What the Gulf War can tell us about what happens next between Israel and Iran

Published by The Global and Mail, 2024-04-15.

Until Saturday, the last time a state unleashed an aerial barrage against Israel was during the Gulf War. In 1991, Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, launched 39 Scud missiles at Israel in the hopes of provoking retaliation that would split the delicate multinational coalition that had amassed to drive his forces out of Kuwait. That coalition included Arab states such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, which he believed would refuse to be seen fighting alongside Israel.

Remarkably, that effort failed. Israel weathered the attack despite prewar pledges to retaliate and its own long-standing policy of swift and decisive response. The coalition held, Iraq was routed, and Kuwait was liberated.

States, however, generally respond when attacked, and so, shortly after the war, I travelled to Israel to find out why it hadn’t. What I learned, through interviews with Israeli cabinet ministers, military commanders, intelligence officers and defence analysts, was this: Israel’s actions, while wise, were not rational, and things could easily have gone the other way.

That bears directly on regional dynamics today – and sheds light on what we might expect next.

There are, of course, important differences between now and then. Most obviously, Iran today sees itself as settling a score, not trying to provoke. And escalation would be in neither country’s interest; Iran has its hands full domestically, while Israel has its hands full with Gaza. If cooler heads prevail, nothing more will happen.

One can argue that Israel had no interest in escalation in 1991, too. U.S. officials launched a full-court press to persuade Israel not to retaliate and promised to do everything in their power to seek and destroy Iraqi Scud missile launchers. They also sent Patriot anti-missile batteries, shared intelligence, enlisted the aid of the Israel Defense Forces in tactical planning and targeting, and kept multiple dedicated channels of communication open between U.S. and Israeli political and military leaders.

All of that worked – but only because of sheer dumb luck. No Israeli directly died from a Scud missile, though three died from heart attacks and one was likely killed by an errant Patriot missile. In the course of my interviews, I learned that Israeli leaders never made a decision in principle not to retaliate; they merely decided, after each attack, not to retaliate yet. They did so not on the basis of a rational cost-benefit analysis, but for largely emotional reasons, judged against Israel’s two operative “red lines.”

To estimate the likely casualties from Iraqi Scud attacks, Israeli intelligence used baseline data from the “War of the Cities” during the Iran-Iraq War, where an Iraqi Scud missile attack killed between nine and 10 people on average. So when Scud missiles regularly killed no one, Israeli leaders could feel that they were doing relatively well, making it easier for them to give the U.S. military more time to do its job. Had Iraqi Scuds killed a “significant” number, however, Israel would have attacked; what constituted a “significant” number, I was never able to determine, but Israeli leaders gave me numbers ranging from 30 to 300. This was Israel’s first red line.

Here is where luck comes in. Just before the war, Israeli civil defence inspectors shuttered a deficient shelter in an apartment building in suburban Tel Aviv and reassigned its 230 residents to another shelter next door. That first shelter took a direct hit early in the conflict.

Israel’s second red line concerned chemical weapons. It would be impossible for a state founded in the wake of the Holocaust to sit idly by if its citizens were gassed. While Iraq did have chemical warheads for Scud missiles, it did not use them against Israel – possibly, I learned, because Israel had signalled that it might respond with nuclear weapons.

Some of the international dynamics today are strikingly similar to 1991. There is no doubt that the U.S. government did all it could behind the scenes to help thwart Iranian attacks and persuade Israel not to respond. And as in 1991, Iran’s attacks caused far less damage than might have been expected.

But given Israel’s long-standing “shadow war” with Tehran, in which both sides see the other as provocateur and themselves as justified in acts of “self-defence,” it would be naive to expect the cycle of violence to end completely.

One can only hope that no future episode crosses anyone’s red lines, whatever they may be at the time, because emotion, not reason, has the final word in international conflict.