Iran Israel Missile Defense Politics & Diplomacy Security & Defense United States and Canada
New Atlanticist April 14, 2024

Iran is trying to create a new normal with its attack. Here’s how Israel and the US should respond.

By William F. Wechsler

Iran’s supreme leader took his time to consider how and where to respond to Israel’s strike in Damascus on April 1. The United States and Israel should similarly take time to consider what he likely intended to accomplish with this weekend’s retaliation and what messages he was trying to send.

Most immediately, Tehran clearly intended to deter Israel from once again targeting its diplomatic facilities—locations that it previously thought were safe enough to use for military purposes. Israel’s longstanding “war between the wars” has put Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps officers at risk when operating near Israel’s borders, so Tehran is undoubtedly loath to see its remaining sanctuaries become an accepted part of the battlefield.

Operationally, Iran sent an unmistakable signal that it wanted to avoid a further escalation that could spark a truly regional war. It chose long-range attacks that could be readily thwarted by known Israeli defenses and pointedly did not target any US facilities. It did this all while issuing extraordinary statements (in English) that “the matter can be deemed concluded” and that “U.S. MUST STAY AWAY!” (emphasis in the original).

While Hamas might be desperate for a wider conflagration, its patron Iran is certainly quite satisfied by the post-October 7 status quo, from which it benefits immensely. For many people across the region, awash with images of Palestinian suffering, their perceptions of Iran have never been more positive, as it alone is “standing up” to Israel—previously through its proxies and now directly as well. Reports of Jordan actively defending Israel from Iran further exacerbate the dichotomy between Tehran, which presents itself as the leader of the resistance against the ”Zionist entity,” and Arab governments that are seen by many of their citizens as secretly doing Israel’s bidding.

Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program has fallen off the front pages and continues to progress largely unimpeded, already leaping past milestones that were once widely regarded to be unacceptable. Moreover, Iran has thus far avoided any real risk to Hezbollah, the crown jewel of its proxy network since Hezbollah’s second-strike capacity helps deter an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear infrastructure. Iran seeks US withdrawal from the region; the last thing it wants is to provoke a wider regional war that would risk a direct US-Iran military confrontation.

Setting a precedent

Strategically, Tehran also sought to establish a novel precedent that will shift the nature of the ongoing conflict with Israel to its further advantage. The precedent is that Iran can attack Israel directly, that it can do so from Iranian soil, and that it can target civilians inside Israel. Iran is thus following a playbook that it has honed for decades: experimenting with a new set of malign actions, assessing the response from adversaries, and, if those responses are deemed either minimal or temporary, establishing those actions as a new normal that then becomes accepted implicitly. This pattern is how Iran became the only country in the world that routinely gives precision weapons to non-state proxies and instructs them to target civilians across borders—and how the rest of world became so inured to this reality that it is now barely even remarked upon.

In recent months, Iran has already successfully established several “new normals” that work to its long-term advantage: Through the Houthis, it has demonstrated a newfound ability to shut the Bab el-Mandeb Strait whenever it wants and to whomever it wants; through Hezbollah, it has demonstrated its ability to threaten Israelis at home and now force massive internal displacements; and through its own actions, it has demonstrated once again its capacity to commit piracy near the Strait of Hormuz and attract little in the way of international condemnation for doing so. If Tehran is similarly successful in establishing the precedent that it can directly target Israelis from Iran, the resulting new normal would become especially valuable after Tehran becomes a declared nuclear-weapons power.

Diplomatically, Iran also hoped to demonstrate both the limits of US power and the reliability of its own. The United States has been committed to Israel’s security for decades and President Joe Biden has personally demonstrated his own dedication to that goal. And yet Iran is nevertheless able to directly threaten Israel without triggering a US military response—or so it hopes. With this weekend’s attack, Iran likely intends that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab governments take away the lesson that they shouldn’t depend on an unreliable and ineffectual US security umbrella, and especially not if that’s the benefit on offer for normalizing relations with Israel. Similarly, Iran hopes to encourage its ally-in-all-but-name Russia and its major economic partner China to blame Israel for the escalation in tensions and to protect it at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This is likely to be a successful strategy; after six months, the UNSC still hasn’t been able to clearly condemn Hamas for its terrorist attacks against Israel, so the odds are that the UNSC will not pass a resolution that plainly condemns Iran for its actions.  

