April 18, 2024 | Foreign Podicy

Jerusalem and Tehran Consider Their Options

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Last weekend, Iran’s rulers launched a massive missile and drone assault on Israel.

Though the attack was thwarted, it should be obvious that the Islamic Republic is willing to pursue its goal of “Death to Israel!” — not just by utilizing Arab proxies and pawns, but now also directly from within its own territory. We must assume that Iran’s rulers are also now adjusting their strategies for the jihad they are waging and the genocide they vow to carry out.

A reminder: If Iran’s rulers acquire nuclear weapons and missiles capable of delivering them to targets anywhere in the world that would be a game-changer.

Israel’s leaders must now think harder than ever about how to fight this long war.

To explore such questions, host Cliff May is joined by his FDD colleagues Behnam Ben Taleblu, FDD Senior Fellow; Bradley Bowman, Senior Director of FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power; and retired Admiral Mark Montgomery, Senior Director of FDD’s Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation.

Transcript

MAY: Iran’s rulers launched a massive missile and drone assault on Israel last weekend. They crossed the Rubicon. Though the attack was thwarted, it should now be obvious that the Islamic Republic is willing to pursue its goal of death to Israel not just by utilizing Arab proxies and pawns, though that’s certainly ongoing, but also directly, from within its own territory, so Israel’s leaders must now think harder than ever about how to fight this long war. And we must assume that Iran’s rulers are also now adjusting their strategies for the jihad they are waging and the genocide they vow to carry out. A reminder, if Iran’s rulers acquire nuclear weapons and missiles capable of delivering them to targets anywhere in the world, that would be a game-changer, though this is no game.

So what options are being considered in Jerusalem? What options are being considered in Tehran? What American policies would best serve the American national interest? To explore such questions, we have here in FDD’s studio, Behnam Ben Taleblu, FDD senior fellow, and Bradley Bowman, senior director of FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power, and Retired Admiral Mark Montgomery, senior director of FDD’s Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation. I’m Cliff May, and I’m glad you’re with us too, virtually, of course, here, on Foreign Podicy.

Welcome, guys. Good to see you all. I’m going to start with a brief diversion or digression. You just came from the Hill, right? And I know FDD Action, FDD(c)(4), has been very active up there working on the supplemental on aid for Israel, aid for Ukraine, ban on TikTok, it’s not a ban, but you know what I mean. Anyhow, just give us a quick update of what you saw on the Hill today and what the prognosis is right now.

MONTGOMERY: Well, thanks. I’ll go and I’m sure Brad will fill in a lot of the holes. What I want to tell you is good news: Speaker Johnson has dropped four bills, one on Israel assistance, one on Ukraine assistance, one on Taiwan assistance, and one catch-all bill with lots of little things in it. I just want to say these are the right things to do. We have a bunch of autocracies out there, Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, that work individually and collectively to pressure beleaguered democracies around the world. And there I’m thinking Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan, and Speaker Johnson’s bills are going to get right at it. I think we can pass these bills, get them to the Senate, and get the President to sign them, and really push back.

And from my perspective, I’d want to highlight one, just for this purpose, that’s the Taiwan bill because there’s not a fight there, we’re not in a hot war. Unlike Israel and Iran, where we’re effectively, we’re in a hot war in Israel, we’re in a hot war in Ukraine, this is a brilliant spending of about $4 billion very directly to buy down deterrence. It’s paying ahead of time. And here’s the good news on deterrence. If you’re buying the insurance policy before combat, it’s a lot cheaper than the medical bill after combat. And that’s the two other ones. The $15, $16 billion Israel one, and the $16 billion Ukraine one. So, this $4 billion is about buying the weapons or doing the presidential drawdown authority to get the right systems in to Taiwan left of boom, so to speak.

So very excited to see that. There’s also money in there for a submarine industrial base, to get submarines, our most critical US weapon system for a fight with China. And a critical one for Russia, but the critical one for China. And that’s a smart $4 billion investment, really pushed hard by Senator Roger Wicker from Mississippi.

MAY: And the more submarines and weapons you have, the less likely that you’ll need to use them.

MONTGOMERY: That’s right.

MAY: People don’t always get that. You get that, Brad, as you’ve also said, deterrence is cheap, compared to the cost of a war.

BOWMAN: Exactly. Mark said it so well. I would just say that this legislation, particularly the three focused on Israel Ukraine and Taiwan together are a very big deal. I would go as far, as someone who used to teach American politics, as calling this landmark legislation. This is hard power-focused legislation that via presidential drawdown authority can get vital weapons quickly to Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel to help them with immediate concerns because we’ll literally be transferring some weapons from our own stocks and then replenishing them. So that can speed up kind of the slow supply of weapons we’ve seen in the past while simultaneously making overdue essential investments in our industrial base, making our anemic arsenal democracy healthier so we can support ourselves and support these beleaguered democracies for the medium- and long-term.

MONTGOMERY: Can I pick one last thing up?

MAY: Yeah, sure.

MONTGOMERY: So, the $8 billion for Asia Pacific was the $4 billion for Taiwan plus the almost $4 billion for some are industrial base and some INDOPACOM — that money will all go back into American industry. The $48 billion of different kinds of security assistance and EUCOM assistance in the Ukraine package all goes back into US industry, never leaves our shores. And then finally in the Israeli one, even there it’s about $12 billion of the $14 billion, about $2 billion goes to Israeli Rafael, very specifically for some Iron Dome, David Sling and Iron Beam work, but the rest of it rolls back directly into US company. So let’s be clear, this isn’t a jobs act, but US jobs, US companies, US research and development, and our own munitions backbone, something we ignored for 25 years, something we’re going to need in future US conflicts that involve allies and partners like Israel. It’s all being reinforced by this. This is a good set of bills that’s going to help American national security, help our closest allies and partners and push back on all those authoritarian regimes.

