces commanders were killed in an attack in Syria. That attack on an Iranian embassy building in Damascus was different from previous targeted assassinations of individuals in the shadow war.

That strike destroyed a building that was part of an Iranian embassy complex, the sort of facility normally considered off-limits to attack. Israeli officials said the building was diplomatic in name only, and used as an Iranian military and intelligence base, making it a legitimate target.

Iran, which signaled that it saw the attack as an Israeli break in the norms of the shadow war, felt compelled to retaliate strongly, analysts said, in order to establish deterrence and maintain credibility with its proxies and hard-line supporters.

Israel does not want Iran to conclude that it can now attack Israeli territory in response to an Israeli strike on Iranian interests in a third country, some of the officials said, summarizing the internal Israeli debate. But, they added, Israel also does not want and cannot afford a major conflict with Iran while still fighting a war in Gaza and skirmishing with Iranian proxies along its borders.

The members of Israel’s small but fractious war Cabinet, officials said, are considering options big enough to send a clear message to Iran that such attacks will not go unanswered, but not so big as to spark a major escalation.

The officials described the following options, and their downsides, from which the Israeli leaders are choosing a response:

— Conduct an aggressive strike on an Iranian target, such as a Revolutionary Guard base, in a country other than Iran like Syria. (The drawback is that it lacks the symmetry of responding to a direct attack on Israel with a direct attack on Iran.)

— Strike a mostly symbolic target inside Iran. (Such a move would likely require U.S. consultation and would risk angering the Americans who have advised against such a strike.)

— Conduct a cyberattack on Iran’s infrastructure. (Doing so could expose Israel’s cyber capabilities prematurely and would not be an in-kind response to a major airstrike.)

— Accelerate small attacks inside Iran, including targeted assassinations, carried out by the Mossad. (Israel does not claim responsibility for such attacks, so they fail to match the public nature of Iran’s strike.)

Other Israeli options include doing nothing — a measure aimed at leveraging the international and regional alliance that came together to help repel the Iranian attack into something more solid and permanent — or adopting a more diplomatic approach, including a boycott of Iran by the United Nations Security Council, other officials said.

At least two members of the Cabinet argued at the time of the Iranian attack that Israel should respond immediately, two Israeli officials said, arguing that a rapid response in self-defense would give such a counterstrike obvious legitimacy.

Yet after three days of meetings, the Cabinet has yet to decide on a response. On Tuesday, the five-member Cabinet met with security officials for two hours of consultations, according to one official, and they were expected to convene again Wednesday.

U.S. officials have publicly and privately tried to persuade Israel that it does not need to retaliate for the Iranian strike. Netanyahu, they have argued, can “take the win” earned by a successful defense against the Iranian onslaught, which caused minimal damage and injured just one person, a young Bedouin girl.

But U.S. officials have also said they understand that persuading Israel not to retaliate may be impossible. American officials have said they understand Israeli officials believe they must respond to a direct strike from Iran on Israel in a way that the world can see. A covert attack by Israel against Iran, U.S. officials said, would most likely not be enough to satisfy Netanyahu’s coalition partners or the current Israeli government.

Should that counterattack prompt another round of Iranian missiles and drones, U.S. officials said, American warplanes and naval vessels would once again come to the defense of their ally against their chief adversary in the Middle East.

The U.S. is also backing diplomatic efforts to pressure and punish Iran, including by imposing tougher sanctions on the country in the coming days, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said at a news conference in Washington on Tuesday.

As Israel faces pressure from its allies to avert a broader conflict with Iran, several countries, including Russia, China and Japan, have also been urging Iran to avoid further escalation.

And the European Union is considering expanding economic sanctions against Iran’s weapons program to punish it for last weekend’s attack on Israel and try to prevent any escalation of violence across the Middle East, the EU’s top diplomat said Tuesday.

“I’m not trying to exaggerate when I say that, in the Middle East, we are at the edge of a very deep precipice,” Josep Borrell Fontelles, the EU foreign policy chief, said after a hastily called meeting of European diplomats to discuss the crisis.

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