Last Weekend, Iran Changed Everything

by | Apr 18, 2024

Last Weekend, Iran Changed Everything

by | Apr 18, 2024

depositphotos 14847987 s

On April 13, Iran responded to Israel’s attack on its embassy compound in Damascus that killed seven Iranian officers, including a very senior military official, General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, by launching over 300 drones and missiles at Israel from Iranian soil. U.S. officials, according to some reporting, say that four or five ballistic missiles hit the Nevatim air force base, while, according to other reporting, four other ballistic missiles hit a second air base. All reporting agrees that the bases were “lightly hit” and that there was “no significant damage.” Though the damage caused by the attack was not significant, the changes it caused may be. Four changes in particular might be especially important.

Deterrence: Changing Future Calculations

Iran’s chosen response to the fatal strike on its embassy seems not to have been about retaliation nor escalation. If it had been, they would have fired more missiles than drones, and they would not have announced the drones as soon as they were launched nor declared the operation “concluded” before they arrived. They would not have shared in advance the details and timing of the operation with Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries, and Turkey, a member of NATO, who then, predictably, shared it with the United States.

The chosen response was about re-establishing deterrence. Prior to April 13, Iran had absorbed the assassination of scientists and soldiers and the sabotage of its civilian nuclear infrastructure. The massive demonstration of the ability to launch a sufficient number of missiles to get some through and strike targets in Israel has changed that. From now on, decisions about striking Iranian interests will have to factor the possibility of an even larger and more impactful response into the calculation.

Jordan and the Gulf States: Changing Alignments

The decisions made by countries in the region regarding the role they would play or not play in the events of April 13 may turn out to be very important.

Though Jordan portrayed its role as self-defense, they intercepted projectiles that entered their airspace. Jordan granted the United States use of its airspace and “used its own aircraft to assist in intercepting Iranian missiles and drones.”

Despite appeals to the need “to secure the safety of its citizens,” time will tell if Jordan’s choice to partner with the U.S. and Israel over Iran will affect its position in the Muslim world.

The rest of the region seems to have decided differently. Some supporting missiles seem to have been launched from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

More significantly, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirate seem to have done their best to stay out. The United States has recently worked hard to foster the Abraham Accords and to knit the Arab countries and Israel together into a tighter Middle East NATO in opposition to Iran. But Saudi Arabia, who in March 2023 signed an agreement to normalize diplomatic ties with Iran, and the other Gulf States seem to have tried their hardest to stay out of that Middle East NATO on the day of the attack. The Sunni Saudi Arabia, once the arch enemy of its regional Shiite opponent, seems now to have tried its hardest, along with the other Gulf states, not to take sides against Iran.

The United States was able to track incoming Iranian drones and missiles, in part, due to the radar and early warning systems it maintains on its military bases in the Gulf region. And U.S. fighter jets were even able to take off from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirate, Oman, and Kuwait “all scrutinized their basing agreements with Washington to do the bare minimum that was required and avoid being involved in direct strikes on Iranian targets.” They do not seem to have actively participated in defending against Iranian drones and missiles. The Gulf states also worked hard to prevent the U.S. from involving them in any way that could link them to any potential retaliation against the Iranian attack.

American Support

In defense of Israel against the Iranian attack, Israel’s iron dome air defense system was seamlessly woven together with American air defense systems. U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States “moved aircraft and ballistic missile defense destroyers to the region” and “Thanks to these deployments and the extraordinary skill of our servicemembers, we helped Israel take down nearly all of the incoming drones and missiles.” U.S. Central Command said American forces “destroyed more than 80 drones and at least six ballistic missiles.”

This integration may have two significant effects in the future. It sends a very clear message to Iran that the U.S. commitment to defending Israel is as “iron clad” as Biden says. Other major powers may help defend their friends. But, normally, there are limits. It has been said that China’s relationship with Pakistan is somewhat analogous to the U.S. relationship with Israel. China has promised never to stop supporting Pakistan against aggression. But they have refused to help Pakistan militarily in a situation that Pakistan caused. In The China-Pakistan Axis, Andrew Small cites the Chinese leadership telling Pakistan “to exercise self control…and avoid worsening the situation.” Biden, however, demonstrated that the United States will defend Israel even when they are defending them against a response to an Israeli attack.

Though that message is beneficial to Israel and a warning to Iran, it may also have a restraining effect on Israel because it suggests that a successful Israeli defense against any future Iranian attack may require U.S. support.

Defending Israel and Angering Ukraine

“What this weekend demonstrated,” according to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “is that Israel did not have to and does not have to defend itself alone when it is the victim of an aggression, the victim of an attack.”

This weekend demonstrated something very different to Ukraine. Unlike Ukraine, where the United States refuses—for good reason—to become directly involved by deploying destroyers and fighter jets to intercept Russian missiles, the U.S. did just that for Israel. Though the stakes may be different, Ukraine probably cannot help but feel that, after being told not to negotiate an end to the war in exchange for a promise of whatever it takes for as long as it takes, it is more important for the U.S. to defend Israel against Iran than it is to defend Ukraine and—the West claims—Europe from Russia. Ukraine probably cannot help but feel betrayed.

“The whole world saw that Israel was not alone in this defense,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said. “The threat in the sky was also being eliminated by its allies.” He wondered aloud why Ukraine’s “allies…turn a blind eye to Russian missiles and drones.” Recognizing that the stakes may be different, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba complained, “Even if you cannot act the way you act in Israel, give us what we need and we will do the rest of the job.”

Iran’s massive aerial assault may have only “lightly hit” Israel, but it will have a much larger impact on the future of the region.

About Ted Snider

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at tedsnider@bell.net

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