Israel’s Miscalculation leads to escalation in clash with Iran

Israel Miscalculation leads to escalation in clash with Iran
Israel Miscalculation leads to escalation in clash with Iran

Israel was mere moments away from an airstrike on April 1 that killed several senior Iranian commanders at Iran’s embassy complex in Syria before it told the United States what was about to happen.

Israel’s closest ally had just been caught off guard. Publicly, U.S. officials voiced support for Israel, but privately, they expressed anger that it would take such aggressive action against Iran without consulting Washington.

The Israelis had badly miscalculated, thinking that Iran would not react strongly, according to multiple U.S. officials — a view shared by a senior Israeli official. On Saturday, Iran launched a retaliatory barrage of more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel — an unexpectedly large-scale response, if one that did minimal damage.

The events made clear that the unwritten rules of engagement in the long-simmering conflict between Israel and Iran have changed drastically in recent months, raising fears of an all-out war.

Even after it became clear that Iran would retaliate, U.S. and Israeli officials initially thought the scale of the response would be fairly limited, before scrambling to revise their assessment again and again. Now the focus is on what Israel will do next — and how Iran might respond.

“We are in a situation where basically everybody can claim victory,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran director of the International Crisis Group. “Iran can say that it took revenge, Israel can say it defeated the Iranian attack, and the United States can say it successfully deterred Iran and defended Israel.”

But Vaez said: “If we get into another round of tit for tat, it can easily spiral out of control.”

This account of these tense weeks is gleaned from interviews with U.S. officials, as well as officials from Israel, Iran and other Middle Eastern states. All of them spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Planning for the Israeli strike in Syria started two months earlier, two Israeli officials said. The target was Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the commander for Syria and Lebanon of Iran’s elite Quds Force, a branch of the Revolutionary Guard.

About a week beforehand, on March 22, Israel’s war Cabinet approved the operation, according to internal Israeli defense records that were viewed by The New York Times.

Those records also outlined the range of responses from Iran that the Israeli government expected, among them small-scale attacks by proxies. None of the assessments predicted the ferocity of the Iranian response that actually occurred.

From the day of the strike, Iran vowed retaliation, both publicly and through diplomatic channels. But it also sent messages privately that it did not want outright war with Israel — and even less so with the United States.

U.S. officials found themselves in an odd position: They had been kept in the dark about an important action by a close ally, Israel, even as Iran, a longtime adversary, telegraphed its intentions well in advance.

When it came this past Saturday night, Iran’s show of force was significant, but Israel and its allies intercepted nearly all of the missiles and drones. The few that reached their targets had little effect. Iranian officials say the attack was designed to inflict limited damage.

U.S. officials have been telling Israeli leaders to see their successful defense as a victory, suggesting that little or no further reply is needed. But despite international calls for de-escalation, Israeli officials argue that Iran’s attack requires yet another response.

“The question now is how does Israel respond in a way to prevent Iran from rewriting the rules of the game without provoking a new cycle of state-on-state violence,” said Dana Stroul of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In fact, Israeli leaders came close to ordering widespread strikes in Iran on the night Iran attacked, according to Israeli officials.

The question now is how does Israel respond in a way to prevent Iran from rewriting the rules of the game without provoking a new cycle of state-on-state violence.”
— Dana Stroul of the Washington Institute
for Near East Policy

Israeli officials say the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas changed the ground rules of regional conflict. To its enemies, it was Israel’s subsequent invasion of the Gaza Strip that did that.

By March, the relationship between the Biden administration and Israel had grown increasingly fraught. Then came the Israeli strike in Damascus, which killed seven Iranian officers, including Zahedi.

The Israelis later acknowledged that they had badly misjudged the consequences of the strike, U.S. officials and an Israeli official said.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin complained directly to Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, in a call on April 3, U.S. officials said. Austin said that the attack put U.S. forces in the region at risk, and that the lack of warning had left no time to ratchet up their defenses.

The night of the Damascus strike, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Swiss ambassador in Tehran to convey Iran’s outrage to Washington, along with the message that it viewed the United States, Israel’s primary backer, as accountable for the attack.

Using Oman, Turkey and Switzerland as intermediaries — Iran and the United States do not have formal diplomatic relations — the United States made clear to Iran that it had not been involved and that it did not want war.

The Iranian government then went on an unusually open and broad diplomatic campaign, spreading the word that it saw the attack as a violation of its sovereignty that required retaliation.

On April 7, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with his Omani counterpart, Badr Albusaidi. Oman is one of the main intermediaries between Iran and the West. The Iranian message at that meeting, according to a diplomat briefed on it, was that Iran had to strike back but that it would keep its attack contained.

Before and after that meeting there was a whirlwind of phone calls between Gen. Charles Brown, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Secretary of State Antony Blinken; national security adviser Jake Sullivan; Biden; Austin; their counterparts in Israel, China, India and Iraq; NATO allies; and others, officials said.

The Biden administration did not think it could dissuade Iran from attacking at all, a U.S. official said, but hoped to limit the scale. Blinken talked to senior Israeli Cabinet members, assuring them that the United States would help defend against an Iranian attack, and urging them not to mount a rash counterstrike.

Iran’s message was that it would temper its attack so as not to elicit an Israeli counterstrike, Israeli and Iranian officials said. But in reality, the Israelis said, Iran was expanding its attack plans, and wanted at least some of its weapons to penetrate Israel’s defenses.

On Wednesday, Biden publicly reinforced what he and his aides had repeatedly said: Despite friction with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the American commitment to defending Israel from attacks was “ironclad.” Still, the Biden administration also redoubled its diplomatic efforts to head off a confrontation.

Israeli officials say that, thanks in part to international cooperation, they had a good idea in advance of Iran’s targets. The U.S. military coordinated aerial defense efforts with Israeli, British and French forces as well as — crucially — those of Jordan, which lies between Iran and Israel.

News of the first wave of the Iranian attack Saturday, consisting of 185 relatively slow drones, spread worldwide hours before any of them reached Israel. The three dozen cruise missiles Iran launched later were much faster, but the biggest challenge was Iran’s ballistic missiles: Iran fired 110 of them, posing the first major test of Israel’s anti-ballistic missile defense system.

American, British, French, Israeli and Jordanian warplanes and air defense systems shot down most of the drones and missiles before they reached Israel. Only 75 entered Israeli airspace, where most of those were shot down, too, Israeli officials said.

Throughout the strike, Iran kept open a hotline to Oman’s government, to pass messages back and forth with the United States, Iranian officials said.

Iran cast its barrage against Israel as a measured, justified act that should not lead to escalation.

“We carried out a limited operation, at the same level and proportion to the evil actions of the Zionist regime,” Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guard, said on state television.

Biden told Netanyahu in a call that Israel’s successful defense had demonstrated its technical superiority, according to John Kirby, a national security spokesperson.

But Israeli officials described the attack in far more dire terms, in part because of its sheer scale. After news came of the Iranian launches Saturday, some leaders argued that Israel should retaliate immediately.

The world is still waiting to see what Israel will do.

The Seattle Times


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