Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 20 April 2024



Israel’s Careful Strike Against Iran

Israel hasn’t publicly acknowledged the attack, but the explosions inside Iran suggest a narrow, almost symbolic strike, perhaps with fighter aircraft. A military base in Isfahan seems to have been the main target. Iran can’t be trusted to admit any damage, but Iran’s muted response to the strike suggests nothing major was hit. The nuclear research facility in Isfahan seems not to have been targeted.

The strike is a message to Iran that Israel has the military capability to hit deep in its homeland, and not merely its proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Israel also showed it could hit a target near a nuclear facility despite the presence of the Russian S-300 missile defense system. And on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s 85th birthday to boot. Israel’s Arab neighbors have seen another demonstration of its military prowess and will.

But the strike also looks calibrated not to invite the anger of Mr. Biden, who above all else wants to calm down the Middle East as the November election approaches. The U.S. President may not be able to deter America’s adversaries, but he can deter our allies.


Secretary of State Antony Blinken didn’t criticize the Israeli strike, but he did convey the U.S. political mood music at a press conference in Italy on Friday when he said, “All I can say is that for our part and for the entire G-7, our focus has been on de-escalation and avoiding a larger conflict.” De-escalation is this Administration’s top priority.

The question is whether this careful response by Israel will have the proper deterrent effect. Iran’s immediate response was to deny any damage and say it had no plans to escalate. But the rulers in Tehran know they were able to cross a red line by attacking Israel directly a week ago. Israel and its friends had to expend considerable resources to intercept nearly all of the more than 300 missiles and drones in that attack. And Iran is paying no significant price for it.

The new sanctions announced by the U.S. this week are largely meaningless. They target Iranians involved in the country’s missile program who don’t have foreign bank accounts. But the sanctions don’t touch what the regime really cares about, which is its oil exports that provide as much as $36 billion to $40 billion a year in revenue. This fits with the Biden strategy of trying not to provoke Tehran even at the cost of limiting deterrence.

Iran retains the ability to strike Israel, either on its own or via proxies, at the time of its choosing. Most important, it will also continue to make secret progress on its nuclear-weapons program. Iran has already enriched enough uranium, and close enough to weapons-grade, that it could sprint to a bomb once it has the ability to weaponize it into a warhead. Its medium-range missiles could deliver it.

No one should be surprised if Iran announces, sooner rather than later, that it is nuclear capable. Then its threat to the region, and even to the U.S., reaches an entirely new level. Iran may then feel it can unleash its proxies, or its own missiles, against Israel without fear of reprisal.

All of which should motivate Mr. Biden and the G-7 finally to abandon their appeasement strategy toward Tehran. The G-7 foreign ministers released a statement Friday reiterating their “determination that Iran must never develop or acquire a nuclear weapon. We urge Iran to cease and reverse nuclear escalations and to stop the continuing uranium enrichment activities reported by [the International Atomic Energy Agency] that have no credible civil justification and pose significant proliferative risks. Tehran must reverse this trend and engage in serious dialogue . . .”

You can imagine the smiles with which those “must reverse” and “engage in serious dialogue” commands were received in Tehran. The G-7 leaders have shown they can deter Israel. Will they finally do something serious to deter Iran and stop its nuclear program?

Wonder Land: In 1986, Sen. Joe Biden mocked as ‘reckless’ Ronald Reagan's 'Strategic Defense Initiative,' a program to counter the ballistic missile threat. Israel ran with it, creating the 'Iron Dome' missile-defense system—the hero of Iran’s April 13 bombardment. Images: Bloomberg News/C-Span/Bettmann Archive Composite: Mark Kelly


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Appeared in the April 20, 2024, print edition as 'Israel’s Careful Strike Against Iran'.

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