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Iran’s Missile Barrage Was an Error Israel Can Gain From

by Tunae

An Israeli soldier performs a prayer in a train station on the morning after a drone and missile attack by Iran.

Photographer: Kobi Wolf/Bloomber

Napoleon Bonaparte is supposed to have told his generals never to interrupt an enemy who was making a mistake. It’s as good advice today as it was then, and Iran just found out why.

The war in Gaza has been a strategic disaster for Israel, leaving it internationally isolated in a near-impossible quest for absolute military victory over Hamas, a deeply embedded terrorist organization. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now has the opportunity to change that narrative, thanks to Iran’s failed launch of hundreds of drones and missiles at the Jewish state.

Nearly all of the missiles were shot down, meaning that unlike after the horrific Hamas attack of Oct. 7 — and unlike Iran’s more recent response dilemma, after Israel assassinated some of its top commanders in Syria — Netanyahu can afford to declare victory and respond only symbolically, if at all. There’ll be no overwhelming domestic pressure to do more, because this really was a victory.

Iran launched some 300 missiles and drones from its own territory. It was an unprecedented test even for Israel’s vaunted air defense systems, because although they’ve had to deal with swarms of rockets fired from Gaza and Lebanon in the past, large numbers of cruise and ballistic missiles present a much more complex challenge.

Much as when Russia first fired its reputedly invincible Kinzhal hypersonic missiles in Ukraine only for them to be shot down by NATO-standard air defense systems, this will recalibrate deterrence calculations in both Israel and Tehran. But again as in Ukraine, Saturday’s salvo isn’t necessarily the last word; any escalation by Israel would likely lead to another test, this time of whether its air defenses can stay supplied with interceptors for longer than Iran can fire drones and missiles.

An equally important lesson on Saturday was US involvement in shooting down the Iranian barrage, along with the UK, Jordan and other Arab states, cementing alliances. One reason Hamas began the war in Gaza — cheered on by its financiers in Tehran – was to separate Israel from its backers, and specifically to stop a then-imminent deal that would have normalized relations and boosted security cooperation between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US. This had the potential to transform the region geopolitically in ways that both Hamas and Iran saw as inimical to their goals and interests, which encompass expelling Israel and the US from the Middle East.

Israel’s massive assault on Gaza and the thousands of civilian casualties it caused have for now made that normalization politically impossible for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to pursue. Even relations between Israel and the US suffered damage.

Israel’s invasion of Gaza has, by the same token, delivered some major gains to Iran, validating its long-term decision to fight the US and its allies, including Israel, asymmetrically. Iran’s generals used client militias in Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen to lead that fight, knowing full well that they’d stand little chance of winning a conventional war. The Iranians killed in Damascus were running that proxy campaign, and Saturday night’s more open and direct response was a first test of conventional strength — and one that Iran lost.

I suspect Iran’s leadership knew most of their missiles would get shot down, but felt they had no choice but to attack in dramatic style. Neither side can benefit from all-out war, so despite some threats from Tehran to fire even more missiles I expect it would now prefer a return to its much more successful hybrid warfare strategies. Iranian forces can achieve far more by hijacking ships on the high seas, or giving Yemen’s Houthis what they need to continue disrupting global trade via the Suez Canal, than by sending missiles to be obliterated on their way to Tel Aviv. We may also hear more about Iran’s nuclear fuel and weapons programs.

As I’ve written before, the Iranian generals in Damascus were legitimate targets. Their deaths came as a shock because they were meeting at an Iranian consulate, whose targeting by Israeli jets breached diplomatic protocol. But the attack, which killed 13 people, was not the start of a war. It merely brought Iran’s ongoing shadow offensive against Israel into the open.

It was up to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to decide his response to the successful Israeli strike on his generals, and he chose a show of force that left Iran looking less, rather than more, powerful. What had, by contrast, brought Tehran real dividends was the war in Gaza. There, the high rates of civilian casualties and suffering were turning Israel into and international pariah, normalizing Hamas as a defender of Palestinian rights in the eyes of many and burying Iran’s own aggression and abuses under the tide of heart-rending news and images from the occupied territories.

The Iranian bombardment has created a window through which Netanyahu can begin to refocus international attention on the malfeasance of Iran and Hamas, rather than on Israel’s. It won’t be easy. There are a lot of mistakes for him to correct or bury, the minimum levels of trust needed for any political settlement in Gaza are long gone and Israel’s enemies won’t sit still while he tries. Even so, he should take the other, implied, element of Napoleon’s advice, and let himself be interrupted.

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