The Day After Tomorrow:
Dark Clouds Loom over the Middle East

by April 2024
Israeli Air Force F-15 Eagle following interception mission of Iran attack, April 14, 2024. Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces/Handout via REUTERS.

In one of his last interviews on German television, before passing at the age of 100, Henry Kissinger opined that the slaughter of Israelis by Hamas on October 7 could end up bringing the rest of the Arab world into the fighting. Based on recent events, his remarks were prophetic. Unless cooler heads prevail, we could end up facing an escalatory cycle – some would say, all the way to a World War III – in the Middle East.

For over a week, US intelligence agencies warned Israel of a pending Iranian strike. General Erik Kurilla, commander of US Central Command, spent several days inside Israel in a clear signal of resolve and reassurance to our ally, meeting with his Israeli counterparts. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant subsequently underscored the “importance of close cooperation between US and Israeli forces in ensuring regional stability and security.”

Iran has established itself as the de facto leader of the self-described “Axis of Resistance,” a coalition of terrorist groups including Lebanese Hizbullah, the Houthis in Yemen, and Hamas in Palestinian territories, all of which are aligned against Israel and the United States. Iran became incensed after Israel purportedly conducted an air attack on what Iran claimed was a diplomatic compound in Syria on April 1, in which key leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Council (IRGC) were killed.

This was reminiscent of the killing of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani by the United States in January 2020. Based on the outpouring of outrage towards the United States in Tehran at Soleimani’s state funeral, it became apparent that the Iranian leadership would respond to the strike. Then, as now, Iran vowed to pursue retaliation against the United States. In fact, Iran telegraphed its intentions before launching a strike of 12 ballistic missiles and drones against Al-Asad airbase in Western Iraq in January 2020. No US personnel were killed, but several suffered long term effects from the strike, including concussions, traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder. Some in the US national security apparatus referred to this event as “one and done.” After the Al-Asad attack, both sides reverted to the status quo of clandestine warfare by continuing to undermine each other’s interests in the Middle East and beyond, which has not solved the underlying problem of Iran’s threats to the region.

Prior to the April 14 attack on Israel, Iran once again telegraphed its intentions. With intelligence confirmations flowing in, the United States alerted Israel to an imminent attack by IRGC forces. In a manner reminiscent of US actions prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Biden openly referred to the planned Iranian attack, offering short advice: “Don’t.” But they did. On April 14, over 300 weapons were launched, including ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones. Several hours elapsed from launch to impact based on the distance from the territory of Iran to Israel and a period of tense anticipation ensued, as Israelis sheltered in place, bracing for impact.

Military exercise in Isfahan, October 28, 2023. Photo credit: via REUTERS

The Iranian weapons – other than the ballistic missiles – were largely “air breathers,” slow-moving weapon systems by 21st century standards. Had they been hypersonic weapons, the results may have been different. Current reporting indicates that less than one percent of the massive Iranian strike succeeded in penetrating the Israeli missile defense shield. The preponderance of the Iranian strike seems to have been aimed at Nevatim Air Base, one of Israel’s key strategic airfields in the southern portion of the state. When the dust settled, the damage at Nevatim, and throughout Israel for that matter, was superficial. The airfield remains in operation.

The failure of such a massive strike on Israel is nothing short of amazing and a tribute to 21st Century technology, such as the Arrow and Iron Dome, and to coalition air interdiction of inbound Iranian missiles by units of CENTCOM, UK, and France. The defense of Israel was an exceptionally well executed combined arms operation. President Biden called members of US Air Force Fighter Squadrons stationed in the continental United States and overseas to congratulate them. More accolades will be forthcoming as we examine the role of each of the services in preventing more loss of life in Israel.

President Biden also called Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel to encourage him to savor the spectacular results of combined coalition missile defense and to take no further retaliatory actions against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In other words, accept the “one and done,” as the US did after Soleimani’s death, and move on. For its part, Iran has declared mission complete, for now.

Photo credit: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa via Reuters Connect.

But Iran has changed the calculus. Never before has the Islamic Republic conducted an irrefutable direct attack on the sovereign territory of Israel. Until now, the tension and violence between Iran and Israel has been conducted as a shadow war lasting for decades. I remain concerned about the acute and long-term effects of Iran’s brazen missile attack. If provoked, what would be the next escalatory step by the Iranians and what would we have to do to mitigate the effects?

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu and members of his cabinet have stated their intent to strike back at Iran at a place and time of their choosing. That could mean anything from an immediate massive retaliatory strike to covert action over the long term. Frankly, with all the challenges that Israel has with its own perimeter security, it may be wise to choose the latter. The Israel-Iran conflict is not the only problem that the United States is dealing with right now. Ukraine looms large while US Navy destroyers maintain a continuous presence in the Red Sea offsetting Houthi threats to international shipping. Likewise, tension remains in the Western Pacific as the United States provides assurance and security guarantees to allies and partners in the face of Chinese aggression in the region.

As we consider potential off-ramps to avoid Henry Kissinger’s foreboding about a broader war in the Middle East, Ahmed Charai provides some insightful advice in his recent JST article strengthen sanctions on Iran and her proxies; strengthen alliances and support friends in the region, particularly Jordan; continue to promote the Abraham Accords with the Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco; restore the dialogue with Saudi Arabia on normalization of relations with Israel; and establish a Marshall Plan for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Gaza under a new and law-abiding rule. If we could do all of this, the dark clouds looming over the Middle East might dissipate.

James Foggo
Admiral James G. Foggo, US Navy (ret.) is the Dean of the Center for Maritime Strategy and a member of the board of directors of the JST. He is the former commander of US Naval Forces Europe and Africa, and Allied Joint Force Command, Naples. He commanded NATO joint exercises (Baltic Operations) in 2015 and 2016 as well as Exercise Trident Juncture in 2018.
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