Dalia Dassa Kaye
Foreign Affairs / February 27, 2023
Israel has long made clear its penchant for applying military pressure to disrupt Iran’s nuclear advances and weapons exports—and, more recently, its drone technology program. In the last few months, however, Israel’s appetite for risk seems to have increased. In early January, an Israeli strike aimed at pro-Iranian militant groups inside Syria put the international airport in Damascus out of service. Later that month, reports indicated that Israel had carried out a significant drone attack on a military site in the Iranian city of Isfahan. Israel prepared for a retaliatory strike from Iran, possibly on civilian targets outside the country. Iran subsequently launched a drone attack on a commercial shipping tanker in the Arabian Sea owned by an Israeli businessman, according to U.S. officials. And just last week, a considerable Israeli strike reportedly targeted Iranian officials meeting in a residential neighborhood in Damascus.
These recent attacks continue a decades-long pattern of largely unclaimed tit-for-tat strikes between Israel and Iran in what is described as a “shadow war” with fronts on land, air, and sea. There was a brief pause in Israeli attacks on Iran’s nuclear program when negotiations between the Islamic Republic and Western powers became public in 2013. This lull lasted until the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the resulting nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in 2018. Even so, throughout the period in which all parties adhered to the JCPOA, Israel continued what its military experts dubbed a “campaign between wars,” targeting Iranian-backed militias and weapons shipments through Iraq and Syria to groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
But the Trump era ushered in bolder Israeli actions that increasingly hit nuclear and nonnuclear targets within Iran itself. Most Israeli leaders celebrated the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policies. This shared hawkish view diminished when Joe Biden became U.S. president, as he reintroduced diplomacy and a desire to revive the Iran nuclear deal. But now the ground is shifting in Iran, Israel, and the United States, causing the risks of escalation to grow once again.
A riskier time to strike
The Biden administration entered office with a focus on restoring the JCPOA. Unlike in the past, however, Israel did not halt its attacks on Iran’s nuclear sites as the United States and its partners prepared to resume diplomacy. At first, Israel’s military approach to Iran seemed containable to American policymakers, perhaps even a useful way of encouraging the Iranians to return to the negotiating table and increasing U.S. leverage over the terms of a renewed deal. Israel’s confrontations with Iran came to be seen as a business-as-usual feature of the regional landscape. The risks of retaliation appeared manageable as the Israeli attacks did not seem to be something that the Iranians cared to do much about, especially given their interest in gaining sanctions relief through nuclear diplomacy.
But all that has changed. Diplomacy itself seems to be off the table, not just for the Biden team but even for European leaders who had traditionally been predisposed to engage with Iran. Iran’s current leaders appear less interested in nuclear diplomacy as Tehran’s nuclear capabilities advance. Military deterrence is no longer just a supplement to diplomacy; it is fast becoming the West’s replacement strategy. Israel’s confrontational approach is winning the day.
Several domestic and geopolitical upheavals over the past year explain this shift, namely, the widespread anti-regime protests that began in Iran last September, the collapse of the negotiations to revive the JCPOA, and the expanding Iranian-Russian military relationship that has grown out of the war in Ukraine. All these factors are likely to intensify clashes between Israel and Iran and increase the possibility that the conflict spills over into the wider region and puts the remaining American forces, most vulnerable in Iraq and Syria, in greater danger.
The bet in Washington is that the confrontation with Iran can remain low grade and that a wider bilateral or regional conflict can be avoided. The U.S. government also believes that deterrence is necessary to prevent and slow Tehran’s military and nuclear advances in the absence of diplomacy. The prevailing Israeli calculation is that Iran’s domestic vulnerabilities and regional isolation, as well as coordinated Israeli and American military deterrence measures, will limit Iran’s responses. But the ongoing geopolitical shakeup could challenge those prevailing views.
The Iranian government faces an unprecedented crisis sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian woman, in government custody in September. Although the regime appears to be suppressing the unrest through brutal repression—killing hundreds of protesters, imprisoning thousands, and staging arbitrary executions—the underlying grievances against the Islamic Republic’s leadership will fester. With deteriorating economic conditions and few prospects for reform, it may only be a matter of time before a new wave of protests takes hold.
In such an environment, Iran’s hard-line leadership will continue to see enemies in every corner, including in neighboring countries. Iran has already launched attacks in Kurdish regions of Iraq where Iranian opposition groups have historically organized, and it believes Kurdish elements were involved in the most recent Israeli attack in Isfahan. More Iranian-backed attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan are likely, creating growing pressure for authorities in Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Erbil to crack down on Iranian opposition groups at a time when Iraqi stability is already fragile.
Tehran has also predictably accused Israel of meddling inside Iran to help foment domestic unrest. Iran has struck back against Israel in the past by targeting Israeli citizens in foreign countries. Israel has foiled a number of plots in the past year, including an attempt to attack Israeli tourists in Turkey. But if a future assault kills a large number of Israelis, a major Israeli retaliation against Iran may be inevitable. How and where Iran might respond is unclear, but a response is certain, as Iran’s leadership is now likely to see such reprisals as threats to the regime itself.
