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Opinion | Keeping U.S. Power Behind Israel Will Keep Iran at Bay

BusinessOpinion | Keeping U.S. Power Behind Israel Will Keep Iran at Bay

Until Iran’s barrage of missiles and drones against Israel, the two countries had avoided open military intrusions into each other’s territory. Tehran most often acted through proxies, and Jerusalem via bombing runs and unacknowledged assassinations in the region.

Iran’s unprecedented attack this weekend, which failed to kill a single Israeli, has perhaps now opened the clerical regime to a major reprisal. The White House clearly does not want Jerusalem to undertake such a response, fearing escalation that could bring the United States into a regional war.

But the chances are good that Israel will strike back to deter future direct attacks. And the best way for Washington to limit the expansion of this conflict is to signal clearly its intention to support an Israeli counterattack. It’s the recurring military paradox: To contain a war, a belligerent sometimes needs to threaten its expansion. Iran’s internal situation, its memory about past U.S. military action and a conspiratorial worldview all support this strategy.

An Iranian regime well aware of its weaknesses knows how convulsive a war with Israel and America would be and how unwelcome it would be received by a restive populace already protesting a dysfunctional economy and increasing oppression. Many within the elite are surely angry at having fallen from the inner circles of power and wealth as the 84-year-old supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, engineers his succession.

A powerful Israeli response could include a preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear sites. In what may prove a miscalculation, Ayatollah Khamenei is not known to have given the green light to assemble a nuclear weapon. Why strike Iran hard and leave its atomic ambitions undamaged? Washington will surely want to reduce the consequences in the region from such an attack. To do that, the White House will need to make Tehran understand that U.S. forces will immediately intercede if Iran then tries to escalate.

To be sure, Israel and America may both be at fault for giving Ayatollah Khamenei the impression that they had no appetite for escalation. Tehran has abetted Islamic militants who have killed a lot of Israelis and Americans while seeming to be immune from a direct attack. The occasional Israeli and American assassination of Iranian military men on foreign soil, or in Iran without fanfare, actually highlighted a reluctance to confront Iran more directly.

And yet the Islamic Republic remains careful not to get into direct conflict with America. Senior clergy members and the commanders in the Revolutionary Guards are all old enough to remember that the U.S. Navy inflicted severe damage on the Iranian Navy in 1988 in retaliation for the mining of an American warship. It was one of the biggest U.S. naval operations since World War II. The United States said the downing in 1988 of Iran Air flight 655 by the Navy warship Vincennes was an accident, but Tehran believed it was deliberate and an indication that Washington was ready to intervene in the war with Iraq. It was thought to be a factor in helping to convince Iran to end the conflict. Senior Revolutionary Guardsmen, angry at Israel for the killing of senior commanders on April 1 in a strike in Syria, may doubt Washington’s volition, but they have no doubts about American military hardware.

Sometimes conspiracy-mindedness, instead of interfering with clear thinking, can be useful to an adversary. It is a conceit of the Iranian Islamist elite that Jews manipulate Americans into wars not of their choosing. Ayatollah Khamenei has articulated this idea: “The Western powers are a mafia,” he said in 2022. “At the top of this mafia stand the prominent Zionist merchants, and the politicians obey them. The U.S. is their showcase, and they’re spread out everywhere.”

It is time for Washington to feed this conspiratorial thinking. The United States should augment its presence in the Gulf, dispatch admirals and spy chiefs to Israel and undertake joint Israeli-U.S. military exercises that highlight long-range bombing runs. With its darkest conspiracies reconfirmed, Iran’s elite will search for a way out — even if Israel decides on a frontal assault.

The United States has often favored containment and de-escalation with Iran. When Iran’s proxies killed three American service members in Jordan on Jan. 28, Washington didn’t hold Tehran directly responsible. While attacking the proxies, the White House conveyed to Tehran its non-escalatory intentions. It had even renewed a sanctions waiver granting Iran access to $10 billion held in escrow by Oman for Iraqi electricity purchases.

The strategy has worked. Ayatollah Khamenei clamped down on his surrogates, who desisted from further attack on Americans. But the supreme leader can turn that spigot back on at any time.

Today, the problem with Washington distancing itself from Jerusalem, as it has over the large-scale civilian deaths and humanitarian suffering in the Gaza war, is that it will not defuse a crisis that puts Iran and Israel in direct confrontation. And Ayatollah Khamenei will not allow himself to be seen as backing down to Jews — particularly if they are unmoored from superior American power.

For the United States, standing by Israel would allow Ayatollah Khamenei another path, a way to back down without losing face. There is a precedent for such a retreat. Again, the Iran-Iraq war is instructive. The founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, opted for an armistice with Iraq, a country he had long denigrated, because of the sheer exhaustion of his nation and the fear that the war could simply not be won. The implicit threat of American involvement was a big factor in this decision.

Now only the United States can again prompt similar foreboding in Tehran about the intercession of an indomitable force. For years Washington has been doing, more or less, just the opposite.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a resident scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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