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Source: FT

Apr 16, 2024

Israel has no good choices on Iran

Its least bad options are a return to the status quo ante or carrying out a limited strike against military targets

By Richard Haass

The writer is a senior counsellor at Centerview Partners, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former US diplomat

 On Saturday, Iran launched a barrage of drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles at Israel from sites in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. This was in retaliation for an Israeli attack that killed senior Quds Force officers at an Iranian diplomatic compound in Syria. While the attack failed, it nevertheless crossed a line.

It was the first strike on Israel that came from Iran itself and was conducted by its military. Previously Iran’s war against Israel had taken place in the shadows, mostly through proxy forces such as Hizbollah or Hamas operating outside the country, albeit with Iranian backing.

Presumably the strike was meant to deter future Israeli attacks and to send a message that Israel could no longer target senior Iranian military leaders with impunity. While unlikely to achieve this objective, its other effects are becoming apparent.

First, it throws a political lifeline to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, allowing him an opportunity to rally the country against Iran. And even though deep rifts had previously emerged between Israel and its western partners, they came to its defence this weekend.

There are unconfirmed reports that certain Gulf States provided Israel with critical intelligence on the Iranian plot. The big question is where Israel and indeed the entire Middle East goes from here. It is clear that Iran wants things to go back to the way they were — namely, an indirect war waged covertly or through proxies.

The US also wants things to calm down. The last thing the White House needs is a wider war in the Middle East — particularly given that Iran has the ability to, in effect, close the Straits of Hormuz to shipping, something that would trigger a rise in oil prices and add to the inflationary pressures President Joe Biden faces at home.

The Biden administration has reportedly advised the Israelis to “take the win” in the aftermath of its successful air defence effort. So the question now is whether Israel is prepared to heed American advice (something it has not done in its war against Hamas) and leave things where they are.

Broadly speaking, Israel’s options are as follows: do nothing; return to the status quo ante of waging an indirect war against Iran; carry out a limited strike against military targets inside Iran associated with the attack; or carry out a large reprisal, including against known Iranian nuclear sites.

At the time of writing, Israel still has considerable room for choice as to what it does and when, something it would not have had if the attack had killed a significant number of Israelis or destroyed valuable military targets.

Doing nothing or even returning to the previous indirect war has upsides. It allows Israel to focus on Gaza and the return of its hostages, prevents a wider war along with its economic, military and human costs, placates the Americans, and avoids an action that would further normalise homeland on homeland attacks.

But it fails to impose a price on Iran for what it has done. For this reason, holding back will not satisfy those Israelis inside and outside the government whose priority is to restore deterrence. This strengthens the argument for limited strikes against military targets in Iran.

Such a response by Israel could degrade (albeit only temporarily) Iran’s ability to produce drones and missiles and signal that attacking Israel directly is a dangerous and costly proposition. Such attacks, though, run the risk of inviting further Iranian strikes on Israel and prompting Tehran to accelerate its nuclear programme in the belief that having nuclear weapons would deter the Israelis from future attacks on Iranian territory.

Meanwhile, attacking known nuclear sites in Iran would be widely seen as a major escalation and again put Israel on the defensive. It would be likely to lead Iran to redouble its efforts to build its nuclear programme in a manner Israel could not threaten, a development that in turn could lead several other countries in the region to pursue nuclear weapons.

The least bad, and most likely, choices for Israel are either resuming the indirect war against Iran or carrying out a limited strike against military targets inside the country. Ironically, the latter option does more to restore deterrence, but it simultaneously increases the risks of new Iranian attacks and a cycle of escalation.  

Regardless of Israel’s next move, short of a change in regime in Tehran, something beyond the ability of either Israel or the west to bring about, there is no way to solve the strategic challenge Iran poses. At best the threat is something to be managed. The question for Israel’s government is how best to do this.

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