The collapse of negotiations to revive the JCPOA, despite nearly 18 months of effort, has also created a more dangerous context by removing a diplomatic off-ramp. Iran’s nuclear capabilities have increased to levels that bring the country close to the nuclear threshold—the point at which it possesses the technical capabilities and enough fissile material to make a nuclear weapon should it decide to do so. Visibility into Iran’s program is significantly reduced because the JCPOA’s required intrusive nuclear inspection regime has broken down, raising questions about whether the international community will have sufficient warning if Iran decides to weaponize its civilian nuclear program. It would still take time for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but in the interim, the uncertainty about the state of its capabilities and intentions could increase the incentives for Israel to consider military options to set the program back even more substantially than previous cyberattacks and sabotage have done. It is unclear whether the United States would have the ability or the will to constrain an Israeli attack if and when Israel believes it is ready to launch one.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year has also added a surprising new ingredient to fuel escalation. Iran’s increasingly close military relationship with Russia, particularly its transfer of drones used by Russia to attack Ukrainian infrastructure, has bolstered views of Iran as a hostile actor not just in Washington but also in Europe. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is even framing Israeli targeting of military facilities in Iran as a way for Israel to help the Western war effort against Russia (although such measures are unlikely to offset Western concerns about Israel’s hesitancy to provide direct military support to Ukraine). The United States may not assist in Israel’s more audacious strikes within Iran, and it denied having a hand in the Isfahan attack, but in the current climate, Washington is less likely to signal opposition. As the war in Ukraine drags on, taking an assertive deterrence posture toward Iran becomes more appealing to Washington and Western allies seeking to degrade Russian capabilities.
At the same time, U.S. military coordination with Israel is expanding, another sign that Washington is not only accepting Israel’s confrontation with Iran but actively supporting it. Late last month, the U.S. military engaged in a joint exercise with Israel that simulated offensive long-range strikes; it was the largest such exercise the two sides had ever carried out together. The exercise may have been designed to showcase U.S. capabilities to quickly respond to regional crises even as the United States seeks to reduce its permanent force presence in the Middle East. The display of force was meant to reassure U.S. partners of the United States’ continuing security commitment. But it would also not be difficult to interpret the drill as a deterrent message to Iran, a trial run to demonstrate the continued viability of U.S. military options. With senior Biden administration officials signaling that the nuclear negotiations are no longer a priority, the timing of the exercise suggests an unmistakable turn to deterrence as the country’s default policy. Military options may not be the desired choice, but they seem to be back on the table. Even Democratic senators such as Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who supported nuclear diplomacy, recently commented that although “another conflict in the Middle East would be a terrible, terrible situation,” and that force is still the last option, “it is an option.”
This could go terribly wrong
Given the recent diplomatic normalization between Israel and some of the Arab Gulf states and their common concerns over Iran’s missile and drone capabilities, Washington may assume that its Arab partners in the Gulf will welcome U.S. military alignment with Israel. But even those states at the forefront of normalization efforts with Israel, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are not enthusiastic about the growing military pressure on Iran. They may see themselves as more likely than Israel to be the target of Iranian retaliation, considering previous Iranian attacks on the Arab Gulf states’ oil facilities. After the strike on Isfahan, for example, Anwar Gargash, an influential senior Emirati official, said the incident was a “dangerous escalation” that is “not in the interest of the region and its future.” Israel’s new leadership is the most extreme right-wing government in its history and has already taken steps that have increased violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which puts Arab leaders who have embraced normalization in a difficult position given the widespread popular opposition to Israeli policies.
The increasingly volatile environment may not only limit the expansion of normalization agreements with countries such as Saudi Arabia but also make countries who have already normalized ties, particularly the UAE, more cautious about public military alignments with the United States that involve Israel. Indeed, although the states of the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council are eager to work with Washington on regional missile defense and most share Israel’s concerns about Iran, they are also keeping their doors open to Tehran. Iran and Saudi Arabia, among the more vocal Arab opponents of Iranian activities in the region, resumed direct, albeit difficult, bilateral talks in recent years. Iraq and Jordan have hosted regional summits that have included Iran through the French-backed Baghdad process. The UAE followed Kuwait in upgrading relations and restoring ambassadors to Tehran last fall after a six-year absence. Even the closest U.S. partners, including Jordan and the UAE, have been normalizing ties with Iran’s regional ally, Syria, a trend that the tragic earthquake in Turkey and Syria is likely to accelerate.
Regional wariness about increased military confrontation with Iran among at least some U.S. partners is unlikely to sway Israel or the United States to reverse course. With the diplomatic track on ice and economic sanctions falling short of changing Iran’s increasingly hard-line and dangerous nuclear and regional postures, the Biden administration appears more inclined to back Israel’s military actions, including direct attacks within Iran on military personnel and facilities.
But deterrence is not a fail-safe strategy, and the Biden administration and its European partners need to be prepared to prevent targeted attacks from spiraling into unintended conflagrations. If Iranian leaders view some deterrent actions by Israel or the United States as attempts to overthrow the regime, the Iranian response might not remain limited. And Russia has little reason to try to constrain Iran as it fights the West in Ukraine. A regional war might not be imminent, but military escalation can still be dangerous and trigger long-term costs.
The maintenance of channels of communication with Iran in the absence of nuclear diplomacy and in the midst of military escalation is critical for crisis management. Direct contact is not currently feasible given the scale of domestic repression within Iran and the strong political opposition to engagement in both Washington and Tehran, but U.S. partners, such as Qatar and Oman, continue to mediate on issues such as prisoner exchanges. These channels could be used to communicate intentions related to specific military attacks to help avoid an unintended conflict. It will also be important for the United States and Europe to develop a post-JCPOA diplomatic strategy for Iran. In its absence, military operations fill the vacuum in ways that may not on their own lead to better outcomes for Iran, the region, or Western interests.
The bottom line is that Washington should not put too much faith in its ability to calibrate the pressure to just the right level. Military escalation is containable until it is not, and the time horizon for conflict can often be longer and more painful than countries anticipate.
Dalia Dassa Kaye is a Senior Fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations