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May 10, 2024

Israel and Iran: A New Deterrence Paradigm

By Scott Ritter, Washington

For a worrisome moment in mid-April, the world watched as Iran and Israel appeared to be on the cusp of a full-scale war that would have had dire consequences for global energy security. Deterrence postures that had kept an active hybrid conflict between the two regional powers from escalating into open conflict collapsed in the aftermath of Israel’s attack on an Iranian consular building in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Iran, having declared the Israeli action to be in violation of both international law and Iran’s own publicly declared “red line” regarding attacks against sovereign Iranian territory (the consular building, as an extension of the Iranian embassy, was seen by Tehran as falling into this category), launched a massive military retaliation using hundreds of drones and missiles.

Israel’s response, however, was muted, allowing both sides to back down from a dangerous escalation cycle. Iran’s action, when combined with Israel’s limited response, has redefined the deterrence posture of the region, with Iran challenging the deterrence dominance once enjoyed by Israel.

For decades, Israel and the US maintained a strategic deterrent against state-actor attacks on Israel through a collective military posture that presented any potential attacker with the perceived reality of a guaranteed overwhelming retaliation. This deterrence posture grew out of the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, where Iraq subjected Israel to 49 Scud missile attacks over the course of five weeks.

Since then, Israel achieved a de facto level of deterrence dominance over its regional adversaries, including both Syria and Iran.

Israel carried out numerous attacks targeting Iranian nuclear officials inside Iran, and Iranian military assets in Syria, without triggering any direct response. In both cases — but especially with Iran — the Israeli deterrence posture was backed by the perception that any Israeli action would be supported by US military power.

The recent Iranian missile and drone attack on Israel has fundamentally shifted this paradigm. By attacking Israel, Iran demonstrated that it was no longer deterred by the threat of Israeli retaliation. And by not participating in the Israeli retaliation, the US put Israel on notice that, at least as far as Iran is concerned, Israel is on its own when it comes to responding to Iranian attacks stemming from acts of Israeli aggression against Iran.

A New Deterrence Paradigm

The Apr. 1 attack by Israel on the Iranian consulate in Damascus violated an existing Iranian red line concerning attacks against Iranian territory. As a result, the Iranian response of Apr. 13 was inevitable.

At least nine Iranian missiles hit heavily protected targets inside Israel, penetrating a joint US-Israeli ballistic missile defense shield, but avoiding striking critical infrastructure or inflicting significant casualties. As such, Iran confronted Israel with the reality of an overwhelming Iranian retaliatory strike without subjecting Israel to the actual consequences of such.

This was similar to the approach taken by Iran in 2020 following the US assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. The Iranians retaliated by striking the Al-Assad air base in Iraq with at least 10 ballistic missiles, making it clear to the US that the missiles hit what they were aimed at, while underscoring the fact that the Iranian attack was designed to avoid casualties, thereby reducing political pressure on the US to retaliate.

The Iranian response to Soleimani’s assassination reversed a decades-long US deterrence posture that sought to prevent Iran from carrying out any direct attack on US miliary forces in the region. By attacking the Al-Assad air base, Iran put the US on notice that, going forward, there would be a retaliation for any direct US attack on Iran.

This new posture may have played out in the recent crisis. After Iran’s strike on Israel, the US informed Israel that any retaliatory strike it carried out would be done without the participation of US forces. While the US is seen as having a wider interest in avoiding a direct conflict with Iran, the US had also been put on notice by Iran that US military bases in the region would be subjected to attack should it participate in any action against Iran.

Israel had likely been working under the assumption that, if Israel were to attack Iran, the US would be a full partner to this action.

Any such Israeli assumptions were not drawn out of thin air, but rather were the direct result of military collaboration with the US. This saw US forces actively participate in major military exercises conducted by Israel in the past two years, which simulated a full-scale attack on Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile production infrastructure.

One of the outcomes of these exercises was the realization by Israel that it lacked the military capacity to execute a militarily meaningful strike against Iran without US participation. By limiting Israel’s retaliatory options to an Israeli-only action, the US effectively undermined Israel’s long-standing deterrence superiority over Iran.

Unintended Consequences

The Middle East today is a very different place than it was before Apr. 13. Then, Israel’s national security posture — premised on deterrence superiority — allowed Israel to engage in aggressive regional actions without fear of retaliation.

Today, because of Iran’s deterrence reversal against the US (in January 2020) and Israel (on Apr. 13), Israel must revise its behavior to take into account the clear message the US sent that its military support for an Israeli offensive operation against Iran is not guaranteed, and that Israeli military capabilities are not, in themselves, capable of achieving regional deterrence dominance.

Conventional wisdom would hold that this new reality would temper Israeli behavior going forward, including in Gaza, where Israel must consider the potential ramifications of its actions in a manner it never had to do previously.

But the reality is that by losing deterrence dominance over Iran, Israel freed up its options in Gaza. Previously, regional actors allied with Hamas, such as Hezbollah, had threatened major escalation if Israel were to move decisively against Hamas. The Hezbollah threat was tied to a model of escalation management that concluded with a general war between Hezbollah and Israel where Iranian support was assumed.

This chain of escalation, however, has yet to play out over the Gaza war, with Tehran seen as reluctant to put its powerful Hezbollah asset at risk. But by resetting the regional deterrence model, the Iranian government has inadvertently tied its own hands when it comes to supporting Hezbollah and, by extension, Hamas.

Before Apr. 13, the threat of a larger conflict with Hezbollah and Iran helped stay Israel’s hand when it came to provoking wider regional escalation. By limiting military strikes against Israel to retaliatory action predicated on an attack on Iran itself, the Iranian government has effectively reduced the threat that any conflict between Hezbollah and Israel would automatically expand to Iran, which previously gave pause to Israeli decision makers.

With reduced threat of Iranian escalation, Hezbollah becomes a more manageable problem. This, in turn, allows Israel to more confidently approach a military solution in Gaza. The current offensive in Rafah is evidence of this new reality. The irony is that Israel, having ceded deterrence dominance to Iran, has used the conditions to limit the military options of its regional adversaries, while maximizing its own strategic flexibility.

Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

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