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Israel’s new ‘red lines’ of deterrence for Iran

Israel must make clear that it will treat any attack, including by Tehran's proxy groups, as a direct attack by the Islamic Republic
This handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shows him (C) speaking during a visit at the IRGC aerospace achievement exhibition in Tehran on November 19, 2023. (Photo by khamenei.ir / AFP)
This handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shows him (C) speaking during a visit at the IRGC aerospace achievement exhibition in Tehran on November 19, 2023. (Photo by khamenei.ir / AFP)

On the first day of the war, US President Joe Biden delivered an unequivocal message of deterrence: Israel’s enemies should not dare to exploit Israel’s difficult situation and open a second front against it in the north. The admonition was unprecedented in Israel’s security history. An attack by Hezbollah from Lebanon with Iranian support immediately after the severe blow Hamas dealt on October 7, and before Israel could mobilize its reserves, would have forced it into a challenging, two-front war situation.

The American president’s warning, backed up by the deployment of a significant military force to the region, was also intended to ensure that the fighting in the Gaza Strip would not escalate into a regional war that could drag the US into another conflict in the Middle East. The strong support Israel received from the US has kept the confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah in the north limited in scope, with both sides taking care not to escalate the conflict into a full-scale conflagration.

With this in mind, Israel’s decision-makers will have to ask themselves a crucial question after the war – will the expanded deterrence that Israel received from the US in the current crisis be guaranteed by future American administrations, be they Democratic or Republican? What are the chances that in the future, a US president like Joe Biden will sit in the White House? I am not an expert on American politics, but I doubt these questions can be answered in the affirmative.

It is difficult to assess at present how the current confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah will play out. According to reports, the US is making initial efforts to formulate a diplomatic mechanism aimed at pushing Hezbollah’s ground attack force, Radwan, north of the Litani River, and restoring the situation at the Lebanese border to its pre-October 7 status.

Such an arrangement would allow residents of the evacuated communities on Israel’s northern border to return to their homes. Despite the sweeping mobilization of reserves, a substantial portion of which was deployed in the north, it seems that at this stage Israel has decided to avoid a preemptive war against Hezbollah in the north and will continue to adhere to a strategy of deterrence against Iran and its proxy organizations.

Considering the challenges posed by the current war and the array of Iranian threats to Israel, Israel should quickly restore its direct deterrence posture. To achieve this, Israel needs to formulate a complex deterrence strategy against Tehran, addressing all threats, starting with the nuclear issues, preventing attacks by Iran’s proxy organizations, primarily Hezbollah in Lebanon, and direct deterrence against Iran itself.

Israel’s messages should be sharp, clear, and coordinated with the United States. They should be conveyed through various channels to Iran, Russia, and China, all of which have significant interests in Iran, as well as to countries where Iranian proxies are located: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and to the leaders of the proxy organizations themselves.

In the nuclear realm, Israel’s national interest is to prevent Iran from transitioning from a ‘threshold state’ to a full-fledged nuclear state. As of now, Iran is still committed to the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement, which is set to run out in 2031. Given this, the chances of an Israeli and/or American military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities seem somewhat remote.

The strategic implications for Israel of Iran becoming a nuclear state are discussed at length in my book, but suffice it to say that a key concern for Israel and the Arab countries is that Iran’s successful nuclear development would grant it a sense of immunity from resistance to its regional expansion.

A central challenge Israel is now facing is to mount credible deterrence against a combined attack by Iranian proxy organizations. The Iranian rationale for establishing a military system of affiliated organizations in weak Arab countries is presented in a 2019 study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.

The authors argue that this Iranian effort is a continuation of a military doctrine developed since the early days of the Islamic Revolution to compensate for Iran’s military weakness and avoid direct military confrontations with stronger adversaries. According to this doctrine, Iran avoids direct frontal clashes and focuses on attacks by irregular forces and terrorist organizations, which it recruits, finances, and trains to advance its goals.

The research suggests that Iran has effectively shifted the balance of power in the region in its favor by developing the ability to wage war through third parties. These military capabilities are particularly suited for today’s regional conflicts. According to this doctrine, Iran has developed this capability with the understanding that a degree of deniability would prevent direct retaliation against it, and its adversaries have not found an effective response to its asymmetric warfare strategy.

Previous use of military force against Iran’s proxy organizations has not halted or limited Iran’s continuous development in this type of proxy warfare, which has been ongoing for over 40 years. Involvement in weak countries and the recruitment of Shiite and non-Shiite communities to advance Iran’s goals are based on Iran’s military experience and the revolutionary ideology of its regime.

Missile threat

The Iranian threat in recent years has been heightened due to its extensive investment in what is known as the ‘Precision Missile Project,’ namely converting regular ground-to-ground missiles into precision-guided missiles. To achieve this goal, Iranians have built facilities to produce these missiles as well as to convert regular missiles into guided ones.

Iranian success in this project and the distribution of these missiles to its proxy organizations, aiming to target Israel through third parties, pose a significant strategic challenge to Israel. The technological improvement in the accuracy of the missiles held by Iran and Hezbollah targets Israel’s offshore gas facilities, making them vulnerable to a strategic strike during a war. Such a scenario could disrupt Israel’s energy supply, impair the economy’s resilience during a war, and provide Iran and Hezbollah with a significant ‘victory image.’

Maritime threat

Another strategic challenge facing Israel is on the maritime front. In the event of conflict and tension between the two countries, Iran is liable to jeopardize Israel’s maritime freedom by blocking international trade routes leading to it, such as the Bab el-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea.

An Iranian move to block ships carrying goods to Israel from the east would likely trigger a strong international response, apart from an Israeli military response. In contrast to the isolated situation Israel found itself in during May 1967 following Egypt’s closure of the Straits of Tiran, it can be assumed that the United States and other powers would act against Iran to reopen international maritime routes.

Israel’s diplomatic and security interests vis-à-vis Iran in the conventional realm involve limiting its expanding influence along its borders, exploiting the weakness of Arab regimes, and maintaining the strategic balance and power dynamics in the Middle East. Israel’s goal is to prevent war with Iran’s proxies on its borders, foremost among them Hezbollah in Lebanon.

New ‘red lines’

The military campaign Israel conducted – until the outbreak of the war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip – to counter Iran’s consolidation efforts in regional countries and the careful formulation of stable deterrence in the region was carried out cautiously to prevent unplanned escalation. This was done in coordination with leading powers and Arab states.

However, the severe blow suffered by Israel’s general deterrence in the region on October 7th, which forced the US to come to Israel’s aid in order to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from opening a second front against Israel, necessitates, in my opinion, the delineation of new ‘red lines’ and clear deterrence messages to decision-makers in Tehran regarding their conduct against the Shiite proxy organizations deployed against Israel.

The messages below are framed to enable Israel to restore its direct deterrence against Iran and its proxies. After coordination and extensive discussions on the matter with the top echelons in the American government, Israel should convey directly to Iran, China, Russia, and the other permanent members of the Security Council the following:

  • Israel will view any attack, including one by Iran’s proxy organizations as if it were directly attacked by Tehran.
  • In the initial stage of a war against it, Israel will retaliate against Hezbollah in Lebanon or any other involved organization. Subsequently, depending on the severity of the conflict, Israel will see itself free to launch air attacks on strategic targets in Iran, including unprotected oil fields.
  • Israel will declare that it is well aware of the severe impact an attack on Iranian oil fields could have on China and other major consumers of Iranian oil worldwide. However, it will assert that its right to defend itself against recurring and evolving attacks initiated by Iran on its sovereign territory outweighs these considerations.
  • Iran’s transformation into a nuclear state, which may enhance the sense of security of the regime in Tehran regarding its continued policy of regional influence, will not prevent Israel from using conventional means against strategic targets in Iran. In the nuclear realm, a ‘nuclear deterrence balance’ will be established between Iran and Israel, given global media reports of Israel’s ‘second-strike’ nuclear capabilities from submarines.

In contrast to the longstanding domestic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians – which will hopefully reach a peaceful resolution in the future – Israel has no territorial or other conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran. On the contrary, many Israeli citizens have great respect for the Iranian people and their historical heritage, distinguishing between them and the Ayatollahs’ regime. Nevertheless, Israel, referred to as the ‘Little Satan’ in Iran, has no intention of absorbing future attacks from Tehran directly or through third parties without a proportionate response.

About the Author
Dr. Dan Sagir is a research fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His book, "Weapons of Mass Deterrence: The Secret Behind Israel's Nuclear Power," was recently published (Amazon).
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