Here’s how Israel can respond to Iran’s attack and keep its defensive alliance together

The Jewish state has many serious options open to it which need not escalate the conflict


Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps d(Photo by HOSSEIN BERIS/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)

April 17, 2024 11:12

Israel must respond to the unprecedented attack launched by Iran on Saturday. This is the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that the Islamic Republic’s leaders have initiated such an operation from Iranian territory targeting the Jewish state. The retaliation should be large enough to deter but targeted smartly for alliance management purposes. One way for Israel to thread the needle is for it to spearhead airstrikes on Iran’s defence industries, which have been arming Russia in its war against Ukraine.

In the hours after Tehran launched Operation True Promise on 13 April, the Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Hossein Salami proclaimed that “we have adopted a new equation with the Zionist entity, which is to respond to any aggression from its side directly from Iranian territory.” This has been the most significant statement emanating from the Islamic Republic since the conclusion of its drone and missile swarm against Israel. It is evidence that Iranian military planners view Operation True Promise as setting a new deterrence equation with Israel—that if left without a response would make the country more vulnerable. This is why Israel is obligated to make the costs of such an Iranian operation outweigh its benefits. It cannot become the new normal.

13 April was not “a win”, as the Biden administration has been portraying it. There is a difference between the significant defensive achievement that Israel, along with its allies and partners, scored and the movement of power in the Middle East. Iran felt emboldened enough to remove its trademark veil of plausible deniability —morphing from a modus operandi of grey zone warfare via proxies and partners into direct combat. It also changed the rules of the game by using Iranian territory as a base of attack against Israel. Before 13 April, Iranian decision makers had only produced videos and made bombastic statements in threatening to directly deploy its arsenal of terror against Israel. But last Saturday it made good on those fantasies, which served as a win in terms of propaganda, psychological warfare and on the battlefield.

Israel has many options to choose from in terms of targets and modes of attack. It has a formidable capability not only kinetically but also in cyberspace. It could combine both in its response, alongside covert action. Israeli leaders may eye the missile and drone bases in Iran from which it attacked the Jewish state. There is history here. In March 2022 public reporting suggested that an aerial operation by Israel destroyed hundreds of drones at an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) base near Kermanshah in Mahidasht.

Israel also has a record of campaigns against Iran’s defence industrial base. Facilities connected to the manufacturing and deployment of the Shahed drones will likely be of interest given their use against Israel on 13 April. The Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA) is under US and European sanctions, with the US Treasury Department finding it “has been involved in the production of the Shahed-136 UAV model that Iran has used to attack oil tankers and has exported to Russia.”

Undertaking a mission to destroy or set back this drone manufacturing capacity would be a win for Israel as these targets would find sympathy with US and European partners given their use in Russia’s war against Ukraine. European threat perceptions have been significantly altered by President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of an EU candidate country. This way, Israel can send a deterrent message while keeping its closest allies on board. Israel has a history of operating in the heart of Iran’s defence industrial base, for example in Esfahan.

Other opportunities for Israel include targeting nuclear facilities, which would be more daring and dependent on US support given the need for sophisticated armaments. Some Israeli decision shapers will likely be advocating for such moves as Iran has expressed interest in Russia’s S-400 air defence systems to protect sensitive sites, including nuclear. Coupled with the hardening of Iran’s nuclear program, some in the defence establishment in Israel may view this as an opportunity as the window closes given these advancements. Israel could also choose to decapitate the IRGC and military leadership and target offshore oil platforms in Iran. Salami himself, his deputy Ali Fadavi, the commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Khatam Al-Anbiya Central Headquarters Gholam Ali Rashid, and the chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces Mohammad Bagheri all managed the events of 13 April and are likely persons of interest to Israeli leaders.

Israel does not only have to operate via formal military airstrikes. It can engage in deniable acts of retaliation, launching drones from inside Iran proper at sensitive facilities, by capitalising on the Mossad’s international brigade. This would be a way to reduce the pressure on the system in Iran from having to retaliate. In the end, the Jewish state has many options to preserve its security without triggering a wider war. Targeting the weapons facilities which are most threatening to Western governments could buy goodwill behind closed doors and provide space for the formation of a global alliance isolating the Islamic Republic.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program. He is on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.

April 17, 2024 11:12

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