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Rethinking U.S. Middle East Policy

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For now, direct confrontation between Israel and Iran has been defused. Yet, while efforts by both sides were calibrated to minimize potential fallout, much of the credit for de-escalation is owed to international intercession and good luck.

Since October 7 and the onset of the war on Gaza, the Middle East has been mired in a deadly security and political crisis, with the specter of regional war looming larger than ever. April’s standoff between Israel and Iran, marking an alarming escalation in the longstanding shadow war between the two countries, follows a string of other escalatory cycles, including Houthi attacks on commercial shipping vessels in the Red Sea, assassinations of key proxy figures in Iraq, and the deaths of American servicemembers in Jordan.

These incidents have led to mounting calls for an ever-more robust set of coercive measures to “reset deterrence,” which have thus far largely failed to calm tensions, as evidenced by the continuation and expansion of attacks over the past months. This deeply ingrained, nearly reflexive policy stance is unlikely to prevent another confrontation between Israel and Iran or mitigate other potential flashpoints. Another approach, favoring diplomatic engagement and dialogue, is needed, given the extraordinarily inflammatory nature of the conflict and the fundamental shift rightward in both Iranian and Israeli domestic politics that is propelling it.

Coming out of the Shadows

Israel has regularly targeted Iranian-linked sites and military infrastructure in Syria to protect its northern borders. Its strike on April 1, however, represented a reckless skirting, if not violation, of international law on diplomatic immunity and a significant revision of the rules of engagement between the two countries. Iran’s missile and drone barrage was a similar departure from standing norms, amounting to one of the largest assaults of its kind that would have likely overwhelmed Israel’s defense capabilities were it not for the support of an international military coalition. Beyond its sheer scale, the strike, a shift from Iran’s “strategic patience” doctrine, is the first direct Iranian attack on Israel, thrusting the shadow war between the two into a new, overt phase and setting a dangerous precedent for future bouts of rivalry.

This turning point and new modus operandi are emblematic of a growing radicalization of political leadership on both sides. This will continue to test international efforts to prevent military escalation and risk U.S. entanglement in a broader regional quagmire.

An Entrenched Right Wing in Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to the premiership in December 2022 installed a far-right coalition of ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious parties, helping to normalize the extremist fringes of Israeli society. Since Hamas’ October terrorist attack, such elements have seeped deeper into mainstream political discourse, pushing it further to the right with open calls for the overwhelming use of force in Gaza, the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, the expulsion of Palestinians, and expansion of regional wars to Lebanon. Such hardline sentiments are increasingly reflected in Israeli public opinion, where a majority of Jewish Israelis support ongoing military operations in Gaza, the option for an all-out attack against Hezbollah, as well as efforts to block an independent Palestinian state and the delivery of humanitarian aid. In the meantime, space for dissent in the Knesset, already diminished by the decimation of Israel’s left, is shrinking even further.

Such thinking was also on display in early April. Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s Minister of National Security and leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party dismissed “restraint and proportionality” as concepts of a bygone era, calling instead for a “crushing” attack on Iran and ultimately slamming Israel’s strike in Isfahan as weak. Calls for stronger deterrence were not limited to the far-right blocs, however, as segments of Netanyahu’s Likud party have grown ever more bellicose. Even among Israel’s centrist parties, leaders have shown an inclination toward military engagement, pressing for a Rafah offensive and an expanded front along Israel’s border with Lebanon. Following Iran’s strike on April 13,original plans, pushed by parliamentary opposition members Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, proposed a widespread counterattack as soon as Iran launched its assault and before the full scale of damage could be assessed, risking further escalation with Iran. While ultimately shelved, Israel’s war cabinet (of which Minister Gantz is a key member) planned to retaliate as early as April 14, before that too was delayed at the strong urging of the White House.

Israel managed to come out of this incident relatively unscathed and was unexpectedly buoyed by international support, placing the government on steadier footing and in a position to double down on regional conflicts. Public opinion polls showed a slight improvement in standing for both Likud and Netanyahu for the first time since October 7. Netanyahu, for whom staying in power is a matter of both political and personal survival, might therefore see a benefit in prolonging Israel’s conflicts—as some suspect has been done in Gaza, even more so since the International Criminal Court prosecutor applied for hisarrest—in order to delay early elections.

Iran’s Ascendant Tide of Hardliners

Iran has followed a similar trend, albeit over a more prolonged timeframe. Over the past two decades, hardline forces have worked to consolidate their grip on every key national political institution, systematically marginalizing competing center/center-left reformist and moderate factions. By 2020, the Interior Ministry and Guardian Council had disqualified most presidential contenders, prompting departing reformist president Hassan Rouhani to liken the election process to a store with 1,000 copies of a single item. By the March 2024 elections, any notion of choice in Iran outside of competing conservative factions had effectively vanished. More than 200 (out of 290) seats in parliament are now controlled by conservatives. Since the 2021 presidential inauguration of the conservative Ebrahim Raisi, the executive branch has been similarly co-opted; despite the sudden passing of President Raisi on May 20, this trend is likely to continue under his successor, who will be selected from similar loyalist and conservative cadres. This process has been overseen and endorsed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the ultimate arbiter of Iran’s foreign policy.

In contrast with reformist or moderate factions, which have displayed flexibility on domestic matters and international engagement (including support for the 2015 nuclear deal), conservatives advocate for a strict interpretation of Islamic law while leaning toward uncompromising foreign policy positions. They oppose engagement with the West, harshly repress internal dissent, and advocate for a strong response to adversaries abroad.

This trendline has grown alongside the ascendancy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Its progressive consolidation of political power and economic control has significantly bolstered its capabilities and influence, making it a key advisor and implementer of foreign policy decisionmaking. Given this perfect storm of hardline influences across the government, Iranian policymaking has been rendered more daring, inclined toward adventurism, and tolerant of risk. This has prompted expanded military operations in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Israel (the latter being two nuclear-armed nations), as well as freer rein for its regional partners and proxies—which have engaged in conflict with Israel and its allies. These dynamics culminated in the hawkish pressures triggering the April assault, as well as confidence in Iran’s “new equation” with Israel. Excluding the 1980–88 war with Iraq, this period marks the most aggressive iteration of the Islamic Republic in its forty-five-year history.

Relative Peace Won’t Prevail For Long

For now, direct confrontation has been defused. Yet, while efforts by both sides were calibrated to minimize potential fallout, much of the credit for de-escalation is owed to international intercession and good luck. As grievances between the two countries remain unresolved (such as the broader Palestinian conflict and perceived “anti-Iran” coalitions), Iran’s new policy of direct attacks and Israel’s heightened willingness to strike at security threats means that it is only a matter of time before another, more deadly, exchange ensues.

While coercive tools might be effective when adversaries breach established red lines or when there is a need for minimization of the resolve or capabilities of opposing sides, overreliance on such tools to mitigate regional tensions in the Middle East not only risks failing to achieve desired security outcomes but threatens to exacerbate risks of miscalculation, escalation, and the potential of broader conflict.

Instead, what is essential in the months ahead is the emergence of more credible U.S. red lines to both temper and ensure accountability for Israel’s actions in the broader region. Some targets—such as nuclear infrastructure in both Israel and Iran—should be off-limits. Similar investment is needed to sustain continuous channels of communication between the United States and Iran, prevent unintentional escalation, and help de-escalate in moments of urgency.

In the longer term, there is a need for more innovative and bolder leadership, both regionally and on the international stage. At the core lies the imperative for a ceasefire in Gaza, alongside dedicated initiatives aimed at establishing a Palestinian state. The ongoing failure of global and regional powers to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the most persistent issue aggravating Iran–Israel hostility, will continue to perpetuate instability. As long as this conflict persists, the region will remain poised to ignite at the slightest provocation.