All Iran’s options for an attack on Israel – and how Netanyahu could respond

Iran has vowed revenge on Israel for killing Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior IRGC commander
Iran has vowed revenge on Israel for killing Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior IRGC commander

Israel is braced for a potentially major escalation in its conflict with Iran after a US intelligence assessment warned that Tehran could order a strike on military and government targets inside the country in the coming days.

Israeli ministers have vowed that if Tehran takes direct military action then they will respond with their own strikes on Iranian territory, opening the door to a full-scale regional war in the Middle East.

A US intelligence assessment revealed this week by Bloomberg states that Iran could be poised to launch high-precision strikes using ballistic missiles or drones on targets inside Israel. A source quoted in the report said it was a matter of “when, not if,” Iran strikes, though it is less clear whether Tehran would take direct action or rely on its proxy network.

Either way, the Bloomberg report suggests Iran is drawing up plans for attacks only on military and government sites in Israel, of which the most obvious would be the Kirya, the Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Other potential targets include air bases, such as those in Palmachim in central Israel or Meron in the north, as well as the Knesset [parliament] and prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. 

However, Jerusalem would be an extraordinarily reckless target for Iran or its proxies to choose, in part due to the mostly Palestinian population in East Jerusalem and above all the city’s obvious religious significance.

If Iran did take the plunge and launch direct action on Israel – a move that would be highly uncharacteristic for supreme leader Ali Khamenei, even in light of the ongoing crisis – it would presumably rely on ballistic missiles and/or its drone swarms.

What weapons does Iran have?

The bulk of Iran’s long-range missile power lies in its Fateh, Khaebar and Dezful models, which all have a range of 1,000 kilometres or further. Iran has also recently unveiled a new long-range drone model, the Mohajer 10, which it claims is capable of “bombing Israel into the stone age”.

A missile or drone launch from Iranian territory would test the range limits of Iran’s arsenal, as the distance from southwestern Iran to Israel as the crow flies is about 1,700 kilometres. Israel is theoretically within the reach of Iranian missile power as it claims to possess Kheibar missiles which can travel up to 2,000 kilometres.

Experts on the Iranian regime are highly sceptical of the prospect of a direct attack from Iran as it would upend a long-standing policy of fuelling conflicts with Israel from a distance via proxy groups or covert attacks. But they also pointed out that Iran’s leadership will be under pressure to put on a display of force in response to the Damascus consulate attack.

“The regime in toto is generally cautious and has avoided direct confrontation, but they have been provoked more than usual,” said Dr Steven Wagner, a senior lecturer in international security at Brunel University.

“The Israeli strike [last week on Damascus] in Syria is definitely going to create a feeling of a need for may be the politicians have decided they have had enough and that it makes sense to make a dramatic statement.”

What happens if Iran attacks Israel?

A direct attack from Iranian territory would amount to an act of war against Israel, and would arguably be an overreaction to the initial strike in Damascus – which targeted Iranian forces abroad, not targets within Iran itself.

“A kinetic attack using ballistic missiles or drones against Israeli homeland targets would be the most impactful, and risky, option available to Tehran,” said Jonathan Panikoff, a director at the Atlantic Council, in a recent security assessment.

“While Iran might seek to prevent escalation to a full-scale war, for example, by striking military or intelligence targets only, as opposed to civilian ones, this is still a risky step given that Iran has been trying to avoid a wider conflict for which it is likely ill-prepared.”

The other scenario, more in line with Iran’s prior conduct, would be ordering a proxy group in southern Lebanon or Syria, such as Hezbollah, to launch large-scale missile or drone strikes over the border at Israel

Hezbollah has an enormous stockpile of powerful missiles that risk overwhelming Israel’s air defences, in particular its Iron Dome and David’s Sling systems.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei
Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei could use proxy group Hezbollah to strike Israel - Iranian Supreme Leader'S Office/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

“If they decide it’s on and we are going to give all we have, they would shut down the northern half of the country for sure, it would be impossible to go outside, and Israeli missile defences would be swamped by this level of barrage,” Dr Wagner said.

