Israeli leaders say the nation will respond to Iran’s weekend attack, but what that response will entail remains unclear.

“I can see a number of scenarios in which this does escalate to a regional and potentially even a global conflict,” says a former member of the National Security Council, Robert Greenway, adding, “I can see fewer ways in which we prevent that from occurring.” 

Over the weekend, Iran launched about 300 drones and missiles at Israel. Unlike other attacks, this was not carried out by proxy terrorist groups in the region, but the nation of Iran itself. 

If a larger conflict in the Middle East is to be avoided, says Greenway, who also serves as director of the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation, the U.S. will need “to radically alter its policy and approach toward Iran and Israel.” (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)

U.S. policy changes toward Iran should include “to deny it the resources necessary, and to restore deterrence, with the support of Israel and our partners and allies,” Greenway says. 

Greenway joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain what options Israel has as it considered retaliation against Iran, and how U.S. Middle East foreign policy is affecting the conflict.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Virginia Allen: Robert Greenway joins us now. Rob, thanks so much for being with us.

Robert Greenway: Always a pleasure.

Allen: As a former member of the National Security Council, can you take us into the situation room? What are the conversations that were happening in the White House over the weekend and that are likely still happening today?

Greenway: Sure. So these sorts of scenarios unfold in one of three ways. The first is, this is something that we’re planning to do, in which case we have time to deliberate and decide on the topic to coordinate among departments and agencies, which is the NSC’s chief job, and make sure that the policy and the communication side of it are ready before, during, and after.

There are also those circumstances that just happen, a crisis for which there is no forewarning or any time to prepare, and you simply have to respond. And there’s the third, which is probably more closely aligned to where we’re at now, which is circumstances are happening outside of our control to a large extent, but we have some time in order to plan and prepare.

So in this instance, days leading up to this, as the threat becomes clear and as information and intelligence makes the picture a little bit higher fidelity, we would begin the process of convening departments and agencies in order to review existing policy and then present options to the president.

And that is, again, also one of the NSC’s chief jobs, to say, “This is what we think is going to happen, and then these are the options within the policy parameters that we believe we’re operating to accomplish his intent.”

And once the president reviews that information—it has to percolate through the machinery and that takes a lot of meetings. And by the time you get to the president, if you have the time to do that—and ultimately, you’re presenting for his decision—and when it gets to that point, it’s a small group of people in the room, the people that are managing the process and then the principals of departments and agencies that would comprise the National Security Council with the president presiding.

He would then make his decision, issue guidance, and then we’d be in execution, which is all of the paperwork associated with decisions, his instructions, documented accordingly and communicated to departments and agencies. And then we would supervise that and make sure everyone understood the communication received.

And then we do the work of coordinating between agencies. They’re each doing their own thing in accordance with the president’s guidance, but somebody has to be the orchestrator. It is like an orchestra, and so someone has to conduct. And the NSC often is the organization that conducts the music between the different departments and agencies to make sure the outcome is consistent.

And then as it occurs, you’re convening again the small group of individuals, in this case, the president in this situation room—and I have done that in the Trump administration many times. And you’re reviewing events as they unfold and you’re discussing, deliberating in real time as things occur with the information you have. Sometimes, it’s incredibly detailed. In many cases, there are significant gaps.

When we were receiving the response from the Iranians from the Qasem Soleimani strike, it was in the situation room with the president and a small group reviewing information, and at that point you’re trying to determine what happens next.

And it was in that meeting, as we anticipated, we knew it was going to happen, we knew what was going to happen exactly and where, they were keen to prevent escalation. And while the missiles were in flight, we received notification through two different channels, the Iranians were communicating to us explicitly there was going to be no other follow-up action from them as a result.

So, with that warning and with the preparations made, there were no U.S. fatalities. There were, in the grand scheme of things, less significant injuries incurred on service members. But it was 16 missiles launched, 12 impacts on two different U.S. air bases, not 320 missiles launched at a partner from state to state. So, a radically different scenario in this case, and unfortunately, because we’ve lost control of escalation and deterrence in the region.

But at any rate, to your question, what goes on inside the White House when this happens is there’s a long series of escalating meetings to get to the president, provide him options, issue his guidance, and then follow up in real time as events occur. On the one hand, you have an enormous amount of information and intelligence available, but on the other hand, these situations often have a lot of key pieces of information missing and inevitably involve very difficult decisions.

