How the Israel-Iran war might begin

In the back of everyone’s mind there will be a constant and nagging question mark over what happens next. Everyone that is, except for Iran.

AN ISRAELI F-35 fighter jet gets ready to take off in the Negev. Will it soon fly to Iran? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
AN ISRAELI F-35 fighter jet gets ready to take off in the Negev. Will it soon fly to Iran?
The missiles will come in low, after being in the air for almost an hour, and when they hit, they will be coming just over the horizon. People who witness the attack will remember later that the missiles didn’t fall from the sky. They flew at their target straight, like a bullet.
The drones will hit just a few minutes later. They will have been flying at low altitudes for longer, taking off in Iraq, crossing into Syria, and then across the border into Israel.
The “swarm” of drones and cruise missiles – as it will later be referred to – will have caught the country by surprise. By the time they strike, the target will be less relevant – the Haifa oil refinery, an apartment building in Kiryat Shmona, or a school in Katzrin.
This scenario, while fiction for now, is one that the IDF top brass is talking about on a regular basis these days. It is being played out in the minds of IDF generals and intelligence officials, responsible for watching Iran’s every move, from Tehran all the way to its proxies’ bases in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and the Gaza Strip.
The model is very similar to Iran’s attack against the Aramco oil facility in Saudi Arabia in September: within the span of 17 minutes, 18 drones and three low-flying missiles hit the facility with amazing precision. The ability to launch a coordinated cruise missile/drone attack that hit its target with precision (except for a few cruise missiles that missed) was an impressive feat. That Iran has this capability came as a surprise to many in America and Israel’s defense establishments.
That Iran would like to attack Israel is not a secret. Two weeks ago, an Iranian-backed militia in Syria fired four Fajr-5 rockets at the Hermon Mountain in Israel. The rockets were intercepted by Iron Dome batteries.
In August, Israel struck an Iranian-backed cell planning to launch explosives-laden drones into Israel from Syria. After both incidents, the Israeli Air Force carried out extensive retaliatory strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.
But what happens if Iran succeeds in hitting Israel with an Aramco-style attack? What happens if it hits a strategic installation and causes extensive economic damage or worse – loss of life? What will Israel do?
This question is at the heart of discussions within the defense establishment, and there are a number of possible answers, each with its advantages and disadvantages.
IF FOR example the cruise missiles and drones are launched from Syria, Yemen or Iraq, the easiest move is for Israel to simply retaliate against the cell that launched them, assuming it is able to quickly locate and identify the attackers.
On the other hand, while such a retaliation has tactical value – denying the cell the ability to continue firing missiles – what does it say about Israeli deterrence? If Iran knows that it can strike at Israel via proxies from other countries and not pay a direct price, what will stop it from continuing?
For that reason, another option would be for Israel to strike back directly at Iran and to deliver a decisive blow against the regime that would make the clerics there understand that there is a personal price to be paid for attacking Israel.
How would Israel do that?
Israel will likely need to rely on its Air Force, the backbone of which – the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, F-16I Sufas and F-15I Raams – are specially configured for long-range bombing operations.
With some refueling, the planes would be able to fly to Iran, attack their targets and return. There are different routes: flying directly over Jordan and Iraq, over Saudi Arabia and Iraq, or along the Turkish-Syrian border. All have their advantages and disadvantages. Some are longer while others are more dangerous.
Israel could potentially use drones in such an attack. According to foreign reports, the Heron TP – Israel’s largest drone with the wingspan of a Boeing 707 – has the ability to carry missiles. How big and how much damage they can cause remains unknown. That is why while the drones – if they are even an option – might minimize the risk to pilots, their ability to cause extensive damage is limited.
For this reason, for example, Avigdor Liberman when he was defense minister, and Naftali Bennett before he became defense minister, both pushed for the IDF to develop additional long-range capabilities. Liberman tried to establish a missile corps in the IDF. At the time, the focus was on short-to-medium range that was not big enough to reach Iran, but that would have been the next stage.
Prior to being appointed defense minister, Bennett also raised the issue in security cabinet meetings and tried to push the military to think creatively about how it can deal decisive blows to far away enemies like Iran. Now, as defense minister, he can try to implement his vision.
EACH RETALIATORY option will directly impact the scope of the conflict that will follow. If, for example, Israel goes with option 1 and limits its strike to the missile launchers in Iraq, Syria or Yemen, there would likely be almost no response. Iran would understand that Israel needed to vent and would accept the follow-up blow.
If Israel goes with option 2 and strikes in Iran, an unprecedented move, it could lead to a regional war. Iran can activate its militias based in Syria, Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and, of course, Hezbollah in Lebanon which has the ability to launch over 1,000 rockets and missiles a day against Israeli targets.
In theory, Iran also has the potential to launch its own long-range ballistic missiles toward Israel. While Iran has developed an impressive ballistic missile capability, they have never really been tested in combat. Will they be able to make the flight to Israel and accurately hit their targets? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, they would first have to make it through the Arrow, Israel’s ballistic missile defense system.
What would Israel target in such an attack against Iran? For purposes of deterrence, it might be enough to strike at a single symbolic target, like a military base. On the other hand, if you know that a massive war is coming, maybe it would be the right time to strike additional targets at the same time – nuclear facilities, missile depots and launchers, air force bases, navy ships. If there is already going to be a war, it might as well be worth it.
The same could be argued about Hezbollah. If the military assessment is that Hezbollah would attack Israel after such a strike, then the IDF would need to consider launching a preemptive strike against Hezbollah and hitting targets – its long-range missile arsenal, assuming Israeli intelligence knows where it is stored as an example - at the same time that an attack is launched against Iran. At least this way, if war with Hezbollah comes, Israel will have limited the Lebanese-based group’s ability to inflict damage.
WILL ANY of this happen? That is impossible to know. Based on the frequency of visits by top US military officials in the last few weeks - Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, head of the US Air Force Gen. David Goldfein, and CENTCOM chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie were all here last month – there is coordination going on behind the scenes between the Pentagon and the IDF.
The same can be understood from the two phone calls Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently had with President Donald Trump, during which they discussed the threat from Iran as well as other “critical” regional issues.
The problem, though, is that anything Netanyahu does today will be seen as politically driven. If there is an attack in the coming weeks after Israel has gone to another election, then however Israel responds will be looked at through the prism of Netanyahu’s legal predicament. Did he decide to go to war to try and postpone his trial, or did he decide to contain a devastating attack to avoid a war that would incur casualties and possibly also a political price?
In the back of everyone’s mind there will be a constant and nagging question mark over what happens next. Everyone that is, except for Iran.