MAY: Okay, good update. Thanks for your lot. All right, getting back to, we’re moving on to Jerusalem and Tehran. Behnam, I’m going to start with you on this. I want to start with two narratives that are out there getting some traction from what I can tell. The first one is that Tehran, when it launched all these missiles and drones, I don’t know if there’s ever been more missiles and drones launched at a country in history — I think that’s right, tell me if I’m not — that Tehran was responding to an Israeli attack on an embassy or a consul or a diplomatic facility when they targeted Mohammed Reza Zahedi and his deputies and Mohammed Reza Zahedi of course is Tehran’s top Quds Force commander in Syria and Lebanon. He’s the one directing Hezbollah. He’s the one who is directing Hamas — guiding, advising. Call it what you will. He’s a combatant in this. Anyhow, Behnam, what do we actually know about this? One thing I think that we do know from FDD’s Hussain Abdul-Hussain is this was, first of all, this was not a diplomatic facility, and these were not diplomats with the immunity: these were soldiers and they were involved in act of combat, not least in the 10/7 attacks. Tell us what you know.

BEN TALEBLU: Yeah, thank you very much. Cliff. Listen, there’s no secret that the government of the Islamic, Republic of Iran uses international law norms, rules, regulations as a weapon and in a sense, sometimes as a shield. And this narrative that you were talking about, about a consulate, an embassy, an annex of a consulate or embassy, those are largely narratives and debates that we’re having here in the West among ourselves because that tends to handicap the nature of our response or tends to put blinders on to our analysis as to what is actually going down on the ground. For over a decade, the Islamic Republic has surged men money and munitions to save the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It has not minded trampling on law, let alone human life to get that done. Now technically, the building that the Israelis did hit, particularly when you look at the Arab press, and as you mentioned Hussain first helped bring this to the fore, the compound was a building, much like in Washington, D.C., you’ll have a building where there’ll be consulates based on one floor, residences on another floor, and a dentist’s office on another floor. It was really just pay to play, you buy to get space.

For me, I tend to believe that. I think the Iranians did put up, there was a picture of it, a plaque on the wall, to claim it was a consulate. But it’s funny, everyone who had talked about the Iranian Embassy in the past, and you can look in the open source, did not mention or had failed to mention this. And moreover, there is no journalist that I know of that has actually called the Syrian foreign ministry and asked and said, “What are the accredited Iranian diplomatic facilities that exist in Damascus?”, that would’ve been a very easy way to go about this. And then, or to look at the Iranian government’s website in Damascus to say, “Where are your facilities?” There’s the ‘contact us’ page: these pages tend to work. And lastly, you can do a post-mortem analysis: how come in a consular facility, no consular officials were killed?

MAY: No diplomats.

BEN TALEBLU: Yeah. And how come, because Iran does organize the embassy, does do these excursions and visits and visa activity to Syria, particularly to a suburb of Damascus, how come everyone who has done that in the past has done it through the embassy, which was the building next door — the one with the turquoise tiles — rather than this one that was hit? So this, in my view, was a hangout for the Quds Force operatives, I think there were seven Iranians killed here, two high-ranking brigadier generals. This guy that you mentioned, Brigadier General Zahedi, he’s really the connective tissue. There’s lots of these people that exist in this architecture that we call the Axis of resistance. They’re the Iranian touchpoint to another touchpoint who is a touchpoint to another proxy. And that’s really how these diffused terror proxy networks work. It’s magic. A couple of high-level advisors and lots of local personnel.

MAY: Go ahead, Brad.

BOWMAN: Benham, that’s such a great analysis in your point about how this is largely a debate we’re having with ourselves and the Islamic Republic of Iran is not worrying too much about these diplomatic nuances is evidenced by the fact that how many times they and their proxies through the years have deliberately hit our embassies and consulates. And so, it’s quite rich for us to be so concerned about that. And then the who, right? Exactly as you say: the Islamic Republic of Iran is the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism, we all know that, what’s the means by which they export that terrorism? It’s the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the Quds Force. And those are the seven people that died here.

And by the way, the Quds Force is the same entity that was used after Iran produced, explosively formed penetrators for the explicit purpose of penetrating American army and armor during the Iraq War smuggled across the border into Iraq, trained Iraqi militias, and as a result of those activities, more than 600 American service members never returned home to their families. That’s what the Islamic Revolutionary Guard or Quds Force is all about, and that’s who died on April 1st.

BEN TALEBLU: Can I add one other thing that Brad’s commentary on the embassy debate brought to mind?

MAY: Yeah.

BEN TALEBLU: …which is the one who actually pulled the trigger, allegedly the Israelis, something worth mentioning about them because you mentioned a war of narratives. There’s a narrative I see congealing or have heard congealing, which is that the Israelis merely took out this guy and or merely just kind of haphazardly struck something related to Iran and Syria because their larger goal is to cause a conflict spiral that the end brings America into the conflict that basically bails them out for free. And when you look at the nature of Israeli targeting in the past, nothing could be farther from the truth: these are targets of opportunity. If they have the person in their sights, like 9 times out of 10, they will pull the trigger. You saw this with the drama they had with the US in ’81 with Osirak, you saw this with the drama they had with the Bush administration in Syria in 2007. So these individuals strike me as targets of opportunities for the Israelis. So one might then ask why were the Israelis so interested in Brigadier-General Zahedi? Well, the Iranian press gave us that answer a couple of days after his passing, particularly the outlet Shana, which I believe is tied to a particular hardline faction in Iran’s parliament. And they basically alleged that this guy had a hand in the planning of the operation that ended up being called Tufan al-Aqsa, the Aqsa Storm that became the October 7 terrorist attack. So in some ways, this is even barely trying to achieve parity to a terrorist attack that killed 1,200 people.

MAY: Yeah, you’re culpable for the slaughter, the massacre, all that happened on 10/7, and somehow he’s supposed to be immune from and not seen as a combatant, this general. That’s crazy.

BEN TALEBLU: Exactly.

MAY: By the way, I also think — my understanding of international law is that if you plan terrorism from a diplomatic facility, that facility loses its immunity. And by the way, you mentioned Brad, the Iranian regime does not have any respect for these international laws. It was the Iranian regime that took our embassy in ’79 and yeah, they were students, but they were students following in the path of the Ayatollah Khomeini. And for 444 days, that regime could have said, “We are going to move those students out of there,” and they didn’t. So they had our embassy and held people hostage. They also bombed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992. It just goes on and on and on. But anyhow, did you want to say anything about that?

MONTGOMERY: The only thing I’d add to Benham’s discussion is you said Iran uses international laws and norms. I think I’d put the word Iran’s perversion of international laws and norms is what we’re seeing here.

