The War Games of Israel and Iran

Not long before Israel launched a decidedly limited attack on an Iranian airbase near the city of Isfahan on Friday morning, Nahum Barnea, a well-connected columnist for the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, called on a source who, he told me, “is way up in the government, one of the people who ordered the strike.” By way

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Not long before Israel launched a decidedly limited attack on an Iranian airbase near the city of Isfahan on Friday morning, Nahum Barnea, a well-connected columnist for the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, called on a source who, he told me, “is way up in the government, one of the people who ordered the strike.” By way of explaining the strategic and tactical rationale of what was about to happen, the source resorted to a common frame of reference: the story of King Saul’s robe.

In the Book of Samuel, Chapter 24, Saul and his soldiers are hunting David, the man who will eventually replace him. Along the way, Saul pauses near a cave and goes in “to relieve himself.” David, who happens to be hiding in the very same cave, sneaks up on the urinating sovereign, takes out a knife and, rather than kill him, stealthily slices off a piece of Saul’s robe. Later, when they encounter each other openly, David bows to Saul and asks why the king is pursuing him. Saul sees the patch of his robe in David’s grip and realizes that, while David means him no immediate harm, he is vulnerable.

There is no way to know whether another volley will be coming in the short term, but what is clear is that the decades-long shadow war between Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran is no longer confined to the shadows. A line was crossed when Israel carried out a lethal air strike on Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a leading commander in Iran’s Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and six of his associates, who were meeting in a consular building in Damascus. That strike, as precise as it was deadly, was followed by Iran’s massive launch of drones and ballistic missiles on Israeli territory—an attack that was thoroughly repelled by a coördinated effort involving Israel, the United States, Britain, Jordan, the U.A.E., and Saudi Arabia.

By deploying such a relatively mild response near Isfahan, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seemingly attempted to thread a kind of political needle, at once mollifying the Biden Administration and the Sunni Arab leaders to avoid a regional escalation and yet satisfying his domestic political allies who demanded that he “do something.” Indeed, the Iranian leadership decided to absorb the latest attack with theatrical cool. State television showed “life as usual” footage in the area and insisted that the regime’s nuclear and military sites in the region were undamaged.

On Friday, I spoke to Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian American analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who was travelling in Dubai. When I relayed the Israeli official’s comparison of the attack to the strategic subtlety on display in the Book of Samuel, Sadjadpour laughed and said, “That’s about right. That actually captures it. It’s a clear Israeli signal to Iran that they have the ability to penetrate Iranian airspace and strike at will.” Israel, Sadjadpour went on, had already demonstrated this in various ways—most notably, with the assassination of the chief Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was shot to death in his car four years ago in the city of Absard. The weapon used to carry out the operation is believed to have been a satellite-operated machine gun imported, piece by piece, into Iran.

“In my view, these two countries are unnatural adversaries,” Sadjadpour told me. “This isn’t like Russia-Ukraine or China-Taiwan or Israel-Palestine with their territorial, bilateral disputes. This is not a conflict that is geopolitical but ideological.” Since the Islamic Revolution, in 1979, he said, the three ideological pillars of the Islamic regime have been opposition to Israel, opposition to the United States, and the wearing of the hijab: “If you were to ask Israeli leaders, civilian or military, ‘What would be your ideal outcome or relationship with Iran?’ they would say, ‘We would love to restore relations with an Iranian government, though not with the Islamic Republic.’ But the Iranian leaders want to abolish Israel. For Iran, this is a war of choice. For Israel, this is a war of necessity.”

In Sadjadpour’s view, which is echoed by polling results in Iran, there is a distinct gulf between the mullahs and the general population. “The Iranian government is more dedicated to abolishing one nation than advancing its own,” he said. “You never hear an Iranian leader saying, ‘Long live Iran!’ You hear, ‘Death to Israel!’ There is a difference between being anti-Israel and being pro-Palestine. They don’t do anything to improve Palestinian welfare. The resources are dedicated to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.” He noted a Persian expression: “The bowl is hotter than the soup. Meaning, that people question why the Iranian leaders are more anti-Israel—not pro-Palestinian, but anti-Israel—than most Arab countries. They ask, ‘Why are we forsaking our own national interests for this cause?’ What stands between Iranians and a better future is not Israel or America but their own leadership. You hear examples of this in the anti-regime protest slogans. People chant, ‘Our enemy is right here! They lie that it’s America!’ ”

The constituency that seems the most vexed by Israel’s limited strike near Isfahan resides not in Tehran but in Jerusalem. The ultraconservatives in Netanyahu’s cabinet and in the Knesset have spoken out loudly and often in favor of something dramatic, even an assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities or its civilian population.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national-security minister and a notoriously reactionary religious nationalist, posted on X (formerly known as Twitter) that the strike on the Iranian base was dardale—like a weak kick easily blocked by the goalie. (Anshel Pfeffer helpfully pointed out in the liberal Haaretz that “this might have been Ben-Gvir’s son Shovael, an amateur soccer player who runs his father’s social media accounts.”) Ben-Gvir and his far-right compatriots are sure to use this event as evidence of weakness, both in the conflict with Iran and in the prosecution of the war in Gaza. For them, the deaths of thirty-three thousand Gazans is insufficient, thousands short of “complete victory.” Indeed, many in Ben-Gvir’s camp have talked openly about reëstablishing Jewish settlements in Gaza and evicting Palestinians entirely.

Sadly, if predictably, the Netanyahu government seems not to have considered a more strategic and morally courageous path, one built upon its impressive deflection of Iran’s massive drone attack with the following goals in mind: a ceasefire in Gaza; a settlement regarding the Lebanon border; the return of the Israeli hostages; additional agreements and alliances with the Sunni Arab states; and forward movement, despite everything, toward a secure and just arrangement with the Palestinians.

That kind of political will or imagination is not only beyond Netanyahu. It does not take into account what he values most—his own future, his intense desire to stay in office and out of court. And yet, as horrific as Netanyahu’s leadership is, it is a mistake, an incomplete assessment, to put the focus, and the onus, completely on him.

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