Israel’s Retaliation Dilemma

Israel’s Retaliation Dilemma

Even if regional conflict is avoided, Israel’s freedom of action against Iran may be effectively curtailed in the future.

In the wake of the Iranian barrage of drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles against Israel on April 13, Israeli officials have made it very clear that they will respond forcefully rather than heeding President Biden’s call to “take the win” after their defensive actions were largely successful. But Israel also has signaled that its strike against Iran will be calibrated to try to avoid further escalation.

Nevertheless, Iran’s willingness to strike Israel directly from Iranian territory rather than through proxies is a significant shift. Up until now, Israel has enjoyed an enormous amount of latitude in its actions in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, striking both Iranian proxies and Iranian military forces directly outside Iranian territory without having to fear a direct Iranian retaliation. This freedom of action could threaten uncontrolled escalation into a regional war. 

Iran’s actions since October—restraining its proxies from attacking U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria after the U.S. retaliation for such attacks in early February—have made clear that they want to avoid a regional war. But Israel’s strike on April 1 against senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) officers at Iran’s consulate compound in Damascus met a threshold at which Iran was no longer willing to maintain “strategic patience” and decided to try to change the rules of the game, assuming a greatly increased level of risk of the lose-lose outcome of regional conflict.

Israel highly values its freedom of action in Syria and Lebanon, which has often allowed it to interdict arms shipments to Hezbollah, neutralize terrorist suspects, as well as take out a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. Allowing Iran to “reestablish deterrence” by absorbing even an ineffective strike without a response after a strike in Damascus is unthinkable. However, the pressure from the United States and others to avoid escalation by keeping any retaliation small is immense. Israel also would clearly lose in some ways in a fully escalated regional conflict, as Hezbollah and Iran are capable of inflicting serious damage via missile strikes. They may have intentionally telegraphed the April 13 strikes so far in advance that other nations were able to intercept some of the drones well before they reached Israeli airspace. Iran also refrained from using its most advanced missile systems. Israel could not expect to replicate the success of their defenses at the same level in a regional conflict.

A regional conflict could also see other negative consequences for Israel. Public opinion in the United States might not be supportive of sustained involvement in the region after a perceived fiasco, especially if consequences included an economically damaging oil price spike. Iran demonstrated its ability to create such a problem when it attacked critical Saudi facilities in 2019, intentionally not targeting anywhere near their full capacity. While a regional conflict could very well see Israeli and U.S. strikes aimed at Iran’s nuclear program after escalation commenced, the aftermath of the war would not be a positive scenario for containing the program. The United States and Israel could set it back perhaps a year or two, if that, but cannot kill off the advances in nuclear enrichment technology that Iran has attained since President Trump pulled the United States out of the JCPOA in 2018. Also, in a post-conflict context, Iran’s nuclear program would likely move forward without the current limited transparency via IAEA inspections. Having to strike it repeatedly would not be a good outcome for either Israel or the United States, nor would it likely work indefinitely.

Iran is playing with fire here, but it could be effective. The current set of norms regarding Israel’s freedom of action evolved during a period when Iran’s nuclear program was much less advanced and in which Iran only had a handful of medium-range ballistic missiles with which it could hit Israel. Now, it is manufacturing them at scale and has reached the status of a threshold nuclear state. Iran would still suffer greatly if their bluff were called, but it could inflict much more damage on others in the region and potentially on the world economy.

This shift in the power relationship is already evidenced in Saudi-Iranian relations, with last year’s agreement on the normalization of relations and non-interference in each other’s affairs. Saudi Arabia had been much more hawkish toward Iran in the early years after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to power. Still, the 2019 oil infrastructure attacks, combined with President Trump’s reticence about getting involved in a direct conflict with Iran, made Riyadh see that the power equation had changed.

Israel obviously has power resources beyond those of Saudi Arabia, but the same principle may end up applying. Since the consequences of a fully escalated conflict for Israel and the United States are arguably much worse than was previously the case, Iran may succeed in changing the rules in its favor regarding Israel’s freedom of action, at least to an extent, even if Israel retaliates and immediate escalation is avoided. The balance of risks has shifted.

Greg Priddy is a Senior Fellow for the Middle East at the Center for the National Interest. Follow him on X: @GregPriddy1.