Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

To Respond or Not to Respond: Is That the Real Question?

Filed under: Iran, Israel, Operation Swords of Iron

To Respond or Not to Respond: Is That the Real Question?
Cartoon by Amjad Rasmi, April 14, 2024. (Arab News/Asharq Al-Awsat)
  • In light of the Iranian attack on Israel, a debate is underway on whether or not Israel should respond. What is missing in the discussion is the fact that the Iranian attack is, in fact, a “response” to a presumed Israeli action that eliminated the command staff of the Al-Quds force in Syria.
  • The reasons for and against Israel’s counterattack focus on deterrence, a concept measured behaviorally. Those favoring an immediate response contend that without it, Israeli deterrence would be weakened, while those opposing it contend that the very nature of the Israeli defense was a loss for Iran.
  • The question of deterrence ignores the fact that the Iranian attack was specifically designed, from their point of view, to create deterrence against Israel – to dissuade Israel from future attacks against Iranian figures and assets.
  • The real question is whether or not the Iranian attack will succeed in its purpose and reduce the probability of future Israeli military behavior. Psychologically, deterrence is measured by subsequent behavior.
  • Continued Israeli actions that target Iran inside and outside of Iran will be evidence that Iran failed to achieve deterrence with its current attack.
  • The focus on a future Iranian attack rather than future Israeli actions to weaken Iran misses the point in the big picture for Israel. The measure of Israeli success in thwarting the Iranian attack is whether or not Israel will continue to pursue its current military policy against Iran. Considering the success of Israel in its defensive stance, any future Iranian actions in response to Israeli initiatives should be viewed as a failure in Iran’s stated goal of deterrence, viz. Israel.
  • Likewise, the ability of Israel to defend against Iranian counterattacks allows it to continue to deter Iran from its military and political goals against Israel.

Discussions following the Iranian attack on Israel during the early morning hours of April 14, 2024, focus on whether or not Israel will respond. This is clearly a conceptual issue, with those favoring an immediate response considering it necessary to preserve Israel’s deterrence1 and those preferring a vaguer response seeing it differently.2

The Iranian attack was not a surprise. Iran’s supreme leader called for it on several occasions. It was stated to be “punishment”3 for Israel’s presumed bombing of a complex adjacent to Iran’s consulate in Damascus that killed several Al-Quds force commanders.4

Conceptually, Iran’s behavior is a “response” to an Israeli initiative and, as such, is best described as a “counterattack “rather than an “attack.” This counterattack was clearly meant to “send a message” to Israel and was “…aimed at strengthening Iran’s deterrence,” viz. Israel. 5

The concept of “deterrence” is operationally defined in a NATO review as “…the threat of force to discourage an opponent from taking an unwelcome action.” 6 While Iran’s action was an attempt to deter Israel from future attacks against its personnel and assets, what should Israel’s goals be in the wake of Iran’s actions?

Israeli actions against Iran were first intended to deter Iranian actions that were part of their strategy to weaken Israel. Judging by the nature of the Iranian counterattack, this apparently was successful and pushed Iran into a position where it had to react. While Israel would want to reduce the probability of Iranian counterattacks, it is far more strategically important to continue targeting Iranian assets in the future. Should Israel continue this policy, the Iranian counterattack would not have achieved its goal.

Arab media have mocked Iran’s failure to penetrate Israel’s air defenses7 and indicated that the omnipotent perception it tried to present was not successful.

Iranian missile launches as viewed by Arab social media.

The paradigm of “response” that some Israeli officials are calling for8 assumes that the goal of Israeli strategy is to prevent Iranian counterattacks, when, in fact, the goal is to avoid initial attacks. Responding to a counterattack with the goal of reducing an Iranian response will only be effective if Iran loses motivation in the future to respond to Israeli military initiatives. The likelihood of that occurring is a matter of understanding and gauging Iranian thinking.

The true test of Iran’s counterattack will be whether it succeeds in deterring Israel from future initiatives against Iranian assets. The most effective response to the Iranian counterattack would appear to be continuing adherence to a policy that clearly struck a nerve in the Iranian political leadership.

So long as Israel can defend itself against future Iranian retaliatory actions effectively, continuing its strategy of initiating preventive deterrence against Iranian interests, as it has done until now, seems sound.

Reports indicated that the United States did not oppose the actual Israeli strike against Iranian commanders in Damascus but rather was upset that notice wasn’t given to allow for defensive measures to be taken.9 In fact, in expressing concern over the lack of notice, Defense Secretary Austin was quoted as saying that he “reiterated U.S. support for Israel’s defense against a range of regional threats.” 10

Toward that goal, it may be in Israel’s interests to strengthen and reinforce the regional alliance that supported Israel during Iran’s counterattack and refrain from actions that may be interpreted as “retaliatory” on Iranian territory. Simultaneously, continuing undeterred to pursue operations targeting Iranian interests, as supported by Israeli allies, would make operational sense and counter Iran’s goal of preventing Israeli action. Moreover, it would be a critical element in the more important goal of creating a coalition that would decisively end Iran’s nuclear ambitions and hopefully bring about regime change in Iran.

* * *











  10. Ibid↩︎