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The Middle East Is Bracing for Wider War as Israel Weighs Response to Iran

Journalists Reza Sayah and Gideon Levy join analyst Trita Parsi to discuss the possibility of a regional war.

The Middle East is bracing for the possibility of regional war after Iran responded to Israel’s bombing of the Iranian Consulate in Damascus with a major drone and missile attack Saturday. The attack caused little damage inside Israel, as it intercepted nearly all of the drones and missiles with help from the United States, Britain, France and Jordan. Iran’s government described the attack as a defensive maneuver after Israel’s unprovoked strike on its embassy killed some of Iran’s top military brass. This was “a performative operation to send a message,” says journalist Reza Sayah, who joins us from Tehran. But while Iran “does not want to escalate matters,” Israel may be preparing to do just that. Washington, D.C.-based analyst Trita Parsi says that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been trying to instigate conflict between the U.S. and Iran for “more than two decades,” and given that Biden has demonstrated an unwillingness to “draw any red lines for Israel publicly,” these latest provocations could become a prime “opportunity” for such a war. Crucially, Iranian restraint “cannot last forever,” warns our final roundtable guest, the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, who touches on both Iran’s own sovereignty and increasing global pressure for Israel to end its war on Gaza. “Gaza is still starving and bleeding, and we shouldn’t forget it,” says Levy.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Middle East is bracing for possible retaliation from Israel after Iran launched 300 drones and missiles at Israel in response to Israel’s recent bombing of the Iranian Consulate in Damascus, Syria. The Iranian attack caused little damage inside Israel, which intercepted nearly all the drones and missiles, with help from the United States, Britain, France and Jordan. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for maximum restraint Sunday at an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting.

SECRETARY-GENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES: The Middle East is on the brink. The people of the region are confronting a real danger of a devastating, full-scale conflict. Now is the time to defuse and deescalate. Now is the time for maximum restraint.

AMY GOODMAN: As we broadcast, Israel’s war cabinet is reconvening to debate how to respond to Iran’s first-ever direct attack. Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz has vowed Israel will retaliate against Iran.

BENNY GANTZ: [translated] In the face of the Iranian threat, we will build a regional coalition and exact the price from Iran in the fashion and timing that is right for us. And most importantly, faced with the desire of our enemies to harm us, we will continue to unite and become stronger.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden has reiterated his, quote, “ironclad” support for Israel, but he reportedly told Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States will not participate in any retaliatory strikes against Iran.

At the United Nations Sunday, Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Saeid Iravani defended the missile and drone attack on Israel, saying it was done in self-defense.

SAEID IRAVANI: These countries, especially the United States, have shielded Israel from any responsibility for the Gaza massacre. While they have denied Iran’s inherent right to self-defense against the Israeli armed attack on our diplomatic premises, at the same time they shamefully justify the Israeli massacre and genocide against the defenseless Palestinian people under the pretext of self-defense.

AMY GOODMAN: Iran’s attacks on Israel may add new momentum for the U.S. Congress to approve more aid for Israel as the House returns to session today.

For more, we go to Tehran, where we’re joined by Reza Sayah, freelance journalist based in Tehran, where he joins us from. Trita Parsi is executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, joining us from Washington, D.C. And later we’ll speak with Gideon Levy, award-winning Israeli journalist and author in Tel Aviv. He’s columnist for the newspaper Haaretz, a member of its editorial board. His most recent piece is headlined “If Iran Attacks Israel, the Blame Lies on Israel’s Irresponsible Decision-makers.”

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Reza Sayah, let’s begin with you in Tehran. Can you talk about the response there in Iran’s capital after Iran retaliated against Israel for bombing the Iranian Consulate in Damascus?

REZA SAYAH: Well, the people of Iran have had a variety of responses and sentiments. And I think it’s important to remind everyone that neither myself nor any journalist can sit here and tell you that a population, an entire population, has a single feeling, a single voice, a single sentiment, but this is what you hear oftentimes in Western news media, are journalists describing what an entire population is feeling or saying. That’s simply not the case. There are different competing sentiments in every population, and that is the case here in Iran.

There’s a segment of the population here in Iran that are staunch supporters of the clerical establishment, staunch supporters of the supreme leader. They believe that it’s the duty of every Muslim to support and help the oppressed, and they view Gazans and Palestinians as the oppressed. They’re following very closely the events in Gaza over the past six months. They were outraged when Iran’s Consulate was attacked in Syria. And they cheered Iran’s response over the weekend when they fired those rockets and those drones in Israel. That’s one segment of the population.

