The U.S. And Israel Actually Did Retaliate Against Iran

They just did it through cyberattacks and pipeline bombings. That'll make Iran surrender, right? PLUS: Can we get a congratulations going for Sam in the chat?  

The U.S. And Israel Actually Did Retaliate Against Iran
Still from an Iranian Army-produced video from early Feb. warning the US not to attack the Behshad

Edited by Sam Thielman

IT LOOKED LIKE the Biden administration excluded Iran from its retaliatory/escalatory wave of attacks against Iranian-partnered militias the weekend of Feb. 2. That's only because it had launched an operation against Iranian targets that is literally invisible. As well, Israel hit Iran directly—and, consistent with its approach to Gaza, it didn't target military infrastructure. 

In addition to bombing Kataib Hezbollah, the Houthis and other "Axis of Resistance" components in Iraq, Syria and Yemen two weekends ago, the U.S. also executed a cyberattack against the Behshad, an Iranian cargo ship in the Red Sea, operating off the coast of Djibouti. NBC, which broke the story of the cyberattack, reported that U.S. intelligence believes the Behshad was transferring intelligence on Red Sea traffic to the Houthis, who have been harassing shipping in the crucial waterway to pressure Israel to stop annihilating Gaza. Neither NBC nor a short catch-up item from the Times provided much more detail than that, although NBC noted a public warning delivered by the Iranians to the U.S. against targeting the ship before the U.S. targeted the ship. Voice of America said it had confirmed a cyberattack on a second ship, an unnamed frigate, as well.

When the U.S. didn't hit Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) targets two weekends ago, it struck me that the Biden administration was leaving itself room to escalate against the likely reprisal to come, while stepping back from the brink of all the pressure to hit Iran directly. But apparently not. A cyberattack against the Behshad is a "greyzone" style of attack, intended to inflict damage on an adversary below his threshold for retaliation.

When you inflict an attack like this, you smirkingly presume the other guy will understand that he's bested and back down. When you experience an attack like this, you intuitively understand it as a risible provocation that demands satisfaction. It's easy to imagine the Biden administration reconciling attacking the Behshad with its insistence it seeks no escalation. It's just as easy to imagine the Iranians fearing the U.S.' digital weaponry has penetrated Iran's naval infrastructure crucial not just for intelligence transmission but navigation and command-and-control. Neither combatant knows where the ledge is, but both are incentivized to get his toes closer to it, each hoping the other guy will be the one who falls. 

This is why it's irresponsible for the Biden administration not to enter into negotiations with Iran aimed at deescalation. All the talk—Iranian as well as American—about not wanting a wider war has not stopped a wider war from coalescing, for reasons that I have been writing about for the past four months. I'll have more to say about this in a forthcoming Nation column that I don't want to step on, but a real desire to avoid escalation is measured by willingness to negotiate with your adversary. 

Meanwhile, the Israelis are far less concerned with the threshold of conflict than with inflicting damage on Iran. Last week, the Times confirmed, Israel was behind detonations deep within Iran on two pipelines carrying gas from its southern coast to its population centers, especially Tehran and Isfahan. "We have never seen anything like this in scale and scope," a Kpler energy analyst told the paper. While the Times cited a "Western official" calling it a symbolic strike that was easy to repair, it took an estimated 15 percent of Iranian daily gas production offline, meaning that it disrupted gas for heating and cooking – and not for the military, but for everyday Iranians, many of whom hate their government and its foreign policy.  

American officials, in my experience, believe the Iranians distinguish between American and Israeli attacks. Instead, Iran interprets Israeli attacks the same way the U.S. and Israel interpret "Axis of Resistance" attacks: with the understanding that ultimate responsibility lies with the patron, not only the client.

If Americans experienced a near-simultaneous cyberattack on a naval vessel and an explosive disruption of 15 percent of its daily natural gas production—so about all the gas produced in West Virginia and Louisiana—would the U.S. national-security establishment say, "damn, guess I'm deterred"? Or would it consider the country to be under a sustained assault that it was obligated to fend off? 

Both the U.S. and the Iranian coalition continue to fuck around while figuring they'll make the other guy find out. The Houthis continue their maritime harassment, but there haven't been attacks on U.S. installations in Iraq and Syria since the U.S.' Feb. 2-4 bombing campaign. Reuters reports that this is an explicit de-escalation decision made by the IRGC's Esmail Qaani in a meeting with the "Islamic Resistance in Iraq" militias the day after the lethal Tower 22 drone attack by Kataib Hezbollah to discourage the U.S. from "destruction of key infrastructure or even a direct retaliation against Iran." Will that calculation hold now that both the U.S. and the Israelis have subsequently executed the sorts of attacks Iran's pause was intended to discourage?


I think there’s an extraordinary opportunity before Israel in the months ahead to actually once and for all end that cycle. And it’s because there are some new facts that didn’t exist before when there were efforts to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, starting with the fact that virtually every Arab country now genuinely wants to integrate Israel into the region, to normalize relations if they haven’t already done so, to provide security assurances and commitments so that Israel can feel more safe and more secure. At the same time, there are genuine efforts underway led by Arab countries to reform, revitalize, revamp the Palestinian Authority so that it can be more effective in representing the interests of the Palestinian people and could be a better partner for Israel in that future. And there’s also, I think, the imperative that Jai mentioned that’s more urgent than ever: to proceed to a Palestinian state, one that also ensures the security of Israel and makes the necessary commitments to do so.

