Iran’s surprise attack on Israel: History and reflections


Less than 48 hours ago, Iran launched an unprecedented military attack on Israel, its first direct attack on Israel after a decades-long “shadow” war. Iran sent hundreds of drones and missiles towards the Jewish state. So, why did Iran attack Israel and what does all of this mean?

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Hi friends, Noam here. If you’re listening to this in real time, in April of 2024, you probably know that we’re in the middle of a mini-series about the Great Revolt of 1936-1939, and how it was bizarrely prescient in helping us understand modern times in Israel. We were supposed to release the final part of that mini-series today. However, under 24 hours before this recording, Iran launched an unprecedented military attack on Israel. So we’re holding off on that episode until next week, and instead you’re listening to this emergency episode about Israel and Iran. Yalla, let’s do this.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Six months ago, almost to the day, Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel that is being called Israel’s 9/11. It was the worst day in Israeli history. For the 133 Israelis still trapped in Gaza – and their families – the 7th of October has never ended. And all of us, whether in Israel or in the diaspora, are still adjusting to our new normal.

Last night, Iran changed everything yet again, launching its first direct attack on Israel after a decades-long “shadow” war. 

And already, we’ve been flooded with emails. What is the deal? Why is Iran obsessed with Israel? The two countries are separated by more than 1,400 miles. In fact, if you’re in a visual mood, Google map of Middle East. You’ll see Hezbollah operating out of Lebanon. Israel’s sworn enemy Bashar al-Assad next door. Hamas operates from the southwest. Houthis in the southeast. All of these folks…What do they have in common? No, it’s not that they have a favorite cereal, ice cream flavor or basketball team….They all are really not interested in Israel’s existence and are funded by Iran. All of these folks are attacking Israel.

If we want to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is tempting to just zoom in, like all the way in, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But then, we have to zoom out. And when we do that, we go broader and understand how Israel sees itself in the region. 

Matti Friedman just did this in the simplest of terms in an article for The Free Press which I want to cite parts of briefly. Here it is, quote:

The truth is that there isn’t an “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict that exists in isolation. There’s an Arab-Muslim war with Jews that’s about a century old, in which most of the combatants on the Arab side have not been Palestinian…These days, the relevant conflict is between the alliance led by the Shia clerics of Iran’s Islamic Republic against states in the American orbit, most of them Sunni, like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and one of them Jewish. 

Last night should make clear, for those still in doubt, that Gaza is just one part of the broader story of Iran’s growing power and its tightening encirclement of Israel. When understood in this context, the behavior of Israel and its opponents becomes easier to understand. 

Explosions are seen in the skies of Tel Aviv, Israel, following the attack from Iran on April 14, 2024. (Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images)

And so that’s what we’re going to do today. We’re going to try to understand the broader story. Atlantic Magazine has this tagline, democracy depends on informed citizens. That’s what we’re going to do today. Something Iran just helped everyone accomplish simply with our own eyes.

We’re not going to unpack every nuance of Iranian and Israeli history, though there are links in the show notes that will help with that. We’re instead going to zoom out, explaining this most recent escalation, explaining how Israelis feel

So why is this moment so significant? I’ll tell you. It is the first time that a sovereign country has attacked Israeli soil since 1991. And just as they did during the Six Day War of 1967 and the Gulf War of 1991, when Saddam Hussein sent his Scud missiles into Tel Aviv, Israelis braced for impact. Some, jaded by decades of air-raid sirens, merely went to sleep. (Big respect to those people – me and my anxiety will be over here popping antacids and wishing we were like you.) A friend literally wrote to me, quote, “I was up all night, but my partner was sound asleep.” Some stress-cleaned for Passover. (My colleague Tania joked “If I’m gonna go, I need the house to be tidy.” Ah, she’s funny…That British stiff upper lip.)

Some made memes about “Iran’s most powerful drones,” zooming out to show themselves launching paper airplanes. My personal favorite was a fake ad offering a 2-for-1 special on cemetery plots. (Israelis. They really love their gallows humor.) All over the world, Jewish people prayed. For hours, Tehillim, or Psalms, was one of the most-searched terms in Israel. 

After the 7th of October, I kept hearing that The attack showed us how much they hate us… and how much we love each other. Last night, that felt more true than ever. When I checked in with my cousin Boaz, who lives in Israel, he responded by asking me about how I was feeling. Was I facing any antisemitism? Think about that. I said, “Boaz, you’re the one with rockets flying over you and you’re asking me about antisemitism.” His response BOTH cracked me up and made me want to cry. He said, “Ahhh, we’re used to it.”

We’re used to it…

The endless threats of genocide from our neighbors to the south.
Hunkering down in bomb shelters, trying to shush crying babies back to sleep.
Seeing spouses and children and neighbors and friends in uniform, not knowing when, or if, we’ll ever see them again.

We’re used to it?

