Out of the Shadows: War with Iran (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- April 15, 2024)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. On Saturday night, Iran for the first time in history attacked Israel directly and openly, with missiles and UAVs. What is the backdrop, what is likely to happen now, and how does this affect both the region and Israel-US relations?

A. In the course of Saturday night’s attack, Iran fired (by Israel’s count) 185 UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones), 36 cruise missiles and 110 ballistic missiles. Virtually none of these penetrated Israeli air defenses; one Israeli child was badly injured. Israel, the US, the UK and Jordan all participated in intercepting incoming missiles and UAVs. Israel’s innovative multi-tier anti-missile defense system performed well; Israel claimed 99 percent intercept success. Supportive missile and rocket attacks on Israel from Yemen (Houthis) and Lebanon (Hezbollah) were equally ineffective.

Despite, or possibly because of the absence of damage, the unprecedented Iranian attack has the potential to alter military developments, tactics and alliances throughout the Middle East. Our analysis here must be understood to reflect no more than preliminary insights and assessments. As of this writing, Israel had not responded militarily though it committed publicly to do so.

Q. Start with the backdrop: what triggered the Iranian UAV and missile attack?

A. On April 1, in a precision air attack attributed to Israel, seven senior officers in Iran’s al-Quds Force, led by Brigadier General Mohammed Reza Zahedi, the man in charge of operations in Syria and Lebanon, were killed in an air attack on a building claimed by Iran to be its consulate in Damascus, adjacent to the Iranian embassy. The seven were involved in coordinating the activities of Iran’s armed proxies in the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon with which Israel has a long-standing low-level conflict that has been exacerbated by the Gaza War.

The Damascus attack was understood to have violated the unwritten ‘rules’ of a long-running Israel-Iran proxy war in the region in two ways: targeting a building enjoying, ostensibly, diplomatic immunity (a claim unsubstantiated by Iran); and targeting such a senior Iranian military figure. Iran vowed revenge, but as in similar instances in the past, bided its time.

What was different this round was, first, the target of Iran’s revenge attack--Israel itself; second, the massive nature of the Iranian response; and third, the fact that Iran advertised its response in advance--apparently to ensure that it did not provoke uncontrolled escalation.

Q. The backdrop is also Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza and low-level warfare against Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, along with escalation in the West Bank...

A. Backdrop, perhaps. But there is far more contrast here--strategic, international--than similarity. On Saturday night the Biden administration, which together with much of the world has lately been highly critical of the Netanyahu government’s gross excesses in Gaza, lined up squarely behind Israel. US forces, coordinated by the on-the-ground presence of CENTCOM commander Michael Kurilla, participated in intercepting Iranian attack weapons. So did Cyprus-based British forces, and French forces confronting the Houthis at the southern end of the Red Sea.

So, too, did Jordan, which overlooked militant opposition to Israel’s Gaza campaign on the part of the Hashemite Kingdom’s large Palestinian population and lined up against the greater evil in its eyes, too: militant, Islamist Iran.

Q. What does this mean for those US and other western actors who have been threatening or campaigning to restrict arms supplies to Israel because of horrific casualty rates among Gazan civilians?

A. It is difficult to rationalize the notion of boycotting arms supplies--because of Gaza--to the very same Israel Defense Forces that are fighting back against an Iranian enemy whose threat unites Israel with both the West and moderate Arab states like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Weapons, after all, are transferable from front to front. Hezbollah and the Houthis attack Israel with reference to both Hamas and Iran.

Still, Iran’s blatant and powerful act of direct war against Israel clearly changes, or should change, Israel’s risk calculations vis-à-vis the Iran-led Axis of Resistance. Until Saturday, and for the past half year, Israel’s main military effort was directed, with highly problematic results, against Hamas in Gaza. Hezbollah presented a secondary, low-level front. The Houthis were dealt with by a US-led alliance in the southern Red Sea. Iran’s persistent efforts to arm militias in and around Syria were countered by ‘campaign between wars’ Israel Air Force strikes.

Iran, which since becoming an Islamic republic in 1979 has vowed to destroy Israel, was behind all these Axis of Resistance enemies and efforts, but indirectly. Iran was secondary; Hamas was primary.

Now Iran and Israel are directly at war. True, Iran appears to have calibrated its UAV and missile response to Israel so as to generate minimal Israeli losses while ‘sending a message’: to restore Iranian deterrence and self-respect after the assassination of its Quds leaders. In other words, Iran appears to be interested in preventing further escalation lest matters spiral out of control.

