There’s a Clear Way for Israel to Respond to Iran’s Attack—Without Escalating the War (2024)

War Stories

There’s a way to defang their foe without launching a risky attack.

By Fred Kaplan

There’s a Clear Way for Israel to Respond to Iran’s Attack—Without Escalating the War (1)

Here’s an idea for how Israel could respond to Iran’s massive missile-and-drone strike without angering its Western and Arab allies or widening the war: Start preparing and slowly roll out a series of carefully disguised cyberattacks that devastate Iran’s military-industrial complex.

Remember Stuxnet? That was the joint U.S.–Israeli cyberwar operation that hacked into the Iranians’ nuclear infrastructure, sabotaging their ability to enrich uranium and thus build an atom bomb.

Not long after, the Obama administration devised a much more massive program, called Nitro Zeus, which, if enacted, would have shut down Iran’s air defenses, communications, and much of its power grid. The idea was to unleash Nitro Zeus if Iran developed nuclear weapons or attacked the U.S. or its allies. The operation was seen as a way to assure Israelis that we had the ability to defang their main foe without launching a risky attack.

Stuxnet was ended in 2010, after the virus was detected. Nitro Zeus was shelved in 2015, after the U.S. and five other nations signed the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement that appeared to render the plan unnecessary. Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear accord, which has since collapsed entirely. Now Tehran’s rulers have taken the brazen step of attacking Israel not through proxies but—for the first time ever—directly from Iranian territory.

It’s time to take Nitro Zeus out of storage and start putting some of its tricks online.

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Israel has to do something. President Joe Biden, the leaders of the G7, members of the U.N. Security Council, and some friendly Arab leaders have cautioned Israelis not to retaliate against Iran’s attack. Israel, in a sense, “won” by shooting down all but a handful of the drones and missiles the Iranians sent its way. Nobody was killed; only one person, a young Bedouin girl, was seriously injured; just light damage was done (and immediately repaired) to one air base. Biden advised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call Saturday night, “Take the win … slow things down … think through” how to respond. Biden stressed that he would help defend Israel from another attack (it was a joint effort by Israel, the U.S., Britain, France, and Jordan that shot down Iran’s missiles and drones on Saturday), but he would not join in on any retaliatory attack. He would not widen the war.

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The matter is complicated—and Biden’s refusal to be lured into a broader war is acquitted—by the fact that the attack was itself a retaliation to Israel’s April 1 airstrike against the Iranian Consulate in Syria, killing seven senior officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Everyone knew that Iran would have to respond somehow. Defenses were prepared a week in advance. (Some believe that Netanyahu ordered the attack on the consulate—without first consulting Biden—precisely to prompt an Iranian response and thus lure the United States into the conflict.) As Saturday’s attack was in motion, Iran’s U.N. mission released a statement, declaring, “The matter can be deemed concluded”—unless Israel attacked again, in which case Iran would strike back harder than before.

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However, it is perfectly reasonable for Israelis to think otherwise. Iran’s attack consisted of 325 drones and missiles—including 110 ballistic missiles—launched from multiple angles (from Iran itself, as well as positions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen), timed to arrive roughly simultaneously. They could not have expected, and I don’t know any military analyst who would have predicted, that none of the drones and only a handful of missiles would burst through the defenses. (All the rest were shot down—the drones and cruise missiles before they even crossed Israel’s border—or crashed along the way.) If even a few more missiles had made it to their targets, they could have inflicted significant damage.

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In other words, it is nonsense to argue, as some have, that Iran meant for the attack to inflict little or no damage. Iran intended to cause much death and destruction. This fact changes the calculus—and alters many of the premises in viewing what has been a “shadow war” between Israel and Iran.

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Iran emerges from this incident looking very bad to all the world’s players. The attack was neither proportionate nor effective. In other words, it set off alarm bells, both for foes (the attack’s moxie and scale make Iran seem more threatening and risk-prone) and for friends (the attack’s failure makes Iran seem like a bit of a paper tiger—an aspiring great power whose protection is less than reliable).

Meanwhile, Israel is riding higher in world sympathy and esteem than at any time since shortly after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. Its much-condemned excesses in Gaza are now counterbalanced by its clearly dire vulnerability. Its success in dealing with that vulnerability is undeniably impressive. And its security ties to the United States—which seemed weakened by the tensions between Biden and Netanyahu—are now demonstrably firmed up. (In fact, the weekend’s events may well persuade the House of Representatives to drop its resistance to Biden’s military-aid package to Israel and Ukraine.)

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Israel and its allies, especially the U.S., need to take advantage of this (no doubt brief) moment of favor.

Biden and the other Western leaders are right that Israel should refrain from firing missiles back at Iran. Just as Israelis don’t consider the matter settled after Iran’s missile attack, Iranians wouldn’t consider the matter settled after an Israeli missile attack later this week. The missiles will lob back and forth; at some point, the defenses will fail and people will be killed; escalation will be inevitable—and that is in nobody’s interest (except perhaps to those with rosy-eyed visions of how such a war might turn out). Besides, as Saturday night confirmed, Israel is unable to deal with Iran—on the offense or defense—all by itself.

But there are other steps Israel and its allies could take.

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First, now that the region’s Sunni leaders (especially the Saudis, Egyptians, and Qataris) clearly see how the war in Gaza can metastasize—now that they see that Iran is willing to widen it—it is time for them to use their considerable influence to bring the conflict to an end. Qatar, which holds the peculiar position of being the main supplier of Hamas and a “major non-NATO ally” of the U.S., needs to force Hamas to accept the cease-fire deal on the table. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which have rarely taken real steps to help Palestinian people (even as they sometimes rally to the cause’s rhetoric), need to take responsibility for rebuilding Gaza and reforming the Palestinian Authority after the war.

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Second, the Western and Sunni countries should take this opportunity to intensify economic, diplomatic, and information-warfare campaigns to isolate Iran. The last bit—information warfare—may be key. Agents should infiltrate websites, chat channels, and other digital media used by Iran’s allies and spread the word that Iran is weak and unreliable. Iranian state media are reporting that Saturday night’s attack caused a lot of damage and that the Israelis are hiding it. The infiltrators should expose this as a risible lie. (Do our intelligence branches know how to do this anymore? I don’t know. I’m asking.)

Third, there’s the idea of pulling Nitro Zeus, or something like it, off the shelf. In public, Israelis should take the high road—refrain from hurling missiles back at Iran, tout their endorsem*nt of a cease-fire, and bolster their relations with foreign allies, displacing Israel’s image as a “war criminal” in Gaza (in part by actually ending the war), and sharpening their shared vision of a threat from Iran. Meanwhile, out of public view, the cyberattacks will begin. Machines at Iranian weapons factories will start mysteriously breaking down; Iranian test missiles will blow up on launchpads; emails will circulate, seemingly to or from authoritative personnel, reporting massive failures on all fronts, expressing doubts about colleagues or supervisors.

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When Stuxnet was happening, it sabotaged not only the physical process of uranium enrichment but also the morale of everyone in Iran’s nuclear program. Supervisors blamed foreign suppliers for sending faulty equipment; scientists came under suspicion for incompetence or deliberate sabotage, and some were fired or arrested.

Even a somewhat scaled-down version of Nitro Zeus could unleash the same sort of mayhem across Iran’s military enterprises.

Iran has committed a major miscalculation. It emerged from the attack much weaker than it seemed just a few days earlier; Israel emerged in a much better position than it has been in for months. A bit of advice for Israel and its allies: Exploit the situation. At the very least, don’t screw it up.

  • Cyberwar
  • Iran
  • Israel
  • Middle East
  • Palestine
  • War

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There’s a Clear Way for Israel to Respond to Iran’s Attack—Without Escalating the War (2024)

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