There’s another segment of the population in Iran that are staunch critics of the government. They have a very different view. They want reform in the government. Some want the government gone. They don’t mind when senior officials of the Revolutionary Guard are assassinated. They don’t mind when the establishment is undermined, when the Revolutionary Guard is undermined. They believe that the Iranian government, instead of funding Hezbollah and Hamas, should help the people. So they were — they are and they remain critical of Iran’s role in this conflict.

But it’s important to point out that most people here in Iran are, remarkably, continuing their lives. Obviously, some people are worried. They see the headlines. They wonder what’s going to happen. But remarkably, they continue their lives. Schools are open. Stores are open. Businesses are open. And I think that speaks to the resilience of the Iranian people, who’ve faced so many challenges over these last 40-plus years — the isolation, a horrible economy, inflation, a lack of jobs. But somehow they continue living while monitoring what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who died in the attack on the Iranian Consulate in Damascus? At least two Iranian generals. Is that right?

REZA SAYAH: Yeah, these were two Iranian generals that had significant roles in Iran’s presence in Syria and the reported operations that Iran has conducted against U.S. targets in the region, in Syria and Iraq. And it’s important to note that many people within the government continue to remind everyone that this was an act of war by Israel, even though Israel has not confirmed that it conducted the attack on the Iranian Consulate. Iran continues to remind the international community — they did it at the U.N. Security Council meeting — that Iran’s attack on Israel was a response to an act of war that Israel carried out against the Iranian Consulate, which is seen as Iranian soil.

It is also important to point out that Iran’s response took two weeks. And that is in line with how Iran has reacted to similar incidents and assassinations in recent years. You’ll recall the assassination of General Soleimani, the top-ranking Revolutionary Guard general, in Iraq in 2020. You’ll recall Iran’s response was to attack a U.S. airbase in Iraq, but just as they did with this attack in Israel, they took a lot of time. It is reported that they even announced what they were going to do. And that’s a clear indication that Iran does not want to escalate matters with Israel and the U.S. and regional allies, that this was, as many say, a performative operation to send a message, and calculated in a way where Iran doesn’t want to escalate matters. And you saw Iranian officials explicitly say that, for them, the matter is over. Now we wait to see if Israel agrees, if it’s over for them, if they retaliate, and what Iran does after that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, interviewed on CNN.

WOLF BLITZER: Give us your assessment of an appropriate Israeli response to what Iran has now done.

JOHN BOLTON: Well, what Iran did tonight that I think was most significant was the firing of ballistic missiles and cruise missiles from its territory directly at Israel. Almost certainly at this point, none of those missiles contained a nuclear warhead. But you never can tell when the next firing, the next salvo of ballistic missiles might contain a nuclear warhead. So, I think among the many targets Israel should consider, this is the opportunity to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons program. And I hope President Biden is not trying to dissuade Prime Minister Netanyahu from doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was John Bolton speaking on CNN. We’re also joined by Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, speaking to us from Washington, D.C. Trita, can you respond to what Bolton said and also how Washington is responding right now?

TRITA PARSI: Well, I think you saw there, in John Bolton’s response, he used the word “opportunity.” And this is how some of the hawks view this. They see this as an opportunity to materialize the war between the United States and Iran and Israel that they have been seeking for more than 25 years. And that includes Bibi Netanyahu. I think it should not be forgotten that Netanyahu has been trying to start a war between the United States and Iran for more than two decades and has seen him being actually rebuffed by several presidents in a row, who may have been very hawkish on Iran, who may themselves have contemplated the idea of going to war with Iran, but who nevertheless rejected the pressure from Netanyahu to do so on behalf of Israel. But Bolton is reflecting that view, the idea that this is an opportunity to have a much larger war in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about President Biden saying that Israel has the “ironclad” support of the U.S., but telling Netanyahu after this attack that the U.S. would not participate in any kind of retaliation, though the U.S. intercepted, I think they said, how many drones and something like six missiles and 90 drone strikes on the — with the Iranian attack? Jordan also participated, as did Britain and France.