However, he stressed that Hezbollah in Lebanon has shown a lot of restraint over the past six months and seems deeply reluctant to commit to full-scale war with Israel. Hezbollah also considers its vast missile stockpiles as a crucial deterrent against Israel; using them up now in support of Iran would mean giving up key leverage.

A major attack by Iran’s proxies or its own forces risks dragging the United States into the fray, an outcome that Iran likely wishes to avoid as its ongoing economic crises, driven by crippling sanctions, leave it ill-prepared for a war with America.

Joe Biden, the US president, has reiterated his “ironclad” commitment to defending Israel in response to the fears this week over an Iranian attack. The Times of Israel reported on Thursday that America has not ruled out launching a joint response with Israel against Iran, if Israeli soil is targeted.

Diplomatic efforts are also said to be under way by US officials to persuade Saudi Arabia, which is trying to maintain its own détente with Iran, and other Gulf states into lobbying Tehran towards de-escalation.

Psychological warfare?

There also remains the distinct possibility that, contrary to the US intelligence assessment and media reports, the attack is not imminent.

It could instead be part of a wider effort to wage psychological warfare against Israel, and possibly probe for weaknesses in its air defence, by making threats aimed at putting Israel’s military in a constant state of alert. The fear of an Iranian attack has already prompted Lufthansa to temporarily suspend flights to Tehran.

“Despite all the noise made by the Iranian regime, a direct strike against Israel by its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) remains highly improbable,” said Kasra Aarabi, an expert on the Iranian military at the United Against a Nuclear Iran advocacy group.

“Instead, the IRGC is currently engaged in waging a mass psychological warfare operation with the goal of making the fear of an attack worse than an actual strike,” he said.

“If last night’s psychological operation was to inflict fear on regional states that host US forces and/or have ties with Israel – increasing their angst that they could be targets – then the IRGC will be pleased with the outcome.”

How will Israel respond to Iran’s threats?

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, would likely consider a response in-kind if Israeli military or government targets were hit by Iran. These would include targets such as the IRGC headquarters in Tehran, or potentially other IRGC bases such as its new installations in the Sistan and Baluchistan provinces.

Facing immense pressure within Israel to focus effort on bringing home hostages from Gaza, the prime minister is unlikely to be keen on pursuing war with Iran unless it is absolutely necessary and in response to an immediate, existential threat.

Israel has also for many years harboured ambitions to completely dismantle Iran’s nuclear programme, making that another obvious target in a potential Iran-Israel war. However, its leadership still considers diplomacy or, if needed, covert military action, as viable alternatives.

If direct military action by Iran is coming, preparations to carry out the strike would most likely be spotted in advance by American and Israeli intelligence agencies – such as large-scale troop or missile launcher deployments.

“Whoever harms us, we will harm them. We are prepared to meet all of the security needs of the state of Israel, both defensively and offensively,” Mr Netanyahu said on Thursday.

All-out war

At a first glance, a full Iran-Israel war might appear to be in Iran’s favour due its vastly higher number of troops – 1.2 million – and its thousands of artillery systems.

But when it comes to tanks Israel has 3,000 – double Tehran’s stockpile.

And, in any case, this war would probably unfold in the skies, not on land: the two nations are separated by Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The latter two countries have no interest whatsoever in allowing the conflict to spill into their territory.

Iran could potentially try to send its troops to invade Israel via Iraq, where it wields significant political influence, and its key ally Syria, but they would be met with a significant response from US forces stationed in those areas.

Israel is understood to have a larger and more powerful air force than Iran, though Iran has been trying to source new fighter jets from Russia in return for arming Moscow with drones to fight Ukraine.

It is unclear how supportive neighbouring Arab states might be if Israel needed to use their airspace for strikes on Iranian territory. Relations between the Gulf states and Israel have cooled significantly since the outbreak of the Oct 7 war due to the extremely high number of civilian casualties in Gaza.

However, prior to the Hamas massacre, Saudi Arabia in particular was becoming a closer security partner of Israel. And, further back, in 2020, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed historic normalisation treaties with Israel.