What’s Next Between Israel and Iran?

Big Story Israel-Iran Conflict
What’s Next Between Israel and Iran?

The world is waiting to see how Israel will respond to Iran’s missile-and-drone barrage this weekend – and whether that response will escalate this confrontation or temper the potential of an all-out war. 

Over the weekend, Iran directed more than 300 missiles and drones at Israel in retaliation for an Israeli strike on an Iranian consulate in Syria, which killed diplomats and two top leaders in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran telegraphed its attack, and Israeli air defense and a coalition of allies, the US included, intercepted most of the assault, so only a few projectiles hit Israel. One girl was reportedly wounded, and a missile did “light damage” to an Israeli base. As it happened, Iranian officials said the matter “can be deemed concluded.” They added that this was between Iran and Israel, and the US “MUST STAY AWAY.”

Iran probably didn’t need all caps, as the United States very much seems to want to stay away. President Joe Biden has told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “slow things down,” and that the US won’t join Israel in any counterattack against Tehran. The US, along with Israel’s allies in Europe and the Middle East, are basically telling Israel to take the “win” on this – Iran did no real damage, and all your friends defended you, just like we said we would. So please, avoid dragging yourself into a second war, or any of us into a messy, unpredictable, destabilizing conflict with Iran.  

“President Biden’s comments that the United States is not going to join Israel in any kind of offensive strike – I think that totally changed the calculus for the Israelis on what they’re going to do,” said Michael DiMino, a former intelligence analyst and fellow at Defense Priorities. 

“If you’re looking at the tone and tenor of statements from the Israeli government, Israeli media, I think they’re already downshifting a little bit,” he added. 

Israel has not yet responded, so it’s still unclear whether Israel will take that approach. Even if it does, it’s also hard to know whether Israel’s chosen retaliatory measures will have the intended effect of sending a message without further provoking Iran. Israel and Iran have been engaged in a shadow war for years, but Israel’s Syrian consulate strike and Iran’s truly unprecedented direct attack on Israeli soil – whatever it did or did not accomplish – pushed hostilities out into the open. The ever-present risk of escalation, deliberately, or by miscalculation, can’t be underestimated or dismissed. 

But it is not inevitable, either. Iran gave a big heads up about this salvo, but Tehran may not have fired hundreds of missiles and drones at Israel for symbolism alone. Tehran showcased its conventional military power and capabilities. As experts pointed out, Iran probably got some information from this – testing the depth of Israeli air defenses, for example. Iran may have calibrated its attack this time, but that may not be a forever guarantee. 

Israel’s success defending against Iran may be the best case for restraint. “The fact that Israel was a clear winner from this makes it easier,” said Kenneth Pollack, an expert in the region and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). “If Israel had gotten hit hard, I think there’s no question that the Israelis want to hit back right at Iran. They would feel the need to do so they would need to reestablish their deterrence. But since Iran’s deterrence fizzled in this, Israel doesn’t face the same pressure.” It also helps that Israel’s friends showed up in a big way: the United States, Britain, France, but also countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They did so even as relations are fraying over Israel’s prosecution of its war in Gaza

This showdown between Israel and Iran cannot be unwound from Israel’s war in Gaza. Since Hamas’s October 7 attack, and Israel’s relentless war against Gaza, the world has feared a wider conflict in the Middle East. But the region has been in dangerous chaos for months, from the Houthis attacking ships in the Red Sea to Iranian-backed militias killing US service members at an installation in Jordan to Israel and Iranian proxies, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, exchanging fire across the border. 

The United States’ apparent willingness to pressure Israel on Iran contrasts with its failure to impose any costs or constraints on how Israel is executing its war in Gaza. This weekend, the U.S. and the partner coalition did what allies do: they showed up and defended Israel against an attack. But they are also signaling that they have their limits. Avoiding a calamitous war with Iran is a good red line. But so is preventing atrocities and starvation in Gaza. As long as that continues, so does the risk of an all-out-escalation. The wider regional conflict is already here. It is just a question of how it unfolds, and how much more destructive it may be. 

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