analysisIsrael at War

US rift with Israel emboldened Iran to attack directly, analysts say

Iran perceived Israel as vulnerable as the Biden administration appeared to have pulled back from its ally.

Iranian military missiles, long-range, short-range and satellite missiles on display at a military museum in Tehran. Credit: saeediex/Shutterstock.
Iranian military missiles, long-range, short-range and satellite missiles on display at a military museum in Tehran. Credit: saeediex/Shutterstock.
David Isaac
David Isaac

On April 14, Iran for the first time broke with its longstanding policy of attacking Israel only by proxy. The question is, why?

Analysts offer a variety of explanations, but all agree that Iran’s perception that the United States had distanced itself from Israel was a key driver.

While Iranian proxies in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria did participate in Saturday night’s attack, the vast majority of the more than 300 drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles launched at Israel came straight from Iranian territory.

“This is a very strange event. Iranian strategy is to send someone else to get killed,” said Eyal Pinko, a researcher and lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, who served for years in Israeli intelligence services.

Iran’s pretext for the attack was retaliation for the April 1 assassination of one of its generals, a targeted killing attributed to Israel. However, Pinko told JNS, “Iranian generals have been killed before. It doesn’t explain the change in doctrine.”

According to Pinko, “Iran perceived Israel as weak on several fronts, foremost among which is that it saw a significant decline in U.S. support.”

He noted the Biden administration’s growing criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war against Hamas, culminating in America’s failure to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told JNS that there’s “no doubt” that Iran concluded that it could attack Israel directly without fear of U.S. reprisal.

“It’s the number one reason,” he said. “Iran calculated accurately that there would be huge American pressure on Israel not to respond.”

In other words, he said, U.S. deterrence against Iran has ” if not collapsed, certainly significantly diminished. Biden told Iran, ‘If you’re thinking about attacking, don’t,’ and Iran did.”

The U.S. administration believes in “deterrence-by-denial,” he said. “Meaning if we can deny the enemy the ability to penetrate our airspace and harm our citizens through the technological wizardry of our air defenses, then that is sufficient. It’s very much the Biden administration’s policy and philosophy.”

“Iran was counting on it [American intervention],” agreed Sharona Zablodovsky, a member of Forum Dvorah, an Israeli women’s group comprising experts in foreign affairs and national security. “The U.S. wants mediation. And mediation doesn’t work in this region.”

The fact that U.S. elections are coming up also played a role in Iranian thinking, she said. “Iran has oil and basically controls the price of fuel at the end of the day. It knows that Biden would never let Israel attack Iran’s oil fields in an election year.”

Iran also felt emboldened to attack directly because it perceived Israel as internally divided given that anti-government protests have flared up again after subsiding following the Oct. 7 attack, itself universally perceived as an astonishing sign of Israeli vulnerability. “In Iranian eyes, internal conflict equals weakness,” she said.

Zablodovsky stressed another, somewhat surprising factor, behind Iran’s direct attack—Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s age, (he turns 85 on Friday) and poor health.

“It might sound a little crazy, but he’s been working on destroying Israel [for] over 40 years now. He wants to see his life’s project manifested. How many years does he have—two, three, maybe four? Personally, I think he feels like he’s nearing the end of his days. And here he has been given an opportunity to attack Israel,” she said.

However, according to Zablodovsky Iran miscalculated, as its direct attack opens it to an Israeli counterattack. Pinko agreed, saying Iran didn’t figure on Jordan, the United States and the United Kingdom actively coming to Israel’s defense. They misread the pressure on Israel by Western powers, he said.

All three analysts agree that the attack was more a flexing of muscles, a demonstration of Iranian capabilities, than an all-out attack. Turkish, Jordanian and Iraqi officials say Iran gave warning of the attack. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were also warned by Iran and shared that intelligence with the United States, The Wall Street Journal reported.

“If they wanted to produce overwhelming damage, they would have done it without telegraphing their punch. They would have done it without warning the United States,” FDD’s Dubowitz said.

Nonetheless, he said, Iran had hoped for greater success. “One shouldn’t assume that this was the Iranians throwing a soft punch. They threw a pretty hard punch. They were obviously disappointed to see that their ballistic and cruise missiles weren’t able to kill more Israelis.”

While U.S. pressure will likely result in a more scaled-down Israeli retaliation than might otherwise have taken place, Israel absolutely must respond to the attack, said Dubowitz.

“The U.S. is putting huge pressure on the Israelis not to respond, offering all kinds of goodies if they don’t, but Israel lives in a tough neighborhood and any sign of weakness will be an invitation to further provocation,” he added.

“Is Israel going to use this opportunity to go after key nuclear assets? Obviously, Iran’s nuclear program is galloping ahead. There will need to be action and this would seem to be an opportune time,” he argued.

Zablodovsky agreed that Israel has no option other than to attack.

“The rules of the West, while I appreciate them, don’t apply here. This is not a democratic region. It goes by different codes. You don’t turn the other cheek. If you don’t hit back, they will hit you harder,” she said, adding that if Israel strikes Iran’s missile factories it will slow down any future attack.

Pinko differed, opposing an attack on the grounds that it could lead to a global conflagration, noting Russia had deployed at least one warship to the Mediterranean following the Iranian attack. Israel will likely confine itself to a covert counter strike, such as a cyberattack, if that, he said.

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