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When will Iran strike Israel?

Iranian officials believe that the anxiety to Israel and America caused by waiting for the hammer to fall is a victory in itself. Credit: Getty

April 13, 2024 - 8:12pm

If the wisest place to hide a leaf is in a forest, the best way to conceal an unsuccessful war is to nestle it within a far wider conflagration. With Benjamin Netanyahu’s war in Gaza sputtering towards a simultaneously bloody and inconclusive end, the isolated Israeli strongman appears to have rolled the dice on expanding the conflict to drag out his political survival for as long as possible.

As Eran Etzion, former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, remarked on X this weekend: “The [elimination] of the Iranian general in Damascus was one of two things – either serious strategic negligence that needs to be investigated, or a deliberate effort to bring Iran into the campaign, in complete opposition to the demands of the US and its interests.”

However Netanyahu’s risky gamble works out for Israel, his brinkmanship places both Israel’s American sponsor and Iranian rival in difficult, almost impossible positions. With 57% of Biden voters now believing that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, the White House’s overriding interest is to conclude, as swiftly as possible, the war that will now define Biden’s legacy.

America’s last intervention on Israel’s behalf, in the Red Sea, has not gone well, exposing the limitations of America’s hard power. On the back foot in Ukraine, and struggling to keep up with China’s military buildup in the Pacific, America simply does not have the resources to get embroiled in yet another debilitating war in the Middle East.

No wonder, then, that while committing America’s arms to Israel’s defence, US officials have repeatedly stressed that they were given no advance warning of the attack, with Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin reportedly dressing down his Israeli counterpart in private, even as Israeli officials urge the US to publicly back them to the hilt in an attempt to dampen Iran’s response.

But for Iran, too, the choice of how or whether to respond is not an easy one. Having publicly committed itself to a firm response, the Iranian leadership must balance the difficult line between restoring deterrence and committing itself to a wider war whose outcome is necessarily uncertain. Aside from the devastating Israeli response that may follow, a major strike could turn American public opinion back in Israel’s favour, eroding Iran’s greatest strategic victory since the war began.

A carefully calibrated response — such as limiting strikes to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, internationally recognised as Syrian territory — seems to be Tehran’s preferred option, providing Netanyahu with an off-ramp that striking the Israeli heartland would not. There are other combat indicators of a more measured Iranian response in the offing, such as the mobilisation of Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq: indeed, given the peculiarities of American politics, a proxy strike against US facilities in the region may be a safer option for Iran than attacking Israel itself.

While Iranian officials bide for time, viewing Israel and America’s anxiety as they wait for the hammer to fall as a victory in itself, Tehran will soon have to respond, or accept the loss of face — and deterrent power — that comes with turning the other cheek. As Iranian officials reportedly believe: “they are thinking there might be a war in a few weeks if they respond, or there will definitely be a war in a year if they don’t respond.” Even as America and Iran hammer out their modus vivendi, behind the scenes, and through go-betweens, the region edges closer towards the unthinkable.

As Etzion observes: “What happens or does not happen in the Iran-USA-Israel triangle will redefine the ‘borders of the system, and shape the near future to a considerable extent”. The coming hours will determine whether the old rivals Washington and Tehran can, together, avoid the war that neither wants to fight.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago

How can the author write this stuff without understanding that Bibi does not run the Israeli govt? Israel is being governed by a non-partisan war time cabinet that includes the leader of the official opposition. It was established four days after the Oct. 7 massacre.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Are you excusing Israel or Bibi?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

The Israelis are never in the wrong, you should know that by now

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

That is the biggest red flag that I look for in articles on Israel now. It is so well known and has been pointed out so often that there is only one reason for not getting this simple fact correct. If an author can’t grapple with the basic and publicised reality of there being a national unity “war cabinet” then it doesn’t bode well for any of their other claims.

Paul
Paul
1 month ago

What percentage of Biden voters can define the word “genocide” correctly?

