Iran and the de-escalation myth

Forgive the Israelis if they aren’t in the mood to take the victory lap the White House has suggested to them, following the remarkable defense of their territory from an unprecedented Iranian barrage of more than three hundred explosive-laden drones, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles.

“You got a win,” US President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend, as reported by Axios from a White House source. “Take the win.”

Translate that into a strong US suggestion, straight from the Oval Office, that Israel demonstrate restraint in its response and refrain from attacking Iranian territory to avoid further escalation. To drive his point home, Biden also told the Israeli prime minister that US forces wouldn’t participate in any reprisal attack.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant provided his answer to Biden on Sunday, when he told US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that his country cannot allow ballistic missiles to be launched against its territory without a response. So, the question now is what Israel’s response will be.

The Atlantic Council’s Matthew Kroenig suggests that the United States and Israel should together strike Iran’s nuclear fuel-cycle facilities. This would, he said to me, “exact a steep price on Iran and restore deterrence in the region. Indeed, this may be the world’s last best chance to keep Tehran from the bomb.”

Reading the White House tea leaves, that seems highly unlikely. That said, Kroenig’s arguments in favor of a more decisive response are compelling. It goes entirely against the rules of deterrence if Iran doesn’t see the costs of hitting Israel as far outweighing the benefits.

The White House has operated with a similar de-escalation narrative in withholding from Ukraine certain capabilities since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Even now, it refuses to send certain longer-range strike capabilities, such as three-hundred-kilometer ATACMs (a long-range guided missile). It not only denies Ukraine the right to use US-supplied weapons against targets in Russia, but also urges Ukraine not to hit any targets in Russia—even with its own weapons—including military installations from which the Kremlin is attacking civilians in Ukraine.

That underscores a larger issue at stake that applies to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, to Chinese leader Xi Jinping as he considers next steps regarding Taiwan, and to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. These rulers are acting in increasing common cause to undermine the global leadership of the United States alongside its partners and allies.

The Atlantic Council’s Will Wechsler, who runs our Middle East Programs, explains the danger of Iran creating “a new normal” in the region.

“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,” Wechsler writes. That follows a well-practiced Iranian playbook of “experimenting with a new set of malign actions,” and then putting those actions into practice if the pushback against them proves insufficient.

Reluctance to respond over the years to Tehran’s malign behavior has left Iran as “the only country in the world that routinely gives precision weapons to nonstate proxies and instructs them to target civilians across borders.”

Wechsler proposes a menu of forceful options to respond against this weekend’s attack other than an immediate retaliatory strike on Iranian territory. One option, for example, is for the United States to declare a new doctrine: Any attack by an Iranian partner or proxy on Americans will be treated as if it were an attack by Iran itself.

Whatever response one prefers, it’s time to discard the myth that the de-escalation impulse actually results in a safer world. The October 7 attacks by Hamas disproved that, following years of enabling Iran; as did Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, following his successful invasion of Georgia in 2008 and his occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The world will only grow safer when it isn’t the Iranians and Russians who set the rules for their regions. It won’t be de-escalation that will save lives after Iran’s unprecedented weekend attack, but a more determined and unmistakable deterrence.

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter: @FredKempe.

This edition is part of Frederick Kempe’s Inflection Points Today newsletter, a column of quick-hit insights on a world in transition. To receive this newsletter throughout the week, sign up here.

Further reading

Image: An anti-Israel billboard with a picture of Iranian missiles is seen in a street in Tehran, Iran April 15, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency)