Israel marks the anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War this week, a war that cost thousands of young Israelis their lives.
The war caught Israel completely off guard because Israeli intelligence analysts had been wedded to a paradigm that had them convinced war was very unlikely.
In the wake of the war, Israel learned to always second-guess its intelligence assessment and strategic analyses, as well as the underlying paradigms that guide its national security approach. This time, the enemy is Iran.
Just two weeks ago Iran launched a surprise attack on major Saudi Arabian oil installations, which disrupted the world’s energy market.
But the real story of this attack was that it came out of the blue, both in a political and military sense. Between the Saudis, the Americans and most likely America’s allies—no one had anticipated Iran’s actions.
Iran has a long history of sponsoring terrorism as a means of advancing its regional interests in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and the Persian Gulf. The world has been watching its every move—but despite this, it still managed to pull off a surprise attack.
How? Because the world was wedded to a paradigm that ruled out the possibility of Iran making such a brazen move.
This flawed paradigm’s underlying rationale was that Iran would be restrained for several reasons.
First, because it wanted to move forward with its nuclear program without attracting too much attention. Second, because it wanted to get U.S. sanctions lifted and thus would not want a flare-up with Washington at this point. Third, because it preferred to use proxies rather that engage in activities that could be traced directly to its territory, as it has been doing in other areas in the Middle East. And fourth, because it wanted to continue with a tactical approach based on terrorism, rather than take full-fledged military action that would be interpreted as a declaration of war and result in an all-out confrontation.
Those four assumptions served as the foundation for the flawed paradigm and had analysts convinced Iran would not act in daring, direct manner, and especially not before it got nuclear weapons.
They were convinced it would tread carefully so that it could slowly but surely move toward its goals, just like it gradually increased its presence in Syria during the eight-year civil war, until Israel started checking its influence and slowing its expansion.
That paradigm has exploded in our face in recent months. First, there were the mysterious attacks on oil tankers in the region. Then, there were attempted drone attacks against Israel. And now, in light of the silence from Washington, Iran is engaged in direct confrontation.
This may turn out to be a disastrous move on Tehran’s part, but it reflects the strategic predicament it has found itself in as of late in light of U.S. sanctions. Regardless, the moves underscore a major shift in direction on the part of the ayatollahs’ regime.
Iran knows that Israel does not turn the other cheek, unlike the Saudis and Americans. That said, policymakers in Jerusalem must wake up and realize that it’s not only Iran’s nuclear program that poses a threat, but also Iranian willingness to carry out direct military action.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.