TRITA PARSI: I think what Biden is saying here is quite contradictory, because at the end of the day, there will be no distinction between offensive and defensive measures in the second the war actually breaks out. So, consider this scenario. The United States does not support and does not participate in Israel’s counterstrikes against Iran, and the Israelis may follow Bolton’s advice and try to target Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Iranians then respond in kind with a much larger barrage of missiles. Clearly what they did this time around was choreographed to minimize damage and make sure that there’s no casualties. Next time around, they won’t do that. Once the Iranians have started their counterstrikes, then the United States is dragged into the war, because Biden said that he will participate in the defensive measures. And then, regardless of what the previous measure was by the United States, the U.S. will be at war in the Middle East. And as a result, Netanyahu now has a clear pathway on how to drag the United States into this war. All he needs to do is to escalate further. The U.S. will reject that, but then the U.S. will be there once the Iranians are responding. And at that point, any distinction between offensive and defensive is meaningless.

If Biden instead makes it very, very clear that it does not lie in the U.S.’s interest to have any escalation in the region and draws a red line in front of Iran and in front of Israel, he will then not need to come to the defense of Israel, because there will not be a war to begin with. That would be a much better pathway that serves U.S. interests, that prevents any regional escalation. But so far we have seen that Biden, even though he apparently is frustrated privately, he does not feel comfortable to draw any red lines for Israel publicly. And the ones that he has drawn privately, Netanyahu has systematically ignored for the last seven months.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Trita Parsi, who’s executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, has written several books on Iran and the United States. We’re going to continue with him and Reza Sayah, freelance journalist in Tehran, and we’ll be joined by Gideon Levy, who is Haaretz columnist, on the editorial board of Haaretz, wrote the article “If Iran Attacks Israel, the Blame Lies on Israel’s Irresponsible Decision-makers.” Back in 30 seconds.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Khooneye Ma,” “Our House,” by Marjan Farsad. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The Middle East is bracing for Israel to retaliate amidst claims — calls for restraint after Iran fired over 350 drones and missiles at Israel in response to Israel’s attack on the Iranian Consulate in Syria that killed two Iranian generals and a number of other military officers. We are joined by guests in Tehran and Washington, D.C., and now to Tel Aviv, where we’re joined by Gideon Levy, an award-winning Israeli journalist and author, columnist for the newspaper Haaretz and a member of its editorial board, his most recent piece headlined “If Iran Attacks Israel, the Blame Lies on Israel’s Irresponsible Decision-makers.”

In it, Gideon writes, quote, “For several years now, Israel has provoked Iran constantly, in Lebanon, Syria and also on Iranian soil, and has not paid any price. It would be foolish to believe that the rope Israel has stretched will not break. That moment may have come.” He ends by writing, “Just don’t say, again, that there was no choice. There was a choice: not to kill. Even if it is deserved, even if it is permitted and even if it is possible. The person who sent the assassins put Israel at risk of war with Iran.”

Gideon Levy, you are joined — you are joining Reza Sayah, a freelance journalist in Tehran, Iran, and Trita Parsi, one of the heads of the Quincy Institute. Can you respond to Iran’s attack and what Israel did to provoke that, the bombing of the Iranian Consulate in Damascus? Did that surprise you?

GIDEON LEVY: Nothing surprised here. The only thing which surprised, really, was the defensive capability of Israel, together with its allies. It was really impressive. But it’s not a guarantee for the future. When I wrote my article, it was before the attack came. And still I thought that the assassination in Damascus was unnecessary. The problem with the Israeli armed forces and intelligence organizations is that whenever they see an opportunity, they take it, without thinking about the consequences, without thinking about the price. And until now it was working for them, because Iran didn’t react ’til now directly on Israel, only through its proxies. But it was very clear that this cannot last forever.

So, those who send the assassinators to assassinate on Iranian soil, on an Iranian diplomatic mission, those two generals and five more, those had to think what will be the next day. And the next day came, and we were attacked. And luckily enough, we didn’t suffer out of this attack. The only conclusion right now should be: No, don’t you dare to retaliate now, because then we will be in a regional war, and that’s a new game.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what Benny Gantz said — as we broadcast right now, the war cabinet, Israel’s war cabinet, has reconvened — what Netanyahu said. Of course, they are competing with each other. If Netanyahu were to go down, it’s perceivable Benny Gantz would become the next prime minister. But talk about what’s happening within that war cabinet.