MAY: Well, this is not a topic for today, but I do want us to think about it in a topic for another day, is the extent to which international laws and norms are meant to apply to the US, are meant to apply to the Israelis, but they do not apply to Russia, they do not apply to China, they do not apply to Tehran, they do not apply to terrorist organizations. Nobody’s saying, “Hamas is holding hostages under international law. That is not acceptable before anything else is done. They must release those hostages.” That’s not what’s being said, including the most recent U.N resolution that the Biden administration allowed to pass.

BOWMAN: Cliff, just if I may very quickly, the other two things that the IRGC has been involved with in Syria, building on what was just said, is trying to open up another front in Syria focused on Israel for the purpose of the ‘Ring of Fire’. That’s forward bases closer and closer to the Golan to threaten Israel. And of course, as we all know, facilitating the smuggling of weapons to Hezbollah and Lebanon, and we know since October 7th, actually starting on October 8th, there’s been more than 3,100 rockets launched from Lebanon into Israel. And these seven IRGC combatants who were killed in a military strike were involved in both those efforts.

MAY: In supplying weapons, supplying money, supplying guidance, maybe in supplying instructions. We don’t know. Absolutely.

Okay. Second narrative I want us to explore quickly: that narrative is that Iran’s rulers knew that all these 350 drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles carrying 60 tons of warheads and explosives would be shot down. So this was performative, it was symbolic. It was for show, it was theater, nothing to get one’s knickers in a knot about. What do you think?

MONTGOMERY: I think that’s highly unlikely. First of all, I don’t think they knew the failure rate of launches. I don’t think they knew the failure rate of missiles in transition. I think they had no idea because, and Cliff, you’re right, this is the largest drone cruise ballistic missile attack. I think if I went back to spring of 1945 or winter 1944, I might’ve seen bomber attacks that actually, believe it or not, carried more ordnance and more weaponry against Dresden and some other targets.

MAY: Did we get the civilians out of Dresden?

MONTGOMERY: Yeah, that’s right. Just trying to remember that one… yeah. But what they have been watching is 60 to 65 to 80 drones plus cruise missiles from Russia going into Ukraine. And they can only be countered by, in Ukraine right now, because Ukraine has no air force to speak of, they can only be countered by air defense systems like Patriot, a system called NASAMS. We’ve given them some older Russian SA-300s, that’s what the Ukrainians have.

BEN TALEBLU: Is there a C-RAM in Ukraine, or something like that?

MONTGOMERY: No, we haven’t given it. Our C-RAMs, we have a handful… We lost a few in Afghanistan when we left too fast. And the rest of them are in the Middle East right now near our– that’s what’s protecting the bases.

BEN TALEBLU: The bases in Iraq and Syria.

MONTGOMERY: Our bases against mortars and rockets from 160 plus attacks.

But let me roll back on this. So they had no concept that the U.S. Air Force and then the Israeli Air Force could thin this herd of drones to such a degree. No drones penetrated Israeli airspace, right?

BEN TALEBLU: Mm-hmm.

MONTGOMERY: In other words, the drones were, 50% of them, about 80 to 85, were thinned out by U.S. Air Force F-15s using missiles and guns and a tiny bit, I think, from the Royal Air Force as well, at that point.

And then the rest of them, as they left Iraqi and Syrian airspace, kind of come on into Jordan, and over that airspace… And I think the Israelis pushed out beyond that a bit. They destroyed the rest of them.

And in fact, had there been more drones, I think the U.S. Air Force and Israeli Air Force would’ve destroyed… I don’t know what the number eventually ends up at, but you probably could increase this to 200 without much catching of breath for those. That is an air defense that officials like Brad and I have been arguing for and about for decades but we have not actually seen practiced before.

So the idea that the Iranians knew that was going to happen, I put zero belief in that. And by the way, a good chunk of the cruise missiles were destroyed that way, too. Some of the imagery I’ve seen from U.S. F-15s and Israeli gun points, or gun cameras, are clearly… now those are missiles taking out missiles.

We tend– for cruise missiles they’re moving faster. The drones are moving about 150 to 200 miles an hour.

BEN TALEBLU: So they went out first, right?

MONTGOMERY: They went out first. Then the cruise missiles 600 to 800. The ballistic missiles go, depending on the type in the mach speeds, though, two and three mach. And so they were sequenced in that order for launch.

But what I’m saying is there’s no way the Iranians understood what was the defense and depth of the United States and Israel. And I know we’ll give credit to Arab countries as well, but I just want to be really clear, the U.S. and Israel did this, and the Brits threw in… they had a squadron, why not throw up a cap for a party?

BEN TALEBLU: Or in Cyprus.

MONTGOMERY: This was the U.S. and Israel defeating this attack. And then on the backside, I’m confident they had no idea that we had the ballistic missile defense in place. So we’ve always known Arrow was going to be stressed. Arrow is– the Israelis helped build, with U.S. support, missile defense agent support, the Israeli intermediate-range and medium-range ballistic missile defense system. It’s probably best for medium-range ballistic missiles, which is what we saw fired from Iran. But it has problems with numbers. It can be oversaturated.

So we designed a system 15 years ago, we started to think about putting ships in road. In fact, that was one of my jobs was to conceive and eventually do that when I was at U.S. European Command. Then when I got to European Command, Admiral Stavridis had myself and a few other officers work actually with officers, people who are now here at FDD as well. Amir Eshel, one of our senior fellows, and Jacob Nagel, who was a senior national security person at that time. And we negotiated an upper-tier control officer agreement where our THAAD and our Aegis would work closely with their Arrow.

It was very hard because we had to share proprietary and nationally sensitive information. Only we and the Japanese do it, and we and the Israelis do it, and that’s it in the world. And as a result, our SM-3s, that is a ship-launched ballistic missile, got its first combat testing supporting the Israeli Arrow system in the engagement of medium-range ballistic missiles. And we shot down between four and six. I’m sure that the Israelis tend to be a little more taciturn about what they say they did, but I know they shot down some as well. And then a percentage were evaluated as misses and allowed to hit.

MAY: So bottom line, I would think is that the Iranian forces, they thought they would at least get a few missiles through and kill a few hundred or a few thousand Israelis. They wouldn’t all get through.

MONTGOMERY: Or destroy an airfield.

