What all-out war between Israel and Iran would look like and what it would mean for the World

In a sudden escalation, Iran’s missile and drone attack on Israel marks a significant shift from decades of shadow warfare to overt confrontation. This response to an earlier attack that killed Iranian officers in Syria intensifies regional tensions, putting both nations on the brink of full-scale conflict. Israel’s superior technological military capabilities, backed by US support and advanced weaponry including F-35 jets, contrast with Iran’s reliance on older aircraft and domestically produced missiles. Despite technological disparities, Iran’s substantial missile and drone arsenal poses a significant threat, evidenced by its recent assault on Israeli targets. The outcome of Israel’s response could set the stage for wider war or renewed strategies for engagement.

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By Tony Capaccio and Patrick Sykes

Iran’s massive missile and drone attack on Israel, which began in the late hours of April 13, pushed the conflict between the two countries into a potentially explosive new phase. For decades, Israel and Iran have fought a shadow war, attacking each other mostly quietly and in Iran’s case often by proxy. That changed with Iran’s retaliatory response to an April 1 attack it blamed on Israel in which several Iranian officers were killed in Syria. Israel’s response to the missile and drone assault could determine whether the next stage is all-out war.

How do Israeli and Iranian military capabilities compare?

Israel’s forces have a vast technological edge over Iran’s. That’s partly down to military and financial support from the US, which has long sought to ensure Israel’s advantage as part of its commitment to the Jewish state’s security. For example, Israel is the only state in the Middle East so far that’s bought Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 fighter jet — the costliest weapons system ever. 

Israel is also widely believed to have nuclear weapons, though it has never acknowledged that capability.

By contrast, sanctions and political isolation have hobbled Iran’s access to foreign military technology, driving it to develop its own weapons, including the missiles and drones it fired against Israel. Iran’s combat aircraft are mostly older models inherited from before the country’s 1979 revolution. It’s agreed to buy Russian jets, but it’s not clear that they’ve been delivered. 

Iran has long been suspected of harboring the goal of using its nuclear program to build nuclear weapons, though it denies having such an ambition. It has accumulated enough enriched uranium to construct several nuclear bombs should its leaders choose to purify the heavy metal to the 90% level typically used in such weapons. It would still have to master the process of weaponizing the fuel in order to produce an operable device capable of hitting a remote target.

Though at a technological disadvantage, Iran’s military is thought to have a significant stockpile of the ballistic and cruise missiles and cheap unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, that it deployed against Israel. 

As Iran learned, penetrating Israel’s substantial air defenses is a challenge. There’s getting past Israeli Air Force fighters. Then there are Israel’s Arrow and David’s Sling air-defense systems, which together with US and other allied forces in the region intercepted 99% of the more than 300 drones and missiles Iran fired, according to Israel’s military. 

Iran’s own defensive arsenal includes surface-to-air missile systems including Russia’s S-300 to counter aircraft and cruise missiles and the locally made Arman anti-ballistic missile system. These aren’t nearly as battle tested as Israel’s defenses — a testament to Iran’s preference for asymmetric warfare, where it can project out-sized power, over head-to-head combat.

Iran accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger aircraft in 2020 amid heightened tensions with the US using a Russian-made Tor air-defense missile.

Both Israel and Iran have cyberwar capabilities. More than a decade ago, malware known as Stuxnet compromised operations at an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility in what’s suspected to have been a US and Israeli operation. Iran is capable of “a range of cyber operations, from information operations to destructive attacks against government and commercial networks worldwide,” according to an assessment by the US Defense Intelligence Agency released April 11. Cyberattacks launched by Iran include a hack that sought to cripple computers and water flow for two Israeli districts, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. 

How might Israel hit back at Iran?

An Israeli air attack on Iran’s nuclear program would be one of the most extreme responses to Tehran’s assault. Previously Israel has reserved that threat for a time when Iran reaches the brink of nuclear weapons capability.

The challenge is that the Islamic Republic’s atomic sites are numerous and dispersed around the country. The most important have been moved underground in recent years in an effort to put them out of harm’s way, though that hasn’t stopped smaller-scale sabotage operations that are routinely attributed to Israel. Israel is widely thought to have been behind the assassination in Tehran of five Iranian nuclear scientists since 2010. And in 2021 Iran blamed Israel for an explosion at a key enrichment facility. 

A senior military official responsible for protecting Iran’s nuclear program said on April 18 that the country would retaliate in kind if Israel targeted the program. He hinted that even the threat of doing so could push Iran to reconsider its policies around what it describes as a peaceful nuclear program.

Rather than attack nuclear sites, Israel could target military facilities or other infrastructure within Iran via a direct strike or cyberattack.   

Who are their allies? 

Iran’s most important allies are the Shiite militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen that it supports with money, weapons and training. The Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which launched rockets on Israeli targets during Iran’s assault on Israel, would be positioned to play the most significant role in an all-out war. It’s fought repeated battles with Israel and has been regularly firing missiles, mortars and rockets into northern Israel since war broke out in October between Israel and the Iran-backed militant Palestinian group HamasHezbollah’s arsenal contains more than 70,000 rockets and missiles, including long-range and precision-guided missiles, according to Israeli intelligence. 

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels would likely be eager to play a part in a larger war. Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, they have attempted to strike Israel with missiles and drones and have disrupted traffic in the Red Sea by repeatedly attacking ships there.

Iran’s only state ally in the Middle East is Syria. The government of President Bashar al-Assad would be unlikely to be of assistance given that it’s still struggling to gain control over the entire country following the outbreak of civil war in 2011. 

Iran has good relations with Russia, though its war in Ukraine would likely limit its ability to help, and with China, which has bought Iranian oil though it remains sanctioned by the US and allies. 

Israel has the US and UK on its side. Forces from the two countries destroyed some of the missiles and drones Iran launched at Israel. The US has already expedited shipments of munitions to Israel, to help it fight Hamas. Among the US forces in the Middle East region are two Navy destroyers that moved to the eastern Mediterranean in early April, according to a Navy official: the USS Carney and the USS Arleigh Burke, both capable of air defense. 

People gather in support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ attack on Israel, in Tehran on April 14.

Early in the Israel-Hamas war, the Pentagon moved its newest aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford, and its battle group into the eastern Mediterranean. It has since returned home. The Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group is in the Red Sea. Each bristles with F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jets and other advanced aircraft. In addition, 2,000 Marines were put on heightened alert for potential mobilization.

How might Arab states react?

An Israel-Iran war would put many of the countries in the region in a difficult position. Four Arab countries made peace deals with Israel in 2020 via the so-called Abraham Accords. Their distrust of Iran was part of what brought them together. But it’s unlikely any Arab state would stand with Israel in a confrontation against a fellow Muslim country, let alone one as powerful as Iran. 

Iran and Saudi Arabia last year restored diplomatic relations after a seven-year freeze. Saudi Arabia has been exploring the possibility of normalizing ties with Israel as part of a broader deal in which it hopes to attain US security guarantees, and it would likely try to avoid become embroiled in the conflict.

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