Opinion: 5 critical takeaways from Iran’s attack on Israel

CNNIt was a night when the world stood on edge. Iran’s rulers decided to rip off the cover behind which they have spent decades attacking Israel and others indirectly, and instead of using one of their proxy militias they made the move themselves, openly, launching more than 300 projectiles — cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, explosive-laden drones — toward Israel, the country they have repeatedly vowed to destroy.

The next chapter of this conflict is still being written, but already the event has left us with important lessons and looming questions.

1. If Israel’s defensive shield had failed, thousands of Israelis could have been killed, and the world today would find itself in a major regional war.

It’s impossible to overstate just how cataclysmic the Islamic Republic’s weekend attack could have become. The indelible image of Iranian missiles intercepted over Jerusalem, exploding above the golden cupula of the Dome of the Rock, over al-Aqsa Mosque and the Temple Mount — the site of the biblical Temple in Jerusalem — as well as other landmarks tracing the life and death of Jesus, stood as a warning of the intensity of what Iran might have unleashed.

Miraculously, by a feat of military technology bolstered by coordination with friends and allies, Israel was able to repel the massive attack. The only reported injury on the ground was a young Arab Israeli girl hit by falling shrapnel.

Anyone who claims Iran was only seeking to inflict a symbolic show of force is ignoring the facts. Iran could have killed thousands of civilians. If it had, the world would look very different today; a major regional conflagration would likely be raging now with worldwide reverberations.

Iran justified its attack as a response to an April 1 strike against an annex to its embassy in Damascus, which killed top commanders of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Israel denied the building was a diplomatic facility and has not acknowledged carrying out the hit, but US officials believe it did. The Quds Force commanders have been working with Iran-allied Hezbollah, which has been shelling Israel since Oct. 7, when Hamas launched an attack from Gaza. Thousands remain displaced as the attack made parts of Israel unlivable.

Tehran’s hypocritical indignation at what it frames as a violation of its diplomatic protections brings to mind the many occasions when Tehran’s proxies have massacred civilians, blowing up American and Israeli embassies as they did in Beirut and Buenos Aires. (Iran denies involvement.)

2. What if Iran’s missiles and drones had carried nuclear material?

It’s the stuff of nightmares. Watching the skies over Israel — and before that over Jordan, Iraq and Iran — streak with flying objects laden with explosives, it was impossible to ignore that Iran is close to its long-sought nuclear weapons capability. (It denies it wants nuclear weapons.) Iran could build a nuclear weapon in short order, but even before a bomb is ready, even before it builds one or buys it from, say, North Korea, it could use nuclear material inside a conventional weapon. Shooting it down would bring radioactive material to the ground.

This is an inescapable reality that reminds us why a country that has built a network of proxy militias, that oppresses its own people and even hunts them down in exile, is not just a threat to the freedom of Iranians and the survival and stability of its neighbors. It’s a challenge for the entire world.

3. The unimaginable is not a theory. It can happen. It does.

Israel and Iran have fought a shadow war for decades. The notion that one day Iran would launch a direct attack against Israel may have seemed like a distant possibility: something that was bound to happen, but only at some elusive future date. The same was true of Hamas, a terrorist group that seized control of Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thought he could appease Hamas and preserve quiet in Gaza and safety for Israelis living in the south. Others worried that one day Hamas would attack with full force. Many have worried that Iran will one day attack with full force. October 7 and April 14 are reminders that the unimaginable, the barely-imaginable, can and does happen.

4. The war in Gaza is about more than Gaza, about more than a Palestinian state.

In the midst of the calamity that has befallen the people on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border and in light of the immense human suffering — more than 1,200 Israelis killed, hostages taken by Hamas and still held in Gaza and tens of thousands killed in Gaza including women and children — it’s easy to overlook the larger forces at play in the Israel-Hamas war. The Middle East is in the throes of a regional conflict, a major geopolitical battle in which Iran is a major player — the major player. Iran has made it possible for Hamas to build up its arsenal. Iran all but created Hezbollah, now the dominant force in Lebanon. Iran exerts enormous influence in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. And it views not only Israel but many of its Arab neighbors as rivals and foes.

5. Israel is not isolated; Iran is.

Iran does have its satellites and proxies, and it has become a weapons supplier to Russia in its war against Ukraine. But the night Iran attacked Israel it revealed its own isolation. Israelis are basking in the rare and reassuring discovery that much of the world does support them, at least at this moment.

As the missiles took aim at Israel, a grand coalition mobilized. The verbal backing spanned the globe. From Argentina to Japan world leaders condemned Iran. An emergency virtual meeting of the G7 expressed “full solidarity and support to Israel and its people,” condemning Iran “in the strongest terms.” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres “strongly condemned” Iran’s actions.

More importantly, Israel received military and tactical backing. Even though Israel shot down the overwhelming majority of the projectiles, the United StatesFrance and the UK helped shoot down some of the hundreds of drones headed for Israel. More significantly, Jordan acknowledged that it, too, seeing its airspace violated, intercepted Iranian drones.

There are multiple reports that other Arab countries also participated. The Wall Street Journal reported that several countries agreed to pass intelligence and radar tracking information and, “in some cases, supplied their own forces to help.” Saudi Arabia — Iran’s longtime rival — and the United Arab Emirates agreed to supply intelligence, according to the report.

In addition, the US was able to work out of its bases in Qatar and northern Iraq to counter Iran’s attack.

The question now is how Israel responds. Benny Gantz, a member of the war cabinet formed after the Hamas attack, said Israel will “exact a price from Iran in a way and time that suits us.”

Biden wants Israel to “take the win,” and move on. The most far-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who are not in the war cabinet, want more drastic action. In the US, former National Security Advisor John Bolton told CNN that this is an opportunity for Israel to “destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which is the existential threat Israel faces.”

This is, however, another opportunity for Israel, a chance to rebuild some of the ties that have become frayed during the devastating war with Hamas.

The Iranian attack has revealed that Israel does have friends, including some in very important places: across the Middle East. The Islamic Republic just reminded the entire Middle East, the entire world, that it can upend expectations and launch a reckless, potentially catastrophic attack.

Israel should use the moment to fortify its links with Arab neighbors who despise and distrust Iran. That could go a long way in protecting the entire region against Iran, but also in carving a path forward that includes a stable Gaza, one that is not in the hands of one of Iran’s extremist proxies, opening the possibility to more stability and, just maybe, lasting peace.