MAY: Or destroy an airfield. Yeah. Is that right, Brad?

BOWMAN: Yeah. My bottom line, this was a genuine desire to kill that genuinely failed.

MONTGOMERY: That’s important.

BOWMAN: And that’s the bottom line. And to use a Bidenism, anyone who suggests otherwise, that’s malarkey, or Balderdash, to use that from the previous millennia.

But yeah, Mark was talking about how long it takes for those drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles to get to their targets. The reason why I think that’s important to highlight is because they’re sequenced in a manner to arrive around the same time, and you don’t do that unless you’re trying to create dilemmas for your adversary for the purpose of overwhelming systems and killing people.

Now, I’m not saying they all arrived at the same second, they arrived over a few hours, but they were sequenced. They did the drones first. Generally speaking, there was a second or third wave, but drones first because they take 10 to 14 hours to arrive, 1,000 kilometers, whatever, depending where they’re coming from. Then the cruise missiles, which go a little faster, and then the ballistic missiles. Why? For the purpose of arriving in roughly the same timeframe for the purpose of killing.

MAY: Let me just… You go ahead then I have one quick digression again.

BEN TALEBLU: Just a footnote to this. This is not malarkey, but it is to say, I think the Iranian intentionality is kaleidoscopic. It’s the same set of facts, but when you turn the facts, the same realities look a little bit different. So, one is they needed to be seen as publicly responding, so it necessarily had a signaling component to it.

You cannot divorce this strike from– my Wall Street Journal op-ed last month that said Iran is using ballistic missiles more often publicly in military operations from its own territory than ever before. It was already coming out of the shadows. Iran was already comfortable using overt military force.

Now, in that world, what makes this strike so different? It’s exactly what you guys said about the layered air and missile defense. The X-factor is not the layered air and missile defense, because the Iranian press covers the successes and failures of Arrow in spades for the past decade. It becomes front page news on Kayhan, the newspaper whose editor-in-chief is a good friend of the Supreme Leader, and his op-eds are designed to speak on the Supreme Leader’s behalf.

What the Iranians did not know was the diplomatic elements, the mil-to-mil element, the hard work like people like you guys were doing on the back end of this that could produce planes in the sky.

What really it would mean for the Americans to be able to say, “Okay, the Iraqis are shutting down their airspace or the Jordanians shutting down their airspace,” to basically have a corridor that would be contested where the Iranians were like, “Oh no, this corridor is absolutely about to be freed up. They think we have the land bridge. Now we’re about to get the air bridge to Israel.”

And in this world, what makes the Iranian strike different than the past dozen or so since 2017 from their territory, and I think we were talking on email about this, this is the first time ever the Iranians publicly attacked from their territory against a defended target. And you guys know better than I, The layered air and missile defense architecture of Israel is not to be messed with first in the region.

It could be a top five or top three or whoever, top one in the world. In this world, this is akin to someone saying, “I don’t like black pepper on my risotto,” but then downing two bottles of Tabasco, or not knowing how to walk in a straight line, but going on a double black diamond ski run the next day. So there was a learning element, as well.

They had never known how well their own missiles at MRBM ranges function from their territory. Every time, like the first historic battlefield use of THAAD, it was an Iranian MRBM, but it was from Yemen, and it was Yemeni command and control. They have never done it themselves. And this is a groundbreaking part. This is also the history-setting part.

MAY: I have one historical digression. You mentioned the RAF, and it occurred to me that in a way, this was like the Battle of Britain. And the Battle of Britain, if you remember, was Churchill’s name for it. What was it really? It was the RAF going up into the skies and trying to prevent the Luftwaffe from getting through to bomb Britain.

Initially, they wanted to bomb airfields, military sites, then factories. And eventually they said, “What the hell? Let’s bomb London. Let’s terrify people as much as we can. Let’s kill civilians.”

That’s what the Battle of Britain was. And I’m sure the RAF guys thought, “Hey, we haven’t done this in a long while,” but that’s what they were doing. They’re going into the skies to prevent the enemy from attacking. It wasn’t a battle back and forth. Am I wrong about that? You know history better than I do.

MONTGOMERY: I’m sure the RAF would probably like to comment on the Falklands and a few other combat opportunities.

MAY: Okay, well, all right, fair enough.

MONTGOMERY: But having said that, look, I thought you were heading towards, this is like the Polish contingent of the RAF.

MAY: Oh, that’s not fair.

MONTGOMERY: Did the Brits acknowledge it? Yes. No, but look, I’m glad they did it. Look, the real important thing is UK warfighters defended Israel.

MAY: You’re right.

MONTGOMERY: And there’s a long history where Israel has said, “We don’t want Americans, we don’t want Brits. We don’t want anyone else to shed their blood for Israel. We want your support.” I think we finally got into a kind of warfare where the Israelis said, “If you want to put your guys up…”

Now, look, the risk here for any pilot was target fixation hitting the ground, mechanical failure while flying. Things that we experience every day in training and maintenance. None of the drones were shooting back at the pilots.

But it’s a very important thing that American and British warfighters supported the security of the state of Israel in active combat. And I think that’s an important thing. It’s almost as important as what Behnam said, which I think we ought to double tap. Iran attacked Israel from Iranian territory. To me, there was a tactical defeat here, but there was an operational or strategic statement, which is why I think Israel eventually… We’re going to talk, I’m sur about response, but I think Behnam’s right to say there were elements of this attack that even though it was a failure, and I think it was an unintended failure tactically that did have operational aspects to it that are important for us to discuss.

MAY: Absolutely. And let me start with this, with you, Behnam. Why, in this instance, did Tehran not use its proxies? Why do this from its soil? It could have said to Hezbollah, “Okay, you got 150,000 missiles, shoot up 50,000, okay?”

They could have continued to do what they normally do, which is use the Arab forces as proxies and parts. Why not?

BEN TALEBLU: I think it’s a great question. And, a couple factors… One is the publicity one that I was just previously talking about. They needed to be seen as responding. Now that’s not because this was a consulate and, oh my God, the argument about the consulate and the diplomatic facilities that we’ve been having in the West among ourselves really resonated with the Islamic Republic. That kind of is our version of the theory of the case, as if an attack on a consulate is an attack on territory, which Khamenei did say that, but he began to say that after we flooded the airwaves after April 1st with the consulate, and oh my God, this is akin to attacking Iranian territory. So I think they wanted to be seen as responding.

