Regional war

How Israel and Iran got here, and where it all might go

If, like me, you were glued to the coverage of Iran’s massive missile and drone attack against Israel this weekend, you heard one word repeated over and over again: “unprecedented.” “Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel,” read a summary headline in the New York Times. “Both sides try to claim victory after the unprecedented attack,” said AP. “Israel vows to ‘exact a price’ after unprecedented Iranian attack while world leaders call for restraint,” declared CNN. The tone was set by President Biden, who called it an “unprecedented air attack against military facilities in Israel,” before condemning it in the “strongest possible terms.”

And, sure, if by “unprecedented” they mean “Iran has never made good on decades of threats to directly shoot missiles from their territory at what they call ‘the Zionist entity,’” that is correct. Generally, Israel and Iran have been shooting missiles at each other in and from other countries between them, primarily Yemen, Syria, and above all Lebanon; attacks on the various metropoles have been covert and cyber in nature. If any missiles aimed at Israel were launched from Iranian territory before Sunday, it was certainly not at this scale: 170 drones, 30 cruise missiles, and 120 ballistic missiles, according to the Israeli military. Almost none of them landed, thanks to coordinated interceptions by the U.S., Israeli, and Jordanian militaries—with intelligence assists by the Saudis and Emiratis—in what appears to be the debut of Biden’s long-promised anti-Iranian Middle East Air Defense Alliance.

But in the more evocative senses of the word—”strange,” “unheard of,” “without parallel,” “out of nowhere”—it’s misleading, perhaps deliberately so.

The Racket depends on the support of readers like you.
To get it delivered and support my work, get
a free or premium subscription today.

The purpose of throwing around the “unprecedented” tag is to conjure feelings of fear and uncertainty not just in the minds of Israeli civilians on Sunday morning but in the pit of military planners’ stomachs right now. That’s because no one knows exactly where this is going to go. It’s a question that hinges entirely on how committed the Israeli war cabinet, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is to lighting the fuse on an even bigger war that he hopes could destroy an existential enemy, or at the very least keep him in office—and out of prison—a little longer. It also provides a bit of rhetorical cover, should Netanyahu and his cabinet, leaders of a key U.S. ally that also happens to be one the world’s most secretive and unhinged nuclear powers choose the most dangerous path available.

But there have been months of precedents—not least the massive and ongoing Israeli missile, airstrike, and drone bombardment, and ground invasion, that has killed over 33,000 people in Gaza (some 14,000 of them children and teenagers) against whose backdrop this escalation is set. (And yes, those numbers are reliable.) In the background until now, somewhat orthogonal to those sadly well-precedented events, had been the big regional rivalry between the State of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Israel blamed Iran for masterminding the Oct. 7 attacks, despite early U.S. intelligence reports showing it was unlikely Iran was directly involved. Iran and its client-proxies, especially the Houthis of Yemen, have taken it upon themselves to champion the Palestinian cause through military means, “signaling,” in the bloodless military argot, for Israel’s imperial sponsors to stop killing and starvation to stop through attacks on U.S. outposts and international shipping.

The result has been a steady and quiet escalation: first trading blows on empty warehouses and shooting over desert bases, then bombing each other’s barracks and outposts directly. That ratcheting of tit-for-tats finally boiled over into the direct precedent that the Iranian government was explicitly retaliating against: the air strike against an Iranian diplomatic facility in Damascus on April 1.

The Israeli government has alternated between performatively not claiming credit for that attack (because, sure, who else in the neighborhood involved in a shadow war against Iran has an air force that flies Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs) and planting stories in American and Israeli media claiming one of the targets of that attack, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, was directly involved in planning Oct. 7—again, despite U.S. intelligence suggesting senior Quds Force figures were “surprised.”

Iranian missiles and Israeli interceptors as seen from Gaza City on April 14, 2024. (Photo by Dawoud Abo Alkas/Anadolu via Getty Images)

While more limited in terms of the number of projectiles fired than Iran’s Sunday barrage, the April 1 attack was also deadlier: whoever piloted those F-35s (wink, wink) killed 13 people, including two senior Iranian officers. That included Zahedi, a senior commander of the Quds Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ foreign intelligence and operations wing. (You may remember the Quds Force from its late commander, Qasem Soleimani, who was assassinated on Donald Trump’s orders in a reckless U.S. drone strike during a visit to Baghdad in early 2020, in an action that almost sparked a direct U.S.-Iran War.) An attack on a diplomatic facility is also not unprecedented, but that didn’t make it any less escalatory, or illegal.

Not illegal: Iran invoking Article 51 of the U.N. Charter to justify an attack that Nor would it now likely be illegal for Israel to invoke the same provision to justify a direct attack on military facilities inside Iran. But it, like Iran’s predawn Sunday barrage, would be yet another dangerous escalation, bringing everyone closer to the feared outright “regional war” that most non-Israeli officials, especially President Biden, have been desperate to avoid.

In Sunday’s reprisal, Iran seems to have taken overt steps to ensure that the assault would not be more escalatory than they felt it had to be: signaling well ahead of time that it was planning an attack, and opening with a volley of easily detected but relatively slow-moving drones that gave Israel, the U.S., and the rest of the MEAD network hours to scramble aerial and anti-aircraft defenses in preparation to shoot them all down. By all indications, all of the strikes were also aimed solely at Israeli military facilities, particularly the Nevatim airbase in the southern Negev Desert (where, not incidentally, Israel’s F-35s are based).

Depending on who you talk to (and I’ve heard from well-placed people with both views), the ease with which a reported 99% of the projectiles were swatted down is either evidence that it wasn’t a serious assault, an indication that Iran’s long-rage arsenal isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, or both. There’s also the non-mutually exclusive possibility that this was a probing shot—the deployment of a bunch of drones and missiles to gain information about Israeli (and the incipient MEAD’s) defense capabilities in preparation for a future war. What we do know is that Iran raced to close the door, announcing during the attack that, unless Israel decided to respond, “the matter can be deemed concluded” — the international politics equivalent of slugging a friend in the arm while shouting “no punchbacks!”

It reminded me directly of Iran’s revenge airstrikes against U.S. airbases in Iraq following the Soleimani assassination. At that time, the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif similarly tweeted: “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter … We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.” Whatever Trump may have been planning, enough sober minds at the Pentagon and in Congress took the hint, and didn’t escalate further. There’s a playground equivalent here, too: calling “timeout.”

The problem is that none of the players are, almost by definition, as clever as they seem to think they are. Each step along the way since Oct. 7, all the regional players have escalated while warning the others against further escalation. And unlike in the aftermath of Operation Martyr Soleimani, no one has successfully called timeout. Iran may have intended the April 13 missile barrage to be mostly signaling or a show; as it was, it appears the casualties were extremely limited: the only person who it seems was badly injured was a seven-year-old Bedouin girl, whose family says they were denied access to bomb shelters afforded to their Jewish neighbors.

But if a single cruise missile or suicide drone had been misfired or slipped through, hitting perhaps an apartment building in the nearby city of Beersheva—if not Jerusalem some 40 miles to the north—there could have easily been a rushed and heedless Israeli response against Iranian territory that night. Reporting suggests that the Israeli government was considering one anyway, only to back away at the last moment. Now Israeli officials and the defense wonk sphere are engaged in a circular debate over how to perfectly “reestablish deterrence” and “credibility” without tripping into World War III, as if there are any better guarantees for missiles headed east.

And make no mistake: a wider war would be extremely dangerous, for everyone. Some critics of Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza cheered at the news that Israelis might be getting “a taste of their own medicine.” This is, in my opinion, extremely shortsighted. Already, the fallout from Sunday’s attack has allowed both Israel and much of the U.S. media to change the subject away from the worsening famine in Gaza and the still-threatened attack on Rafah to War on Terror-style jingoism and “rekindled sympathies for Israelis.”

The outbreak of a wider war will not only shrink the diplomatic distance between Israel and its arms suppliers in the United States — a prospect that may have driven the decision to strike the Iranian consulate in Damascus in the first place — it would provide a cover of chaos for Israel to accelerate the genocide and wipe out even more Palestinians, not only in Gaza but the increasingly deadly West Bank as well.

Biden is right to fear that Netanyahu is trying to drag the U.S. into a regional war. As David Klion gestured in a recent review of The Internationalists, a book about the first two years of Biden’s foreign policy, the president and his advisors seem to be driven by the competing interest to rack up foreign policy “wins” as measured by “political consequences for Biden and the professional standing of his advisers,” while avoiding the direct deployment of U.S. troops on the ground, who (as Klion notes) remind him of his late son Beau. He’s spent two years trying to thread that needle in Ukraine, and he’s now trying to thread it in Israel as well — desperately trying to bear hug Netanyahu to the ground by showering him with praise for an air-defense “win” on Sunday, while publicly telegraphing that the U.S. wouldn’t help Israel attack Iran.

It’s an awkward position to be in — distancing us from a future attack while vowing to protect a rogue ally from the consequences of that attack. It would be much simpler for everyone from Washington to Tel Aviv to remember the most basic rule of escalation: it will always continue, until someone decides to stop.

Join the conversation

or to participate.