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Israel strikes back at Iran. Is the Middle East headed into a broader regional war?


Senior U.S. military official tells NPR that Israel fired missiles at Iran overnight. The strikes appear to be in retaliation for the more than 300 missiles and drones Tehran launched at Israel last week and 99% of which were shot down or intercepted before reaching Israel. And while we're still gathering information on last night's potentially dangerous escalation, it appears the impact of the Israeli attack in central Iran has been limited as Tehran reports air defense systems were deployed. So are the back-and-forth attacks over, or is the Middle East headed into a broader regional war? Let's talk with the retired commander of U.S. Central Command, General Frank McKenzie. General, how dangerous is this moment?

FRANK MCKENZIE: This is a very dangerous moment. But I think Israel has done about as intelligent a thing as they can do under this circumstance. They responded. They said they were going to respond. They appear to have chosen a response that has confused the Iranians. No one knows exactly what happened. And maybe, just maybe, we'll avoid that - the possibility of significant escalation as a result of it.

MARTÍNEZ: General, what do you think will most influence what might happen next that Iran and Israel have fired at each other and that there's no going back lines were crossed, or that since in both cases, really not much of any damage was reported, so both can just kind of leave it there?

MCKENZIE: Well, I think it's important to understand that the Iranian attack on Israel over the weekend was a massive attack, and it was designed to hurt. It was not signaling. It was not anything other than a major comprehensive attack. That attack failed decisively. That's important because Iran values its missiles - its land attack cruise missiles and its drones - as their centerpiece of its deterrence strategy. And that capability has now been exposed. So going forward, this is a problem for Iran.

On the other hand, Israel is strengthening in every way. They won what I would consider to be an operational victory. Their task was to turn it into a lasting strategic victory by not alienating those who stood beside them in the defense of Israel over the weekend. I think they're trying to thread the needle here. Good chance they will. I mean, the Iranians appear a little befuddled about what happened, which talks to Israeli technical mastery. So let's see in the days ahead, but I think this is - of all the things that could have happened, if they were going to respond, this is a pretty reasonable way to try to find something that doesn't offend your coalition partners and yet tell the - message the Iranians again that we can do what we want here and we will if you continue up this escalation ladder.

MARTÍNEZ: Has a scale of all this surprised you?

MCKENZIE: The scale of the Iranian attack was certainly surprising. It was a maximum effort for them. And so in the fact that they have chosen to strike Israel directly, I believe they did it out of desperation because they've effectively been outfought by Israel in the Shadow War. This dialogue of targets over many months that sort of culminated in the 1 April strike on Damascus. So what Iran - Iran's tactic was to borrow something from the Russian playbook, escalate to deescalate, where you do something dramatic that makes your opponent sort of sit back and reconsider if he wants to still remain in the game. The problem is they're not the Russians, and they don't have the leverage that the Russians bring to an escalation scenario. And their attack was, in fact, ineffective. So they are markedly weaker today than they were the day before they attacked Israel. And I would argue that Israel is stronger today than they were.

MARTÍNEZ: The White House had been calling on Benjamin Netanyahu to exercise restraint. Could this counter strike be considered restrained?

MCKENZIE: But, you know, so still gathering data, as you noted at the top of the program...


MCKENZIE: ...I would say this is a very, very restrained, calibrated, scoped response by Israel, an attempt to hit a sweet spot that messages the Iranians, hey, you know, we can do this again at a much larger scale. And despite all the bluster from the Iranians, they know it. And at the same time, you signal to your partners that, look, this is - that - now we're being reasonable. We're not going to try to over escalate here.

MARTÍNEZ: What does it say, then, about the U.S.'s influence on Israel's military action, if indeed this was restrained?

MCKENZIE: I would think that the prime minister of Israel had to balance many factors when he made his decision. He had to balance, first of all, the effect on Iran, his principal antagonist. But he also works in a complex political environment where he has to consider those nations that have supported him - the United Kingdom, the United States, France - as well as his Arab - the Arab nations that stood with Israel in the attack over the weekend. It's a very complex political situation. I think this is an attempt to sort of thread that needle.

MARTÍNEZ: That is retired U.S. CENTCOM commander, General Frank McKenzie. General, thank you.

MCKENZIE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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