And then the question is, well, why do they want to be seen as responding? This is not the first successful Israeli attack killing an IRGC officer. This is not the first Israeli attack going after Iranian infrastructure. There is a trend line of, I think, about five assassinations even prior to the JCPOA of Iranian nuclear scientists that people ascribe to Israel and/or foreign intelligence services.

There is tons of things that went bump in the night at Iranian nuclear and military facilities from 2020 to 2022 inside Iran. There was a major attack on an Iranian drone storage facility in Western Iran in 2022. There was the taking out of Iran’s chief military nuclear scientist in 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabadi.

BEN TALEBLU: The Iranians have long pointed a finger at Israel at this, at the same time that the Israelis have not prevented the Iranians from achieving their aims in Syria but significantly delayed them under stuff that you and David and everyone else here, and Jon, and everyone else has been covering under the auspices of campaigning between the wars and war between the wars.

So, this was an exceptionally risky move for the Iranians. Mark and I had that piece where we said we think the Iranians are now painting a target on their own backs because they fired from their own territory. But the Iranians were trying to change this equation. The equation which the Israelis have been able to prove to the Americans, “Hey, you may not be able to shoot the regime, but you can pinch them, you can knife them. You can do a few things because the Iranians will understand that you have escalation dominance.”

And the Iranians in the past, whether it was in Syria or in Iran, have absorbed the majority of the escalation. So this was Iran, in their view, again, same move in a targeted killing, an assassination, the drop in a bucket that overflowed it. And they are trying to reset the deterrence equation, vis-a-vis the Israelis and the things that they have going for them in this reset, even though it’s so, so risky and I agree that it failed is, one, the threat to continue. The deterrence, the punishment over time. After the strike, Iran’s IRGC commander said, “Even if you target our interests inside Iran or outside, we reserve the right to respond from inside Iran again.” Again, really banging on the chest there about what they can do.

Two, a simpler answer is that they may actually believe the hype that they’ve created about some of their long-range strike capabilities. Three, the preservation of their proxy capabilities. They may be trying to respect the local actor agency of these proxies. What does Hezbollah need to stay so well enmeshed in Lebanese society? What can Hezbollah do for us to fight to live another day? I think ultimately the last one here is really the hardest to say is, to count on, in a 2024 election year, Biden’s restraint and Iran’s threat of nuclear blackmail as extended deterrence for the Islamic Republic. You take all of this cocktail together and you get confirmation of the same trend line we’ve been seeing out of Iran, which is risk tolerance, not risk aversion.

BOWMAN: Great analysis by Behnam, as usual. This is the most significant killing of an IRGC officer since the January 3rd, 2020 killing of Qasem Soleimani. Of course the US killed Qasem Soleimani, this was an Israeli strike, but the point stands. Iran had to respond, I think we all recognize that, but if we had gotten together and had a little brainstorm about the range of options, this was absolutely on the aggressive end, I think we’d all agree on what they would do and it was a direct attack, as we’ve said already, from Iran, an unprecedented direct attack from Iran on Israel and why did Iran feel that they could do that? I think they felt that they could do that because of American weakness. I mean, let’s remember what President Biden said on the Friday before. He was asked, “What’s your message, Mr. President, to Iran?” One word. “Don’t”. I think he actually repeated it for dramatic effect. “Don’t.”

How impressed was the Islamic Republic Iran by that warning from Washington? They shrugged their shoulders and proceeded to conduct an unprecedented direct assault on the state of Israel, consisting of 350 missiles and drones. I think any objective observer has to conclude and I’m using polite language here, that American-Israeli deterrence is somewhat tattered and that is an unacceptable and dangerous status quo, thereby forcing Israel to respond and respond in a significant way, maybe we’ll talk about, at a time and place that they’re choosing, but they have to respond.

MAY: Right. Okay. All right. Unless you have something else you want to add there, I would go on to exactly that because right now the Israelis are examining their options, trying to think what to do. The only thing I would, that seems to me is, whatever they do, they should make it count if they’re going to do something. It shouldn’t just be in any way performative or just a slap. Can you do something to delay the nuclear weapons program? That would be the most urgent thing to do, if you can. I know the Israelis are saying everything’s on the table, but what specifically is on the table?

MONTGOMERY: First I want to agree with Brad and in answer to that question say, deterrence by denial, it worked in the sense that it stopped the attack, but clearly that approach alone is not seen as credibly stopping Iran from making further attacks.

MAY: It’s not, because it says “You didn’t succeed, but hey, try again if you like.”

BOWMAN: Rubicon’s been crossed.

MONTGOMERY: I think we’ve now moved to what’s called deterrence by punishment or deterrence by cost imposition. That’s where, if you want to prevent further bad behavior, you hold somebody accountable with a punishment or cost imposition strike, so I think we’ve moved to that and that’s where the interesting thing is. Now as you’re doing this, this isn’t just your assessment of what you would like to do. It’s your assessment of what you can do that will change Iran’s behavior. It might be nice to go blow up the IRGC headquarters and to attack different IRGC buildings inside Iran with long-range strikes. You could use Jericho IRBMs or more likely you could use F-35s delivering long-range precision guided munitions. Israel has several options there. That is relatively– I wouldn’t say risk-free, but low-risk options in terms of tactically for the fighter pilots and for MRBMs, Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles. The Jericho IIs would be low-risk.

On the other hand, does that impact Iranian thinking on what should happen next? I’m sure there’s some that would argue a strike on the nuclear production facilities has a higher deterrent impact. It could have a higher payoff in terms of delaying. It could delay the production of the bomb. I’m not willing to stipulate at will and I know if we had Jacob Nagel on here, he’d kind of knowingly say, “Of course we can strike it,” and I would say, “Well, Jacob…”

BEN TALEBLU: Then why didn’t we?

MONTGOMERY: My assessment of things about what the IDF can do, pre-October 7th and post-October 7th, are slightly different. I’d just be careful with that, and I will tell you that is a risky call. If you want to do the kind of comprehensive strike… I’ve planned these kind of strikes. The kind of strike to take down 10, 11 facilities spread throughout a well-defended country. You will lose Israeli planes, you’ll lose Israeli pilots. There’ll be a lot of risk.

MAY: Anybody else have any thoughts on Israel’s options?

BOWMAN: I think I’ll just say if you’re kind of making a list like we talked about doing, there’s regime. You could go after the regime. You go after the nuclear program, as has been said. You could go after elements of the defense industrial base in Iran where they’re actually producing the weapons, some of which were used in this attack. You could go after military bases, you can go after energy infrastructure that is used to bring revenue to the regime for the purpose of exporting terrorism, attacking Israel and the United States. Those are kind of the broad categories. Those attacks can be kinetic, they can be cyber — and Mark’s the expert on cyber, or some combination thereof. Or it can be attacks on proxies. That’s my just quick kind of survey of the menu that the Israelis are considering.

Obviously, the attacks on the regime or the nuclear program are among the more serious and would elicit a probably more intense response from Iran. My advice to the Israelis, if they’re listening, would be make sure you’re ready for the response if you choose the more aggressive options because the more aggressive you behave, probably the more aggressive the response and therefore the more you’re going to need to be ready for things maybe you didn’t bargain for, including Hezbollah coming in a major way and using some portion of their 200,000 missile rockets and mortars coming into Israel.

MAY: Right. There’s got to be a clear analysis of what we call the escalation ladder. We do A, they do B, we do C. It’s like a chess game. If I sacrifice a pawn, if I take the rook, what happens next? You got to think long-term.

MONTGOMERY: Brad made me think of two thoughts. One, look, I believe in cyber. I believe that Israel has the second most effective offensive cyber capability in the free world, behind the United States. If this is a deterrent thing about changing behavior, I think you have to do things that are destructive in nature in Iran. Cyber, I think, might be, I’m sure President Biden would appreciate them doing a cyber strike because it doesn’t leave a permanent mark and it’s a lower tier, but here’s what I like. Here’s what I would hit. I should have said it right in front. I would hit the oil production facilities. I think there’s a special kind of irony in this, that if we take that away it’s like telling the Biden administration, your stupid thinking on the transfer of oil revenues back, the releasing of billions of dollars, is part of the reason we’re in this kettle of fish right now. We are going to remove their ability to generate GDP and have money, to fund these IRGC and proxy wars, Hezbollah, even Hamas, against us, as well as our own ballistic missile program. I think a strike on the economic productivity generation is important and they’re very vulnerable. Their economy is not the well-rounded economy it could be, given them and this kind of strike would really hurt.

BEN TALEBLU: I’ve got a couple of views on the nature of the target package here. I won’t comment on what I think the Israelis should do, other than broadly you have to reestablish deterrence and that’s deterrence by punishment. Here’s what I fear immediately they will do. I think in terms of the covert, you’re going to have a cyber attack inside Iran and I think in the overt, you’re going to have a kinetic strike probably in a big way, almost akin to what we had after the three US service persons were killed in Jordan, in Syria and or Iraq or Syria. I think they may limp along. I think that will be an own goal. I think that’ll be cognizance by the regime in Iran that yeah, you can put pressure on the patron, not that Israel’s a proxy, but you can put pressure on the patron to constrain the partner. I think that really represents a dangerous understanding in terms of Iran’s understanding of our risk tolerance of our calculus.

Now to Iran’s point, my interjection previously with what Mark was saying. Why hasn’t Israel struck in the past two decades? It’s eerily because Iran’s conventional deterrence and even the prospect of a civil nuclear program moving in the weaponized direction, was dangerous enough to deter two decades of Iranian nuclear escalation and Iranian military escalation at a peak period of American unipolarity because of the diffuse nature of these facilities, the fact that Iran’s success to prevent a limited war option against itself, has been exactly what you said, deterrence by punishment. You will obviously be able to win against the Islamic Republic. The question has always been, well, is the cost worth it? Is the juice worth the squeeze? How much of this fire is war? What city in the Arab world are we losing for this? This has led to the Iranians being able to up the ante every single time because by nature we and even the Israelis are more restrained and responsible. We are not willing to make that fiscal, financial and even life-based trade-off at every rung of the ladder, and I agree with Brad.

The menu that he was putting out are probably, in terms of all options on the table, what the Israelis are considering. You could even have decapitation. You could have denuclearization. You could have defanging. You could have deterrence by punishment. Eerily in terms of symbolism, I had an Iranian dissident friend who was not in Evin prison, he was in a different prison in Iran, float this idea. Talk about symbols, right, because I do believe this attack has to be seen. If there is going to be an attack and if there is going to be inside Iran, this individual mentioned this. He said, what about a strike, again, this is his idea, but it’s an interesting idea. What about a strike on the tomb of Khomeini, which is halfway between Tehran and Qom. It’s near a big cemetery. It’s not a residential area because again, the Israelis have a huge amount of Iranian popular support. I cannot tell you the amount of pro-Israel graffiti that exists in Iran.

I cannot tell you how much Iran, under the Islamic Republic of Iran, the society is 180 degree opposite the society of the countries of our closest Arab partners. It would be a mistake to throw that away. Even though that society is writing in Persian, “Hit the house. Hit the house of the supreme leader,” such that another Iranian friend told me this joke that’s going on and Iran, that if the IRGC aerospace force wanted to be successful in killing Israelis, like you said, blood for blood, killing Israelis, they should have probably hit the Supreme Leader’s house because there would’ve been more Israeli spies there killed than anywhere else. This complicates the situation a bit, but I think it is worth chewing on.

BOWMAN: There’s so much there. We love to talk in Washington, Brussels and Davos about proportionality, right? Oh, we better make sure we’re proportional. The Israelis are like, forget that. I’m going to hit back harder because I live in a tough neighborhood and if I don’t, the thugs are going to think they can get away with anything. Well, what would be a proportional response here for Israelis, right? 350 missile drones going after military bases. I think the Iranians, I can’t prove it and I would defer to you, Behnam, based on your Iran analysis, but I would assume that the Iranians felt like they could do this uber-aggressive attack because they assumed correctly that even maybe before the last drone or missile landed, that the pressure would start from Washington on Israel to not respond.

BEN TALEBLU: Absolutely.

