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17 April 2024

Why Iran’s attack on Israel failed

The drone and missile strike conveyed as much weakness as it did strength.

By Lawrence Freedman

One of the most innovative strategic thinkers of the post-1945 era had no military experience and first made his name as a trade economist. Yet as classical military theory struggled to come to terms with the implications of nuclear weapons, Thomas Schelling found innovative and stimulating ways to talk about their transformational impact. He won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2005 for his contributions to game theory and how it might be applied to nuclear deterrence and arms control. His most important insights began with the observation that the shared fear of the ultimate catastrophe meant that within a potentially deadly US-Soviet conflict there could still be elements of cooperation. Superpower crises should be managed so that both sides felt that they had protected their most vital interests while avoiding all-out nuclear war. At the time, and since, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was considered exemplary in showing how this might be achieved.

Schelling, who was behind such ideas as the hotline between Moscow and Washington, saw the advantages in direct communication to keep a dangerous situation under control. But he was also interested in more indirect forms of communication. He was particularly intrigued in how armed force could be used as a form of bargaining to convey to the other side not only a determination to protect interests but also how both sides could benefit from restraint. He sought to move consideration of the uses of violence away from simple assertions of brute strength to impose one’s will towards understanding them as competitions in risk-taking. The way that force was used went beyond any immediate military impact because it could also suggest the possibility of compromise, as well as a readiness to take further action if the compromises could not be found.

Although these ideas were developed with a nuclear confrontation in mind, they had an impact on the way that the Americans thought about how to use all types of armed force, always looking for ways to keep a conflict as contained as possible while at the same time warning opponents of worse to come if they did not behave. An early example came in August 1964 when the US launched air raids against North Vietnamese naval bases as reprisals for (incorrectly) alleged attacks by patrol boats against the US destroyer, USS Maddox, in the Tonkin Gulf of the South China Sea. The “Tonkin Gulf incident” established both the precedent and the Congressional support for later raids on the North, and is now seen as a key inflection point in the Vietnam War.

Before its full significance became apparent, Schelling commented on the incident in his 1966 book Arms and Influence. He described the US reprisals as “articulate” and “appropriate”. They were appropriate, he argued, because they struck the facilities connected with the attack on the destroyer. Because they were one-off they were also “neat”, a quality that would have been lost if the attacks had continued over a number of days against a variety of targets. The neatness meant that the sense of “justice” was not diluted and the incident was kept well-defined. It was clearly a reprisal for the attack on the Maddox and not just an excuse for a wider, opportunistic military action.

A reprisal was “a reciprocal action, some punishment for a break in the rules”, while wider action would address the underlying dispute and so seek to change the rules. But Schelling could also see the temptation to communicate much more by the form that the reprisal took. It could be a: “display of determination and impetuosity, not just to dissuade repetition but to communicate a much broader threat. One can even hope for an excuse to conduct the reprisal, as a means of communicating a more persuasive threat.”

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So the same “neat” action could communicate both a determination to respond to a provocation and a warning of potential escalation if the enemy failed to react appropriately. In retrospect this was problematic in all sorts of ways, not least because the original trigger was a misapprehension, so the North Vietnamese did not pick up on the messaging. Thereafter the attempt to communicate nuanced messages through the crude mechanisms of armed force had a poor track record in Vietnam. Nonetheless, the idea that force could be used in this way took hold.

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

Sixty years on one wonders what Schelling would have made of the Iranian drone and missile attack against Israel launched late on 13 April. This certainly demonstrated how much military action tends to be about making a political point as much as hurting the enemy, although the failure of this attack to hurt Israel qualified any political point being made. There were similarities with the Tonkin Gulf incident.

First, it was a reprisal for a breach of the rules, in this case the 1 April attack on Iran’s consulate in Damascus, which in principle is sovereign Iranian territory. Seven officers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including top commanders, were killed. Israel, which has not actually admitted responsibility, considered these commanders to be legitimate targets because they were working with Iran’s regional proxies to plot more attacks on Israel.

Second, the attack was claimed to be directed largely at the Israeli base where the aircraft that were used for the Damascus attack are deployed. After the Americans first reported their intelligence on Iranian plans to strike Israel there was intensive diplomatic activity to persuade Tehran to limit its reprisal to military targets and avoid civilians to keep it proportionate. The targets chosen are thought to have included, in addition to the Nevatim and Hatzerim airbases, the Israel Defense Force’s early warning stations and intelligence bases in the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

Third, as with Tonkin, this was presented as a one-off: Iran told the UN Security Council that with this attack it considered the matter concluded. It has also promised that if Israel retaliated with attacks on Iran it would ensure a further and tougher response of its own.

