The United States learned the “kindergarten lesson” this week, something Israel has sharpened and perfected over the years in the way it formulates policy.
It goes something like this: if Hamas fires a rocket but it doesn’t hurt anyone then there is no reason to retaliate aggressively.
What’s the “kindergarten lesson?” Since everyone knows that if a rocket were to hit a kindergarten in Sderot, Kfar Aza or somewhere else along the southern border and cause extensive casualties, Israel would have no choice but to launch a large-scale military offensive. As long as that doesn’t happen though, Israel doesn’t have to.
The problem is that this is no way to formulate policy. If rocket fire is a threat, then it needs to be dealt with whether the rockets hit and hurt someone or don’t. A government shouldn’t wait for people to be killed before dealing with a threat. That is not a strategy.
A variation of this played out on Wednesday morning, when Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at bases that house US soldiers in Iraq.
While satellite footage showed damage at the al-Assad airbase, no US military personnel were injured or killed. Donald Trump made a point of stressing this in his speech at the White House the following afternoon, explaining why he was holding his fire, for now.
What that means though, is that if a barracks had been hit, and a number of soldiers had been killed, the response would have had to be different.
Is this a way to formulate strategy? Probably not.
On Sunday, two days after the US assassinated Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani outside the Baghdad airport, Trump tweeted: “The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment…If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way...and without hesitation!”
Based on that tweet, Trump should have sent “some of that brand-new beautiful equipment” straight at Iran after the attack against the US bases. But he didn’t.
Part of the reason was that no US soldiers were wounded or killed – due to quality intelligence and advanced missile-detection systems – and Trump was able to walk back the Sunday threat.
But like Israel’s “kindergarten strategy,” this is unlikely to work in the long run. Iran will again test the resolve of the West and the United States. The Iranian regime is a master at walking up the edge and not falling into the abyss. It shot down a US drone in June and nothing happened; it took over oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and nothing happened; it bombed the Aramco oil facility in Saudi Arabia and nothing happened. Everything Tehran does, it does in a way that pushes the lines but doesn’t break them. It walks to the edge of the envelope of war, but manages to prevent going all the way.
The decision to take out Soleimani was meant to be the retribution the Iranians had deserved for years, and came in the wake of the death of a US contractor in Iraq two weeks ago as well as the raid last week on the US embassy compound in Baghdad. But after the dust settles from the recent exchange of blows, there is little reason to assume the Iranians won’t again test America’s resolve sometime soon. This could be a covert attack – somewhere outside of Iraq – against a US target, or even an Israeli one.
Either way, it seems that for the time being a US-Iran war has been avoided. Although it might be temporary, a quiet day – even if just one or two – is not something people in the Middle East take for granted.
ISRAEL, ON the other hand, is still studying the effect of Soleimani’s death and departure from the Middle Eastern stage.
Just a few months ago, at the end of 2019, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi oversaw the formulation of Military Intelligence’s strategic assessment for the coming year, which analyzes the region looking at the threats, challenges and opportunities. Last Friday, after Soleimani was taken out by the Americans, Kochavi told his intelligence chief Tamir Hayman to get back to the drawing board and start reassessing.
The situation is volatile. If the Iranians decide to continue attacking the US – currently unlikely – Israel could find itself in the middle of a regional war that sees Hezbollah unleash some of its 150,000 rockets and missiles against the Jewish state. If Iran now restrains itself and decides not to do anything else, the situation could remain quiet for weeks or even months.
The problem is that even if Iran doesn’t carry out any overt attacks now, it is still continuing to violate the 2015 nuclear deal, as it announced this week that it will henceforth enrich larger quantities of uranium at higher levels. Moreover, it isn’t going to suddenly withdraw from Syria or Yemen, which means that a collision is still on track and just a matter of time.
Trump’s ultimate strategy is to get the Iranians back to the negotiating table to try to reach a new and better nuclear deal. The Iranians though are not just going to come and sit down. The Soleimani assassination is unlikely to change a stubbornness that has been in place since Trump pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018.
They will prefer to wait for the November presidential election and see who wins. If, for example, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren or some other Democrat emerges victorious, Iran will get the 2015 deal back.
If Trump wins, though, it will have a difficult time avoiding talks. Existing economic sanctions are already hurting Iran’s economy, and the US president announced he’s applying more. The thought of another four years of maximum pressure will be tough to sustain.
The missile attack against the US bases was of particular interest for Israel since some of the missiles are believed to already be in the possession of Hezbollah in Lebanon. While the Iranian barrage did not kill anyone, they did hit their targets. Out of more than a dozen missiles – believed to be Fateh 110s and Qiam-1s – some scored direct hits.
That’s important to keep in mind since Hezbollah could unleash similar firepower against Israel in a future war. Iran’s ability to fire missiles from its territory into Iraq was a significant demonstration of firepower, illustrating Iranian capabilities the same way it did – with armed drones and cruise missiles – in the attack against Saudi Arabia in September. Not only do Iranian missiles fly, they also hit their targets.
For Israel, this has significant consequences. The IDF Planning Directorate conducted a study last year looking at the number of missiles Hezbollah has in its arsenal: how many will potentially be launched in the next war, how many Israel will potentially succeed in destroying (it changes if Israel launches a preemptive strike), how many will land in populated areas, and how many will be intercepted.
The threat is severe, and Israel currently is short on the number of interceptors it would ideally want to have to effectively be able to counter it. But even if it had the number of interceptors it wanted, that doesn’t mean it will be able to stop everything. During the last round of violence with Islamic Jihad in Gaza, for example, Iron Dome batteries intercepted 90% of their targets.
That means that if Hezbollah fires 100 missiles a day into the Tel Aviv area, 90 will be shot down, an amazing and impressive number. But it also means that 10 missiles will hit the city, something that hasn’t happened since the Gulf War in 1991. Attacks like this, over a period of days, will be something Israel has never experienced, and will have direct implications on the type of force it will need to use in response.
While this week’s US-Iran round might seem over, the global conflict with the Islamic Republic is far from finished.
Both sides are now licking their wounds and learning their lessons. They are well aware though that the next round is just over the horizon.