The entire point of Zionism was to ensure that Jews could live safely and freely in their own home, to just be normal. To have power over their destiny, agency over their fate. But since 1948, Israelis have had to remind the world, constantly, that they’re allowed to exist. They’re allowed to have agency. They’re allowed to be normal. People like Ayatollah Ali Khameini never want people like Boaz to live freely, normally. And the ayatollah’s useful pawns in the West agree. While policy is something to debate, and debate with vigor…whether they know it or not, the people chanting “we don’t want two states. We want 48” and putting up stickers urging Qassam rockets to target Tel Aviv are saying, in effect, a Jewish state has no right to exist. Jewish people have no right to their agency. Their self determination.

Meanwhile, Boaz – and all the Israelis sharing memes on social media – are giving the rest of the world the proverbial finger. Not only will we live freely, they’re saying, you cannot take away our joy.

And that’s beautiful, but it’s also depressing. Israelis’ reaction to this latest barrage reminded me of the five stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. So many Israelis simply accepted this onslaught. There was no denial, no anger, no bargaining. Not even depression. They made light of it, then moved on. Today, the country looks entirely normal. The streets are bustling. An aerial shot of Tel Aviv showed ordinary people dancing in the streets.

It is no surprise then that in the World happiness rankings of 2024, amidst all the chaos in Israel…Israel ranks number 5 behind Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Sweden in happiness.

This may be ironic because happiness and loneliness are often at the opposite end of the spectrums. You know, there’s a verse in the Book of Numbers that lives rent-free in my mind, because I’m cool like that. It describes the Jewish peoples’ loneliness, quote: “The Jewish people are a nation that dwells alone, not to be reckoned amongst the nations.”

Now, I always wonder if this verse, Numbers 23:9, a promise, a description, or an ontological reality…

Last night, the answer was I’m not sure.

In the past, Amos Yadlin, the director of IDF intelligence, described the Iranian government as, quote, “a fascinating combination of religious fanaticism and strategic prudence… they regard their struggle with Israel and America as a struggle between civilizations. As they see it, their civilization is the more pure and the more just, and therefore it is stronger.”

Last night, Iran proved that they’re not just striking at the Jewish people. As their missiles lit up the sky over al-Aqsa and their drones fell in Arab towns, killing three Jordanians, injuring one Bedouin 7 year old girl, they proved that they are a menace to the entire region, no matter their religion, ethnicity, or political beliefs. They proved that yes, this is a clash of civilizations. And they proved something that may have surprised them. 

For one, for a moment at least, the Jewish people are not alone. The US, the UK, France, and Germany helped Israel shoot down the Iranian drones. And so did two Arab nations. Jordan was one. Saudi Arabia was the other. I mean, that’s wild. 

As the skies lit up and the ancient walls of Jerusalem shook, a new dawn broke over the Middle East. And though none of us know what will happen next, we do know that the only way to understand the present is to understand the past.

The American writer, philosopher, and businessman Ryan Holliday has written that we learn more from history than we do from breaking news. He’s right. If you watched the news last night, all you’d know is that Iran sent missiles towards Israel. You wouldn’t understand why, or what this means.

Holliday even said that when General James Mattis first landed in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, the first thing he did was read about the military campaigns of Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great. Because Mattis understood that history is our best guide to understanding our present.

Two weeks ago, Israel killed a top Iranian commander named Mohammed Reza Zahedi, who was one of the eight people heading Hezbollah’s political bureau. But the conflict between Iran and Israel did not start on April 1, 2024. So to understand what’s going on here, we have to go back in time, to the 1960s, when Iran was ruled by the so-called King of Kings. If you heard our episode about Hezbollah from earlier this season, you know a lot of this already, but hey, probably a good time for a refresher. Ready? Let’s get into it.

Shah Reza Pahlavi was a fascinating character. On the one hand, the secular, pro-Western leader had modernized his country in a very short amount of time. Under his rule, Iran’s economy thrived. Foreign businesses jockeyed to invest. Some predicted that Iran would soon be competing with Europe.

The Shah advanced Western interests, too. Nerd corner alert: Iran was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel. Wild to think about now, right? Plus, the country was the US’s key regional ally, the first line of defense against Soviet influence in the Middle East. Equally wild to think about.  

On the other hand, the Shah wasn’t exactly an unproblematic fave. He was often accused of major corruption and maintained power by controlling the press, surveilling citizens, and jailing and torturing dissidents. Some Iranians even saw him as a puppet of the West. And his reforms hadn’t benefited everyone equally. As the economy boomed, the gap between rich and poor widened. 

But the Shah’s most dangerous opponent wasn’t the secular intelligentsia, the radical students, or even the middle class. It was a hardline religious cleric named Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Shah had him exiled, but the recordings of his fiery sermons found an eager audience, and soon, ordinary Iranians were mobbing the streets, protesting against the Shah.

And the Shah, who was dying of cancer, knew he couldn’t hold them off. He fled his country, leaving a temporary Prime Minister to rule in his stead. Within a day, the guy was knocking on Israel’s doors, asking the Mossad to please get rid of Khomeini. 

