Middle East War

TLR earlier this week engaged in the following Q&A:

Q:           I understand, Mr. Realist, that you recently repeated that “Iran and Israel have been dancing with war for decades.” Could you explain what you meant?
REALIST:           Since the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, Iran has been flexing its muscles and projecting its power by sponsoring the elimination of Israel. Its efforts have included military and logistical support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Hamas in Gaza, Islamic Jihad in the West Bank, and the Houthis in Yemen. However, although the Iranian military has been working closely with proxies in each country, until this week Iran itself had not directly attacked Israel. Its aggressions were through third parties, evidenced most recently by the Hamas terrorist attack on October 7, 2023. Its prior aggressions included support for a variety of terrorist actions, periodic missile attacks on Israel from Lebanon and Gaza, backing Hezbollah in its 2006 war with Israel, etc.

Israel in turn has engaged in targeted military forays against Iranian forces in Syria, cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the sabotaging of Iranian technology, and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, all with the goal of undermining Iran’s sponsorship of anti-Israel proxies as well as derailing its nuclear weapons program.

Q:           Hostilities between Iran and Israel recently increased after Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1st. Why did Israel attack the Iranian consulate?
REALIST:           Reports suggest that, for many of the reasons that motivated President Trump to order the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in 2020, Israel decided to eliminate senior commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ al-Quds force who were managing Iran’s proxy wars against Israel and who Israel believed were preparing Iranian proxies for further military actions against Israel.

Precisely why Israel chose to do so at that time is unclear. Some believe that Israel’s goal was to prevent an imminent escalation of proxy hostilities in Lebanon and Syria, while others argue that both the timing and location evidence an effort by Benjamin Netanyahu to retain power and rally support from sympathetic European and Middle East allies …, which is precisely what has happened.

Q:           Who was killed in that attack?
REALIST:           Among the victims were 7 Iranian officers including 3 generals: Brig. General Amirollah, the chief of the general staff for al-Quds forces in Syria and Lebanon; Brig. General Zahedi, who was responsible for supplying Iranian missiles to Hezbollah; and Gen Rahimi.

Q:           What made Israel’s air strike different? Why did it trigger a military response from Iran itself?
REALIST:           Indirect hostilities between Iran and Israel have been escalating for years, more so since October 7th when Iran began pressuring its proxies to support Hamas. Israel, in response, increased its military actions against those proxies, including through an Israeli air strike in late March that killed 38 soldiers and 7 members of Hezbollah in Syria, reportedly in response to proxy drone strikes on Israeli military positions. Escalation has followed escalation. Israel’s air strike on April 1st destroyed an Iranian consulate building. Although a consulate is not an embassy, it traditionally has been viewed as also being physically part of the foreign country occupying it. Israel’s bombing of the Iranian consulate therefore was viewed by many, including Iran, as the equivalent of Israel bombing Iran itself.

Q:           What did Israel expect Iran’s response to be?
REALIST:           It should have expected a robust military response. Suggestions to the contrary are disingenuous. Israel’s actions crossed a line. Although some have sought to analogize those actions to NATO’s accidental bombing in 1999 of China’s embassy in Belgrade, which created a furor in China, Israel’s attack was purposeful and intentionally provocative.

Q:           Did the U.S. play a role in Israel’s attack?
REALIST:           No. The U.S. was not informed beforehand by Israel, presumably because Israel knew that it would disapprove.

Q:           How did Iran respond to Israel’s April 1st Damascus attack?
REALIST:           On Sunday, April 14, 2024, Iran directly (as well as through its proxies in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon) fired 170 drones, more than 120 ballistic missiles, and more than 30 cruise missiles at Israel. This was the first direct attack on Israel by Iran …, the first explicit act of “hot war.”

Q:           What role did the U.S. play in Iran’s response?
REALIST:           The U.S. pressured Iran not to take actions that would ignite a regional war, indicating that the West would strongly support Israel. As a result, Iran apparently alerted America beforehand to both the timing and origins of the projectiles directed at Israel so that defensive measures would be taken …, and they were successful. None of the munitions reached their targets and there were no Israeli casualties. Iran thereafter announced that “The matter can be deemed concluded.” Iran’s “escalation” accordingly became was a face-saving effort. Whether or not it results in continuing military escalations depends on Israel.

Q:           So, then, what’s next?
REALIST:           No country, including Iran and Israel, wants to see a widening conflict. On the other hand, there are those who see escalation as an opportunity. John Bolton, for example, believes that Iran’s attack on Israel was “a massive failure of Israeli and American deterrence.” Bolton believes that “far stronger” actions are necessary and that now is the time for Israel, with American support, to “destroy” Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities.

Q:           I understand that whatever Israel decides to do is not in America’s control. But doesn’t America have leverage? What should the U.S. do to prevent a widening Middle East war?
REALIST:           Part of America’s role as global hegemon is to prevent wars from spreading. Iran has been waging war against Israel and America for more than 40 years. Sponsoring, arming and advising terrorist proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere is “hot warfare” and should be addressed proportionately. That has not happened. America did not deter Iran under the disparate policies pursued by Presidents Obama and Trump. John Bolton is right insofar as now presents an opportunity to do so.

When nuclear superpowers like America and Russia face-off in a proxy war – whether that be in Vietnam, Afghanistan or Ukraine –, there is danger in direct confrontation that justifies the interposition of proxies. Iran, however, is not a nuclear superpower. Iran therefore should not be allowed to continue waging “hot war” without consequences.

One option would be for America to expand the policy executed by President Trump in assassinating Qasem Suleimani and by Israel in eliminating Generals Amirollah, Zahedi and Rahimi. To do so, America would publicly advise Iran that its sponsorship of proxy warfare cannot continue and that any member of Iran’s military who travels to Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Jordon, etc., will be treated as a “hostile” and become a target … and America thereafter will engage in target practice in order to terminate any such exporter-of-war. 

As a trade-off for such a deterrence policy, Israel would commit to take no direct military action in response to Iran’s provocations …, although perhaps that window of opportunity may have passed as Israel has responded directly (if subtly) to Iran’s attack and the initiative now has passed to Iran.

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