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If Israel strikes Iran over its nuclear program, the US must have its back

The Biden administration should learn from its unpreparedness for the Russia-Ukraine war and begin to prepare for a major Israel-Iran conflict.

The administration needs to set aside its differences with the Israeli government, overcome its aversion to conflict with Iran, and begin to work closely with Jerusalem to prepare for the growing likelihood that Israel will feel it has no choice but to initiate a military campaign against Iran’s nuclear program.

In “No Daylight,” a new report from the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) — where one of us is president and CEO and the other is a distinguished fellow — and other retired senior military officers and national security experts explain that whatever differences the U.S. might now have with Israel over Iran policy, our two countries’ interests will be aligned after an Israeli strike. Consequently, in preparing its response, the U.S. guiding principle should be “no daylight with Israel,” to ensure Israeli military success, mitigate Iranian retaliation and limit the scope of the conflict — vital interests for both countries.

If Israel is compelled to act, due to a failure in U.S. policy and deterrence, the extent of U.S. backing will directly impact Iranian action. The more the Iranian regime perceives strong U.S. support for Israel, and believes it risks direct confrontation with America’s unmatched military power, the likelier that it will limit its response. 

Conversely, the more daylight between the U.S. and Israel, the more likely Iran and its proxies, especially Hezbollah, will unleash its arsenal of 100,000-plus rockets and missiles at Israel, wreaking immense Israeli civilian destruction and an enormous Israeli reprisal. Such a conflict will likely pull in the U.S. military anyway and could spread throughout the region, with significant strategic and economic consequences.

A U.S. betrayal of its close Israeli ally, at a time of great peril for the Jewish state, would be “one of the greatest catastrophes ever,” an Arab leader told us privately recently. Because Israel is widely perceived as a close American ally, the U.S. stance as Israel risks thousands of casualties in defense of its very existence, will resound broadly. Strong American support will reassure allies from Warsaw to Abu Dhabi and Taipei; American equivocation will shred Washington’s credibility and embolden adversaries from Tehran to Moscow and Beijing. 

The Biden administration and Congress must act now to signal U.S. support for Israel. This includes amplifying recent assertions by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan that the United States supports Israel’s “freedom of action.” Further, the U.S. should publicly reassert its automatic support for Israel in any conflict between Israel and Iran, including proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas.

These statements should be matched with expediting delivery to Israel of  KC-46A tankers, precision-guided munitions, F-15 and F-35 aircraft, and air and missile defenses, for which Israel already arranged procurement. This will help maximize deterrence and, if that fails, Israeli military effectiveness. The two countries also should proactively coordinate responses to this eventuality. Washington should accelerate building integrated regional air, missile and maritime defenses against persistent Iranian threats.

Should Israel act, the American government must make abundantly and immediately clear in public statements, and at the United Nations, that it stands with Israel and fully supports its self-defense. Privately, Iranian and Hezbollah leadership should be warned that heavy retaliation against Israel, and new attacks against U.S. or allied Arab targets, will prompt severe Israeli and/or American responses that could threaten their very grasp on power.  

Upon commencement of an Israeli strike, the United States should promptly resupply Israel with Iron Dome interceptors, precision-guided munitions, ammunition and spare parts, and deploy Patriot air defenses to Israel under U.S. control. As feasible, the United States should rotate additional combat aircraft and guided-missile ships through the region, to deter and counter Iran’s most likely and formidable escalatory options.

The United States, Israel and others should also coordinate on longer-term issues an Israeli strike will prompt, including offering Tehran a diplomatic offramp to conclude any ensuing conflict, addressing Hezbollah’s massive arsenals, and finding a permanent solution to Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program.

While an Israeli strike would mark the failure (and rescue) of decades of U.S. policy, and while Washington may have misgivings about Israeli action, the most effective way to address Iran’s nuclear program already has been articulated by President Biden and communicated by America’s ambassador in Jerusalem: “Israel can and should do whatever they need to deal with it, and we’ve got their back.”

Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official, is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Gen. (ret.) Chuck Wald, a former deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, is a distinguished fellow at JINSA.

Tags Hezbollah Iran nuclear program Iran–Israel proxy conflict Joe Biden Politics of the United States Russo-Ukrainian War US-Israel relations