GIDEON LEVY: Amy, it’s for long time that I claim that those who want to get rid of Netanyahu are obviously right, but the hope that the alternative will be any better on core issues — for many issues it will be much better, but on core issues, like apartheid, the occupation, continuing the war in Gaza, will be very, very disappointed. And here we go. Benny Gantz, who is the alternative, who is the liberal alternative, who is the dovish alternative of Israel, he speaks exactly like Netanyahu and would act exactly like Netanyhau when it comes to core issues or core questions like launching an assassination, like launching a war, like using the military power of Israel. And that’s really very, very depressing that there is no alternative thinking in Israel and no lessons out of the experience. All the assassinations that Israel committed, all of them, never led to anywhere. Nothing good came out of them, except of the ego of the organizations who stood behind it. And here comes this Benny Gantz, the big hope of the liberal Israel, and suggests to continue the war, to make it worse, to go for a regional war with Iran. That’s really, really, very depressing.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned, Gideon Levy, that what’s happening with Iran now is taking attention away from what’s happening in Gaza, where the death toll just continues to mount, over — close to 34,000 people, just the official death toll, is expected to be much higher, and where the resistance was mounting in the United States, for example, on President Biden not to arm Israel, given what’s happening in Gaza, that now the House, which is notoriously divided, is perhaps coming together around giving more aid to Israel?

GIDEON LEVY: It goes without saying, Amy. Not only Gaza is forgotten. Also look what is happening in the West Bank — pogrom after pogrom, and nobody cares anymore. The army collaborates in those pogroms. We have videos from the last days in which the army not only stands aside, but many times take part of those pogroms against the Palestinians. And nobody pays attention to it — not to speak, obviously, about Gaza — because everyone is now concerned about Iran. But Gaza is still starving and bleeding, and we shouldn’t forget it, even not for a moment, like we shouldn’t forget the hostages who are still there. But it seems that now everyone is only concerned about retaliating Iran. This would be such a major, maybe fatal, mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring back in Reza Sayah. You were based in Cairo, Egypt, when you covered the negotiations between Israel and Hamas in 2014 as Israel launched its assault on Gaza then. Can you talk about what unfolded back then and how it compares to the negotiations that are taking place, what, in Doha and Cairo now for a ceasefire?

REZA SAYAH: Well, obviously, back then, what took place, as is taking place right now on a smaller scale, was the killing of lots of innocent civilians. But one thing that sticks out in my mind in 2014, in covering that conflict, was the Israeli government’s flat-out refusal to negotiate. There were so many instances when I was talking to Hamas leaders who were in Cairo. And in these instances, they would tell me that the Israeli officials who were supposed to show up for those negotiations simply would not show up. And this was something that was not widely reported by Western and U.S. media, the Israeli government’s seeming unwillingness to negotiate with Hamas. Eventually, there was negotiations, and that war ended, but in subsequent years leading up to this conflict, the cycle of war continued. But that’s something that sticks out in my mind in that 2014 conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about Jordan’s position in all of this, Trita Parsi, what role it plays. You had the United States, Britain, Jordan, France all intercepting some of these drones and missiles.

TRITA PARSI: Yes, numerous countries participated in the interception of these missiles. And the only reason they could do so was because the Iranians had given them 72 hours’ heads-up, deliberately, because the entire purpose of this exercise was not to inflict damage but to restore what the Iranians believe is their deterrence and showcase their capability. And as Gideon said, the shooting down of these missiles was quite impressive, but I think we also have to keep in mind that there might be a different scenario in the future in which there is no forewarning of these attacks, and as a result, France, Britain and the United States will not be able to prepare for and participate, in this extent, in the shooting down of the missiles. And then, as a result, it’s not entirely clear to what extent the Israeli air defenses would be capable of handling what would likely be a much larger barrage of missiles shot at Israel. So, I think the Israelis may have also picked up that at the end of the day, a military confrontation, even though Israel, of course, is much stronger than Iran, and certainly the U.S. is, but, nevertheless, will be very, very damaging to Israel, as well. And that, I think, is one of the key messages the Iranians were trying to send.

The Jordanians are, of course, caught in the middle there, because all of these different things are then flying over Jordanian airspace. And the Jordanian position has been that they’re defending their airspace. They are not defending Israel. This is not done in order to necessarily help the Israelis. It’s to make sure that Jordan asserts that no war should be taking place on its territory or in its airspace. That, nevertheless, is a tough position for the Jordanians to take, given the very, very strong sentiments that are now boiling over inside of Jordan because of the population’s frustration with what is happening in Gaza and their perception that the Jordanian government, and the Arab world at large, have been helpless and not done enough to prevent the slaughter.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Gideon Levy if you’ve been surprised by the amount of conversation going on between Iran and the United States, perhaps not directly. And also I want to put that question to Reza Sayah. But where the result is, you have United States saying they will not participate in Israel’s retaliation, if they retaliate against Iran?

GIDEON LEVY: First of all, I would say we always portray Iran as a crazy state, as an insane state. It might be described like this. But in this case, it was very measured. Very measured. I wish the United States and Iran would have spoken much more. I wish the agreement, the nuclear agreement, would be still valid, and we would be in a much better place and safer place, rather than what both Donald Trump and Netanyhahu arranged us, canceling this agreement, which was the best way to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. The more they speak, the better — under the table, above the table, behind the curtains, any way to talk to them. I still believe that every regime has its own interests, and dialogue is, by the end of the day, the best way, even if it’s the Satan of Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk, as you talked about what’s happening also on the West Bank, if you can talk about the most recent news about the death of one of the most prominent Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli prison, died of cancer, novelist Walid Daqqa, who spent the past 38 years locked up for his involvement in an armed group that abducted and killed an Israeli soldier in 1984, rights groups pressuring Israel to release him, saying he was in dire need of medical attention, Amnesty International calling for his release, saying that since October 7th he had been tortured, humiliated and denied family visits? You’ve written about this.

GIDEON LEVY: I’m following this story for many, many years. I even visited Walid once in jail many years ago. It’s one of those horrible stories which tells you much more than the story itself. Walid Daqqa is an Israeli. He is not a Palestinian from the West Bank. He’s an Israeli Palestinian. He, by the way, didn’t murder. He participated in a group which kidnapped an Israeli soldier and then killed him, some of them. He was not involved in it. But he was charged for murder and everything fined. He sat 37 years for this murder, much more than any murderer in the world — in Israel, not in the world. He, in this period, changed his — declared that he had enough with terror, declared that he regrets any terror actions. He’s exactly the style of leadership that we should look forwards, those Palestinians who change their minds and clear terror as a tool.

But, no, for Israel, no Palestinian is good enough, and here, in the last years, started really a sadistic behavior toward him and his family. No visits. When he started to be ill in cancer, when he got no visits half the year now, they didn’t even inform the family that he’s dying. They didn’t even inform the family he died. And now it’s already 10 days. They don’t even return the body, and don’t let them mourn in their home. I mean, what is more sadistic than this? And what is more the face of this current government of Israel? When it comes to Palestinians, Israeli Palestinians or Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, sadism is the name of the game.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to give Reza Sayah the last word. In U.S. media, we don’t often hear from people in Tehran. You’re a freelance journalist there in the capital of Iran. You’ve been covering Iran’s relationship with Hamas, particularly in the aftermath of October 7th. Could you expand on this, and what you think it’s most important for people to understand outside of Iran, and particularly here in the United States?

REZA SAYAH: Well, I think, from the people’s standpoint, the people here are resilient. Most of them are peace-loving people who do not want war.

And I want to follow up on Mr. Levy’s thought about how Iran is often portrayed in Western media to the American and Western audience as a radical, reckless, violent government. And I think a lot of thoughtful analysts will tell you that a radical entity, a radical government, would not last for 45 years like the Islamic Republic has. And these analysts will tell you that the reason that they have survived for these 45-plus years is that they’re not reckless, that they’re very calculating and they’re measured.

And they understand, at this very high-stakes juncture, that there are forces that perhaps Israel wants to bait them into a wider war. And I think Iran understands that that would be a mistake. I think many here understand that if they get baited into a wider war, it would be a distraction to what’s happening in Gaza, that has served the establishment here well by getting them a lot of political clout. And it would also potentially galvanize and unite Israel with its Western allies, Western allies that have been critical of Israel in their operation in Gaza.

So, at this hour, they’re waiting to see what Israel does, if Israel retaliates. But history has shown that if Israel retaliates, Iran is going to be aware of what their responses could cost, and they’re going to take a measured response. It’s obviously a very high-stakes chess game, and a lot of people anxious to see what happens in the coming days.

AMY GOODMAN: Reza Sayah, I want to thank you so much for being with us, freelance journalist in Tehran, Iran; Gideon Levy, a Haaretz columnist, member of its editorial board, and we’ll link to your articles; and Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

When we come back, jury selection begins today as Donald Trump makes history as the first former president to stand trial for criminal charges. Back in 20 seconds.

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