These guys have one idea and they will not move away from it, no matter how far events move away from it. Al-Jazeera political analyst Marwan Bishara noted incisively that talk about statehood without talk of an end to the occupation is a recipe for a "state-minus" solution of the sort that Israel accepted during Oslo while seeming to accept statehood. "The Biden administration, I think, is selling pipe dreams. I don't think it can force Israel to buy into, recognize, whatever, a Palestinian state, and certainly it's not going to be able to bring the Arabs if Israel does not commit to ending the occupation and allowing for the establishment of a Palestinian state," Bishara said. 

Meanwhile, "Israel absolutely rejects international dictates regarding a permanent arrangement with the Palestinians," according to a statement responding to Blinken that the Israeli cabinet adopted unanimously. So much for Blinken's "extraordinary opportunity." 

Biden on Friday nevertheless clung to his insistence that "there has to be a—a temporary ceasefire to get the prisoners out, to get the hostages out. And that is underway. I’m still hopeful that that can be done." At the exact same time, the U.S. is approving yet another transfer of 2,000 bombs and guided-munition add-ons to Israel, per an internal assessment reported by the Wall Street Journal. "The assessment said there were no potential human rights concerns with the sale," the paper stated on Saturday. 

OUR OWN SAM THIELMAN IS THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW'S NEW GRAPHIC-NOVEL CRITIC! Everyone congratulate Sam, who is simply the most thoughtful person I've ever encountered about the medium of comics. "Lonergan’s thick feathering and pleasantly mottled colors shift easily between the book’s contrasting settings" is the sort of sentence he casually drops in his Book Review debut. This is a prestige gig that is unquestionably well-deserved. As well, I love this for me, a person who recently published a graphic novel

Of course, he won't be leaving FOREVER WARS, because the grim reality of journalism in 2024 is that being the graphic novel critic for the most powerful review in book publishing is not a full-time, benefits-providing, or even rent-paying job! Did I mention you should subscribe to FOREVER WARS? [Even if I win the lottery, I’ll be here—Sam.]

SPEAKING OF GRAPHIC NOVELS, MY BABY, WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, is all grown up and collected into a hardcover edition that you can purchase. Jan. 30 was her Bat Mitzvah. [“It’s very good!”—Sam Thielman, critic.] [Not here, dammit! In the New York Times Book Review! – Spencer] She started life as a comic book and today she is a graphic novel. If you want a four-issue set of her baby pictures, autographed by me and certified authentic, they're going fast at Bulletproof Comics! No one is prouder of her than her older sibling, REIGN OF TERROR: HOW THE 9/11 ERA DESTABILIZED AMERICA AND PRODUCED TRUMP, available now in hardcover, softcover, audiobook and Kindle edition. And on the way is new addition to the family: THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN

THE LOS ANGELES TIMES ON FRIDAY  published an account from a surgeon who volunteered in Gaza last month. It strikes me that Irfan Galaria's op-ed is one of the most important documents of the entire war

Dr. Galaria compares entering southern Gaza to "the first pages of a dystopian novel," hearing the relentless whine of the surveillance drones overhead and smelling the "stench of 1 million displaced humans living in close proximity without adequate sanitation." He didn't just perform surgery (forced by the Israeli siege to do so with techniques he describes as reminiscent of Civil War battlefield amputations). He performed an act of witness. For this is the reality of war in Gaza: 

On one occasion, a handful of children, all about ages 5 to 8, were carried to the emergency room by their parents. All had single sniper shots to the head. These families were returning to their homes in Khan Yunis, about 2.5 miles away from the hospital, after Israeli tanks had withdrawn. But the snipers apparently stayed behind.

Children my children's age. And the snipers let the parents live. 

ERIK PRINCE started a podcast. It's going about how you'd expect from the founder of Blackwater. Book me, you coward.

LET'S END WITH SOMETHING GENUINELY GOOD: CAITLIN CLARK. For my three-year old, ball is life. Lately, her bedtime routine involves deferring the four-book circuit I read to her in favor of her grabbing my arm to ask, "Basketball?" We spend about ten minutes either watching Knicks games in progress or highlight reels on ESPN, YouTube or the Knicks app before she requests "different basketball," leading to a struggle over the principle of sticking to your choices. 

Now I show her Caitlin Clark. 

You've probably all seen this by now. But I don't typically pay attention to college basketball, so I discovered Caitlin Clark when the Athletic led off its Feb. 16 newsletter with an item on how she broke the all-time NCAA women's scoring record with a shot from the logo, on her way to setting the record at a staggering 3569 points and climbing. I'm late, but not too late to celebrate, I hope. 

The Athletic noted that Clark ended Thursday's contest 98 points away from Pistol Pete Maravich's all-time men's scoring record. She averages 32 a game, so expect Clark to shatter that record by, like, Sunday, when Iowa goes up against Ohio State. 

Reading that Athletic newsletter, it occurred to me that Clark, who plays for Iowa, must have been who Lyz Lenz wrote about in her newsletter Friday morning that I scrolled before properly waking up. Later Defector's Maitreyi Anantharaman got me up to speed on Clark, noting that not only did she drop 49 on Thursday, she had 13 assists! That took me to an ESPN profile conducted by Sue Bird (!), who reports that Clark's three-points-made percentage is knocking on the door of 43 percent. While the sample size is different, that's Steph Curry territory

Apparently, the Indiana Fever has the number-one pick in the next WNBA draft should Clark, a senior, opt-out of a (COVID-created) fifth-year option at Iowa. What an era of Indiana professional basketball if the Pacers have Tyrese Halliburton while the Fever have Caitlin Clark. I hate that for me, but I do love it for my daughter's burgeoning fandom.