THE ECONOMIST: Middle East scholar Steven Simon on Israel’s escalating tit-for-tat with Iran

Steven Simon
The Economist
5 Min Read
The tension between Israel and Iran shows no signs of abating.
The tension between Israel and Iran shows no signs of abating. Credit: The Nightly

It is no accident that Israel and Iran are on the precipice of war. It is the result of long-standing agendas devised by misguided policymakers on both sides.Start with Iran. For decades its declared hatred of Israel and determination to erase the country from the map has been all-consuming. One struggles for a metaphor: Captain Ahab and the white whale?

Iran’s policy towards Israel has been geared towards two things it feels it needs to stand nose-to-nose with its adversary.

The first is the ability to strike from territory adjacent to Israel. Iran wants to be able to threaten Israel with a broad spectrum of attacks, from nuisance strikes to massive ground and missile assaults. Hence the importance of its proxies in Syria and Lebanon.

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The second perceived requirement is a nuclear-weapons system to match Israel’s. Iran is yet to achieve that goal, and one can only guess at how its leaders would think about and wield the capability once it was acquired.

George Washington believed that one country’s extravagant hatred of another is sure to distort its foreign and domestic affairs in ways that get it into trouble. Iran exemplifies this point.

Yet for the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, hostility to Israel validated both Iran’s foreign policy and its domestic policy. The current crisis demonstrates vividly who has the better of the argument.

Israel, for its part, has followed a strategic doctrine dubbed “the campaign between the wars”. The idea, driven by the recognition that major wars no longer produced decisive victories, was to maintain pressure on adversaries between such conflicts to deter them from starting one. The problem with this doctrine, long apparent outside Israel’s security bubble, is now clear: it is virtually guaranteed to ignite such wars.

As I have written before, one can never know whether the next bomb dropped will trigger a large-scale response. The Israelis have exploited Syrian airspace for years to attack Iran and its friends as they tried to construct a front against Israel in the Golan Heights and resupply Hizbullah’s arsenal in Lebanon. In their campaign, the Israelis dropped that one bomb too many.

These are not problems that America can solve. Its diplomatic intervention in a Middle East crisis works when regional adversaries value its help and America has a workable strategy.

These conditions are, of course, reciprocal. America could work with Anwar Sadat and Menahem Begin, and with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. Forget about Benjamin Netanyahu and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Israel’s and Iran’s current leaders.

Their obstinacy is obvious. It needs stressing, nevertheless, given critics’ claims that the current crisis reflects a failure of American strategy or the suggestion that some clever formula emerging from the White House will bring peace.Iran has now selected the worst of all possible ploys in response to the twin pressures it was facing: to take a strong stand against Israel’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza and to respond to Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate in Syria.

Iran had been handling the Gaza challenge well by limiting itself to political support for Palestinian militants and leaving kinetic resistance to Iranian proxies.

Middle East scholar Steven Simon on Israel’s escalating tit-for-tat with Iran
Middle East scholar Steven Simon on Israel’s escalating tit-for-tat with Iran Credit: Dan William

But Iran’s direct drone and missile attack on Israel has arguably turned Iran and its Palestinian partners into villains. Although it caused little damage and only one casualty, the unmistakable message was that such an attack, if larger and on shorter notice, could cause far greater destruction. It was ominous enough to call for a serious Israeli reply.

For Israel’s current government, pleas from America, the EU and Gulf Arab states to refrain from responding in kind probably sound foolish. As Naftali Bennett, a former Israeli prime minister, has pointed out, the Iranians must have expected, and certainly desired, many deaths. Thus, he argues, the response should be scaled to what might have been rather than what actually was.

If Israel does retaliate, as looks likely, it must decide not only how big to go but where: should the attack be aimed at Iran’s proxies, targets within Iran or both? To complicate matters, Iran is shovelling large quantities of small arms into the West Bank to ignite the smouldering war there between Israeli settlers and Palestinian farmers.

Having asserted that it would counter any Israeli response with a larger barrage and threatened to include American targets in any subsequent attacks, Iran is either prepared to risk war or foolishly assuming it is deterring it.

Concerned states have done all they could to prevent escalation. Perhaps they will succeed. But the current state of politics in Israel and Iran and the poor quality of their respective leaderships counsel only the most cautious optimism.

America has sharply increased its combat power in the region in the hope of giving Iran and its client militias pause, but it is now essentially hostage to Israel’s response to Iran’s latest provocation. The fact remains that American and Israeli interests would be best served if the focus shifted from Iran’s attack back to resolving the crisis in Gaza.

This would underscore Iran’s irrelevance to the core issue and perhaps incentivise Israel to take the “day after” problem—the future of Gaza and broader Israeli-Palestinian relations—more seriously.

The vexing question is how to engineer such a shift. The submerged anti-Iranian alliance broke the surface when Jordan, France and Britain joined Israel and America in countering Iran’s attack. The EU and the G7 also condemned the Iranian attack. The EU is especially irritated by Iran’s informal alliance with Russia and its material support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

To head off escalation, America and the EU could propose a meeting of alliance members in lieu of an Israeli military response. Such a gathering — in, say, Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital — would be a powerful if non-kinetic rebuke to Iran.

It might also encourage Israel to refocus on a swift conclusion of its campaign in Gaza, to agree on the deployment of a multinational peacekeeping force and to start co-operating with the new Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Mustafa.

Whether Mr Netanyahu and his radical cabinet would recognise the wisdom of a merely diplomatic response would, of course, remain uncertain.

Steven Simon is the professor of practice in Middle Eastern studies at the Jackson School of International Relations, University of Washington, senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of Grand Delusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East (2023).

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