Next steps for Israel and the US

Iran’s objectives were rational and well-considered, and they play to perceptions of its own strengths and its opponents’ weaknesses. So too must be the response to Iran’s actions. Neither Israel nor the United States should allow Iran to achieve the objectives outlined above, but calls for an immediate military campaign on Iranian territory are as reckless as they are unwise. Instead, the focus should be as follows.

In the months to come, even as it continues its “war between the wars” undeterred, Israel’s top priority should be to achieve its military objectives against Hamas convincingly: decapitating its leadership, dismantling its tunnel infrastructure, and destroying its remaining military brigades. It should do so while working with the United States to far better protect civilians in Gaza, to establish internal security there and deny Hamas’s reconstitution, and to vastly improve humanitarian conditions for innocent Palestinians. Nothing would do more immediate damage to the Iranian narrative than to have Iran’s partner in Gaza suffer an indisputable defeat.

Furthermore, Tehran would suffer an even more devastating strategic setback if Israel, after having achieved its military objectives against Hamas, is able to summon the political courage and strategic wisdom to accept the US-proposed principle of a “time-bound, irreversible path to a Palestinian state,” begin good-faith negotiations on how to operationalize those terms, and in the meantime normalize relations with a Saudi Arabia that has strengthened its security relationship with the United States. The Biden administration has been ambitiously pushing toward this scenario for over a year, recognizing that achieving it would fundamentally change the geopolitics of the region—all to the strategic detriment of Tehran and its network of violent rejectionists.

At the same time, the United States should expand its campaign against the Houthis from a mission narrowly defined to defend international shipping and degrade Houthi capabilities in the Red Sea, to one that also seeks to establish deterrence by decapitating Houthi leadership from the air. The United States is deeply experienced in such operations in Yemen after conducting them for years against the leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; the United States should carry out these strikes until the Houthis permanently halt their attacks on international shipping.

The United States should also declare a new doctrine: Any attack against any US person by an Iranian partner or proxy will henceforth be considered (a) an attack by Iran itself and (b) a successful attack, for the purposes of determining the US military response. For too long, Iran has been able to attack Americans with relative impunity by doing so through cutouts and conducting those attacks in such a manner that they can be expected to be successfully thwarted or only cause “minor” casualties. When three US servicemembers were killed earlier this year, the US response was clear and Iran responded by ordering a halt in such attacks. That was a successful application of deterrence. The same military responses can and should be taken when Iran attempts to kill Americans, not only when it successfully does so. By establishing this new normal, the United States will have successfully altered the rules of the game to its own advantage—and established a precedent for Israel to follow.

And finally, the United States should accept that Iranian malign behavior will not end until the regime itself does. After all, Iran’s conflict with Israel is entirely ideological, a product of the particular theology of the 1979 revolution; the previous Iranian government had no such hostilities. Furthermore, as was the case with the Soviet Union, the regime is increasingly fragile domestically, viewed as fundamentally illegitimate by a growing percentage of Iranians who repeatedly rise up in protest no matter the risks

But a war with Iran to produce regime change would carry far too many risks for the region, not the least of which would be the deaths of countless innocents, and most likely serve to strengthen the regime’s hold on its people and to legitimate its nuclear program in the eyes of many abroad. Therefore, just as during the Cold War, the best long-term US strategy against Tehran would be one that targets this inherent regime weakness through increased sanctions enforcement, covert actions against Iran’s nuclear program, legal efforts to hold the regime accountable for its human rights atrocities at home and abroad, and a campaign of overt and covert support to those inside Iran who oppose the regime.

Given the inconsistencies of US policies across administrations in recent decades, such an approach may be beyond the United States’ capacity. But it has never been more important to build bipartisan support for a consistent Iran strategy that can succeed.

William F. Wechsler is the senior director of Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. His most recent US government position was deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combatting terrorism.

Further reading

Image: A missile is launched during a military exercise in Isfahan, Iran, October 28, 2023. Iranian Army/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo