Worries over war in the Middle East have largely shifted away from the tense relationship between Iran and Israel. Turkey’s ongoing conflict with the Kurds and Iran’s own jousting with Saudi Arabia have taken center stage, although Israel’s concern over growing Iranian influence has not abated. In such an unpredictable security environment, however, war remains a possibility. How might a hot war between Israel and Iran play out?
Contrary to popular belief, wars rarely start by accident. While Iran and Israel have poked each other regularly over the last three years, both countries have determined that open war is not in their interests. That determination would have to change in at least one of the countries. Tehran might decide to undertake a diversionary war to distract from popular uprisings and economic difficulties at home, or might determine that a short war would win it enough political credit in the region to run the risk of accepting significant damage. Israel, on the other hand, might determine that a quick, devastating war could delegitimize and destabilize the Islamic Republic and reduce its influence across the region. From the Israeli point of view, a barrage of Iranian supplied rocket and missile attacks would prove inconvenient, but probably not an existential danger.
Balance of Capabilities
Israel has substantial advantages over Iran at every type of conventional weaponry, except possibly conventionally armed ballistic missiles. With inflight refueling, the Israeli Air Force can strike targets across Iran, although it might struggle to retain overflight rights from neighboring countries in the case of an extended war. The Iranian Air Force would be wise to absent itself from the battlefield, and because of the distance of its eastern bases from Israel could probably avoid destruction. Israel also has substantial advantages at sea, and can overmatch (if not necessarily destroy) Iran’s proxies on land.