How Much Damage to Israel Did Iran Really Want to Cause?

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How Much Damage to Israel Did Iran Really Want to Cause?

On Saturday night, Iran retaliated against Israel over their strike on an Iranian consulate in Syria that killed key Iranian military commanders and Syrian civilians. In response, Iran launched a huge fleet of over 300 drones and missiles directly at Israel. Nearly all of them were knocked out of the sky by the United States and Israeli militaries, and there have been no reported casualties to date.

Even though Israel was the aggressor who started this by bombing an embassy, a direct attack on Israel is an escalation. Had all of these drones and missiles made it through Israel’s defenses, it would have caused widespread destruction that assuredly would have started a war in the Middle East the United States would face extreme pressure to join.

Which begs the question: did Iran really want to cause the kind of damage that their attack implied? Or did they just want to send a message?

The answer to this analysis lies in the foundational question of political science: are they a rational actor?

Rationality under this notion means acting in their own self-interests, not the literal definition of the word. Like any ruling coalition, the Iranian regime’s primary motivation is remaining in power. Say what you will about the United States’ ability to win wars in the Middle East (or lack thereof), but America’s capacity to create regime change is unmatched in the modern world. Iran could outlast the United States in a war, but history suggests the Ayatollah would not.

If war is what they believe to be in their best interests, then Iran has had plenty of opportunities to go to war with the United States since 9/11. Because of the shambolic nature of George W. Bush’s Iraq War and how it shattered the region, Iran ironically did find itself allied with some Iraqi elites during the Iraq War, but Iran never directly inserted itself into the conflict despite its myriad opportunities.

It seems like the only two options here are that Iran either wanted to cause widespread damage inside of Israel and ignite a broader war, or they wanted to send a message (there is a murkier third option we’ll explore in the next section). After the strike, Iran’s mission to the United Nations said “the matter can be concluded,” which buttresses the notion that this attack was primarily about communicating to the Israeli government that Iran has both the capability and the will to strike inside of Israel, but does not wish to do so.

Taken at their word and the logic that any rational actor in their situation would pursue, it’s quite possible that Iran launched all these drones and missiles with the intention of getting them shot down. The United States has an Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense that is designed for this kind of strike, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the weeklong rumors leading up to the attack were Iran telegraphing its intent and waiting for United States assets to position themselves to defend Israel.

Iran claimed that they gave its neighbors and the United States a warning three days ahead of the strike, but one senior American official anonymously told Reuters that was not true. That said, anonymous senior American officials have torched any remaining shreds of credibility and should be considered the biased actors they have proven themselves to be. I’m not one to take the autocratic Iranian regime’s claims at face value either, but the Reuters report has Turkish, Iraqi and Jordanian officials backing up their assertion while the American one stands on its own.

Given the bellicose nature of the unhinged Netanyahu regime and the looming potential of a second Trump presidency which would undoubtedly be more hostile to Iran, the only possible instance where this attack was intended to cause the destruction it implied is if the Iranian regime is an irrational actor.

Iran Isn’t Not Agitating for War, Though

Even if you accept that it is likely Iran was not hoping to carpet bomb Israeli cities, this is still an escalation. If it does wind up being true that the Iranian attacks were only on Israeli military outposts and thus fit the qualification for self-defense under international law, bombing Iranians in Syria and bombing Israelis in Israel are two very different things. Besides, the United States has proven that international law is Calvinball and the only enforceable law in this world is power anyway.

Additionally, the notion that this was all an attack designed to fail does not line up with statements from conservative Iranian politicians like Hamid-Reza Taraghi, who told the Financial Times that “It’s true that Israel intercepted a large number of ‘kamikaze’ drones. But by launching a barrage of drones, Iran’s aim was to overwhelm Israel’s multi-layered air defense so its missiles could penetrate the system.” Taraghi asserted that “The Islamic republic managed to strike a key military base with seven missiles.”

This is not just bluster either, as videos surfaced on social media Saturday night showing missiles landing at Nevatim Air Base in central Israel. Iran’s IRNA state news agency posted video of them, and ABC reported that five missiles hit Nevatim, damaging a C-130 transport aircraft in the process, while four landed at Negev Air Base, reportedly causing very little damage.

Given that an Israeli response is reportedly “imminent,” it is unlikely that Joe Biden’s request that Israel “take the win” and not retaliate will be met. Perhaps the best hope to avoid future escalation inside of Iran will be Joe Biden’s assertion to Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States will not aid Israeli offensive attacks.

We’ll need the White House’s restraint, because it’s clear that the corporate media war machine perfected during the lead-up to the Iraq War is already spinning back up. On Saturday night as Iran’s attack was winding down, CNN brought on Iran hawks John Bolton, former Republican turned Democratic Congressman Adam Kinzinger and Republican Congressman Mark Lawler to all agitate for war with Iran.

The only real pushback Wolf Blitzer and Jim Sciutto provided over the course of the hour to this open propagandizing for a major war was Jim Sciutto haplessly asking each one of the guests some variation of the question: you realize the United States would be dragged into this war, right?

That’s why they came on to your show, Jim! Maybe read up a little bit on your guests before inviting them on next time.

So much of the criticism in this crisis has rightly been levied at the two actors most responsible for it: the United States and Israel. Assessing which states have been the most rational actors to this point places Iran ahead of both countries who are destroying any credibility they had left by perpetuating what is clearly a genocide “with ample evidence.”

However, this attack does question how rational of an actor the Iranian regime is as well.

What the hell is Iran doing escalating a conflict with a rogue state like Israel backed by a cynical empire in the United States who attacks the Middle East like it’s a reflex? It does not make any sense for a country who tip-toed through all the provocations of the Trump administration to just throw it all away for Bibi Netanyahu and Joe Biden.

It is possible they launched this kind of attack inside of Israel in an attempt to influence the Israeli public. It’s one thing to support Benjamin Netanyahu’s crimes when you only see their impacts on TV, but waking up to a destroyed Iranian drone in your front yard asks a different kind of question about your support for Bibi.

If Iran was hoping to deplete Israeli backing for Netanyahu with this strike, it’s a risky bet. The history of, well, the world, proves that attacks inside of people’s borders have a galvanizing effect more often than not—George W. Bush right after 9/11 did have the highest approval rating of any president in Gallup’s polling history, after all.

So to close this blog in an attempt to answer the question posed in the title: I think Iran clearly did not hope that every single missile and kamikaze drone they launched would hit Israel, but the success of their missiles hitting Israeli air bases suggests this was a military operation as much as it was a messaging one. Whatever their intentions, they are now secondary to the bigger problems they created by successfully striking some targets inside of Israel. They escalated a conflict with an unhinged rogue state and have helped make a large regional war in the Middle East more likely than it was before Saturday night.

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