Iran’s barrage of approximately 300 ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and attack drones toward Israel late Saturday night and early Sunday morning turned out to be the equivalent of firing a blank from a gun; it made a loud noise that got everyone’s attention but did little damage. Nevertheless, it may be more impactful over the long term than Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attacks, which upended Israel and the Palestinians while setting the entire region on edge. Whether that impact benefits Israel or sets it further back on its heels depends on what happens next, which is largely in Israel’s control.

One misleading take on the weekend’s events is that the Iranian attack wasn’t a big deal because of its near-complete failure. Its failure to inflict damage does not erase the fact that it was momentous and that it shifted the rules of the game in a genuine way. There is a debate as to whether Iran intended to respond to Israel’s April 1 strike in Damascus that killed the Syria and Lebanon commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in a manner that would check a box without precipitating a massive Israeli counterstrike, or whether Iran intended to cause real damage and simply failed. While Iran’s attempts to declare the exchange over before any of the missiles or drones even arrived in Israel suggests the former interpretation, it’s hard to wave away the volume of what Iran sent Israel’s way or the ballistic missiles shot at the air force base that houses Israel’s F-35 fleet.

A Quds Day march in Tehran, April 5, 2024

The assessment that makes the most sense to me is that Iran launched relatively slow-moving cruise missiles and drones, expecting that many or even all would be intercepted and using that as a way to test Israel’s air defenses and the extent of assistance it would get from others, and hoped that the ballistic missiles would get through overwhelmed Israeli defenses. If it worked, Iran would score a big victory; if not, Iran would signal—as it has been desperately trying to do—that this was more symbolic than anything else and that both sides should now stand down. Whether or not this analysis is correct, Israel cannot accept the possibility that shooting hundreds of missiles and drones, or even occasional barrages of only a handful of missiles and drones, is the new normal. If this shifts the Overton window of what is acceptable, it will replicate what Israel dealt with for years from Hamas in Gaza, but swapping crude low-range rockets for sophisticated missiles with large payloads. Israel needs to respond in a way that eliminates this possibility.

Another misleading take is that Israel did not shift the rules of the game first. Iran’s response to the Damascus strike was absolutely escalatory, but Israel took out one of the most important IRGC figures and ten of his compatriots while they were in an Iranian diplomatic facility, and hence technically on Iranian soil. The IRGC is a U.S.-designated terrorist group and undoubtedly the Damascus consular annex was used for nefarious purposes, but that doesn’t negate that Israel upped the ante with a military operation that broke with precedent. What is worrisome is that by all accounts, Israel either did not understand that it had taken its own escalatory step, or understood full well but badly misread how Iran would respond. It places current Israeli decision-making under a microscope, since this was the latest in a string of mistaken Israeli assessments—the most glaring one being Hamas’ intentions before October 7—that should impact Israeli officials’ calculations about whether their intended response to Iran will climb the escalatory ladder or create the deterrence that Israelis like to talk about but that is so often absent.

An anti-Israel march in Iran

The final salient misleading take is that the unprecedented coordinated regional response to Iran’s missiles and drones, in which some combination of Jordanian, Emirati, Saudi, and Bahraini assistance combined with American and British fighter jets and ships shooting down missiles and drones, has completely remade the region. The marshaling of this group to counter an Iranian attack is the most important part of this story since it provides a glimpse into a much better future, but it does not mean that this coalition will hold no matter what, or that everyone in it has the same aims. The Arab states that may or may not have participated have so far either denied it, downplayed it, or in Jordan’s case insisted that it was entirely about the threat to Jordan itself and not about defending Israel. This is a continuation of the pattern that has played out for over a half decade, where Sunni states want to contain Iranian regional influence but not at the cost of a direct—or in some cases, even an indirect—confrontation. Saudi Arabia’s response to Iranian cruise missiles and drones that severely damaged an Aramco oil processing facility in 2019 and temporarily cut Saudi oil production in half was to ignore it, and renew diplomatic relations with Iran in 2023. The UAE has also ignored Houthi attacks on airports and tankers, and maintains diplomatic relations with Iran. States that view Iran as a threat do what they can to contain Iran and coopt it through deepening economic relationships, and their appetite for a more overtly confrontational military approach—particularly one that will upset regional stability or disrupt regional trade—is somewhere between low and non-existent.

Houthi forces training in Yemen

This all points to a series of important choices before Israel. Shrugging off the Iranian attack entirely is unwise and will only lead to bigger problems down the road. Using the attack as an opportunity to hit at Iran in an overwhelming way, or to even take out its nuclear facilities, is also unwise as it will leave Israel isolated and in conflict with every state that rushed to its aid on Saturday and Sunday, including the U.S. The Israeli impulse is to hit back at Iran hard and reestablish deterrence, but the evidence suggests that Israel’s most recent attempt to hit Iran in a tougher way spurred a tougher Iranian response rather than deterring it.

The smart move here is for Israel to take this opportunity to replay the October 7 dynamic in a way that redounds to its clear benefit. Like this weekend, Israel was attacked on October 7 in unprecedented fashion by a well-known foe. Like this weekend, the immediate response to October 7 was support for Israel and condemnation of what had occurred. And also like this weekend, there were quick warnings against an Israeli overreaction that would shift the equation out of Israel’s favor. Six months after those attacks, Israel has not secured the safe return of its hostages, has not eliminated Hamas, is at odds with the U.S., and has set back normalization with Saudi Arabia. Iran unwittingly gave Israel a fantastic gift, which was not only the real-time demonstration of an anti-Iranian coalition that sprung into action incredibly effectively, but an opportunity to change the conversation in a way that benefits Israel and a reset of its damaged relationships. Rather than opt for a show of overwhelming force that may not even achieve its goals, Israel should calibrate its response with its partners, figure out what they can and cannot support, and weigh the costs and benefits of all potential responses with an eye toward what it means for the larger fight against Iran.

The aftermath of October 7 demonstrated that Israel is in a bind if it tries to do things entirely on its own and without regard for what its current and future allies think. The effort to protect Israel from the Iranian missile and drone assault would not have been nearly as successful or complete without this large group of current and future allies, and the strategic imperative should be to figure out how to keep this group united and in Israel’s corner. That does not mean giving Iran a free pass. It means viewing “Israel alone” as a problem to be avoided rather than as a badge of honor.

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