Explained: Why Did Iran Attack Israel?

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April 15, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: IranIsraelMilitaryDefenseWarMissiles

Explained: Why Did Iran Attack Israel?

The Islamic Republic of Iran has done something that few believed it would ever do the regime has attacked Israel directly. In the wake of a harrowing Israeli airstrike against an Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria, Iran’s rulers vowed direct retaliation. This was a major change from how the Iranian regime usually conducts itself. 

The Islamic Republic of Iran has done something that few believed it would ever do the regime has attacked Israel directly. In the wake of a harrowing Israeli airstrike against an Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria, Iran’s rulers vowed direct retaliation. This was a major change from how the Iranian regime usually conducts itself. 

As one Saudi official once said of Iran in 2019, the Islamic Republic is a “paper tiger with steel claws.” 

And as I have written in my recent book The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy, those steel claws are extended and they come in the form of Iran’s terrorist proxies spread throughout the region (Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen, to name just a few). 

Despite preferring the indirect terrorism that has defined Iranian policy toward Israel, in the wake of Israel’s strike, Tehran seemed to be changing tactics. Having spent a decade building up its drone capabilities, along with its ballistic and cruise missile arsenals, Iran appeared prepared to hit Israel without the cover that its terrorist proxies provided. 

Iran Gets Bold—Why Now?

Certainly, Israel’s attack on Iran’s sovereign consulate in Damascus was provocative. But provocative actions have been taken in the past by both Israel and the United States against Iranian targets (such as the Trump Administration’s assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander, General Qassem Soleimani). While Iran hemmed-and-hawed over Soleimani’s assassination back then, Tehran ultimately did not escalate in the ways they had threatened to do.

But just four years later, under similar circumstances, the Iranians did attack Israel. Launching 100 drones and upwards of 350 rockets were fired by Iranian forces stationed throughout the region (in places like Iran, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon). Iran’s military also seized a Portuguese-flagged cargo ship. 

Thankfully, the bulk of Iran’s much-ballyhooed strike—which accounted for more than 70 tons of explosives—did not reach their intended civilian targets in Israel. 

In fact, the Iranian attack was rather shambolic.

In some cases, it highlighted how disconnected from the rest of the region that Iran really is. After all, as a Shiite Muslim and ethnically Persian power in a predominantly Sunni Muslim and ethnically Arab region, Iran cannot count its fellow Muslim nations as being among its allies. 

The primary allies of Iran are from outside the region, China, Russia, North KoreaVenezuela, and to a lesser extent, NATO member, Turkey. While the mullahs who rule Iran may have assumed that they could have swayed the opinion fellow Muslims in the region by striking at Israel, the fact is that the opinion of most Muslims is divided on Iran.

Iran is Not on Firm Strategic Ground

Multiple Muslim nations took part, along with the United States and United Kingdom, in the defense of Israel during the attack. Not only did US and UK warships assist in the shooting down of multiple Iranian drones, but ballistic missile defense networks in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Jordan knocked out most of the rockets that were fired at Israel. 

It had been hoped for among some leaders in Iran that Israel’s counterattack against Hamas in Gaza following the October 7 terror attacks on Israel would have divorced the Sunni Arab states from Israel. 

Publicly, these regimes did certainly distance themselves from Israel to avoid their populations, who are sympathetic to the Palestinian Arabs. Behind-the-scenes, as evidenced by the assistance that the Saudis and Jordanians rendered to Israel in shooting down the Iranian drones and missiles, the Arab governments are notin favor of watching Iran destabilize the region. 

Clearly, Iran miscalculated its level of support and/or sympathy among their co-religionists. 

Despite this obvious good fortune for Israel, no one would say what happened to Israel was a “win.” Well, no one other than the forty-sixth president of the United States, who was clearly trying to slap some lipstick on a pig when he told his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the fact the Iranian fusillade did not hit any major Israeli population centers a “win.” 

Deterrence Failed for Israel and the United States

It was not. Deterrence has failed in the Middle East, meaning the players involved there will get more desperate and aggressive to ensure their national security (and protect their national interests relative to each other). 

We are witnessing the slow breakdown of the regional order that has persisted since 1945. The Americans, sadly, remain in the declining position. After all, it has since been reported that the Biden Administration restrained Israel from retaliating against Iran the way that they had initially planned to. 

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas War in Gaza following Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack against Israel, the Biden Administration has restrained the Israelis at key points in their war. Americans—notably elites in Washington—have applauded the administration for enforcing a modicum of restraint upon the Israelis. 

What they have failed to grasp in Washington is that by restraining Israel they are actually inviting greater aggression from Israel’s enemies; giving hope to an enemy that should have been broken long ago and signaling to the region that neither Israel nor America has the will to enforce a modicum of cost upon a revanchist Iran. 

The region is looking to the United States for clear signs of leadership. Washington, however, is sending mixed signals, making America look like the weaker horse. This will have dangerous effects, if the goal is to prevent the region from sliding into a regional war that could become a world war in short order.

Israel’s Next Move

Next up, Israel is planning to retaliate. 

Here we have what appears to be step-by-step escalation that mirrors the escalation in the early phases of what we today know as the First World War. The situation will continue to worsen in the region until deterrence is restored. Under current conditions, deterrence will not be restored by Washington sending mixed signals while restraining its Israeli ally. 

Instead, Washington should state plainly that Israel has a right to defend itself however Israeli leaders deem necessary. 

Then, Washington should work hard to ensure that Saudi and Jordanian cooperation is locked up with Israel. After that, the US can step back from the troubled region knowing that its partners have the capability and will to contain irredentist Iran. 

About the Author 

Brandon J. Weichert, a National Interest national security analyst, is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, the Asia Times, and The-Pipeline. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower, Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life, and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy. His next book, A Disaster of Our Own Making: How the West Lost Ukraine, is due October 22 from Encounter Books. Weichert can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.

Image Credit: Creative Commons.