Yet, inevitably, Israel has vowed to retaliate for Saturday night’s attack, if only to send its own message of deterrence and resilience. US President Biden has reportedly advised Netanyahu to “take the win” and desist; he said the US would not take part in any act of Israeli retaliation. Israel’s success in blunting Iran’s attack means there is no pressure and no reason to respond immediately.

A number of experienced Israeli TV commentators suggested in the early hours of Sunday morning that Israel now had the opportunity to shift the focus of the war from Gaza to Iran. Declare a freeze on the increasingly problematic Gaza front and withdraw the IDF, thereby satisfying Hamas conditions for freeing Israeli hostages and silencing US and western condemnation.  Concentrate for the moment on the far-greater enemy to the east.

A smart Netanyahu should seize on this opportunity. After all, Israel has already responded to Biden administration pressure by radically reducing its deployment in the Strip and radically increasing humanitarian aid and access. One more step now suggests itself if Netanyahu is interested and can rebuff pressure regarding Gaza from his messianist coalition hardliners who covet Palestinian territory.

Q. In retrospect, a smart Netanyahu would in the first place not have approved the attack on Tehran’s Damascus ‘consulate’, thereby preventing Saturday night’s attack and the opening of this ominous new front with Iran...

A. I happen to think that the Quds Force senior officers were fair targets. They were behind a lot of lethal Islamist aggression against Israel. Note that the Biden administration, which commendably condemned Israel for accidentally killing humanitarian aid workers in Gaza, did not criticize the attack on the Quds Force general and his staff.

The Damascus Iranian ‘consulate’ was indeed problematic; attacking it could usher in Iranian and other revenge attacks on Israeli diplomatic facilities. Netanyahu’s decision to attack it could reflect yet another instance of his bad decision-making. Still, Iran and others have targeted Israeli and American embassies in the past (Buenos Aires in 1992, Tehran in 1979).

Had Iran sought to avoid opening up this new dimension of its war with Israel, it could easily have opted for a less aggressive retaliatory option. Indeed, that was the assessment on April 1 of Israeli intelligence, which once again, as on October 7, misjudged the enemy.

Q. Is it fair to say that the Biden administration’s strong criticism of the Gaza operation reflects legitimate concern regarding the Palestinian issue whereas Biden’s support for Israel’s stand against Iran reflects very different and equally legitimate concern to counter the Iranian and Iran-backed threat to the entire Middle East?

A. That is a fair assessment. But only up to a point. Hamas, after all, is militantly Islamist and like Iran does not at all countenance Israel’s existence. Its Axis of Resistance allies like Hezbollah and the Houthis are equally extreme in their Islamist rejection of Israel. In other words, Israeli opposition to Hamas is legitimate. Even West Bank-based Palestinian Authority leader Fateh--increasingly seen as a candidate to administer a post-war Gaza Strip--last week accused Iran of trying to “exploit” Palestinians by spreading chaos and spilling “the blood of our people” in the West Bank, where Iran is constantly smuggling weapons to extremist elements.

Q. Bottom line?

A. We are in a very early phase of a new stage of conflict. The Gaza War has potentially now been dwarfed by an Iran-Israel regional conflict. The Arab world is taking sides based on the Islamist or anti-Islamist orientation of diverse actors and regimes, and the US is leading the western world on the side of the anti-Iran forces. Saturday night already witnessed unprecedented Israel-Arab-US-European regional military cooperation regarding early warning and missile and UAV interception in the skies of the Middle East--from Bab al-Mandeb to Cyprus to Tehran.

Does this bespeak an opportunity for Israel to emerge from its international isolation? Saturday night seemingly offered an opening.

Looking back, the Iran-backed Hamas attack of October 7 reflected an appalling collapse of Israeli deterrence and military readiness and a failure of Israeli intelligence. During Saturday night’s Iran attack, Israeli intelligence and military flexibility were excellent.

This latest attack could, if dealt with by Israel with wisdom and patience, be exploited as a means of leveraging an end to the Gaza conflict and the cementing of a regional alliance. It could represent a radical upgrading of Israeli deterrence and the genuine integration of Israel, spearheaded by Jordan’s courageous act of partnership, into an anti-Islamist, pro-western Middle East alliance. Whether Saturday’s attack offers an opportunity to deal with Iran’s very worrisome nuclear program is a decision Israel cannot and must not contemplate on its own.

Alternatively, if Iran’s aggression is treated by the Netanyahu government with the same narrow self-interest and political-survival tactics as the Gaza War, Saturday’s attack could lead to dangerous escalation on yet another front. One way or another, it is instructive to note how, within the space of half a year, two Islamist enemies, Hamas and Iran, proved prepared to defy Israeli intelligence assessments and, far worse, challenge Israeli deterrence.