From Agagites to Ayatollahs| February 28, 2023
Nearly a quarter-century after Khomeini toppled the Shah to become a latter-day Haman, what are the next steps in the Israeli-Iranian confrontation?
he last time a Persian ruler tried genocide against Jews, we ended up with Purim. But 2,500 years later, Israel’s defense establishment knows that modern Persia is anything but a joke. Iran has now enriched uranium to 84 percent — just short of nuclear weapons grade material. Its proxies threaten Israel with tens of thousands of missiles, forcing Israeli jets to pay frequent visits to Lebanese and Syrian airspace to interdict weapons supplies. Nearly a quarter-century after Khomeini toppled the Shah to become a latter-day Haman, what are the next steps in the Israeli-Iranian confrontation?
Key to understanding the Iranian threat is the realization that the country is no tinpot Middle Eastern dictatorship, but a state able to call on advanced capabilities. In a region filled with brutal but bumbling regimes that Israel has bested multiple times on the battlefield, Iran stands out as a unique threat. Even after decades of Western sanctions, Tehran has shown a startling ability to innovate, building a nuclear and ballistic missile program from scratch. Domestically produced drones and cruise missiles give Tehran a long-range fist.
In the cyber domain, Iran punches above its weight. Iranian self-sufficiency contrasts with the country’s Gulf neighbors, who have little domestic capabilities and must use their petrodollars to buy American weapons. These technological achievements point to Tehran being one of the most formidable foes that Israel has faced.
In the decades-long covert struggle between Israel and Iran, both sides have seen successes and failures. On Israel’s side, the 2018 heist of Iran’s nuclear archives was a stunning coup. But the struggle has often led to Diaspora Jews being targeted. A notable occasion was the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people. More recently, in 2013, Israeli tourists were killed in Burgas, Bulgaria, in an operation pinned on Hezbollah and Iran.
With Israel once again declaring that a military option is on the table, Britain’s Jewish community is reportedly a target. As Security Minister Tom Tugendhat told Parliament last week, Iran is using criminal gangs to compile a list of prominent British Jews to be targeted in the event of an Israeli strike. It’s a sign of a wider Iranian strategy that views Jewish communities worldwide as Israel’s soft underbelly.
Like much of world geopolitics, the Israel-Iran struggle has been impacted by the ongoing Ukraine war. The woeful performance of Russia’s armed forces has forced Putin to go cap in hand to allies to scrounge arms, and Tehran has been quick to capitalize. In exchange for supplying its drones to Moscow, Iran will reportedly receive advanced fighter jets, among other high-end kit. Still flying ’70s-era Phantom jets, Iranian pilots are currently no match for their Israeli counterparts. But modern Russian planes would be another proposition entirely, making an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear sites far more hazardous.
Thus far, Israel has attempted to keep Putin on-side by making pro-Ukraine noises while refraining from arming Kyiv, despite Western pressure. The strategy is aimed at allowing Israel to continue its overflights of Syria, despite the presence of Russian air defense systems. But as Russia becomes ever more dependent on Iran, how long will that balancing act continue?
Showing Their Hand
Recent Iranian drone attacks on Israeli-owned shipping in the Persian Gulf are a reminder of how close the two sides constantly are to an all-out shooting war. But why, in fact, is most of the action conducted by proxy and not in open conflict?
The reason lies in the fact that for both sides, a showdown contains massive risks. Iran can’t know for sure the extent of Israeli capabilities. Israel doesn’t possess the massive bunker-busting bombs that the US uses on hardened military targets — or indeed planes large enough to carry them. In theory, then, Iran’s dispersed, subterranean nuclear program could survive an Israeli strike. But in reality, Iran can’t be sure what domestic capabilities Israel has developed to replace these systems, and ensure a successful attack.
On Israel’s side, an all-out strike would only have one chance for success. It would, in effect, show Israel’s hand; given the paucity of Israel’s resources, anything but complete destruction of Tehran’s capabilities would be a failure, as Iranian scientists would be free to race for a bomb.
Weighing on Israeli leaders’ minds is the massive destruction that Iran could unleash on Israel. Uzi Rubin, a former general and head of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization, warns of Iran’s capacity for launching salvos of tens of thousands of missiles at Israel via its proxies across the Middle East, overwhelming air defenses by sheer numbers. Faced by such odds, Israel’s strategy has been to put off any direct confrontation, while working to deploy additional air defenses such as laser systems that could handle incoming rockets in far greater numbers.
Besides the cost-benefit calculation, Israeli leaders are very conscious of one additional factor: legitimacy.
In every single confrontation with its enemies to date, Israel has only had the freedom to act when a majority of its allies — especially America — were convinced that it had no choice. Given the unreasonable standards applied to the world’s only Jewish state, that has often meant waiting until the knife was at its throat to act.
That handicap gives the lie to briefings by anonymous officials in the Obama era alleging that Bibi was a coward, threatening to attack Iran, but too fainthearted to act. In reality, Netanyahu has acted on long-standing Israeli policy, aware that starting a war that would drag in the US is politically nonviable as long as America thought that there were other options.
Ayatollahs and Agagites
So as Iran marches inexorably forward on its way to a nuclear bomb, what are Israel’s options? The best option would be the Gulf States convincing the Americans to unleash their air force on Iran, making any subsequent conflict about American interests, and not about rescuing Israel. But with America in retreat and keeping one eye on Asia, that’s unlikely in any case. An Israeli strike, with all its risks, remains on the table.
Two and a half millennia after Purim, we have no Mordechai and Esther urging teshuvah and interceding with the dictator. But the return of the Persian menace after thousands of years is a reminder that Jewish history works by different rules, and that the ayatollahs may well meet their downfall as did the Agagites of old.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 951)
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