The West must urgently learn from Israel’s red lines on Iran

US and European risk-aversion is incentivising Tehran to keep terrorising the Middle East


Fuel is loaded into Iran's first nuclear power station in 2010. The IAEA has recently reported that Iran is enriching uranium up to 60%. (Photo: Getty)

April 19, 2024 15:54

The United States and its allies can learn something from the way Israel has dealt with Iran.

After Iran launched an unprecedented assault on the Jewish state from its own territory on April 13 following an Israeli strike on senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders in Syria, Israel hit back with an attack on an airbase on Iranian territory on April 19.

Throughout the week, Western policymakers were handwringing and hyperventilating over Israel’s promised retaliation and how it could trigger an uncontrollable escalatory spiral that would draw in the US. Iranian officials joined in, promising immediate, punishing reprisals.

But judging from the muted reaction so far in Iran, rather than doubling down, it is backing down.

Israel sent a message to Tehran that it would not be willing to sit idly by and “take the win”, as President Joe Biden advised, after successfully thwarting the Iranian Operation True Promise on April 13.

The Jewish state would not tolerate Iranian decision-shapers heralding the formation of a “new equation” and strategy – whereby direct attacks from Iranian territory on Israel would become the new normal – without Israeli leaders setting their own red lines.

Over the last week, the commander-in-chief of the IRGC, Iran’s intelligence minister and members of Iran’s proxy and partner network have been amplifying this new deterrence equation. That necessitated a kinetic response from Israel.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei morphed from strategic patience to risk-readiness in his decision to approve the April 13 campaign against Israel. Khamenei had traditionally been more cautious, preferring to operate behind dispensable proxies and partners to maintain plausible deniability and avoid revenge at home.

But this changed due to a variety of factors. The seniority of the slain IRGC commander – Syria Mohammad Reza Zahedi – and his deputies; the Israeli strike taking place near Iran’s embassy in Syria; growing calls for a more decisive Iranian response after a series of successful Israeli assassinations over years; and Iranian perceptions of a lack of resolve on the part of the Biden administration. This all produced a greater risk-tolerance from Khamenei.

However, the dismissals and downplaying of the Israeli strike in Esfahan in Iranian media – from IRGC-linked media outlets like Tasnim to the government-affiliated Islamic Republic News Agency – told a clear story.

They all demonstrated that there are limits to Khamenei’s increased risk-tolerance at a time when his regime is unpopular, he is preparing for succession and when he does not want to fundamentally divert international attention from the Palestinian cause to his regime’s own malign behavior. 

The Israeli response to Iran stood in stark contrast to the United States’ own retaliation for the deaths of three American servicemembers in Jordan in January 2024.

US officials hesitated to even raise the prospect of a counterattack on Iranian soil, ultimately aiming at IRGC-linked facilities in Iraq and Syria, which are disposable for Tehran. This extreme risk-aversion on the part of the Biden administration extended to the lack of any consequences – apart from sanctions, statements and indictments – even after multiple Iranian assassination and kidnapping plots on US soil. This is despite the fact that the US dwarfs Israel in terms of military power.

The same logic applies to the United Kingdom, where the IRGC has tried to kill or harm Iranian dissidents who are British nationals. Most recently, for example, journalist Pouria Zeraati was stabbed on the streets of London by an Eastern European criminal gang working for Tehran. Iranian officials calculate the benefits of such operations – striking fear in the Iranian diaspora – outweigh the absorbable costs.

Like Israel, Pakistan also did not hesitate to cross the Iranian red line and strike inside its territory in January 2024 after Tehran launched airstrikes on what it claimed were militant bases in Pakistan. While Islamabad did not target the regime, its lack of reservations about undertaking military action within Iranian borders coupled with Israel’s own mission are striking indictments of American restraint. This self-deterrence has only emboldened Iranian leaders to endanger US interests.

The response from the G7 to an unprecedented attack on Israel was thoroughly precedented. It featured a joint press statement, a slate of piecemeal sanctions, but nothing more.

Western capitals appear afraid of even proscribing the IRGC as the terrorist organisation that it is. And Khamenei was betting on this restraint. He demonstrated Tehran’s capabilities of reaching Israel with drones and missiles (although most were intercepted); deflected criticism from his base over a series of non- or underwhelming responses after Israeli targeted killings; and was able to exploit Operation True Promise for propaganda and psychological warfare purposes.

This all happened without Washington and its allies taking any risks in their reply to him all the while Iran’s missiles threatened the thousands of Western nationals residing in Israel. While Khamenei may lay low for now, this asymmetry in risk-taking will continue to incentivise Iran’s regional strategy.

Jason M Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). He is on X/Twitter as: @JasonMBrodsky

April 19, 2024 15:54

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