BOWMAN: Am I wrong? I mean that would’ve been an accurate prediction and that’s essentially the same thing we’re seeing in the context of the Gaza war. Israel’s enemies understand that the security relationship, the diplomatic relationship with the United States, is pivotal, I would argue, to the survival of the state of Israel, and so that’s what the human shields are all about. It’s about creating angst in Washington for the purpose of creating pressure from Washington to Israel to stop doing what they’re doing, so the terror group survives to conduct another October 7th in the future and the Iranians probably thought, “We can do this, and then we can count on the Americans to apply pressure to restrain the Israelis because this is our conversation here.” When you decide whether you’re going to do an attack, the obvious question is, how are they going to respond? I think they’re making some assumptions about weakness in the White House. I say that respectfully, but honestly, weakness in the White House, an election year. Last thing they want: concerns about regional escalation. And over these 165 attacks on our forces that we talked about last podcast between October 17th and the end of January, what was the White House saying that whole time? “We don’t want a regional war. We don’t want a regional war.” Well, my goodness. So there’s death, taxes, and a few things you can count on in life. I think you can count on this administration putting pressure on Israel to not respond. And as I said in a Flash Brief here, [inaudible 00:45:24], if you’re in the sole business of receiving punches and not counterpunching, expect more punches.

MAY: Well, this administration, if I understand, and not just this administration, they believe in deterrence by denial. A defensive shield. Don’t let your enemy do too much to you. But they don’t believe in deterrence by punishment, which means hurt your enemy enough that he will change his behavior. And I think it’s a syndrome we’ve gotten into in the West, not at least the Israelis. If you look at Israeli policy towards Hamas, it was entirely deterrence by denial. How many times have I been at that fence with Gaza and have said, “They can’t get through here?” Well, with a bulldozer, they did. Well, they weren’t going to punish them. And every time Hamas sent rockets into Israel, it was no punishment. Iron Dome knocked down the rockets, and maybe they targeted one building or one thing. But for most Gazans, this was not more than an inconvenience. There was no serious punishment.

But Hamas is strategically smart enough to know that when the Israelis say, “Okay, we’re going to punish,” Hamas will say, “We’re not going to try to protect our people. On the contrary, we’re going to put them in front of us. When you kill them, we know people will not blame us for using human shields, as illegal as that is under international and American law. They’ll blame you for it. We’ll sit in our tunnels and we’ll eat our humus sandwiches as this goes on.”

BEN TALEBLU: It gets a little stale after a while though. Three days.

MAY: Well, not if they’re still coming in from Egypt, they’re not.

BOWMAN: The tunnels have electricity, so they can put it in the refrigerator.

MAY: That’s right.

MONTGOMERY: Unfortunately, with Gaza, I think is they also practice something called deterrence by entanglement, where you begin to work with them, bring money in. Israel absolutely allowed there to be three very rich men in The Four Seasons in Qatar, which is the leaders of Hamas sitting on hundreds of millions, nearly billions of dollars. They believed that they had entangled Hamas into a relationship.

MAY: And there are villas in Gaza that are absolutely beautiful. You’ve seen pictures of them now.

MONTGOMERY: So my take is that they were practicing all of that. And look, your core point is the United States, look, we fought a coercive war in 2003. We historically don’t pick fights. We like to practice deterrence. And I think after that, it’s a very hard sell in the United States, even in the national security leadership, but also in the public opinion, to sell deterrence by punishment. Deterrence by denial, defense and denial, just seems like, well, if we can do it with our $800 billion budget, then do it.

MAY: Alright, our time is short, but one subject is, all right, let’s agree that Tehran intended to kill Israelis. Failed at that. That’s a humiliation. They are not going to say, “Oh, too bad. This doesn’t work out so well. Let’s get together with the international community and fight climate change.” And they’re not simply going to wait and see, “Okay, what do the Israelis do to us? How do we respond?” They may say, “Okay, how do we continue to fight the war that we have been fighting really since 1979?” They had to fight the Iraqis first and there were other things, but certainly under the presence of the Supreme Leader, there has been a war against Israel, mostly using the Ring of Fire, mostly using the proxies. What I’m asking is, they’re sitting around in Tehran and they’re strategizing. “What do we do next, guys?” We’ve got to build back our arsenal. They’ve utilized, I would imagine, a lot of the missiles they have.

As long as the money’s coming in from selling oil, from– and I should point this out– from sanctions not being enforced, from sanctions expiring, and then the State Department says, “We didn’t lift the sanctions.” And then a good journalist that asked the other day, “But they expired.” “Oh, they expired. That’s very different from lifting sanctions.” If you saw that. So okay, what are they thinking right now? What are their options that they’re considering?

BEN TALEBLU: I think they’re thinking through a couple of things, and obviously right now they are quite concerned about what an Israeli response might be, but they’re hedging their bets. And what they’re trying to do to deter an Israeli response and encourage American restraint and constraining of Israel is to also put forward the nuclear blackmail argument. You had now an IRGC official in charge of nuclear security at these installations talk about a potentially different future and different nuclear doctrine for the fissile material that exists underground and in those facilities. So that’s medium- to long-term threat, Sword of Damocles they can tangle over people’s heads.

In the shorter to medium-term, what they will do is to continue what you’ve been seeing in the region, which is the steady death by a thousand cuts against the US force architecture to get the US to leave the region. Remember, if NATO was allegedly created per the first Secretary General of the organization to keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in, the Iranian axis of resistance is here designed to keep the Arabs down, the Americans out, and the Iranians in. And ultimately, the purpose of that regional security network, if you have the Arabs down, the Americans out, and the Iranians in, is to slowly move on Israel, who will in that case be essentially defenseless. So, that’s one.

Two is, of course, to resupply some of these proxy groups that have been firing some of their capabilities amid the Ring of Fire. And three, that resupply allows them to engage in essentially a smaller-scale war of attrition, a war of attrition that the longer it goes on, you have those same politically constraining and restraining forces in Washington trying to come into de-confliction agreements, maybe not ceasefire but de-confliction agreements between Israel and Hamas. De-confliction agreements with Israel and Lebanon for Hezbollah to try to square peg round hole, patch it up, and to have Israel wrap up its military operations. So you perform in this military operation that is historic and game changing and resets the rules of deterrence such that your threats that have always operated in the gray zone can continue to operate in the gray zone. And the fact that every time military force is used against them, it becomes a time question, a cost question rather than a military proposition? Well, you just have to wait it out.

