Israeli and Iranian strikes transform Middle East geopolitics

Israel and Iran have now thrust the Middle East into a dangerous new era by erasing the taboo against overt military strikes on one another’s territory.

The question now is whether each side’s imperatives to demonstrate deterrence and to save face have been satisfied – or whether the enemies are destined to enter a new cycle of escalation that could make the crisis even more perilous.

Most immediately, the ball is in Iran’s court after Israel conducted strikes near the city of Isfahan early Friday.

Initial reports suggest that the action was limited and, according to US officials, did not target Iranian nuclear sites in the area. Instead, it may have been intended to demonstrate Israeli capacity to penetrate deep into Iran following Iran’s unprecedented missile and drone attack on Israel last weekend, which was largely thwarted.

Still, the fact that Israel chose a target inside Iran rather than confining its response to Iranian proxies in Syria or Iraq, for instance, significantly ups the ante in the confrontation and raises the possibility that the showdown could quickly get out of control.

The Israeli action last weekend that was largely repulsed by Israeli, US and allied defensive systems followed an Israeli strike on Iranian consular buildings in Damascus, Syria, that killed two senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers.

With the latest twist of the crisis, Israel’s strikes appeared to be trying to thread a needle in demonstrating that it can evade Iranian defenses at will – and in the vicinity of Iranian nuclear facilities – while not creating a situation that would oblige Iran to respond with another escalation that could push the rivals toward all-out war.

The risk in trying to navigate this narrow path is that the region is so on edge six months into Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza and the political tensions are so acute inside both countries that it is hard for each side to accurately assess exactly how the other might react.

Hours before the Israeli strikes, for instance, Iran had warned that any Israeli attack would be met with a robust response. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told CNN that such action would be “immediate and at a maximum level.”

Still, early indications were on Friday that Iran is prepared to end this particular phase of escalation without stepping up another rung on the confrontational ladder and that Israel – while rebuffing international calls for restraint – may still have taken US and Western concerns about the possibility of sparking a major regional war into account.

Iranian official media and government officials were downplaying the attack on Friday. And a regional intelligence source with knowledge of Iran’s potential reaction to Friday’s strike said that direct state-to-state strikes between the two enemies were “over.” The source, who was not authorized to speak publicly, told CNN that, to his knowledge, Iran was not expected to respond to the strikes — but did not give a reason.

If subsequent events bear this out, Israel may succeed in fulfilling a strategic maxim laid out by President John Kennedy in 1963 as he reflected upon the Cuban missile crisis the previous year when he said that statesmanship must aim to “avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.” The danger was not a nuclear war in this case but a tit-for-tat climb into a major conventional conflict that could have consumed the entire region and killed many Iranians, Israelis and people in neighboring countries. As it stands, neither Iran nor Israel have been forced into a humiliating retreat – and that may be the key to containing the situation.

Netanyahu defies Biden again

Israel’s attack on Iran also represents a rebuff by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of President Joe Biden’s advice to treat the successful interception of nearly all the drones and missiles directed at Israel as a victory. The president had argued that the massive defensive operation proved Iran couldn’t pose a threat to Israel’s security and that further retaliation was not required.

While there does seem to have been an effort by Israel to consider US and Western anxieties about a wider war, Netanyahu has repeatedly ignored Biden’s entreaties — including months of US complaints about the Israeli conduct of the war in Gaza and its toll on Palestinian civilians following the October 7 Hamas terror attacks. The president, though getting increasingly frustrated with Netanyahu, has not been willing to lay down red lines for the Israeli prime minister or to condition the use of US arms shipments in Gaza.

But Biden also came up against the reality that Israel is a sovereign state, and while strongly reliant on the United States, was unlikely ever to allow a mass air attack directed at its territory to go unanswered. In the aftermath of latest developments, Washington is concentrating on a new effort to stop tensions from rising further while distancing itself from the Israeli action.

“What we’re focused on, what the G7 is focused on, and again, it’s reflected in our statement and in our conversation, is our work to de-escalate tensions,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a conference of foreign ministers from industrialized nations in Italy.

The White House did make clear in recent days that it would not join any Israeli offensive actions against Iran. But US military forces will almost certainly be called upon to defend Israel again in the event of a major Iranian retaliation. Biden thus could get dragged ever deeper into a military conflict in the region that he has repeatedly tried and failed to stop. The political consequences would be grave for the president in November as presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump warns the world is spinning out of control on his watch. Biden has already paid a heavy price among progressive, young and Arab American voters over his support for Israel, which could have serious implications for his performance in swing states that will decide the presidential election. And any spike in oil prices caused by uncertainty in the Middle East ahead of the election could push up the cost of gasoline and exact a painful political price on the president.

A chilling geopolitical picture emerges

Israel, for all its military prowess, is in a deeply vulnerable position. It is now effectively fighting on three fronts — against Hamas in Gaza; another Iranian proxy, Hezbollah, in a simmering conflict over the Lebanon border; and directly against Iran itself.

The threat from Hezbollah is especially acute since the radical group has tens of thousands of missiles that could cause carnage in Israeli cities far greater than the threat posed by Hamas rockets at the start of the Gaza war. A full-scale entry by Hezbollah into the conflict to support Iran would be certain to trigger a massive Israeli response. That would bring war back to Lebanon, a nation already cursed by a desperate modern history and home to the Iran-backed militia.

Events of the last few days mean that even if the region doesn’t tip into a large-scale war immediately, previous assumptions that Iran would never openly attack Israel and Israel would not strike at Iranian soil have been shattered.

“Even if you get through this phase without a major Iranian retaliation, the reality is that Israel and Iran are going to be locked in this competitive struggle,” Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator for Republicans and Democratic presidents, told CNN. “There is no solution to the problem of Iranian proxies. There’s no solution to the fact that Iran is a nuclear weapons threshold state. And this relationship is going to be hanging over the region and perhaps the international community like some sword of Damocles.”

Israel faced intense pressure to show restraint not just from the United States but also from European and Arab powers, several of which joined the US and Israeli operation to shoot down Iran’s drones and missiles last weekend. While US support for Israel is assured, the reaction of those other countries will be critical now that Netanyahu decided to ignore advice from Israel’s defenders. One argument for Israel not retaliating against Iran had been that it could benefit from a wave of sympathy and support and begin to repair ties with allies that fervently criticized its conduct of the war in Gaza. That opportunity might already have been squandered.

Israel, however, regards itself as locked in an existential battle with Iran, one that played out until now in covert and cyber-attacks on its nuclear program, scientists and military and intelligence infrastructure. History shows that when Israeli leaders feel their country’s survival is threatened, they often act unilaterally even when the United States counsels restraint. Such a doctrine led to previous Israeli attacks on nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria.

By striking back at Israel after the Damascus attack, Iran was making an implicit statement that Israel could not escape paying a price for such attacks anymore and that they’d be met by a direct response.

For Israel’s war cabinet, which mulled for days its response to the airborne Iranian barrage, the idea that Iran enjoyed the advantage in their geopolitical game of chicken would have been untenable.

Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told CNN’s Michael Holmes that the latest actions did set the stage for a long-term escalatory cycle that generates from instability in the region. But the apparent Israeli capacity to elude Iran’s air defenses may also reestablish Israel’s strategic edge. “I do think it sends a message to Tehran that really they are more vulnerable to Israeli strikes than they would like to admit,” Davis said.

Some experts worry that the new reality of direct exchanges with Israel may prompt Iran – which is estimated by experts to be only weeks away from being able to produce its own nuclear weapon – to rush across the nuclear threshold. That would be a situation that neither Israel – nor probably the United States – could accept, so the rising danger of recent days may only be a taste of what is to come.

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