Israel’s responsible and unmistakable message to Iran (2024)

After 45 years, the shadow war between Israel and Iran is officially out in the open, as both sides have now directly met each other, and while Iran has signaled they will not respond to Israel’s overnight strike on Isfahan, it is hard to see Israel’s retaliation as anything aside from responsible.

At the same time, the location of the strikes – just miles from a key Iranian nuclear site – sends a clear and unmistakable message to the Mullah’s: If you continue targeting Israel, we can – and will – hit back, and we can reach anywhere, including the most sensitive targets.

That being said, despite an Israeli strike seemingly designed to send a message rather than inflict significant damage, and Iranian declarations that this round of fighting is over for now, this conflict is far from over.

Put another way, the “war between wars” as Israel calls it, which Iran and Israel had fought since 1979, almost exclusively confined to Lebanon, Syria, and covert operations, is now verging on a hot war, destroying, perhaps permanently, the paradigm that had existed between these two regional enemies.

Indeed, from the moment Iran targeted Israel with the largest drone attack in history, launching over 300 attack drones, cruise, and ballistic missiles, it was clear that Israel would have to respond to this serious challenge to its sovereignty, even as the world desperately hoped, and publicly pleaded, with Israel to avoid anything so escalatory that it would spark a full-blown regional war.

In that same vein, virtually anyone who understands the Israeli psyche knew that President Biden’s advice that Israel “take the win” and not strike back after largely defeating Iran’s attack was a complete non-starter.

Israel’s national ethos, aptly described by Nathan Alterman as battle-weary youth presenting themselves to the nation as “the silver platter on which the Jewish State was given” and Israelis’ willingness to make sacrifices to defend their country meant that while the West may prioritize diplomacy, Israelis know they do not have that luxury.

There was absolutely no guarantee that Israel’s missile defense systems would perform so impressively, nor was it certain that the U.S., U.K., and other countries, particularly Jordan and Saudi Arabia, would have been able – or willing – to come to Israel’s aid the way they did.

Similarly, Israelis cannot take for granted that they will ever have the same level of international help, not after witnessing global public opinion turn against their country within days of October 7th when Israel suffered the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust.

Quite simply, Israel knew it must respond in order to restore deterrence and make it clear to Tehran – and its proxies – that it cannot attack Israel with impunity, nor would Iran be allowed to change the “rules” whereby Israel would be forced to accept repeated Iranian attacks.

That response appears to have come early Friday morning local time, with a series of Israeli strikes on Isfahan that reports say targeted Iranian Air Force assets, and as one Israeli intelligence official described it, “A birthday present to Ayatollah Khamenei” who turned 85 years old on Friday.

To that end, while there remains a lot to be learned about what exactly Israel targeted and the extent of the damage, the location and intensity of the attack were clearly designed to warn the Mullah’s that if Iran does not cease its attacks on the Jewish State, Israel can bring the fight to Iran’s doorstep.

Moreover, despite all indications that Isfahan’s nuclear and military sites were not the target, Israel’s ability to strike deep inside Iran, and so close to the Islamic Republic’s most important assets, will surely not go unnoticed in Tehran, particularly in light of Israel’s stunning success shooting down 99% of the Iranian drones and missiles last weekend.

In this sense, Israel’s twin goals – restoring deterrence and avoiding further escalation – were clearly met, for now. Taking a page from its Russian ally, Iranian state media has tried downplaying the attacks, claiming to have intercepted all Israeli drones and saying that any explosions were simply the result of the drones being shot down.

Notably, many, including far-right Israeli lawmakers have chastised Prime Minister Netanyahu for not striking Iran hard enough, with National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir tweeting that the attacks were “lame.”

However, what Ben-Gvir and others miss is that Iran knows that in a conventional war, they would have no chance against Israel’s vastly superior military. And despite all of their bellicose threats, Iran knows it currently has virtually no chance to follow through on their threats to “wipe Israel off the map.”

Thus, a middle-of-the-road strike was exactly the kind of strategic thinking that has, unfortunately, been all too absent of late in Israeli military thinking. By limiting the attack, Israel likely kept the goodwill it earned from its international partners without appearing f*ckless.

Seen in that context, Israel’s response was, in many ways, as close to perfect as possible in war. It changed Iran’s risk calculus, as Tehran cannot be certain there won’t be further, more covert operations targeting sensitive Iranian nuclear targets or high-ranking individuals, which Israel has excelled at in recent years, and it exposed the technological gap between the two nations in terms of offensive and defensive capabilities.

Further, if reports are correct, Israel and the U.S. may have reached an understanding whereby Israel agreed to significantly temper its retaliation in exchange for the Biden administration greenlighting an expansion of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas into Rafah, the last major city in Gaza where the remaining Hamas battalions and its senior leadership are hiding, along with any Israeli hostages.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether or not Iran decides to escalate further, or takes non-military steps such as intensifying its pursuit of nuclear weapons, but two things are clear: Israel sought to send a message to Iran while preserving its alliances for a more consequential possible strike on the Iranian nuclear program, and even more than that, calls for Israel to simply roll over and “take the win” were destined to fall on deaf ears.

Walking a very fine line between restoring deterrence and starting a large-scale war, Israel appears to have succeeded for now, but make no mistake, the conflict between Iran and Israel is closer to the beginning than the end.

Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.Saul Mangel is a senior strategist at Schoen Cooperman Research.

Editor’s note: This commentary has been substantially revised by the authors following Israeli strikes on Iran.

Israel’s responsible and unmistakable message to Iran (2024)
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