Iran’s retaliatory attack on Israel: Ends with Israeli success — for now

Iran’s Saturday attack on Israel was a military failure. But things could still get a lot worse.

Iran’s retaliatory attack on Israel: Ends with Israeli success — for now0

Explosions are seen in the skies of Israel’s capital, following the retaliatory attack from Iran over the weekend. Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

When Iran launched a large retaliatory drone and missile assault on Israel on Saturday night, it raised fears that the Middle East was on the precipice of a regional war. But by Sunday morning, the situation looked far less dire.

Iran had telegraphed elements of its attack and its willingness to end the two-week period of hostilities there. And assisted by the United States and its Arab neighbors, Israel shot down 99 percent of the drones and missiles heading in its direction. Those strikes that got through did not kill anyone, doing minor damage to a military base and injuring a child.

If this sounds like an Israeli victory, that’s because it was.

Two weeks earlier, Israel escalated its several-year-old assassination campaign against top Iranian security figures by killing a senior Iranian general at the country’s embassy in Syria — a brazen move given that states generally treat embassies as militarily out-of-bounds. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei billed Tehran’s response as “punishment” for that attack, but the failure to do significant harm illustrated that Israel is fairly well shielded from Iran’s vaunted drone and missile fleet.

Iran “had to realize that any strike on Israel would benefit Israel’s end game far more than Iran’s. That they chose to attack anyway shows one again that strategy is always the victim of emotion,” writes Afshon Ostovar, an expert on the Iranian military at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Israel hit Iran in an especially harsh way and more or less got away with it. But this does not mean things are stable between Israel and Iran. Far from it.

The immediate question is whether Israel’s leadership understands when to leave well enough alone. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proven himself reckless during the Gaza war and depends on some exceptionally extreme governing partners to stay in power. The United States is trying to restrain him — with President Joe Biden reportedly telling Netanyahu to “take the win” — but it’s unclear if he will.

And even if Israel chooses restraint for now this episode may have permanently raised the risk of a wider war between Jerusalem and Tehran.

What was Iran thinking?

When news of Iran’s attack broke Saturday night, a former US military officer who studies Iran texted me skeptically. “None of these drones get through,” he correctly predicted.

Iran had indeed chosen a curious strategy. Tehran had been telegraphing a response targeting Israeli territory for weeks, giving Israel and its allies plenty of time to prepare. The drones it chose to launch were slow-moving, taking hours to reach Israeli airspace and passing over neighboring countries (notably Jordan) that shot them down. Fears that Iran would overwhelm Israel’s air defenses with fast-moving missiles proved largely unfounded.


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There are two basic ways to think about Iran’s intent in light of this failure.

It’s entirely possible that Iran miscalculated. In this scenario, Iran attempted to do real damage to Israel and simply failed to appreciate its enemies’ capabilities. Leading military analysts and defense reporters see this interpretation as consistent with the structure of Iran’s strike, particularly its use of ballistic missiles and targeting of a military base in Israel’s south.

But it’s also possible Iran didn’t intend to do serious damage to Israel. In this second scenario, Tehran merely aimed for a symbolic strike so it wasn’t seen as backing down after Israel struck its embassy.

There’s precedent for this. After the United States killed Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, in 2020, Iran’s military retaliation was limited to firing missiles at a US airbase — a response successfully calibrated not to force the United States to retaliate further.

Indeed, Iran is publicly signaling a similar intent: An official government account tweeted that “the matter can be deemed concluded” even before the first drone reached Israeli airspace. That’s as close to publicly saying “this is a fake attack” as it gets in international relations.

If Iran wasn’t intending serious damage, then the attack wasn’t as obviously a failure — but it still looks like a kind of strategic defeat. Iran’s ineffectual response sends a signal that Israel can attack Iranian interests with relative impunity because it is outclassed by Israel and its allies.

How things could calm down — or get worse

With Iran’s retaliation largely a dud, Israel is in a stronger position than it was before it hit the Damascus embassy.

Israel conducted arguably its most politically risky assassination of an Iranian military commander yet — one that could have triggered an outright war. And it emerged not just unscathed, but having demonstrated that its homeland appears safe from direct Iranian assault in the immediate future. The mass Iranian assault also seems to have galvanized Israel’s Republican supporters in Congress, where an aid package has been held up for months as part of the fight over support for Ukraine.

But if Israel responds aggressively to Iran’s attack, all bets are off.

Any major retaliation would force an Iranian response, potentially leading to an escalatory cycle that ends in a full-scale war. This would certainly pull in Iran’s regional proxies, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon, and would result in tremendous amounts of death. Even if this disaster is averted, an Israeli response would infuriate the American government — which both played a critical role in intercepting Iran’s missile barrage and are strongly opposing any future Israeli retaliation.

Israeli escalation would snatch strategic defeat from the jaws of victory. Yet Israel’s government is reportedly considering it anyway. A source told reporter Ronen Bergman that “if the [internal government] talks were broadcast live on YouTube, you’d have 4 million people clamoring at Ben Gurion airport trying to get out of here.”

Prior to October 7, Netanyahu had a reputation for being cautious about using force. But since the Hamas attack, he has been astonishingly aggressive — embracing a maximalist, open-ended campaign in Gaza that has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians while putting Israel on the road to strategic defeat. The general sense among Israeli analysts is that Netanyahu’s shift is in large part political: With his poll numbers in the toilet and a radically right-wing coalition, he needs war to stay in power (and keep himself out of jail). This politically cornered Netanyahu might be open to taking more risks — including the risk of a wider confrontation with Tehran.

The cooler heads in Israel seem to recognize reality. When war cabinet member Benny Gantz vowed that “this event isn’t over yet,” he also said that “we will build a regional coalition and we will make Iran pay the price at a time and in a manner that we choose” — framing that at least implies that Israel isn’t planning imminent unilateral action.

So Israel might yet get out of this mess without a major disaster. Yet experts also warn that this attack might have longer-term destabilizing ramifications.

“Even if Israel chooses not to retaliate now, we are not quite back to where we were before. Status quo has changed with the precedent of a large-scale Iranian attack on Israel,” writes Thomas Juneau, a Middle East scholar at the University of Ottawa, who predicted “a higher baseline of tension and violence” going forward.

A post-attack statement from Hossein Salami, the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, supports Juneau’s analysis. Salami said Iran has “decided to create a new equation” with Israel, one where any Israeli attack against Iranian personnel anywhere will be met with direct attacks by Iran on Israel. Previously, Israel had managed to conduct strikes on Iranian interests in places like Syria without direct retaliation — which carries greater risks of escalation to out-and-out war.

On Saturday night, the term “World War III” began trending on Twitter/X. It’s safe to say at this point that these fears were overblown. But the Middle East remains a powder keg — one that’s slightly more stuffed with gunpowder than it was before.

This story appeared originally in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.


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