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Unpacking Israel’s deterrence strategy after Iran’s missile attack

A conversation with Boaz Aztili on Israel’s deterrence moves – and Iran's calculations

- April 25, 2024

On April 19, Israel struck a military air base near the Iranian city of Isfahan, in what appeared to be its first military response to the Iranian missile and drone attack on Israel on April 13. Early reports indicate that Israel opted for a limited strike, designed to deter further Iranian provocation, yet avoid spiraling hostilities in the region. 

For decades, Israel has used military force to deter countries like Iran, as well as armed groups like Hezbollah, from acting against Israel’s aims in the region. How do these recent strikes fit within Israel’s broader strategy – and how far is the escalation likely to go? I spoke with Boaz Atzili, author of Triadic Coercion: Israel’s Targeting of States That Host Nonstate Actors (with Wendy Pearlman; Columbia University Press, 2019). Here’s the conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Stacie Goddard: In your book, you explore Israel’s strategy of “triadic coercion.” That’s when one country uses threats and/or punishments against another country to coerce it to prevent non-state actors from conducting attacks from its own territory. Can you say a bit about when this strategy has worked to suppress proxy armed groups – like Iran-supported Hezbollah fighters, for instance? And when has this approach failed?

Boaz Atzili: In principle, there are four conditions for triadic coercion to work. The first three conditions are common for any deterrence policy to work: First, the country attempting to deter needs to be stronger than its target (or at least stronger in the immediate theater of operation). Second, there is the question of resolve. The country that is trying to get the other one to stand down needs to be resolved to carry out its stated threat, and it needs to make sure that the other state sees its resolve. Third, the country that wants to deter its opponent needs to state its red lines clearly to its opponent.

But what makes triadic deterrence unique is a fourth condition. If triadic coercion is going to work, a country’s opponent needs to have institutional strength – it needs to have a powerful enough government that it can control what is going on in its territory. And that regime needs to be politically strong enough so that it can put the country’s interests above regime survival.

To give an example, Israel tried to compel Egypt in the early 1950s to crack down on cross-border attacks coming from the Gaza Strip. But these efforts continuously failed, even though Israel was much stronger than Egypt, was resolved, and communicated its demands clearly. After the 1956 Suez War, which greatly enhanced the Egyptian regime’s legitimacy and power, Cairo effectively sealed its Gaza Strip border to Palestinian attacks on Israel for the next decade. 

Iran often relies on proxy non-state actors, most notably Hezbollah and Hamas, to attack Israel. But in April, Iran launched drones and missiles from its own soil. How would you explain this strategic shift?

We can only speculate at this point, but I think that Iran could have perceived both challenges and opportunities in the wake of Israel’s assassination of Iranian Brig. Gen. Mohammed Reza Zahedi at the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1. On the one hand, this was a brazen Israeli attack on a diplomatic structure, which one could conceive of as Iranian ex-territory within Syria, and it killed the most senior Revolutionary Guard commander in the country. A response through Hamas is virtually impossible given the situation in Gaza, and Hezbollah is deeply engaged in a tit-for-tat low-level war with Israel in any case.

On the other hand, Iran may have perceived vulnerability in Israel given the prolonged war in Gaza and the north and the diplomatic isolation of Israel due to the humanitarian crisis it created in Gaza. Under such conditions, Iran may have felt this could be an opportune time to gain “escalation dominance” and dictate new rules of the game: Iran will respond to attacks on Iranian assets in the region with direct fire on Israel. 

You argue that a strategy of triadic coercion will only work against strong countries. Weak countries have no capacity to hold back their proxies. And Israeli efforts seem to have had little effect on Iran’s use of proxies. Is that a case of Iran’s capacity, or is it a question of Iran’s continued interest in encouraging attacks?

Strictly speaking, the use of Iranian proxies and Israeli retaliation against them is outside the scope of our argument in the book because Iran operates its proxies via other countries. So, for example, triadic coercion against Hezbollah will typically result in Israeli retaliation in Lebanon rather than Iran itself. Therefore, we have here a situation that we could call “quadratic coercion.” 

Also, with just a few exceptions of covert action and the April 19 strike, Israel has avoided retaliating directly on Iranian soil. So Israel has not really attempted triadic coercion in these relations. And even if the military balance of power tilts somewhat to Israel, the distance between the two means that Israeli direct retaliation against Iran for proxy attacks would be very challenging and perhaps of limited effect. 

Israel hinted that the limited April 19 strike against Iran may have not been the last word and that it will consider further retaliatory moves in response to Iran’s missile barrage. One of the key arguments you make in your book is that Israel has developed a strategic culture that emphasizes “restoring deterrence” – the idea that Israel must use force in order to demonstrate resolve to its opponents. Do you think that this strategic culture will continue to play a role in how Israel approaches Iran, and any decisions to further retaliate?

It might play a significant role. In theory, deterrence should be based on rational calculation. Your expected benefit from the deterring action should outweigh its potential costs. But when deterrence becomes deeply ingrained in strategic culture, such as in Israel, it might cease to be a rational decision. Instead, retaliation could be almost an automatic response; something “we just do in these kinds of situations.” 

Alternatively, the concept of deterrence could become divorced from its expected result of actually deterring the enemy. When politicians, generals, and pundits on TV lament about Israel losing its deterrence capacity, they expect the retaliation to restore the country’s lost pride, not necessarily to deter the next attack. If those forces are stronger than the external and internal voices calling for restraint, we might see Israel taking harsh steps of retaliation against Iran, in addition to the limited strikes already reported, with a potential for disastrous escalation.