By Bernard Avishai
In the United States, early analyses of the Trump Administration’s assassination of General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, tended to come with corresponding analyses of Iran’s array of choices for armed retaliation—attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf, Saudi oil assets, Iraqi political targets, Israel, various diplomatic missions—suggesting that such a response is inevitable, and wondering, ominously, where it will come. By inference, the rationale for Donald Trump’s bolt-from-the-blue action will be justified, or not, by its consequences and their consequences. As General David Petraeus told Foreign Policy, “It is impossible to overstate the importance of this particular action. . . . Suleimani was the architect and operational commander of the Iranian effort to solidify control of the so-called Shia crescent, stretching from Iran to Iraq through Syria into southern Lebanon.” He added, “Now the question is: How does Iran respond with its own forces and its proxies, and then what does that lead the U.S. to do?”
Petraeus’s apprehension was unlikely to have been allayed by the Trump Administration’s alleged contingency plans for an Iranian counterattack. After Suleimani’s death, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, reportedly instructed his National Security Council that Iran’s response should not be carried out by proxies but, rather, by Iranian forces in a direct, proportional attack on American interests. If that were to happen, Trump tweeted, his Administration had plans to attack fifty-two Iranian targets—a number that recalls the fifty-two American hostages held in Tehran in 1979. Early on Wednesday morning, a first Iranian salvo came: units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq where American troops are stationed. There were no reported casualties, and the damage was apparently minimal. Later on Wednesday morning, in a brief address from the White House, Trump said—some would say gloated—that Iran “appears to be standing down.” After misrepresenting the terms of the Iran nuclear deal, he called on nato—an organization he has frequently scorned—to take a role and reiterated threats and sanctions against Iran but said that he was ready “to embrace peace with all who seek it.”
Whatever Trump does, or does not do, in response, looking one military move ahead does not amount to a strategic plan. And the danger of escalation looms in a region that is, whatever America’s advantage in the airspace, Iranian turf. A missile barrage is the least of Iran’s strategic options. After the killing of Suleimani, which was achieved by a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, the Iraqi parliament called for American troops to leave that country, which has a Shiite majority and is home to militias subject to Iranian influence. Trump threatened economic sanctions on Iraq, but this has mainly compromised Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who presides over cities—recently wracked by demonstrations—that are desperate for foreign investment. It has not, apparently, mitigated uncertainty regarding the fate of America’s Iraqi bases, which calls the continuing fight against isis into question, let alone the meagre results of America’s terrible war there. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime owes its survival to Iran, and Lebanon remains dominated by the Iran-backed Hezbollah, whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, warned that suicide bombers across the region will leave the Americans “humiliated, defeated, and terrified.”
But this is Israel’s turf, too, and the killing of Suleimani feels quite different in Israel than it does in the United States—a somewhat more decisive, if not exactly recommended, move in a game that has been playing out in the region for years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was reportedly apprised of the U.S. strike in advance by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said that Trump was “worthy of full appreciation”—though he subsequently tried to distance Israel from the killing, calling it “an American event.” Benny Gantz, the opposition leader trying to displace Netanyahu, called the attack a “brave decision.” No major party leader has publicly condemned the killing. On Sunday, Alex Fishman, the security correspondent for the Tel Aviv–based newspaper Yediot Ahronot, wrote, “For years, Israel has tried unsuccessfully to harness the United States for a military confrontation with Iran. And last Friday we emerged from these 40 years in the wilderness.”
Fishman puts things brazenly, but he captured the general mood among Israeli security experts, who take it for granted that they must fight a war of attrition with Iran and its proxies—Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. They also assume that, despite Israel’s own “second strike” nuclear capabilities, Iran’s heft—a technologically advanced country of eighty-three million people, with a military industry larger than Israel’s—its nuclear program, and its development of guided missiles constitute an outsized, if not existential, threat. Since October, when Trump seemed willing to abandon the Kurds fighting in northern Syria, Israeli security experts have feared that their American patron was showing signs of withdrawing from the region. Their ultimate fear was that he would leave Israel to face Iran alone.
But something else is at play here. The assassination of Suleimani seems of a piece with Israeli conceptions of “deterrence”—the manifest demonstration of overwhelming force kept in reserve—in which the killing of leaders is an arrow in the quiver. When Amos Yadlin, the executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies—he previously served as the chief of military intelligence and as a deputy commander of the Israeli Air Force—was interviewed about the assassination on the Ynet news site, he immediately drew a parallel to the assassination of Imad Fayez Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah commander, in a joint Mossad-C.I.A. operation in 2008. As Hezbollah and Iranian leaders did then, Yadlin said, Iranian leaders would now respond in a measured way. Virtually all defense experts presume a kind of division of labor in the regional contest, with the U.S. deterring Iran’s missile and nuclear programs and Israel countering the missile capabilities of its proxies. The Iranians “really, really don’t want a war with the world’s greatest power,” Yadlin said. Any “broad-based attack,” such as the one that Iranian leaders threatened over the weekend against thirty-two sites, including Tel Aviv, would “bring down on them America’s great might, including B-1 bombers, B-2s, cruise missiles—everything the U.S. has.”
Yadlin did not have to add that what keeps Hezbollah’s tens of thousands of rockets and missiles away from their (far fewer) launchers is the spectre of how the Israeli Air Force would retaliate. In recent months, the Air Force has carried out dozens of attacks in Syria, and even some in Iraq. “Alongside the limitations on its nuclear program, Iran is continuing to develop missiles that can reach Israeli territory,” the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, General Aviv Kochavi, said last month at a conference in Herzliya. “We are making great efforts to insure that our enemies do not acquire precision weapons, and we will do so openly, covertly, and even at the risk of conflict.”
Since October, though, Israel has worried that the Trump Administration isn’t fully committed to its part of the job. The abandonment of the Kurds, Yadlin told me at the time, “gave Iran a windfall, a direct overland route through Iraq to President Assad’s Syria—and, from there, to Lebanon.” Furthermore, oil-and-gas independence seemed to make the Administration cavalier about the Gulf. Iran attacked shipping there, then attacked Saudi oil fields, and even shot down a hundred-million-dollar U.S. drone. “The perception,” Yadlin said, was that the Americans “are willing to impose sanctions, willing to offer economic aid. But, when it comes to the military option, they are very hesitant.” Israel, Yadlin added, doesn’t need U.S. military help, “but this withdrawal means a reduction in Israeli ‘deterrence.’ ”
The attack on Suleimani, presumably, turned things around. Another former chief of military intelligence, Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, told Israeli radio on Sunday that Suleimani was uniquely positioned to “continue spreading the Revolution”—not primarily to annihilate Israel but to build Iranian relations with insurgents from Yemen to Syria to Gaza—and that perhaps the assassination may prove him irreplaceable. “There are people built by history,” he said. Nevertheless, the “Iranian regime is pragmatic”—even Suleimani himself, who had cozied up to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin (he was, Farkash said, “the Kremlin’s, Putin’s favored guest”), had “worked together” with the C.I.A. to fight against isis in Iraq. The Iranians do not want to absorb a further American attack; their highest priority is “not to lose Iraq,” and thus lose the land bridge from Tehran to Beirut. Besides, they know that their nuclear sites are particularly exposed to air attack. As a former senior Israeli defense official put it to me in May of 2018, just after John Bolton, a longtime Iran hawk, became Trump’s national-security adviser, the Trump Administration would find an attack on the nuclear installations “almost tempting,” what with “the surgical tools America developed to hit Iranian nuclear sites and operations.”
Uzi Arad, who served as Netanyahu’s national-security adviser from 2009 to 2011, notes that more than Iran’s nuclear sites are vulnerable. He told me, “Iranian leaders know that America could hit not only nuclear-related installations but also their military bases, their seaports—Iran is largely a sea power in the Gulf. Also, facilities of the Revolutionary Guards.” Arad believes that both sides will now look to deëscalate, and that Trump is not out for regime change in Iran. What he really seems to want, Arad said, is intimidation of the existing regime, which may prove frustrating: “It is said that Iran never won a war and never lost a negotiation.” Then again, Arad acknowledged, if escalation continues and miscalculations mount, one never knows, especially with Trump, how things might change. “We would hope that the fear of mutual miscalculation will cause the sides to roll things back,” he said. “But miscalculations are possible.” Trump may then find himself in a spiralling tit-for-tat, a war, and then change his position about regime change.
Yadlin, Arad, Farkash, and the former senior official, unlike Trump, all favored keeping the Iran nuclear deal. They all also distance themselves from Netanyahu’s indifference to peace overtures toward the Palestinian National Authority. The Institute for National Strategic Studies has itself proposed significant, unilateral interim steps for implementing a two-state solution. Yadlin ran against Netanyahu’s government in 2015, as the designated defense minister on an opposition list that included the Labor Party. Yet he and Arad both think that Iran had a chance to test the diplomatic path after the nuclear deal—say, by agreeing to negotiations about curtailing its missile program, as a way of avoiding remaining sanctions—and, instead, chose to expand its regional adventurism. In that context, Trump’s strike, entangled with Israel’s own notions of regional deterrence, is seen as a counter to such adventurism—a continuation of the notion of “minimum power necessary for maximum effect, and entailing minimum danger,” as Yadlin wrote to me in November, akin to “a targeted strike, like Israel’s operation on Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981,” which Yadlin, then an Air Force pilot, participated in.
But this is obviously a dangerously elastic formulation, as the attack on Suleimani shows. Although provisional asymmetry makes deterrence plausible, it also makes a too-big preëmptive attack “tempting.” Israeli military officials routinely say that their theory of deterrence takes into account both the enemy’s motives and its capabilities. But that theory can default to the idea that, if Israeli military power is what intimidates enemy forces, then when the latter gains capabilities their motives will unconsciously change: the fact that they can attack will suggest that they should. For Israel, this line of thought essentially took hold just before the Sinai Campaign of 1956, when it attacked Egypt’s recently acquired Soviet armor and planes. It has never really changed. Then, as now, Israel enlisted great powers to act at its side; it colluded with France and Britain, which occupied the Suez Canal. Then, as now, Israel saw periodic attacks to build deterrence as routine. A state of war came to seem normal.
The corresponding danger, which Netanyahu (though neither Yadlin nor Arad) exemplifies, is that, as long as Israeli leaders feel themselves in a state of successful deterrence, they will stop imagining how long-term diplomacy can be more urgent than immediate steps to annihilate enemy capabilities—“mowing the lawn,” as officers call bombing operations in Gaza. With Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel’s war in the north may now be inescapably normal. America’s position vis-à-vis Iran and the whole of the Middle East is hardly comparable with Israel’s vis-à-vis Iran’s proxies. America’s responsibilities are both less urgent and more complex. For Trump, moreover, diplomacy was an option—about this, many Israeli security experts, including Yadlin, have no doubt. The nuclear deal proved, if nothing else, that war with Iran is not inescapable. For Americans, it most certainly will not seem normal.
Source: Strategic Study India
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