Analysis

As Israel mulls revenge, preserving US-led cooperation also seen as dealing blow to Iran

Iran felt compelled to respond to strike on its generals, but Israel could hold back and still come out on top by making sure its alliances remain intact while Tehran’s fall apart

Jeremy Sharon

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

A man walks past a banner depicting missiles launching from a representation of the map of Iran colored with the Iranian flag in central Tehran on April 15, 2024. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)
A man walks past a banner depicting missiles launching from a representation of the map of Iran colored with the Iranian flag in central Tehran on April 15, 2024. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Iran’s unprecedented air attack early Sunday deposited the proverbial ball squarely in Israel’s court, forcing Jerusalem to choose between a forceful response that would punish Iran and make it think twice about attacking again — but risk a wider conflagration — and heeding allies’ calls to walk away and let the fighting subside for now.

So far, if comments from officials and leaks from cabinet discussions are reliable, Israel seems to be leaning toward launching some sort of reply, but one that stops short of the devastating retaliation urged by hardline members of the broader Israeli security cabinet, including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

Both have argued that Israel must respond harshly to the Iranian attack in order to restore deterrence, but have failed to account for how Israel could fare should it lose support from the US and others who stepped in to make sure it was well defended overnight Saturday-Sunday.

Though many Israelis shudder at the idea of letting the most significant missile attack on Israel ever go unanswered, experts say that the success of air defense systems and allies in shooting down nearly all of the missiles and drones launched at Israel gives Jerusalem options. Meanwhile, the US has made it clear that it won’t support a response, meaning a retaliation would put at risk the continued cooperation of Washington and other allies following its lead.

Thus, as it mulls how to move forward, Israel’s cabinet is looking for a way to ensure the Iranian assault does not go without any response, while taking care that any action it takes does not help spark a larger regional conflagration. And it must find a way to keep its allies, particularly the US, on its side.

Pulling this off won’t be easy.

What might Israel’s response look like?

According to Sima Shine, a former Mossad official who heads the Iran program at the Institute for National Security Studies, any Israeli retaliation will likely be limited to an attack on Iranian military facilities, similar to how Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps targeted the Nevatim air force base in Sunday’s attack.

F-35i fighter jets are seen at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel, in an undated handout photo. (Israel Defense Forces)

“If Israel retaliates, it would be on the same parameters, on military sites, not civilian sites, and probably not on economic sites,” she said. “If Israel retaliates, it would be against different military systems, and we do have a lot of intelligence on what is happening [militarily] in Iran.”

Menahem Merhavy, a research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University, said that a strike on a military facility inside Iran would likely avoid targeting more substantial or sensitive facilities. He surmised that both Israel and Iran were operating under something like a “tacit agreement” to keep the conflict from boiling over, with neither side interested in all-out war.

Merhavy noted that the Iranians made known that they had launched their attack against Israel before it actually arrived, and even said while its drones and missiles were in the air that it considered the matter closed. Iran was making clear it sought to retaliate for the April 1 attack that killed IRGC general Mohammad Reza Zahedi and six others inside the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus, but did not want conflict with Israel to escalate further.

Motorists drive past a billboard showing named Iranian ballistic missiles, with text in Arabic reading “the honest [person’s] promise” and in Persian “Israel is weaker than a spider’s web”, in Valiasr Square in central Tehran on April 15, 2024. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)
Unlike Israel, Iran had no choice but to respond, argued Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at Reichman University.

Iran’s deterrence had been so badly damaged by that alleged Israeli attack in Damascus itself, as well as what Javendafar described as the “underperformance” of its regional allies and proxies, that its credibility as a regional power could be called into question if it did not issue a forceful response to Zahedi’s assassination.

“Hamas has suffered a great military defeat in Gaza, the same goes for Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah can’t successfully pressure Israel to end the war in Gaza despite trying, so the Iranian regime felt like it needed to respond to restore deterrence,” said Javendafar of Iran’s regional proxies.

The Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, with the lights of missile interceptions visible in the night sky, early on April 14, 2024, after Iran fired ballistic missiles at Israel. (Social media/X; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Merhavy said that Tehran needed to attack to answer domestic critics who said that it had tolerated Israel killing IRGC officers sent to Syria, after several attacks in recent months.

“The message was more to its own population and its proxies that the regime doesn’t just talk and doesn’t just send others out to fight its wars, but that it does its fighting itself,” he said, adding that morale in the IRGC had become a problem because of the repeated elimination of senior commanders without a substantive response.

And Javendafar pointed out that allowing militias it supports in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere to continue taking the lead in attacking Israel could have left it looking weak to its own people.

“Iran was always happy to get its proxies to do the job, but now it felt that it had been challenged, and that if it didn’t respond the people of Iran might believe the regime to be a toothless tiger. And dictatorial regimes don’t like such an image of themselves in front of their own people because it could encourage more instability,” he said.

Shine noted that the Iranian regime has become increasingly extreme in recent years, with hardline elements backed by the IRGC and likely to push for revenge holding positions of power around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

“The IRGC and the people around Khamenei have the upper hand [over pragmatists] and said they have to retaliate, knowing, however, that Israel would itself retaliate… The leadership is very monolithic and is very dependent on the IRGC,” she said.

Iranian ‘nightmare’

On the other hand, Israel’s deterrence is well-established, and rather than potentially being diminished without a response to Iran’s attack was actually bolstered in two key ways during this round of fighting, Merhavy said. One was with the defensive showcase it put on with its multi-layered missile defense array, which had extraordinary success against the Iranian aerial onslaught

“Iran has learned that its ability to hit targets in Israel is very limited, almost to the point that it does not even have that capability,” he said.

The audacious assassination itself of Zahedi also boosted Israeli deterrence.

In this photo released by the official Syrian state news agency SANA, emergency service workers clear the rubble at a destroyed building allegedly struck by Israeli jets in Damascus, Syria, Monday, April 1, 2024. (SANA via AP)

“I think people like Zahedi now know they are viable targets, and his successors understand that this is the situation. That message was sent and I don’t think the Iranian barrage changes that,” Merhavy said.

Iran’s largely failed attack also sent a message to groups backed by Iran that Tehran has little will or ability to step in and aid them directly.

Hamas has learned that Iran is apparently only willing to stand up for its own position, unlike its clear refusal to get directly involved in Hamas’s attack on Israel following the October 7 atrocities, said Merhavy.

“And both Hamas and Hezbollah have learned that Iran’s ability to attack Israel is very limited,” he continued. “That causes problems for Hezbollah and gives Israel leverage in its efforts to get Hezbollah to withdraw from southern Lebanon.”

Shine argued that by leaving its planes grounded, Israel could ensure Iran remains isolated on the world stage and preserve the international alliance that helped defeat Tehran’s air attack, a far better outcome than any possible gain from the massive response advocated by Smotrich and Ben Gvir.

“It would be much more devastating to the Iranians if Israel succeeded in changing the architecture of the Middle East in a way which would be understood that Iran has its proxies, but everyone else is cooperating against them,” she said.

US forces destroyed 80 of the 170 drones launched by Iran at Israel, while Britain, Jordan and France all helped to intercept the UAV armada, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates reportedly passed on intelligence that was key in thwarting the attack.

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz himself emphasized the importance of preserving this alliance in comments made on Sunday before the forum convened, stating that the world had “clearly stood together with Israel” against the Iranian attack.

He described the international response as “a strategic achievement,” and one that should be strengthened.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi meets with CENTCOM chief Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla at the IDF HQ in Tel Aviv, April 12, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

“This regional alliance is more important than a response to the Iranian attack, and we shouldn’t endanger that alliance,” said Merhavy.

Arab nations that were involved took a risk in participating in the defeat of the Iranian attack. Israel “shouldn’t push this goodwill” too far, he argued.

The fact that 99% of the missiles and drones were intercepted, according to the IDF, with only one person — a young Bedouin girl — injured by the launch of some 350 deadly projectiles, meant that Israel does not need to retaliate immediately and can think carefully about how it does respond, Shine said.

She described the US-led regional alliance that came to Israel’s defense as a strategic failure for Tehran. “This is Iran’s nightmare,” she said.

“The question,” Shine added, “is whether Israel’s leadership is able to wait and have strategic revenge and not just an operational attack.”

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