The Mossad had been keeping their eye on Khomeini. You do that when someone accuses their enemy of being, quote “that Jewish spy, that American snake, whose head must be crushed with a stone.” But ultimately, they passed on the request. He was a political leader. He hadn’t actually killed anyone. Surely the Iranian military wouldn’t let him take power.

What’s that they say about hindsight? Oh yeah, 20/20.

Less than a month after the Shah’s escape, Khomeini took over the government. Seemingly overnight, millions of Iranians found themselves living under a fundamentalist Shia theocracy. And if the West needed any confirmation that Iran was now their Number One Enemy, well, they got it within the year, when a group of radical young students kidnapped more than 50 Americans from the embassy, holding them for over a year. 

The Americans needed another ally in the region. They turned to Israel. Writer and historian Walter Russell Mead points us towards the numbers: In 1965, America sent Israel $391 million in aid. In contrast, they sent Iran $645 mil. But after 1979, after Israel signed the Camp David Accords establishing peace with Egypt, after the Shah fell, the United States sent 14.1 BILLION dollars in aid. For the next decade, Israel would receive an average of 5.5 billion every year. Why so much money? Well, according to Mead, the US needed to ensure that the Israeli military could balance this new Iranian threat. As he says, alignment turned into alliance

Because Khomeini didn’t stop at Iran. He – and his successors – have established proxies all over the Middle East. Today, Iran funds terror groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, Bahrain, Yemen, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Gaza, and the West Bank. It doesn’t matter that Iran is a Shi’a country and most of these groups are not. (Hamas, for example, is Sunni.) Because Iran cares more about getting rid of the so-called “Little Satan,” aka Israel, than maintaining ideological purity. 

That’s why Iranian leaders praised October 7th as “the greatest success of the Islamic world.” (play clip)

Make no mistake. Iran is deadly serious about wiping Israel off the map. (play clip)

But Israel is not the only country under threat. This is the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, speaking in a 60 Minutes Interview in 2018: (play clip)

Iran has done everything it can to scuttle a potential normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. All talks were suspended after October 7th. Israel has faced harsh criticism even from its allies in Jordan and the Gulf states about its operations in Gaza. But last night, Iran undid whatever strategic gain it had hoped for by attacking Israel. Because as missiles flew over the Temple Mount, the Arab states stepped in. Israel’s allies intercepted at least 100 drones. The rest were shot down by the IDF’s systems, with a success rate of 99%. Ninety. Nine. Percent. It’s an unprecedented victory. 

So what did Iran gain?

Certainly not the respect of its citizens – one of whom was arrested last week for hanging an Israeli flag out her window. Graffiti around Tehran urges Israel to hit the mullahs as hard as possible – in language I won’t repeat on a family-friendly podcast. The Iranian people are tired of being policed and harassed. They’re tired of their government’s utter lack of interest in human rights. They’re tired of living under a strict fundamentalist dictatorship that restricts the flow of information. They’re tired of their crippled economy and their bad reputation and their totalitarian leaders. They’re tired of their own government murdering, raping, torturing, and imprisoning them for crimes like showing their hair in public. They want to get out from under their government’s thumb and live freely. And I am looking forward to the day that they manage to topple their regime. 

Because millions of people are suffering.

It isn’t normal for a pregnant colleague to text me: “I can’t work today because I was in the miklat, the safe room, at 2am with my kids and couldn’t sleep.” It isn’t normal for Israelis to have to make jokes like Hey Iran, thanks for canceling my math test. For hundreds of thousands of people to have spent the past six months in uniform, some fighting in Gaza rather than just being home, enjoying their lives.

Among the main goals of Zionism was to give Jewish people a normal life in their ancestral homeland. Not an exceptional life. A normal one, with all its little frustrations and complications and complaints. And daily rocket attacks, a constant awareness that every day could be The day – that’s not normal. 

But nothing that’s happened in the past 75 years has been normal. Not for Israelis. Not for Palestinians. Not for innocent people living under terrorist regimes. And we can debate, in good faith, all the reasons that this is true. Those debates are so important. Especially, you know what, exclusively, if they’re conducted with empathy.

But make no mistake about it. Things did not have to be this way. Not between Israel and the Palestinians. Not between Israel and Iran.

And if that is true, then so is this: there is a future in which things are different. Another world is still possible. 

And in that world, the Israeli people, the Jewish people, 46% of whom live in Israel, feel safe and secure. 

The Iranian people are no longer suffering under their tormentors. 

The Lebanese have kicked Hezbollah out of their country, choosing instead to form regional alliances and to thrive. 

The Palestinian people have the government they deserve – not the corrupt PA and not the terrorist Hamas, but a government that understands that peace is the only way forward, that the Jewish people and the Jewish state is here to stay.

Is this me just living in a fantasy, a “Seret,” as Israelis say?

I certainly hope not. 

Hope might not be a strategy, but I invite you to hope with me together.

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