Allen: We’ve seen that the White House has said that it will not be involved in any retaliatory attack that Israel carries out. So, then what is the response that we’re looking at from the U.S.? Are they going to respond with any sort of sanction-type measures or what are the options that they’re probably floating, or are there any?

Greenway: Well, I don’t know that this administration has a long range of options to consider against Iran. It’s this sort of policy that it’s pursued remarkably consistently and unfortunately, ill-advised, is to appease Iran and attempt to encourage them toward better behavior. The “don’t, don’t, don’t,” which again and again, as we’re watching them do, do, do.

And so, in this case, I don’t think the administration is going to take action other than to constrain Israel, unfortunately, who has now been attacked in an unprecedented way for the first time from Iran and has to respond publicly because the attack was public. What that looks like, I think we’ll find out in the coming days, perhaps weeks, before the full range and decision is made on their end.

But I think the U.S. decision and the announcement to say so publicly doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I think at this point we ought to be preserving our communications for our enemies and providing support and assistance to our friends. In this case, we’re warning Israel not to act any further as opposed to Iran that just launched an unprecedented number of missiles, drones at our closest ally in the region.

And so I think what we can expect is Israel’s response will come. I think it may take the other side of Passover for that to happen, but there’s no question that they have to respond because this was done on an international stage. And their response has to be equally visible to all in order to restore deterrence so that you don’t have a new red line, which is that any time Iran feels like it’s been slighted or it’s been attacked, then it has the right to launch hundreds of projectiles across several countries into a sovereign state without risking a response.

And I think the U.S. role here is ill-advised, it ought to be to discourage Iran and to encourage Israel to restore deterrence. We ought to be supporting them in that effort.

Allen: Correct me if I’m wrong, but Iran’s actions against Israel were an act of war, and let’s just say that, speaking hypothetically, Israel were to declare war on Iran. What would our alliance require the U.S. response to be?

Greenway: There’s no treaty, there’s no Senate-confirmed alliance that exists between the two countries. It’s more of an agreement that has endured for over 75 years and has been integral to both countries and I think it has proven to be enormously fruitful. So, we’re not obligated to respond in kind, but I don’t think Israel’s going to take that path because I don’t think there’s an advantage to doing it.

And besides, there’s enormous will across the entirety of the population in Israel to respond. I mean, if you spent the night in a bomb shelter yet again and your families and your interests and your economy, your country were exposed to that again and again, it makes the decision easy.

So, there’s massive support within Israel, as there was to pursue the campaign against Hamas in Gaza, to respond to Hezbollah, and certainly to Iran. So, I think that massive public support is there, I doubt they will proceed down the road. Although, you’re right, this is without question a declaration of war in terms of the action taken.

Allen: Let’s talk a little bit more about the response that we might see from Israel. You said it’s probably going to come in the coming days, but it might even take weeks. If you were advising Israel, what kind of response would you advise?

Greenway: Well, look, I think the debate in their mind in Israel is not whether or not to respond. The issue is in what way and to a certain extent when.

So, let’s take to a certain extent. I think the options are on the spectrum from taking visible actions that might have a real material impact on Iran, that in contradiction to the missiles launched that ultimately none found their target, essentially, Israel had the ability to respond effectively against Iran.

And I think that could take place in the cyber, that could take place in the form of mysterious explosions across Iran, or the assassination of key individuals that perform key functions in Iran or elsewhere around the world, wherever they may be operating.

Particularly, those that are like [Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza] Zahedi in Damascus two weeks ago that are performing critical functions in the axis of resistance supporting terrorism in the region and against Israel and the United States.

But it could also look like striking against military facilities. It could take the form of strikes against Iran’s economic infrastructure, its oil pumps, its natural gas infrastructure, and that which is responsible for deriving export revenue for the country to keep it afloat.

On the top end of the spectrum, in theory you could see an Israeli response to Iran at nuclear threshold. And so, at the top end of the spectrum, there would be, I’m sure, a healthy debate in Israel about whether or not to respond by going after the principal threat in the principal adversary in Iran and going after the nuclear targets before they get to the point where those ballistic missiles that came over this weekend could be nuclear armed.

And so, I think that spectrum is massive. Their range of options is extensive, and I think they’ll be discussing exactly what the best way to restore deterrence is so that there isn’t a response after this. The goal for Israel is for Iran not to be in a position to respond.

Allen: You mentioned Damascus, and we know that Iran says this was in retaliation to that strike at the embassy building in Damascus that killed seven Iranian officials. Israel has not claimed that they are responsible for that. What are your thoughts on that, about who is responsible and if Israel could be responsible?

Greenway: Well, first, let’s remember that this individual is the principal architect of the relationship between Tehran and Hezbollah and the militias in Syria, and also Hamas. Those are all within his portfolio.

So, we know from Iranians who were mourning his loss were talking about the role he played in the Oct. 7 attacks and the response from Iran to support Hamas afterward. So, that’s one. Thirty-three Americans were killed in that, as your listeners will know. And obviously, the most deadly attack in Israel’s history.

Second, he’s responsible for the ongoing conflict between, or was, conflict between Hezbollah, which is escalating in Israel. And third, three American service members that died in Jordan were from militias operating under his direction and control and provided equipment under his direction.

So, he has lots of American and Israeli blood on his hands and was in the process, no doubt, of coordinating a lot more.

In terms of retaliation or escalation, look, this has gone back and forth for decades. Retaliation isn’t an apt word, in this case, it is an escalation. So it’s beyond the pattern of normal response to an attack along decades of an ongoing back and forth between the two countries. But the first time that Iran directly struck Israel from its territory, and certainly at this scale, is a radical escalation. So not a retaliation in my judgment, but a massive escalation.

Allen: Sen. Ted Cruz wrote on X today, he said, “[President Joe] Biden has allowed over $100 billion to flow into Iran. This is how the Ayatollah was able to afford drones and missiles to attack Israel.”

Did the Biden administration’s foreign policy on Iran maybe open a door or window in order for this attack to happen?

Greenway: Oh, much more than that. We are essentially paying for Iran to conduct its nuclear expansion and to conduct military operations and support surrogates and proxies across the region.

And the way this works is export revenue comes into Iran, and Iran then makes budgetary decisions just like everyone else does, and they prioritize defense at home and abroad before they prioritize anything else. The more revenue they have, the more they prioritize the defense. And so, defense spending, which is about $50 billion a year, is more or less covered by oil sales that they are now allowed to do because the United States doesn’t enforce sanctions as we once used to.

So now they go from maybe on a good month putting out 400,000 barrels a day under the Trump administration to putting out, oh, almost 2 million barrels a day. And instead of $55 a barrel, where we managed to keep oil market prices, they’re now $85 and climbing, especially with the escalation, which impacts all Americans, of course. And so, you’re seeing massive amounts of revenue because of lax sanctions enforcement.

We’ve also paid them for hostages, and that’s about $6 billion. And then we provide them access to Iraqi electricity sales, which is basically money laundering where Iran is paying Iraq for electricity it doesn’t need and that Iraq has more than enough to supply to, but they get U.S. dollars to do it and they provide that directly back to Iran, and we have endorsed the entire scheme. And the … prime minister of Iraq is here today, oddly enough, and he exists largely to ensure that Iran has access to these resources.

So, the Biden administration has provided direct cash infusion into Tehran, and we provided a massive amount of sanctions lax enforcement. All told about $100 billion of additional revenue Iran has access to. That’s two full years of their entire defense budget.

Allen: Are we looking at an all-out war in the Middle East? And if so, what would those alliances look like?

Greenway: I can see a number of scenarios in which this does escalate to a regional and potentially even a global conflict. I can see fewer ways in which we prevent that from occurring. And all of those paths that prevent it from happening would require the U.S. to radically alter its policy and approach toward Iran and Israel. To confront Iran, to deny it the resources necessary, and to restore deterrence with the support of Israel and our partners and allies. That is not the approach the U.S. administration, the Biden administration is taking.

So, I think that escalation beyond what we saw this weekend is more likely than not. And I think, regardless of what Israel decides to do next relative to Iran, it is likely that Iran’s calculation is the United States will constrain Israel for them and they’re able to act with greater impunity. And that causes miscalculations, and that’s what makes this climb ever further up the escalatory chain.