Arthur King
Arthur King
1 month ago

There are many in North America who’ve been waiting for an opportunity to deal desisively with the Iranian theocracy. Islamists in The West are going to be shocked how fast the pendulum will swing against them once countries start supporting Israel.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago
Reply to  Arthur King

Is it the Eve of Armageddon again? It seems to come round earlier every year these days. Neither Israel nor Iran is either an ally or an enemy of Britain. What precise form does either that alliance or that enmity take? What does either of them do for Britain? What does either of them do to Britain? Well, apart from that recent use of a British-made weapon to murder, very precisely, three British aid workers. But we are not supposed to talk about that. Apart from that, though, we have no conceivable dog in this, one of numerous fights in the world of which that could be said, should be said, and usually is said. But the Conservatives will have to be worked hard on this, and Labour is now hopeless.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

I wouldn’t want to see a single British soldier risked or bullet wasted keeping these two horrible countries apart. It’s nothing to do with the west, let those that live in the region sort it out

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Who cares what “horrible” people like you think?

Arthur King
Arthur King
1 month ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Israel is a civilized pro-western country while Iran is not.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Arthur King

That’s killed nearly 20,000 women and children and pushed millions to the brink of starvation.
Very civilised, and how are the pro western? They were certainly pro Argentinian during the Falklands

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Spare us those BS figures.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

Please provide the correct ones then, I’ll happily correct them

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I don’t need to supply any, I haven’t a clue, and neither do you. That of which I know nothing I keep silent. I suggest you might do the same.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

Don’t call my figures false then if you can’t prove that’s the case. As I say, if you’ve some that are more accurate I’ll happily correct mine, but if you’re unable to do so I’ll stick with the internationally accepted ones

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Your figures are demonstrably, provably false as they are the same as those issued by the Gaza Health Ministry. 5 minutes looking at those figures, with their implausibly smooth increases and their ridiculous lack of correlation between male, female and child deaths is enough to show that they are mathematically impossible. Better to not mention any figures than spread those lies.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

Right, then please give me the correct ones, or at least a rough estimate. If mine are that far out surely the IDF or Americans have figures that are closer to the truth you can use?

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 month ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

One of you – incredibly – believes in figures supplied by a barbaric death cult priding itself on the rape and mutilation of innocents, its crude propaganda (only women die X days in a row) confirmed by their ghastly UN collaborators and then lapped up by shamefully biased progressive journalists like those at the BBC …. and one is rightly sceptical. I know who gets my vote.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

One of us is using the figures generally accepted by the international community, the other is claiming they’re false despite providing no evidence because they’re politically inconvenient

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

‘The international community’ ffs!!! Fine – you stick with Hamas Health officials. I can well imagine you in the 1930s praising Soviet collectivisation and damning all the propaganda about skeletons and cannibalism in the Ukraine.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

The Soviet Union did push Ukraine into famine so I suppose there are some similarities between that and the Israelis collective punishment of Gaza, but if you believe the death toll is false then feel free to provide the correct numbers.
In the previous flare ups the number of casualties reported in Gaza has proved to be broadly accurate, and seeing as Israel or America isn’t disputing the current ones I’ll assume these ones are too. If they were demonstrably false the IDF would be disputing them rather than trying to excuse them as unfortunate

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Its ok Bob. You choose to believe an organisation committed to actual genocide – and give lazy tacit support to a group that did not just rape and butcher young kibbutz girls – but then mutilated their bodies too…oh before going on to burn some babies, generally imitate Einsatzgruppen in early 1940s and then call mum and dad to get their thumbs up to murder. I find it difficult to communicate with someone betraying such a moral void behind all this snippy chippy ‘reason’. I am sure your FB friends salute your ‘virtue’. They are welcome to you.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

It isn’t the things we don’t know that get us in trouble, it’s the things we know that just ain’t so. You choose to believe demonstrably bogus numbers, and think it is ok because nobody knows the truth. You are a deeply unserious person.

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Billy, give me a favor, shut up, please

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  El Uro

Because the figures paint Israel in a bad light? Can’t have that now can we!

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

But they don’t paint Israel in a bad light, do they? Hamas chose the battlefield, under a civilian area. Surely these figures would paint Hamas in a bad light, not Israel.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

At this point and across several other comments on other articles, Billy Bon has revealed himself to be a antisemitic bigot. He doesn’t really care about Gazans.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago

The most muted condemnation of the murder of three British aid workers, with far more anger from the Americans, and far more again from the Australians and the Poles. No condemnation whatever of the equally surgical bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus; like the killing of Ismail Haniyeh’s three sons and four grandchildren, that was another reminder of how precise the IDF really was, lest it ever claim to have killed anyone accidentally or as collateral damage.

But all Hell has broken loose now that Iran is retaliating, as would we. Not that that makes it the good guy. Nor is Israel. There almost never is one. Israel is our ally in what way? What specific form does that alliance take? What do the Israelis do for us? Ask that question, and you will be barraged with drivel that would be irrelevant even if it had any factual basis, about “Muzzie ragheads” and Iran’s somehow being on the same side as IS because they were both “ROPers”. In point of fact, Britain was on the same side as IS in Syria even while bombing it in Iraq, and Israel built IS a field hospital in the Golan Heights, for which Priti Patel tried to obtain British public funding, whereas Hamas rounded up IS supporters in Gaza and killed them.

Are the people who do not know these things to be allowed to set the agenda? Apparently so, since, pandering to them, we have talk of “kamikaze drones”. I know that they like their substances at the Telegraph, but the drones are not really talking to them, nor do they really have little men in them. Even the Israelis do not claim that Iran has a nuclear capability. We have been here before with non-existent “weapons of mass destruction”.

When Salman Rushdie was placed under a fatwa, then Margaret Thatcher managed not to go to war with Iran. She also banned arms sales to Israel, and that was before the Israelis had used a British-made weapon to murder, clinically, three British military veterans who were doing the classic double job of aid worker and intelligence operative. Well under a fortnight later, the RAF is in the air at the beck and call of their assassins against one of the world’s many regimes to be thoroughly nasty but not our problem. Prove to me that Kim McGuinness‘s husband is not among those in flight. As ever, the money has been found for this but not for anything that might make Britain worth defending, a pursuit of which in any case this forms no part. It is as if Keir Starmer were already Prime Minister.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 month ago

Oh please. This is just standard over wrought reflex wishy washy Western liberal policy wonk on Iran. The brutal medieval theocratic murderers in Tehran need to be confronted and not appeased. But the US EU and lame Brit Neo Appeasers still think it ok to bung a regime torturing their own women for hair violations 16bn; handy payouts for their rapist proxies in Gaza in the run up to Oct 7. We turn a blind eye not just to domestic and international terror (25 assassination attempts here in UK) but to its nuclear ambitions too. The Iranian people crave liberation from this corrupt failing regime. It should be fought and tested and made to pay for its crimes.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
1 month ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

Maybe but the immediate issue is whether it makes sense to provoke a war with Iran at this point in time. Is it is in the West’s interest? In Israel’s? I do not see it. Trying to expand the war may be in Bibi’s short term political interests – as many Israelis seem to believe – but I struggle to see any other beneficiary. In fact the risks of escalation make it appear an insane choice.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

This is all back to front Alex and morally twisted. The death cult Hamas provoked the war in Gaza. Before October 7th, naive Israelis in the south were busy letting thousands of ‘neighbours’ come over for work; these neighbours then returned as Einsatzgruppen to butcher, rape and kidnap. It is Iran who is stoking conflict and death in Yemen Gaza Lebanon and beyond. The Israelis did not kill visa clerks in Damascus. They took out the murderous terrorist IRGC generals plotting this mayhem and death across the region.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
1 month ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

I think we approach problems in different ways. For me, the criterion is the consequences of any action and the best yardstick is calm enlightened long term self interest. The alternative is your approach which is, I think, of seeing whether there has been significant provocation which morally justifies some sort of strong reaction. One of the reasons I distrust the second approach is that it encourages simplistic framing which can be used to justify any course of action. For Israelis, the current issue can be framed by starting with the Hamas massacre on Oct 7th. For Palestinians, by starting with their dispossession in 1947. Each side acquires its framing narrative, neither has a coherent strategy and no one is better off. Personally, I think the parallels between Israel today and the overconfident and excessively belligerent Crusaders before Hattin are getting too close for comfort.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

Interesting. But I do not think your calm rational strategy makes sense. Lets just frame it in the present rather than talking 47 (why not look at 48..the scale of the Palestinian State they had till Arab armies went to war and lost??). Israel handed back Gaza to Hamas and its UN collaborators who turned it into a war colony. There was an uneasy and unsteady peace ended by their savagery on Oct 7th – a seismic event which requires belligerence and war. You surely cannot think any State can just ignore 130 missing citizens and over 1000 butchered & raped innocents. Especially when the deranged butchers are a fundamentalist death cult pledging to do it again till they can achieve the genocide of the Jews. So belligerence is the only option. Killing the nest of IRGC generals who funded Hamas and plotted murder and mayhem via Lebanon and Yemen is also legitimate and not excessive strike. We in the soppy Afghan betraying West have the luxury habit of appeasing the vile mullahs whose prisons are filled with forgotten women resisters. Israel does not have that luxury. Hamas is a poison and must pay the price. If they do not, peace has no chance at all.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
1 month ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

I think that no one expects anything other than anger and belligerence in the immediate aftermath of a massacre. The urge for revenge is overwhelming and calm calculation is unlikely. This was true after 9/11 and after the Hamas atrocity.

After a while, however, it becomes possible to consider what is in the long term interest of Israel and of the West more generally. Biden made the point that after 9/11 America went on a twenty year rampage which proved ill thought through and created as many problems as it solved. One example being the destruction of Saddam which allowed Iranian protĂ©gĂ©s and allies to gain influence in Iraq and Syria. Biden suggested that Israel should learn from America’s example. His advice appears to have fallen on death ears.

I think a general war now with Israel fighting Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, Iraq as well as Hamas would not be to Israel’s – or anyone else’s – advantage. You may disagree. My suggestion is that this prospect should be evaluated as calmly as possible in the context of alternative possible strategies and not by listing the provocations suffered by Israel and the undoubted defects of the various regimes.

Dengie Dave
Dengie Dave
1 month ago

As events of a few hours later demonstrated, Aris Roussinos is talking out of his Aris. Hope he didn’t bet on the Grand National.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

Israel and US now have the justification for taking out Iran’s nuclear development plants. They have the capability and that’s not the issue. The consideration is what response that then triggers from Iran. Closing the Straits of Hormuz may also cripple Iran’s economy but would send a massive shock wave through world economy too. It’ll be an immediate consequence.
The fact Iran quickly indicated the attack was the end of their retaliation for the Damascus strike probably shows much internal disagreement about how much they want this to escalate. That said 300 drones a massively disproportionate response. Again though possibly indicative of different tensions pulling in different directions within the Regime.
Is the smart thing to continue surgical strikes against IRGC Generals but leave it at that and let some of the tensions within the Iranian regime play-out? This would also prevent Bibi having his casus belli for staying longer than helpful.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Iran knows all those drones will have likely been shot down long before reaching their target though

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 month ago

Just 75 minutes after this article was posted Iran launched an indiscriminate attack across all of Israel. More than 300 drones and missiles were launched. This was no carefully calibrated response. The article is shown to consist of nothing but the speculative imagination of the writer. There is no information to read here, just wild guesses filtered by personal bias.

What was carefully calibrated was the US, UK and Jordanian fighter jets, warships, and Israel’s Arrow defence system. The modern technology supposedly made useless by asymmetric warfare turned out to be very useful indeed. Technology turned an Iranian escalation into an expensive firework display.

Today, there are loud calls for Israel not to respond. The BBC is anxious about Israel’s next steps. By comparison, the criticism of Iran launching a huge military attack of UAVs in neutral air space open to civilian traffic (swiftly closed) and it’s next steps is almost a footnote. Everyone is appealing to Israel for calm and rationality because everyone knows not to expect calm and rationality from its foes.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

It wasn’t indiscriminate, it was a retaliation with a degree of posturing. They knew it wouldn’t cause any real damage so as not to escalate the situation, but it was enough to be seen to be responding to Israel’s original attacks. Why the world expects Iran to just accept Israel murdering its citizens is beyond me

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

DEI in action; the usual asymmetrical standards driven by white guilt no doubt; Israel can do no right and Iran can do no wrong. Syrian proxies have been firing weapons into Northern Israel for months but nobody seems to think that matters, likewise the 150,000 (approx) Israelis driven from their homes; but one rocket lands in Damascus to kill terrorist leaders and it’s all over the papers for a week. You’d almost think the MSM had an agenda – more Brexit, anybody?

Where’s my ‘Queers for Palestine ‘ t-shirt?

Martin Goodson
Martin Goodson
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

“Dr Lina Khatib, an associate fellow at Chatham House, has told BBC Radio 5 Live that Iran’s attack was “meant to be a kind of spectacle that Iran wanted the world to witness”.
Dr Khatib, who is currently in Lebanon, has said it was “highly choreographed” and “actually quite limited”.
She referenced Iran issuing a statement that it considered the retaliation “computed” before the drones reached their targets in Israel.
“So this shows that Iran just wanted to send a very strong message, to save face, so that it is seen as having responded directly to Israel, but at the same time it definitely does not want the matter to escalate any further.””

Dan Croitoru
Dan Croitoru
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin Goodson

“concluded” not “computed”but nevertheless well said. It was performance art both American and Israeli intelligence were well aware of. The population was gaslighted for 3 days though- lol Netanyahu was almost smiling in his TV address during the attack

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin Goodson

Doctor Lina Khatib… Well, well, and where do they dig something like this?

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

“The modern technology supposedly made useless by asymmetric warfare turned out to be very useful indeed. Technology turned an Iranian escalation into an expensive firework display.”

Unfortunately the expense is almost entirely on the West. Drones are cheap, fighter jets, warships and missile defence systems, plus the missiles they used, not so cheap.

Matt B
Matt B
1 month ago

An unpredictive article almost immediately side-swiped by Iran’s actual methods and timing.

Saul D
Saul D
1 month ago

You can see how complex this is by the way no-one quite know what is an appropriate next response to the Iranian attack. Israel will want to, and probably will, retaliate.
The threat to the Straits of Hormuz and the Red Sea via Yemeni proxies mean oil, and oil price and inflation impacts, six months ahead of a US election, will have to be a part of US calculations, let alone the impacts of funding more war, or worse getting US troops or navy involved. Those threats also impact the Saudis and how it needs to be involved as a major regional power.
With the Americans distracted by another front, it may embolden Russia in Ukraine or Georgia, and with the combination of Russia and Iran as Western enemies it potentially leads an Eastern Wall cutting off trading routes between Europe and Asia and leaving Europe in a peripheral position, particularly with regard to energy (the US just having decided to pause new LNG export licences to Europe looking like very bad timing). It also means that Algeria suddenly has a lot of leverage if the energy screw turns tighter.
The net benefactor is China, with the nagging sense that perhaps a Chinese long-term plan or strategy is playing out. It feels like the US has fallen into a trap, with no obvious good options to play and big risks of high inflation and excessive debt. Europe may have to scramble to save itself from becoming a stale old backwater in global affairs.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  Saul D

Excellent summary. The key takeaway from all this for such as China, Russia and Iran is: Authoritarianism = strong, Democracy = weak.
It’s therefore our whole way of life that’s under threat. Here in Europe (UK), becoming a stale old backwater has been something to contemplate for a while, but now the issue is rather more existential. That’s why we must support Israel and Ukraine, as the front lines in this battle; and that’s even when the democratic credentials in the latter are far from clear. Whatever the outcome in either theatre of war, simply giving up would be disastrous.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Saul D

Correction: Europe already is a “stale old backwater in global affairs”. There’s no “becoming” about it.

Dan Croitoru
Dan Croitoru
1 month ago

lol – is this a joke? Iran almost literally published the schedule and locations of the attack. Netanyahu could hardly hide his smile in his address. At 2:00 Am, Iran posted mission accomplished -), 20 minutes later, Bibi tweeted his “veni, vidi, vici” Israel will get its weapons and Iran can save face.

Dengie Dave
Dengie Dave
1 month ago

Amazing that every time Israel gets attacked people immediately start calling for “restraint,” among them UN mafia boss Guterres. No one did so for US and NATO actions in last 30 years. Why the double standard?

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
1 month ago

The article certainly points out how complicated this mess is and how, in my view at least, we’ve learned a few things since the events of Oct 7. We can no longer underestimate the extent to which the progressive left rot of western self-loathing has pushed politicians to go along with truth-bending narratives that criticize the one liberal democracy in a region beset by Iran-sponsored Islamist terrorism. Even after yesterday’s drone attack we’re seeing “Iran has a right to defend itself” comments. Thanks to Covid mismanagement, climate change fiscal insanity and irresponsible immigration the West no longer enjoys the economic and military wherewithal to enforce ‘rules-based order’.
Military observers and pundits agree that the US cannot force the issue in Ukraine, the Red Sea and the Asia-Pacific by itself and capable partners are thin on the ground.  
Regime change in Iran is a possibility that could remove the theocrats but there’s no guarantee that will lead to a long term fix either. 
Hope outweighs optimism at this point.