Military briefing: Israel’s options to strike Iran

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From cyber attacks against nuclear sites to mysterious explosions at military bases, Israel has mounted dozens of covert operations against Iran during its decades-long shadow war with the Islamic republic. In one case blamed on Israel, a prominent nuclear scientist was assassinated outside Tehran using a remote-operated machine gun.

But Israel has never before had to respond to an event like Iran’s barrage on Saturday night, during which more than 300 armed drones and missiles were fired at the Jewish state — the first time Tehran has targeted the country directly from its own soil.

Israel is still weighing the manner, scope and timing of its retaliation. But Israeli officials say a response is all but certain, despite western pleas for restraint, the impact it could have on the conflict in Gaza, and the potential that any retaliation could push the Middle East to all-out war.

“The intent is to send a painful message to Iran. This can’t be something cosmetic,” one Israeli official said on Tuesday, adding that deterrence needed to be re-established after Tehran’s unprecedented attack.

Attacking ‘offshore’ Iranian targets and proxies

Israel has for years targeted Iranian military assets and allied militias in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and beyond. Indeed, Iran launched the weekend assault after a suspected Israeli strike on its Damascus consulate this month killed several senior Revolutionary Guard commanders — an attack it called a violation of its “sovereignty”.

The aftermath of the suspected Israeli strike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus this month © Firas Makdesi/Reuters

Opting to again launch air strikes against Iranian personnel and proxies outside the Islamic republic, analysts said, would be a lower-risk form of retaliation. It also has the benefit of re-emphasising that Israel will not be deterred from taking action in future to protect its security.

“There is a retaliation . . . but more important, we continue what we have been doing before the Iranian attack,” said Sima Shine, a former Iran analyst at Israel’s Mossad. “So this could be the message — we will continue to operate in Syria.”

Potential additional regional targets, military analysts said, could include a suspected Iranian spy ship still located at the far edge of the Red Sea, along with Iranian personnel embedded with the Yemen-based Houthi rebels.

This would raise the risk of Iran, in response, activating its regional proxies to increase their attacks on Israeli and western interests.

Major General Hossein Salami, the Guards commander, said over the weekend that the attack had set “a new equation” in hostilities between the two countries. “From now on, any assault [by Israel] on our interests . . . will be met with reciprocal retaliation,” he said.

But the bigger concern for Israeli decision makers could be that its own actions would not be seen as an adequate response to the scale and brazenness of Tehran’s weekend attack — an assault one US military official termed the largest-ever single barrage of ballistic missiles and attack drones launched against a country.

“I think that even an attack against, for example, Iranian or Revolutionary Guards assets in Syria would not be considered right now by Israel as appropriate to what happened [on Saturday],” said Raz Zimmt, a former Israeli intelligence analyst on Iran.

Cyber attacks and assassinations — the covert option

Zimmt said it was “almost impossible” to envisage a scenario where Israel refrained from direct retaliation against targets inside Iran. The main question is how.

Naysan Rafati, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group in Washington, said there were precedents for such a mission but noted “these have generally been conducted covertly”.

Iran has blamed Israel for many prominent operations targeting Iranian nuclear facilities and scientists, military bases and personnel, and cyber attacks.

In 2010, a cyberweapon called Stuxnet was uncovered that allegedly caused significant damage to Iran’s nuclear programme. In more recent years cyber attacks were able to impair operations at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, along with widescale disruptions at gas stations across the country. There has been speculation for years in intelligence circles that Israel has the capability to cause widespread blackouts across Iran.

A more high-profile yet still covert attack would involve the targeted assassinations on Iranian soil of regime figures — operations Iran has long blamed Israel of conducting.

Iranian demonstrators stage a rally behind a torn Israeli flag © Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the “father of the Iranian nuclear programme”, was gunned down in November 2020 in his black Nissan sedan car, initially by a remote-controlled gun hidden inside a parked pick-up truck. Years earlier, in 2011, the head of Iran’s missile programme, Hassan Moghaddam, along with several other officials, was killed in an explosion at a military base outside Tehran.

Shine said that such a response would make sense but that such operations would be dependent on whether Israel had the requisite intelligence and capabilities deployed inside Iran.

Yet in this case too, she added Israel was unlikely to regard an assassination as a sufficient response to Iran’s strike even if it targeted senior IRGC personnel.  

‘One-to-one’ direct strikes against Iran

Grant Rumley, a former senior US defence official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Israel had to weigh two broad considerations: whether it should opt for a conventional response, and whether or not it should choose a proportionate response.

A conventional and proportionate response for Israel, Rumley said, would probably be a direct assault against Iranian military targets. The Israeli Air Force’s F-15 and F-35 fighter jet fleets have for years trained for long-range missions, simulating the 1500km distance they would have to traverse to reach Iran.

The Israeli Air Force’s F-15 and F-35 fighter jet fleets have for years trained for long-range missions © Israel Defense Forces/Handout/Reuters

There is also the added option of Israel sending its own swarm of attack drones, such as the Hermes or Heron, to target Iranian military facilities — although not necessarily launched from Israel directly.

In February 2022, Israel attacked an Iranian UAV base in the west of the country. Iran Iater alleged that the drones were launched from neighbouring northern Iraq.

Israel, for its part, also has the option of deploying — for the first time — its own arsenal of long-range Jericho ballistic missiles and other submarine-launched missiles.

While such an option would spare the logistical complexities and danger to crews of a huge air raid, it ran the risk of revealing too much to the Iranians about Israel’s strategic arsenal.

“There’s a benefit to keeping the Iranians in the dark about how capable your missiles and submarines are,” Rumley added. “Israel just got a range of data on the Iranian missile and drone threat . . . There are likely those arguing to not return the favour to Iran.”

Iran has warned it will react severely to any direct Israeli attack, whether via fighter jet, missile or drone — no matter the scale. Unlike Israel, the Islamic republic is not equipped with advanced air defence systems, nor does it have the added protection of a US-led regional coalition that aided the Jewish state in shooting down incoming projectiles.

General Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, vowed this week that if Israel retaliated, Tehran’s “next operation will be larger”.

The ever-present risk, across all these options, is that the powerful Iran-backed Hizbollah movement in Lebanon — with which Israel has been trading near-daily cross-border fire since Hamas’s October 7 attack — will also escalate.

Rafati argued that ultimately, the manner of Israel’s response, if it materialised, was less important than the targets chosen, ranging from “the symbolic to the devastating”.

Israel’s chief of the general staff Lieutenant-General Herzi Halevi speaks to military officers on Monday © Israeli Army/AFP/Getty Images

Iran has stressed to allies and western countries that its retaliation was calibrated: relatively isolated military facilities such as the southern Israeli air base of Nevatim that they linked to the Damascus consulate strike. Rafati said that the likely closest “one-to-one response” for Israel would be a Revolutionary Guards base, or missile and UAV facilities.  

The more “devastating option” would probably include targeting nuclear or energy sites or other critical infrastructure.

Yet with both sides bent on restoring their regional deterrent, what Israel perceives as a proportionate or conventional “in kind” response may not be viewed as such by Tehran. That makes the risk of miscalculation — and further escalation — extremely high.

“The old unspoken rules of the game [between Israel and Iran] no longer apply,” Rafati said. “There’s no manual for this.”

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