And I would add that even before the Iranian strike, it was almost certain, and I think still is, that Israel is going to have to invade Lebanon sometime probably this summer in order to relocate its civilians that have been displaced because of the Hezbollah rockets that continue to fire unimpeded, and 80,000 Israelis now finding a different place to live because of it. That’s an untenable situation. And the only way to do that is to go in and get the infrastructure required.

And again, the United States here is absent in maintaining deterrence, which we have done for decades, and now we are seeing the consequences of a policy that has appeased Iran rather than to confront them.

And so, I think the odds of escalation are climbing, no question. Whether or not we’ll get to a regional war or global conflict, it’s impossible to say. And unfortunately, I think we may find out.

Allen: If things escalate, and specifically between Israel and Iran and then also Israel and Yemen, who are some of the other nations that you’ll be watching to see are they aligning either with Israel or are they aligning with Iran?

Greenway: Well, it is a good question. I think more to the point though is you’d see countries that would try as best they could to be neutral in this and not pick a side. On the one hand, it stands Israel, in theory with the United States, although not in practice at the moment, except in defensive terms, not in offensive terms.

And you see their strong relations they’ve had with Egypt and with Jordan, but under stress because of what’s going on in Gaza. And it’s difficult to say in which scenario they would be involved in support of Israel or not. Even though Jordan took steps to help defend their airspace against the missile attack, it’s hard to see them taking side with Israel against Iran at a broader conflict.

On Iran’s side, you have Hezbollah in Lebanon, you have three different militia groups in Syria, you have a constellation of five or more inside Iraq. In fact, the largest armed group inside Iraq is not the Army, it’s the Hashd al-Shabi, the Popular Mobilization Committee, is under Iran’s direct control and support. And then you have the Houthis in Yemen. And that constellation would certainly take up side with Iran against Israel in a regional conflict.

Now look, the impact on this is equally important. We’re at high commodity prices because of high energy costs and disrupted supply chains, both of which can be traced back in part, in some cases in whole, to the conflict in the Middle East. And if it gets worse, then we can expect, every American can expect, at the pump and in the grocery store, you’re going to see a requisite increase in the price of commodities inevitably.

Allen: In the immediate related to what’s happening in Gaza, are we going to see Israel shift gears or any priorities, do you think, as they’re also focused on now addressing the situation in Iran?

Greenway: Also, an incredibly difficult question, which I’m sure was hotly debated and will be. On the one hand, they have a pressing requirement to complete the operation, and that does two things. First, it addresses the threat from Hamas so that you don’t have a threat that continues to pose a risk. And most importantly, you don’t have the resources required right now to address that threat deeply committed and unable to support other operations and activities.

Israel is going to want to have the largest amount of flexibility possible in all domains, and that means reducing the number of threats it has to sit on top of, including Hamas in Gaza. But I don’t think it has the luxury at this point in time. And again, it has questionable support for the United States, especially in offensive operations.

So, I think at this point, Israel’s going to attempt to steward its resources as best it can. And remember, too, a large portion of their military are conscripted. They are reservists that are called onto active duty. They have civilian jobs that right now are not being conducted or being conducted on an ad hoc basis. That is an impact on society as a whole. And so, this is also part, I think, of the Israeli calculation as they confront the range of threats. But this is not the first time Israel has been confronted with high odds and a hostile neighborhood.

Allen: Rob, any final thoughts before we let you go?

Greenway: No. Although, it seems that we often talk about the most depressing of issues.

Allen: It does indeed.

Greenway: But I would say one thing in terms of bright spots, and that is the foundations for regional cooperation between Israel and its neighbors are still there. Everyone recognizes the principal threat to the regional peace and stability is Iran. The region knows that and the region, I think, still recognizes that the path forward is with Israel, not against Israel. Iran is the one exception in this, but it is notable.

And I think if the U.S. charts a different path, I think we could build back on that foundation that we established during the Trump administration and put ourselves on a more sound footing. That possibility still exists, as bad as the crisis has been and may be, that requirement and I think the necessity is still there.

Allen: The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Greenway. Rob, thanks so much for your time today. Really appreciate it.

Greenway: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.