Three Strategic Lessons of the Iran-Israel Escalation

April 19, 2024
With Iran and Israel firing missiles at each other, the escalation widely feared since October 7, 2023 has begun. Whether it will be short-lived or change the face of the Middle East is uncertain, but even at this early stage, the escalation holds some larger strategic lessons that resonate beyond the Middle East.

Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israeli soil on April 14, 2024 will cast a long shadow in the Middle East regardless of the Israeli response. The consequences of this escalation will be keenly felt in other strategic theaters as well.

First, the joint interception of 99% of Iranian missiles and drones not only showcased Israel’s air defense capabilities, but above all evidenced a smoothly functioning, highly effective military cooperation and interoperability among Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Jordan. Providing a reference for future military cooperation between NATO members and their allies, the joint response has been a key experience for those taking part, and is a strong signal demonstrating to their adversaries what the West is capable of when the political will is there.

Second, Iran has crossed a red line, reinforcing calls for a broader joint effort to counter Russian-Iranian strategic cooperation as well as the two countries’ narratives on regional/global order. Iranian-Russian cooperation is flourishing. Iranian Shahed drones are being produced and developed in Russia, and are improving by the day as they are tested in battle. Increasingly, Iran is helping Russia to lead in drone warfare, enabling Russian actions in Ukraine, Africa, and beyond. Democratic allies need to act in concert to make cooperation between authoritarian competitors more costly, and to proactively counter their narratives. Concerted international action to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb must now top the list.

Third, the Iranian-Israeli escalation and its linkages to the Eurasian theater also illustrate the point that threats can only be fought effectively if systemic interlinkages between strategic theaters can be operationalized. Israeli officials these days are keen to portray Israel and Ukraine as two theaters of the same global struggle of democracy against autocracy. While such analysis lacks appropriate nuance, the international environment does increasingly display systemic linkages between strategic theaters. This means that compartmentalization—the isolation of specific policy dossiers, as the P5+1 attempted unsuccessfully with the Iranian nuclear file—is a phase-out model. While the interlinkages between the two main theaters of current geostrategic competition—Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific—are omnipresent in transatlantic debates, the roles of the Middle East and Africa as theaters of authoritarian learning, training, and resourcing have been neglected. As Iran’s attack on Israel and its broader regional behavior over the past years has amply demonstrated, the erosion of deterrence is a major area of collaborative authoritarian learning in the Middle East.