Iran Escalates – Attacks Israel Directly For The First Time

Yesterday Iran launched dozens of drones and missiles at the Jewish state that didn’t kill anyone (though 31 people were injured) because the weapons were slow and cheap and 99% of them were shot down.

Iran apparently provided 72-hours advanced notice to its neighbors and to the US and hence to Israel.

The attack looks more like a public relations exercise than a killing exercise.

Most of us want to contribute. If I didn’t think I had something to add to this story, I would do other things with my time. While I see nothing I can add on the moral dimension of this conflict, I do think I have some insights into the realpolitik.

Millions of Israelis sought shelter during the attack so Iran demonstrated its ability to disrupt the lives of its enemies. This was a warning more than an attack. If Iranian-backed Hezbollah unleashes its full missile arsenal on Israel, thousands of people would die and large parts of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa would be flattened.

Simultaneous with the attack on Saturday, Iran publicly announced that this was the end of its retaliation for Israel’s bombing of a building next to Iran’s embassy in Damascus on April 1st that killed a leading Iranian general.

Even if Israel hit Iran’s embassy, while a violation of international law, it was not attacking Iran proper. An embassy is not sovereign territory. Iran, on the other hand, has attacked Israel proper, and not just military targets, but also population centers such as Jerusalem.

If Israel fights back in an obvious way, the world may regard Israel as the provocateur.

An example of a country not fighting back after terrorism is India after the 2008 Mumbai attacks by Pakistanis. India rightly judged it was better served by not directly retaliating against its nuclear-armed neighbor.

On the other hand, what Israel experienced Saturday is different from the Mumbai attacks. Israel received a broad-based missile and drone attack, much of it aimed at its capital city — Jerusalem. Which countries would not publicly, explicitly and directly retaliate after such an assault? Would the US or France or Japan or Australia sit back and absorb such a drone and missile barrage, even if none of their citizens were killed? I doubt it. The only countries that would not explicitly fight back in these circumstances would be weak countries. Israel is not a weak country. Israel has the most formidable military in the Middle East. I can’t imagine any country with a formidable military not fighting back after such a strike. If I am wrong, please name that country.

Why should Israel be held to a different standard than other countries in similar circumstances with similar capability?

Why has Iran engaged in this blatant signaling exercise? On the face of it, Iran’s attack seems no more effective at achieving its aim of hurting Israel than wearing a mask while driving alone minimizes one’s chances of catching Covid.

We all signal because signaling works. Life signals. Animals signal. Dogs and cats and snakes and people constantly send signals. We often signal without knowing we’re signaling. It’s a basic instinct.

Philosopher Neil Levy noted in an April 16, 2020 paper:

The accusation of virtue signalling is typically understood as a serious charge. Those accused usually respond (if not by an admission of fault) by attempting to show that they are doing no such thing. In this paper, I argue that we ought to embrace the charge, rather than angrily reject it. I argue that this response can draw support from cognitive science, on the one hand, and from social epistemology on the other. I claim that we may appropriately concede that what we are doing is (inter alia) virtue signalling, because virtue signalling is morally appropriate. It neither expresses vices, nor is hypocritical, nor does it degrade the quality of public moral discourse. Signalling our commitment to norms is a central and justifiable function of moral discourse, and the same signals provide (higher-order) evidence that is appropriately taken into account in forming moral beliefs…

Animals use signals for a variety of purposes. For instance, gazelles famously signal their fitness by stotting (jumping up and down on the spot) in front of predators (FitzGibbon and Fanshawe 1988). Peacocks even more famously signal their fitness with their spectacular tails (Zahavi and Zahavi 1999). Good signals are hard to fake signals: if a signal is cheap, then defectors will co-opt it and it will rapidly lose its value. Stotting is a hard to fake signal because it is costly. The gazelle who can afford to waste energy it might have saved for fleeing is probably not worth chasing. The peacock’s tail is an even more reliable signal, because the more spectacular the tail the more resources have been devoted to it and the better the health of the bird. A good signal of trustworthiness, too, will be hard to fake.

