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Israel Has a Big Call To Make: How to Retaliate Against Iran’s Missile and Drone Attack?

The Israeli government has indicated publicly that it will respond to Iran’s strike, but the exact nature and timing of this response remains unclear. Statements by Israeli officials have been vague, with Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi commenting on Monday that Iran’s attack “will be met with a response.”

F-15I. Image: Creative Commons.
F-15I. Image: Creative Commons.

On the night of Saturday, April 13th, Iran carried out an attack on Israel using a mix of over 300 drones, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles. However, the impact of the attack was comprehensively blunted by Israel’s successful interception efforts, with some assistance from the US, the UK, and France.

The Israeli government has indicated publicly that it will respond to Iran’s strike, but the exact nature and timing of this response remains unclear. Statements by Israeli officials have been vague, with Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi commenting on Monday that Iran’s attack “will be met with a response.” The Israeli military’s spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, similarly stated that Israel’s counteraction will come “at the time that we choose.”

High Stakes Posturing?

Iran’s attack on Saturday night was intended as retribution for the killing of senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers on April 1. Iran blamed Israel for the deaths which were caused by an airstrike on a diplomatic compound in Syria. “This unfair crime won’t go unanswered,” said Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi the following day.

For Iran, a high-profile act of retaliation was important for two reasons. Firstly, Tehran needed to demonstrate to a domestic audience that it was taking a hard line on Israel. Secondly, it needed to signal to an international audience that it possesses the military capabilities and political will to secure its interests in the region and deter Israel.

Israel claims that 99 percent of the incoming drones and missiles were intercepted, and indeed, there appears to be little damage on the ground. However, there is reason to believe that Tehran was pursuing relatively limited objectives with the strike.

The sheer volume of munitions thrown at Israel implies that Iranian military planners may be a little disappointed that so few penetrated Israeli defenses and suggests that the attack was not entirely intended to function as a symbolic gesture. However, Iran made a number of decisions that it doubtless knew would blunt the impact of its attack.

Crucially, Iran announced the beginning of its operation, Honest Promise, not long after the drones had taken off, giving Israel hours of warning time to prepare for the attack. Iran also decided not to act in concert with its proxy groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, which would have confronted Israel with a trickier multi-front attack.

Iran has long preferred to pursue a hybrid strategy against Israel, striking below the threshold of open warfare to avoid a conventional war that it would probably lose. Had the strike on Saturday night caused significant damage and loss of life in Israel, a heavy-handed retaliation would have been practically certain. That is an outcome Iranian military planners would have been at pains to avoid.

Tehran seems content with a symbolic victory that its state-controlled media can communicate to the Iranian people and a display of its military capabilities that it can point to in order to draw red lines vis a vis Israel and other actors in the region. Iran’s mission to the United Nations has indicated that the country’s honor is satisfied, posting on social media that “The matter can be deemed concluded.”

Israel’s Response

Of course, for Israel, the matter is far from concluded. The Israeli government must now ponder how best to respond to the strike. Given the potential for escalation, the international community, including most of Israel’s allies, are calling for restraint.

US President Joe Biden has advised Israel to take its successful defense as a win and move on. Biden also told Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu that the US would not assist Israel with any retaliatory action.

Still, an Israeli retaliation of some sort is expected in the near future. The million-dollar question, therefore, is how Israel will elect to do this.

At the strategic level, Israel – like Iran – has incentives to minimize escalation. With combat operations still commencing in Gaza, a wider regional conflict could put Israel on the back foot. Iran could use its proxies like Hezbollah to open another front on Israel’s northern flank or launch more comprehensive drone and missile strikes from Iran, Syria, Iraq, and even Yemen.

For these reasons, Israel may retaliate by picking relatively minor targets that carry a lower risk of escalation. These might include small-scale military installations, manned directly by Iranian forces or personnel belonging to an Iranian-backed proxy group. Alternatively, Israel might use its cyber capabilities to sabotage Iranian infrastructure or disrupt its nuclear program.

A limited retaliatory action of this kind by Israel in the coming days is highly likely, but this still leaves bigger questions about the longer-term implications for the geostrategic rivalry between Iran and Israel.

The most important question is at what rung on the escalation ladder does this current round of confrontation end? Historically, Israel and Iran have struck at each other in the “gray zone”, preferring to use hybrid means to achieve their objectives, but Iran’s attack on Saturday has brought the confrontation to a very public head.

Due to the risks involved, neither side likely wants to climb up that escalation ladder much further. However, both also perceive a need to respond to provocations with retaliatory action. This is to restore confidence in their means of deterrence and to signal to domestic and international audiences that they possess the political will and military capabilities to protect their interests.

Now that the genie is out of the bottle, can it be put back in again? The longer these tit-for-tat strikes persist, the greater the risk of miscalculation. One retaliatory strike that hits a little too hard or hurts a little too much could quickly cause events to spiral out of control, even though neither Iran nor Israel wants to risk involvement in a wider regional conflict.

The risk that the present situation will escalate into a wider conflict remains relatively low, but it is a distinct enough threat to have world leaders worried – and it should do. Nevertheless, even from a cold realpolitik perspective, the variables associated with such an eventuality are too uncertain for either side to desire escalation.

Alexander E. Gale is an analyst specializing in security and international relations. A graduate of the University of Exeter, he holds a Master of Arts in Applied Security and strategy and has written on defense issues for several publications including The National Interest, Modern Diplomacy, and International Policy Digest.

Written By

Alexander E. Gale is an analyst specializing in security and international relations. A graduate of the University of Exeter, he holds a Master of Arts in Applied Security and strategy and has written on defense issues for several publications including The National Interest, Modern Diplomacy, and International Policy Digest.

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