The interaction between the operational and political objectives informing the Iranian strikes was complicated by them being both enormous in scale, showing off Iran’s long-range capabilities, but also ineffectual, demonstrating that Israel’s defences, supported by allies, were more than able to cope. Western intelligence had picked up the preparations for the attacks well before the event, which meant that there was no surprise. A barrage of some 170 drones, 30 cruise missiles and 120 ballistic missiles were launched largely from Iran, as well as from a range of sites in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Many failed on their own accord. The US, UK, France and Jordan helped Israel destroy most of the rest before they got close to their targets. Five ballistic missiles got through to the Nevatim airbase in southern Israel, and caused some damage, including to the runway and a transport aircraft, but not enough to put it out of action. A seven-year-old  Bedouin girl who was severely injured by shrapnel is the only reported casualty. By Sunday morning the all-clear had sounded, people emerged from their shelters, and Israeli airports were reopened.

This was a very large attack. There is no reason to suppose that Iran did not intend it to cause significant harm to Israel. This is what was claimed, in anticipation, as the attack was launched with Iranian state TV reading out a statement: “the IRGC air force hit certain targets in the territories of the Zionist regime with dozens of drones and missiles”. The circulation on Iranian media of a clip of a burning site (which was actually a Chilean vineyard) suggests Iran wanted its people to believe that honour was satisfied because this had been done.

For those explaining why the damage had not been great, social media was full of post-attack claims that this was a clever move by Iran to learn more about Israeli air defences, as if there had not been ample evidence from the past six months. Or that it had telegraphed its intentions in advance so that no great harm would be done and a wider war avoided: in which case why waste so many drones and missiles? The attack was meant to hurt Israel as well as signal capability and intent, while limiting the consequences by promising that it was a one-off. Because the hurt was limited the signal was one of weakness more than strength. 

In January 2020, following the US killing of General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds force of the IRGC, at Baghdad airport, the Iranian military response involved a dozen ballistic missiles that were fired at two Iraqi bases hosting US troops. Then Iran acknowledged direct responsibility and claimed that scores of Americans had been killed or wounded. In practice American injuries did not go beyond concussion as the base commanders were warned and troops took shelter. The Americans did not bother to respond. As far as the Trump administration was concerned it had come out of the encounter ahead.

Israel could make the same calculation. President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “take the win” following Iran’s attack. Senior Iranian commanders had been killed, Israeli air defences had proved their worth, and Netanyahu could show that Israel still had allies it could work with. Even Jordan, highly critical of the war in Gaza, acted against drones flying through its airspace. Israel nonetheless promised a “significant, powerful response”. The Saudis have also acknowledged working with Israel and have blamed Iran for instigating the current conflicts by backing Hamas.

It is an article of faith in Israel that for every “tit” there must be a more powerful “tat”, normally rationalised as “restoring deterrence”. With the Hamas attack of 7 October the pressure for an immediate and relentless response was intense, and that was never going to be a mere signal. But following Iran’s attack, deciding on an appropriate response is more difficult. Would it be responding to the intent behind the attack or the actual impact? There are some in Israel who would welcome a wider war with Iran, even while the Gaza campaign is ongoing, on the grounds that it is bound to happen sometime and now is as good a moment as any. But this would mean a fight with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, as Iran’s main agent in the region, beyond the exchanges that have been ongoing for the past six months. Hezbollah launched 40 missiles against Israel overnight on 13 April, leading to an immediate Israeli counterstrike. Iran is a long way from Israel, and while it could be reached by aircraft, it would be difficult without US logistical support, and Biden has said the US will not be involved in any offensive operations. The Americans want the fighting in the region to start ramping down rather than up.

The problem with using armed force to make a political point is that any message depends on the damage caused. If it achieves little then it conveys either timidity or limited capabilities; if it achieves a lot then it risks a wider confrontation. In practice the message rarely goes beyond insisting that no bad deed will go unpunished. When both sides are sending the same message then the result is escalatory, as neither side feels able to let the other have the last word. Going back to Thomas Schelling, these reciprocal attacks are symptoms of the underlying dispute between Iran and Israel, and will continue to occur, but they cannot lead to its resolution.

This appeared in the 19-25 April issue of the New Statesman magazine

[See also: The Iran attack changes everything]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran