It's Either A Ceasefire Or Iran's Next Response Will Be Worse

Two things are true at the same time: Iran's attack on Israel was unprecedented, and Iran showed restraint. We won't like the sequel. PLUS! Introducing Mehdi Hasan's Zeteo, where I'll be contributing!

It's Either A Ceasefire Or Iran's Next Response Will Be Worse
A Shahed-136 drone at a 2023 exhibit at the Museum of the Islamic Revolution and Holy Defense in Qom. 

Edited by Sam Thielman

MY NERVES ARE AS RAW AS THEY GET after a weekend in which Iran launched something like 300 drones and missiles at Israel, seriously wounding 7-year old Amina Hassouna in the Negev Desert, yet killing no one. 

Since practically the beginning of Israel's destruction of Gaza, the war has been regionalized and escalating upward. But Iran clearly crossed a Rubicon. And at the same time, it was only a prelude of how much more dangerous—and merciless—this war will become. Unless, right now, diplomats from all sides and from outside actively end it. 

As you have doubtlessly read over the weekend, for all its client militias, and for all its 45-year official ideological hostility to Israel, never before has Iran attacked Israel directly. And that's only one part of what makes Iran's attack historic. From a capabilities perspective, no nation has ever launched a combat airfleet of Predator-sized drones, let alone one reportedly 170 drones deep. Yes, that includes us: U.S. drone tactics typically involve few drones per Combat Air Patrol and typically not through air defenses. (Iran doesn't really have a capable air force, which helps explain its investment in drones.) For a drone fleet to make the 620-plus-mile flight from Iran to Israel is also something we haven't seen before. Usually drones loiter – they don't usually traverse the world's largest peninsula. I half-recall any number of defense-wonk predictions over the past 15 years that drone swarms would become a feature of 21st century air combat tactics, and this weekend those predictions manifested. 

Not that the drone fleet did appreciable damage. Drones are flimsy, non-maneuverable and—because they're vastly cheaper than a fighter jet and don't have a pilot inside them—expendable airframes. Israel has a sophisticated and expensive air-defense system called Iron Dome. The U.S. and U.K. used fighter jets, U.S. Patriot missile batteries in Iraq, and U.S. destroyers in the Mediterranean to shoot down what U.S. Central Command claims were 80 drones. Ben Caspit at Al-Monitor notes that this was the operational inauguration of the Middle East Air Defense coalition, a joint military initiative across the regional anti-Iran coalition, formally announced in 2022. 

I'm sure as time goes on we'll hear more about failure rates of Iron Dome and the MEAD. But in any event, the best tactical hope that a drone-fleet commander has in such denied airspace is to throw so many drones at an adversary that they overwhelm the adversary's interceptors. Whatever the ultimate failure rate of Iron Dome was early Sunday morning, Iran did not overwhelm Israel's interceptors. 

But that's kind of a clue here. Iran gave a whole lot of warning through diplomatic channels that its response was coming. Then it shaped a response that was unlikely to deliver real material damage, despite Israel calling Iran's salvo "severe." Iran has the largest ballistic-missile fleet in the Middle East. I'd want to see a teardown of which missiles these were—I'm guessing Shehab-3s, given the range—but it has a lot more ballistic missiles that it could have used. Nor were these Iran's best drones, per Samuel Bennett of the Center for Naval Analyses, who said Iran likely "knew those drones would be destroyed relatively easily," in the Washington Post's paraphrase. Saddam Hussein's 1991 Scud missile barrage was worse than this: those assaults killed at least 13 people and induced 12 other deaths through heart attacks and the like, as well as wounding at least 165 people. The damage that Tehran did was psychological: it demonstrated that it can touch Israel itself—not through Hamas, not through Hezbollah. 

The Israelis and others are trying to parse through whether they consider this attack a horrific violation or a pathetic failure, surely depending on which narrative they think will be more beneficial. In Al-Arabiya, I read a Rand Corporation defense wonk named Raphael Cohen lament that the Iranians didn't choose "a more proportional response and attacked an Israel diplomatic facility or another Israeli target outside of Israel proper."

It's an extremely good thing that Iran did not choose a "more proportional response." Recall what triggered Iran's drone and missile barrage: an Israeli attack on Iran's diplomatic facility in Damascus, which killed 13 people, both Iranian and Syrian, among them two Iranian generals, one of them a very senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. While one more transgression of international law feels like a drop in an ocean at this point, diplomatic facilities are supposed to be inviolable. If Iran responded proportionally to this, it would have been as horrific as Israel's attack, and guaranteed to yield an even greater reprisal. Instead, Iran launched some stuff that was destined to be turned to scrap and stated that "the matter can be deemed concluded."  

If that line seems familiar, it's because the U.S. military said the same thing in the fall after it fired upon Iran-backed militia positions in Iraq and Syria. Those sure didn't conclude the matter. It is clear enough from both the warnings and the choice of military capability that Iran calibrated its response to avoid escalation, much as the U.S. has. And just like the U.S., Iran is demonstrating how escalatory spirals do not care about delicate calibrations for avoiding escalation. They only care about active measures for deescalation

Notice how after deeming the matter concluded, the Iranians continued, "should the Israeli regime make another mistake, Iran’s response will be considerably more severe." That's also reminiscent of Pentagon-speak about how they don't want to fire any missiles onto Iraqi soil but they won't let the bases they use come under attack, etc. Iran as well has threatened Jordan after it took part in the fleet shootdown when the drones and missiles traversed Jordanian airspace. And looming over all of this is an Israeli response likely to be severe, even and perhaps especially after President Biden said the U.S. won't participate and cautioned Israel to show restraint. (Iran on Saturday: "It is a conflict between Iran and the rogue Israeli regime, from which the U.S. MUST STAY AWAY!") After that happens, Iran has many more ballistic missiles, while Israel has fewer interceptors, so that may well become a priority capability for the U.S. and its allies to provide Israel—something that will surely test Iran's "stay away" warning. 

In January I said this was the most frightening moment in the Middle East in my lifetime. I suspect this weekend brought that home for many people here in the United States. There is and has always been a way out of it all: the U.S. forcing the Israelis to end their genocide in Gaza. There are ceasefire and hostage-release talks occurring through a forum in Cairo. They have to have far greater priority attached to them, especially by Washington, which thus far has treated the talks as something nice to have, rather than the central venue of U.S. policy in this crisis. While Bill Burns is a better diplomat than Antony Blinken, you simply cannot conduct diplomacy through the CIA director. Everyone across the table from Burns in Cairo surely reads his presence as a lower level of U.S. investment, because it is. 

An unfortunate part of my job is spending time gaming out how bad situations like these can get. I usually don't publish those thought exercises, because they're necessarily speculative, and because I don't want to speak horrors into existence. Suffice it to say that Iran has options that it did not employ in this reprisal, and one of those is Hezbollah, which won a war with the IDF before it sent its fighters into the crucible of the Syrian civil war. On Thursday, before the Iranian response, Chaim Levinson of Haaretz wrote that the missile attacks that Hezbollah has launched without joining the conflict in earnest mean that Israel "may not be able to safely return to Israel's northern border, to what had been before. Hezbollah has changed that equation, to its own benefit." In other words, Hezbollah has functionally taken territory from Israel without having to hold it itself. 

Now ask: Do we want to deepen a regional war whose nightmarish bottom we cannot perceive? Or would it maybe be better to stop a regional war through stopping a genocide, all at the same time? Which of those options sound preferable to you? 

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Sudani is in Washington today to meet with Biden. They'll discuss the future of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. And I would suspect Biden will use him to communicate some message to the Iranians. But only high-level, multi-party, region-wide negotiation, with the aggressive involvement of the United States, can get us out of this before this weekend's appetizer becomes a smorgasbord of destruction. 

WITH ALL ATTENTION ON IRAN, Israeli settlers are accelerating their pogroms—those of us who know our Jewish history recognize these as pogroms—against Palestinians in the West Bank. And in Gaza, reports al-Jazeera's Tareq Abu Azzoum, the Israel Defense Forces are opening fire on Palestinians attempting to return to northern Gaza. "The situation is dire in every part of Gaza, but the main focus of Israeli operations right now is in the Nuseirat refugee camp," Abu Azzoum reports.

ZETAKEOVER. Mehdi Hasan is a journalist I've long admired. He's the sharpest, liveliest interviewer I've ever seen operate on TV news. His journalism interrogates power and comes infused with a moral rigor that ought to be more common in this business. At MSNBC, he pushed the boundaries of what was possible to discuss concerning Israel and Gaza. 

Today Mehdi formally launched his new journalistic venture, Zeteo. And I'm proud to say I'll be contributing to it as part of a killer roster that includes Naomi Klein, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Greta Thunberg, Rula Jubreal, W. Kamau Bell, Cynthia Nixon, John Harwood, Diana Buttu and more. My first piece for them will come soon, and it's a reported one I think you'll like. You should subscribe to Zeteo so you don't miss any of our stuff. Frankly, even if I didn't contribute to this publication, I'd be reading it devotedly. 

All this also means you should upgrade to a paid FOREVER WARS subscription. Paid subscribers to FOREVER WARS will get my Zeteo pieces, which I understand are to be paywalled, direct to their inboxes. It's going to work like my columns for The Nation, except the deal we worked out with Zeteo is that you'll get them day-after instead of day-of. But the best option of all? Subscribing to both FOREVER WARS and Zeteo. I have a feeling if you like one, you'll like both. 

Attentive readers have seen me hint recently about secret projects I haven't yet been able to unveil. Contributing to Zeteo is one of them. But there's still another to come.

AMIRA HAAS, Haaretz's relentless correspondent in the West Bank and the boldest person in Israeli journalism, has an unforgettable piece about Gaza. Make time for it. 

MY FRIEND STEVEN ATTEWELL, one of the most guileless and inquisitive people I've ever encountered, has passed away from cancer. Our friend Elana Levin, who introduced me to Steven, eulogized him beautifully at Graphic Policy. Steven leaves with us a body of work, across blogs and podcasts, that epitomizes the joy of high analysis on low culture. As brilliant as his treatment of A Song of Ice and Fire was—and it's probably going to be what he's most known for—my favorite of his stuff was his People's History of The Marvel Universe. If there's a heaven, Steven is unionizing it. 

WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, the superhero spy thriller I co-wrote with my friend Evan Narcisse and which the masterful Jesús Merino illustrated, is available for purchase in a hardcover edition! If you don't have single issues of WVW and you want a four-issue set signed by me, they're going fast at Bulletproof Comics

No one is prouder of WVW than her older sibling, REIGN OF TERROR: HOW THE 9/11 ERA DESTABILIZED AMERICA AND PRODUCED TRUMP, which is available now in hardcover, softcover, audiobook and Kindle edition. And on the way is a new addition to the family: THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN