Analysis'Iran gave Israel its first strategic win in this war'

With its aerial attack, Iran could break Israel’s isolation and reframe the Gaza war

With pressure building to end the fight against Hamas, Tehran pushes allies together to thwart unprecedented missile and drone strike, in reminder of broader regional threat

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A demonstrator holds up a poster of the late IRGC Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone attack in 2020 in Iraq, during an anti-Israeli gathering in front of the British Embassy in Tehran, Iran, early April 14, 2024. The demonstration was held as Iran launched its first direct military attack against Israel.  (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
A demonstrator holds up a poster of the late IRGC Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone attack in 2020 in Iraq, during an anti-Israeli gathering in front of the British Embassy in Tehran, Iran, early April 14, 2024. The demonstration was held as Iran launched its first direct military attack against Israel. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

It’s hard to imagine Iran’s much-anticipated attack on Israel going any worse for the Islamic Republic.

Tehran has been displaying weakness for months. On January 3, Islamic State terrorists killed at least 84 people in two explosions near the grave of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, as they marked the fourth anniversary of his death in a US drone strike in Iraq four years earlier.

The previous month, Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni terrorist group, killed 11 Iranian police officers.

Iran, desperate to show some muscle, launched missiles into Pakistan, saying it was targeting Jaish al-Adl. But nuclear-armed Pakistan wouldn’t back down, hitting back with missiles and fighter jets within Iran — the first bombing attack on Iranian soil since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Its bluff called, Iran agreed to deescalate.

But it is along Israel’s borders where Iran has seen its credibility come under the most pressure.

Honor guards carry the coffin of Razi Moussavi, a senior commander in the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), killed on December 25 in an alleged Israeli strike in Syria, during his funeral procession at the Imam Ali shrine in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf, on December 27, 2023.(Qassem al-Kaabi / AFP)

While Israel struggles to locate and target Hamas leaders in Gaza, it has shown a striking ability and willingness to take out Iranian officials in Syria. Two weeks ago, Israel allegedly assassinated the top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps official in Syria, Mohammad Reza Zahedi, and his deputy, Mohammad Haj Rahimi. In December, senior IRGC officer Brig. Gen. Razi Mousavi was killed in an alleged Israeli airstrike in Damascus.

Iran had to show its regional proxies, and its own citizens, that it could extract a price from Israel, especially after Hamas had proven that Israel could be humiliated by its October 7 surprise attack.

The result was underwhelming, to say the least.

The attacks overnight Saturday-Sunday only managed to harm one Israeli, a 7-year-old Muslim girl.

“It’s kind of pathetic,” said Danielle Pletka, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. “This is not the outcome they were hoping for.”

US President Joe Biden, along with members of his national security team, receives an update on an ongoing airborne attack on Israel from Iran as they meet in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington, April 13, 2024. (Adam Schultz/The White House via AP)

Even among Israel’s closest allies, pressure had been growing to end the war in the Gaza Strip. The focus since October 7 had shifted to suffering Gazan civilians, with the world losing sight of the need to decisively defeat Hamas on the battlefield.

With its missile and drone attack on Israel, Iran succeeded in rallying the US and top European powers to Israel’s side. Not only did the US, the UK, and France express their unequivocal support for Israel; they actively took part in its defense, using a network of satellite, planes, and radars on the ground and at sea.

And instead of the UN Security Council discussing the need for a ceasefire in Gaza, it will be debating the Iranian threat and Israel’s right to self-defense on Sunday, with three permanent members sure to band together to condemn Tehran and Moscow.

Hamas, meanwhile, defended the attack publicly.

There could be no better reminder to Israel’s shaky allies of what is at stake in Gaza for the region and for the world.

Displaced children pose standing at their tent on the first day of the Eid al-Fitr festival, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on April 10, 2024 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Even Jordan, which has been criticizing Israel bitterly since October 7, defended the Jewish state.

The Hashemite Kingdom has come under growing pressure from Iran and its allied Shia militias in recent months –Tehran even reportedly threatened to attack Jordan if it cooperated with Israel in defending against Saturday’s attack — and it gained another important reminder that Israel is the only country fighting back militarily against Iranian designs in the region.

Tehran refocused Arab attention on the importance of stopping Iran’s nuclear program, Pletka maintained: “They’re looking at the attack, and saying, ‘That was bad. What would have happened if they had nuclear weapons?'”

“Iran officially inaugurated the regional defense coalition that has been under works for the last decade,” observed Israeli military theorist Brig. Gen. (res.) Eran Ortal.

This May 12, 2014 US Air Force handout photo shows members of the Royal Jordanian Air Force rushing to launch an F-16 Fighting Falcon during a scramble competition at Exercise Eager Tiger at an air base in northern Jordan. (AFP)

“Iran gave Israel its first strategic achievement in this war,” he continued.

The Iranian attacks also succeeded in pushing the Republican Party to accelerate an aid bill for Israel, which otherwise would have been stalled in the House.

The nature of the Iranian attack — a mix of missiles and drone at varying speeds –was another reminder that Israel’s fight against Hamas is part of a larger Western democratic struggle against the Russia-Iran axis.

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War pointed out that Saturday’s assault mirrored Russian attacks on Ukraine.

People lay toys and flowers on the graves of a family killed in a fire when Russian drone hit their home in a residential neighborhood in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Monday, February 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrii Marienko)

“Russian strikes have attempted to determine the optimal package to penetrate Western air and missile defenses,” wrote the ISW. “Russia has experimented with combinations of ballistic and cruise missiles alongside Iranian drones in Ukraine.”

That insight points the way toward an Israeli response, though the Biden administration is doing all it can to push Jerusalem to deescalate.

An Israeli strike on Iran’s drone facilities would not only be a fitting rejoinder to Saturday’s strikes, but would also help Ukraine in the face of Russian attacks. It would also be a message to Biden and the Europeans to consider the larger regional picture as they push Israel to wind down the campaign against Hamas in Gaza.

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