In human beings, hard to fake signals take a variety of forms. Some are costly, like the peacock’s tail. Many cognitive scientists argue that costly signalling is at the root of a variety of religious practises (Irons 2001; Sosis and Alcorta 2003; Sosis and Bressler 2003). Regular attendance at religious services is costly, insofar as it requires forgoing more immediately rewarding activities. More directly, tithing is costly and religious rituals often involve some kind of privation. Fasting is a common signal of religious commitment (Lent, Ramadan and Yom Kippur all involve fasting, of course), and particularly devout individuals may take vows of celibacy, of poverty or even enter small cells for life as anchorites. Some signals are not costly, but nevertheless are credibility enhancing (Henrich 2009). Crossing a bridge may not be costly for the person who crosses (she may benefit from doing so) but it is a reliable signal that she believes the bridge is safe.

We live in a world in which we cannot easily rely on others’ moral record, as conveyed by gossip, to identify those we can trust. Our societies are too large for reputation-tracking to be reliable: gossip may not reach us, and agents move relatively freely from community to community. Formal systems of regulation may help, but their effective development and enforcement depends on a sufficient level of trust to avoid systematic corruption. Costly and credibility enhancing signalling help fill the gap between reputation tracking and formal regulation. For example, because religious observance involves hard to fake signals of trustworthiness, co-religionists may seek one another out as business partners. The role of Quakers in the early years of British industry is, for instance, well-known (Prior et al. 2006). Moreover, trust is not limited to co-religionists. Religious and non-religious people express more trust in religious people, regardless of their religion, than in atheists (Gervais et al. 2011, 2017).

Credibility enhancing displays and costly signals of religious commitment are moral signals (at least for those individuals who belong to the High Gods religions (Norenzayan 2013), with their moralized gods, which have a near monopoly on the faithful today). They are signals of willingness to abide by certain, publicly proclaimed, norms. They are ways of signalling our virtue. Displays of religiosity continue to play this signalling function today, especially in highly religious societies like the United States.

But as societies secularise, such signals no longer have the same power. Small wonder we have turned to more secular virtue signalling.

I first went to public school in tenth grade in September of 1981. Because I wasn’t known at Placer High School in Auburn, CA, I was often mistaken for a freshman and people tried to haze me. One day a group of kids in my grade started bullying me, and I lost my temper, went up to one of them, and right in his face, I took a big bite of my apple. I don’t know why I did this, but I guess I was signaling.

It wasn’t such a great move. The kids then followed me up the campus mocking me but at least they didn’t beat me up. Nobody did.

A year later, I collaborated with the guy I crunched my apple at when he complained that football players got preferential treatment when compared to other athletes such as himself who rode bicycles. It was the article that put me on the map in my high school. Various football players got in my face afterward and one squeezed my neck and another, Jim Otto Jr (now a pastor) threw me in trash can. I was running on adrenaline for weeks. I saw myself as a brave truthteller.

I never discussed the bullying I received with the people who bullied me, nor did I talk to my best friend at Placer High School why he turned against me after my article came out on preferential treatment for football players (months prior to the publication, we collaborated on ways to do the article when we both worked on the school newspaper, but at crunch time my friend was no longer on the newspaper and he identified more strongly with his fellow athletes). We’re still friends and we’ve never discussed this, nor talked about the various ridiculous things I’ve said and done.

When I first got into Judaism circa 1992, I started cutting off people from my life who were not sufficiently righteous and deep in my estimation (it was one of my many maladaptive 1990s interpretations of Judaism’s and Dennis Prager’s teachings). Luckily, I didn’t do this to my high school friend, but for years afterward, I would distance myself from those who indicated they watched a lot of TV, even those who were only baiting me by saying they watched eight hours of TV a day.

Signaling is good, but like anything good, it can go awry.

Iran has yet to directly attack Americans on American or European soil. It certainly has that capability, but it has held back because it does not want to directly go to war with America (as opposed to war through proxies, which Iran has waged for decades against Israel and the US).

It is not clear yet whether this attack is better for Iran or for Israel. If Israel abstains from escalating with Iran, this might be a win for Israel.

My biggest disagreement with the latest news coverage is the idea that Israel does not want to escalate. Israel has many incentives to escalate, in large part because of American security guarantees. Israel would love to get American cooperation to bomb the hell out of Iranian nuclear facilities, which, ironically, would massively increase Iran’s incentives to build nuclear weapons.

When you subsidize something, you get more of it. America subsidizes Israel’s military, and backstops it with security guarantees, and this creates incentives for Israel to engage in risky behavior.

If an investor has a guaranteed limit to its losses, he is likely to make risky bets. If the bets pay off, the investor wins. If the bets fail, his losses are limited.

A common critique of American banking is that the losses are socialized while the profits are held in private hands.

Israel’s losses are similarly socialized — not in terms of lives, but in terms of arms. Israel’s gains, on the other hand, largely accrue to Israel, and not to American interests. A greater Israel, for example, freed from the presence of Palestinians, may well be in Israel’s best interests but not necessarily in America’s.

On January 11, 2024, I blogged:

Mearsheimer: ‘Israelis wouldn’t mind a general conflagration because that would facilitate ethnic cleansing.’

Different groups have different interests. When you believe your enemy threatens your existence, as Israelis believe about Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, no cards are taken off the table.

What people are happy with the existence of enemies within them and beside them? I’m talking “enemy” in the Schmittian sense of one who is seeking your destruction.

The normal reaction of any living thing is to create an environment around it most conducive to its thriving.

John J. Mearsheimer says 45 minutes in: “The United States does not want escalation in the Middle East. The United States would like to see Israel win in Gaza, whatever that means, and end that war so that we have a stable Middle East. The Israelis are a different matter. I believe the Israelis wouldn’t mind a general conflagration because that would facilitate ethnic cleansing.”

If I lived in Gaza, I’d want to leave. If people I cared about lived in Gaza, I’d want them to leave. Gazans are suffering horribly. Given that Israel is not willing to live with Hamas dominating Gaza, I don’t see life improving in Gaza any time soon.

Ethnic cleansing is horrible, but there are degrees of awfulness in ethnic cleansing. Moving a people ten miles to a country with their same religion and language (which is what would happen if the residents of Gaza and the West Bank left for a neighboring Arab country) and adequate financial support (the Arabs have the money to take care of their Palestinian brothers) is not the same as moving people hundreds of miles through hostile territory to a place where they are alone and have few resources.

Most people would prefer to be ethnically cleansed to a place ten miles away rather than be murdered. Right now relations between Palestinians and Israelis are so bad, that many people on both sides want ethnic cleansing as the least of two evils.

John Mearsheimer: “I think the Israelis are interested in cleansing not only Gaza, but also the West Bank. A general conflagration would make it easier for them to do it. The other reason [Israelis] want escalation is that they have a huge problem on their northern border. About 200,000 Israelis have been displaced from their homes… How do they move those people back to northern Israel until the conflict with Hezbollah is settled and Hezbollah stops firing rockets into northern Israel. As long as the war in Gaza goes on, I believe Hezbollah will continue to target northern Israel. The Israelis want to escalate because they think they have escalation dominance here. They’d like to inflict massive punishment on Hezbollah and Lebanon and reach some kind of modus vivendi with Hezbollah that allows them to move those 100,000 Israelis back into northern Israel.”

I find it easy to listen to realists such as John J. Mearsheimer even though he frequently makes, in my view, unfair criticisms of Israel. For example, he accuses Israel of committing genocide in Gaza. From what I’ve read, Israel is doing a better job of minimizing civilian casualties than any other group has done in similar urban warfare (with a dead civilian to militant ratio of about 1.5 to 1 compared to the normal rate of 9:1).

I usually prefer talking to realists rather than moralists. With realists I can learn from them even if we have different hero systems, while with moralists, if I don’t share their foundations, I rarely learn anything. I can talk to somebody who hates Israel and it makes no difference to me, an Israel lover, as long as we are talking solely in terms of power and group interests.

Is Iran conducting a smart foreign policy? That depends on how other groups react to it. Sometimes it is smart to punch your enemy in the nose and other times it is smarter to ignore him. Yesterday Iran launched cheap missiles and thousand dollar drones at Israel that required expensive million-dollar weapons to shot down. This met several objectives simultaneously: Iran depletes the reserves of its enemies (America and Israel), and appeals to its own nationalists and to the Arab street, making it harder for Arab nations to have normal relations with Israel. Iran also makes American involvement in the Middle East increasingly expensive and dangerous. This latest escalation exemplifies the dangers of Biden’s foreign policy of over-extension into places such as Israel and Ukraine that don’t matter to vital US interests.

On the other hand, Sam Vaknin argued early Sunday morning that Iran miscalculated.


Israel bombed a structure that served the Iranian consulate in Damascus. Though not strictly within the compound of the Embassy, it was widely known as an outpost of Iranian diplomacy in Syria.

The language of articles 21-25 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) is clear: embassies and consulates are not sovereign territory and not extraterritorial. They just enjoy certain legal exemptions, that’s all.

So, why did Iran choose to escalate and retaliate by attacking Israel with a barrage of 300 UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones) as well as cruise missiles and ballistic missiles?

Because of the growing threat to its out-of-control proxies everywhere: Hamas, the Houthis, and Hizballah, first and foremost. Iran needed to reassert its authority over these terrorist organizations by being seen to fearlessly conflict directly with the “Little Devil”, Israel.

But the attack misfired in every conceivable way.

More than 97% of the weapons launched were intercepted long before they had reached the borders of Israel, exposing the inefficacy of drones and even missiles as decisive factors in modern warfare, set as they are against hi-tech defenses.

The onslaught on Israel diverted attention at least momentarily from the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza and the much heralded Israeli invasion of Rafah. It is a distractive window of opportunity that Israel might use to push on with its offensive.

The United States, France, the United Kingdom and even Jordan sided with Israel against Iran. It is a reminder that Suni countries are actually quite elated with the damage that Israel is inflicting on Shia Iran and its proxies, both Suni and Shia.

Countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt regard Israel as a handy and welcome buffer against Iran’s expansionist dreams and in the face of the Iran-sponsored death cults that cloak themselves in Muslim Brotherhood religious-political ideology.

Finally, Iran’s buffoonish retribution is humiliating. It exposes the incompetence and corruption of the theocracy. Coupled with a tanking economy, it will lead to civil unrest within Iran and perhaps to the rise of a more reformist streak of political Islam.

All these positive outcomes depend on Israel’s next move.

Biden’s sage advice to Netanyahu was to “take the win” and gloat over Iran’s debacle. But far-right forces within Israel have been spoiling for a regional war with the arch-enemy Iran for many years now. Netanyahu himself may provoke a regional kerfuffle in order to divert attention from his legal woes and force the USA to commit to his agenda.

Such a course of action would amount to an unmitigated disaster for the Jewish state.

Israel cannot defeat Iran, especially when it is already fighting a war on multiple other fronts. The USA will not be dragged into Israeli adventurism. It will rather abandon Israel to its fate. Should it choose to confront Iran now, Israel will have completed its transformation into the second North Korea, a pariah state.

When you overstate your case, you lose credibility. A classic example of this is Donald Trump’s trajectory over the past year. Fourteen months ago, Trump appeared irrelevant. Then there were a plethora of Democrat-led criminal charges against him, and now Trump appears likely to be the next president of the United States.

When Trump was elected in 2016, his opponents did a better job of organizing than did his supporters, and Trump’s four years in office saw limited progress towards his goals. Trump consistently mobilized more opposition than support and voters turned against him in 2018 and 2020 (in particular, there was a 2% swing against him in the suburbs).

When you’re at war, you need to mobilize more support than opposition. This usually requires one to keep your instincts in check and to continually asks what will do good as opposed to what will feel good.

I’m sure that Iran’s attack on Israel felt good to Iran, and that Democrat-led criminal prosecutions of Trump over the past year felt good to Democrats. Did either of these attacks succeed in their purposes? I don’t think so, but situations change, and what looks like a bad decision today may well be vindicated by tomorrow.

Anglo countries such as the United States, Australia and England tend to be the most individualist in the world. In some cases, individualist strategies work well. Anglo countries have enjoyed more than their share of success, wealth and power. On the other hand, in some circumstances such as dealing with terrorism, corporate strategies may work better.

There are reports that in this latest battle with Hamas, Israel has skipped the opportunities to take out Hamas leaders individually and instead chosen to take them out with their families.

John J. Mearsheimer: “The article made it manifestly clear that the Israelis were inflicting massive punishment on the civilian population on purpose… What I found most shocking was… that the Israelis instead of killing someone in Hamas when that fighter is by himself or with other Hamas fighters, waits until the person goes home and is with his family so that they can kill not only him but also kill the family. This is horrible.”

If a corporate strategy of taking out terrorists with their families is more effective at discouraging terror than just taking out terrorists on their own, that’s important. Few questions are more important than — what works?

The world is not as individualist, in general, as Anglo norms. Individualist ideals sound beautiful, but how does the world work? Even in individualist countries such as the United States, when a person has repeated negative interactions with an out-group, that causes the person to take on increasingly negative views of not just that out-group, but of all individuals in that out-group that the person does not know well.

To economize on decision making, most people, even in individualist countries, are likely to have some general reactions to groups such as gays, Armenians, Jews, whites, blacks, Mexicans and the like. We are wired to be tribal and to have some negative feelings about out-groups. Negative experiences with members of out-groups exacerbate out negative feelings. When acted on with discretion, these reactions may be adaptive, but in a multi-cultural setting, explicitly betraying your feelings about out-groups usually won’t serve you. People in big cities, for example, know that it is usually a bad idea to share out loud your racial and religious stereotypes. Assuming that somebody named “Ahmed” or “Shaniqua” is in a low status position may serve you if you keep your assumption to yourself, but this might hurt you if you sat it out loud.

July 22, 2014, Haaretz reported:

Israeli Professor’s ‘Rape as Terror Deterrent’ Statement Draws Ire

‘The only thing that deters a suicide bomber is the knowledge that if he pulls the trigger or blows himself up, his sister will be raped,’ says Bar-Ilan University professor.

“The only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped.” This assertion was made by Middle East scholar Dr. Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University about three weeks ago on an Israel Radio program. “It sounds very bad, but that’s the Middle East,”…

July 23, 2014, HuffPo reported:

Suicide Bombers ‘Only Deterred By Threat Of Rape Of Sisters And Wives’, Israeli Academic Says

An Israeli academic has been defended by his university after he implied would-be suicide bombers could only be stopped if their female relatives were threatened with rape.

Dr Mordechai Kedar said he was not suggesting such a tactic, but added “the knowledge that their sister of their mother will be raped” was “the only thing” that would stop terrorists from attacking Israel…

“We can’t take such steps, of course,” Kedar told the programme. “I’m not talking about what we should or shouldn’t do. I’m talking about the facts. The only thing that deters a suicide bomber is the knowledge that if he pulls the trigger or blows himself up, his sister will be raped. That’s all. That’s the only thing that will bring him back home, in order to preserve his sister’s honour.”

This week the university faced calls from feminist groups for Kedar to resign from his post, but Bar-Ilan defended the comments, saying Kedar did not intend be taken literally…

Kedar originally made the comments on July 1, after three Israeli teens – Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah – were kidnapped and found murdered in the West Bank, before Israel’s offensive, which has killed 630 Palestinians and 29 Israelis so far, began on July 8.

Dr Kedar has also served as chairman of the Israel Academia Monitor organization, which is involved in “exposing extremist Israeli academics who exploit academic freedom in order to take steps to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” according to Haaretz.

Every rabbi I’ve asked about this said the type of retaliation Kedar described would be forbidden by Jewish law.

Legal systems describe how the world should work, but how does the world actually work?

When you rip off serious criminals, they may not only hurt you but they may also go after your family and everyone you love. Why? Because this tactic works to deter people from messing with you.

Democracy sounds great, but most of life runs along authoritarian lines. When you go to work or school or church, you’re not usually going to a democracy in action.

Individualism is often great, but most of life operates corporately.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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