MAY: I’m going to go to you, Brad, and then you, Monty, on this question. But also, any other last thoughts? I haven’t asked most of my questions I have in my notebook here, because it’ll be almost an hour, so we’ll wrap up with this.

BOWMAN: Yeah, no. Thanks, Cliff. I would predict obviously that Iranian proxy attacks against Israel will continue. I think it’s just a matter of time until attacks on our forces in Iraq and Syria and perhaps Jordan resume. I think if the Israeli/American response to this unprecedented attack that we saw this week, we should expect more direct Iranian attacks on Israel. That’s why I think it’s so important that there be a strong response. Israel’s going to of course continue its covert attacks inside Iran as they’ve been doing in the past. I think Israel very understandably and reasonably will feel more licensed now to conduct overt attacks inside of Iran. I think that’s a good thing because we’ve all spent too much time talking about the puppets and not the puppet master. And if we could bring more consequence to the puppet master, I think that’s a good thing for regional security.

I hope that there’s a renewed focus after last weekend on making additional expedited progress on constructing a regional security architecture between the United States, our Gulf Cooperation Council partners, led by Saudi Arabia and Israel. The role of Jordan over the weekend was very interesting. The fact that they’re so sheepish about wanting to talk about it publicly tells you about the political challenges. There are some early reports, there’s some debate on how accurate it is about the intelligence from the Saudis and Emiratis. That’s interesting. In terms of win, we haven’t talked about the win of the Israeli response. My hope is that they take their time. I would humbly recommend to our Israeli friends that they take their time, pocket the emerging concessions that are beginning to come from Europe and the United States, try to make those concessions as durable as possible so that they’re not rolled back later when they attack and then suddenly everyone’s upset in Davos again. Take your time. Replenish and rearm your forces, stockpile weapons, as Mark has said so many times.

Get ready for the bigger war with Hezbollah and Iran that’s coming sooner or later. Lower the pressure with the White House a little bit. Finalize your plans for Rafah. Try to move that 1.2, 1.4 million people out of Rafah as best you can. Make plans for that, and then respond in a time and place of your choosing. But at the same time, I understand you have the hostages and other considerations, but those are some of the things on my mind. The last thing I’ll say is I would cautiously suggest that our Israeli friends and allies really avoid over overconfidence, and so there’s two thoughts. I studied the grand strategy program at Yale, and John Gaddis, famous Cold War historian, he used to love to say the essence of being a statesman is being able to hold two contradicting ideas in your head at the same time and not go mad. And so here’s two ideas. One is that in some level, I think, I’m sympathetic to the Israeli view you often hear that conventionally, Iran is a bit of a paper tiger. That we build them up to be 12 feet tall.

MAY: Well, they thought Hamas was a paper tiger.

BOWMAN: Yeah, right. And you see my second point coming.

MAY: Yeah, sorry.

BOWMAN: Yeah, no. You’re exactly right, Cliff. They’re not 12 feet tall, not even 10 feet tall. They might be about four or five feet tall, but you can do a lot of damage with terrorist attacks on embassies, consulates, and again, soft targets, civilian targets. But conventionally, evidence suggests if you go back to 1979 and go all the way through the Reagan area to present, conventionally, when Mark Montgomery shows up in his surface vessel, the Iranians back down because they know they’re going to get their tails handed to them.

But at the same time, things can go much, much worse than they did last weekend. And even though the attack was a failure, let’s not miss, I saw a radar chart basically of all the avenues of attack over the weekend, and they were coming almost from every direction other than from the Mediterranean. And so it was an impressive feat, I would say, in a bad way, for Iran to be able to coordinate not only direct attacks, but attacks from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. And so if they added more volume to that and you add into a massive attack from Hezbollah all at the same time, I fear, I would confidently say, that it would not have gone so well, even with the most powerful military in human history helping out.

MAY: Final thoughts.

MONTGOMERY: So first, I’d say, stepping all the way back to the beginning, we’ve got to remember this was a banner day for the Israeli Defense Force, particularly the Air Force. This was a good evening. It was also a groundbreaking day in Israeli Defense Force-US military operations. We have not operated like this before. It’s validation of great work by Benny Gantz when he was the Chief of Defense, by Amir Eshel when he was head of their Air Force, by Jacob Nagel when he negotiated the FMF deals with the United States. That gave him a lot of this equipment. So we have to remember that.

Now, looking forward, I’ll just say the one thought I have is that Gantz said it right. To try to cut off Netanyahu, I think, he came out within a few hours and said, “We’re going to respond at a time and place of our choosing,” which I interpret it as, “Not tonight. Not this week.” And I think they have to be very sensitive to the fact that they are low on, there are weapons systems they could use. JDAM, it’s an airdropped weapon. Small-diameter bombs, another airdropped weapon. Both will be crucial to any combat in Hezbollah. 120-millimeter rounds for their tanks. 155-millimeter rounds for their Howitzer. I think that they should bank that Iranian attack to get the exact people they want to get at the time and place of their choosing. And in the meantime, lean on the United States and the international community to see what kind of tools we really deploy economically.

MAY: Snapback sanctions, for goodness’ sake. I don’t think–

MONTGOMERY: Exactly.

MAY: …the Biden administration will, but they could. They have the power.

MONTGOMERY: And rearm.

MAY: And rearm. Yeah.

MONTGOMERY: Going back to the $14 billion that we were talking about at the beginning for Israel, they need that weaponry, and we can do it with the president’s drawdown authority. There’s $3, $4 billion of that in there that we can immediately use to pull from our stocks into Israel to get them whole, post the Hamas campaign, to be ready for the Hezbollah campaign. Because Israelis do not want to win the battle in the north ugly. They want to win it clean, which means they need the right amount of weapons on the offensive and defensive side, and that’s going to take a little bit of time.

MAY: Alright. Thank you, Monty. Thank you, Brad. Thank you, Behnam. Fascinating conversation. Could have gone on. We’ll get back together again pretty soon. Thanks to all of you out there who have been with us for this conversation here, today, on Foreign Podicy.

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Issues:

Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Missiles Iran Nuclear Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Israel at War Lebanon Military and Political Power Palestinian Politics U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy