US tells Israel it won’t join counter-strike on Iran, urges caution

President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States will not join an offensive counter-strike on Iran should Israel choose that road after Tehran attacked it this weekend, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, are urging Israelis to be measured in any response, two U.S. officials and a diplomat familiar with the issue said.

The Biden administration is trying to defuse an armed confrontation that could drag the Middle East, as well as America, into a full-blown war. But it was not immediately clear if Netanyahu, who has long viewed Tehran as an Israeli archenemy that must be dealt with harshly, would listen given political pressures at home.

Whatever step Israel takes next could dramatically affect the trajectory of a region that houses thousands of American troops and is crucial to global energy supplies and trade routes.

Iran’s attack Saturday, which used hundreds of missiles and drones, came in retaliation for an Israeli strike on an Iranian diplomatic facility in Syria that killed several top Iranian military commanders. Iranian allied proxy militias, including ones in Yemen and Iraq, also joined in the attack. But the projectiles were largely intercepted mid-air in a combined effort by the U.S., Israel, Jordan and others.

Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and others condemned the Iranian strike in public statements and pledged solid support for Israel. But even in those public statements, they suggested that Washington does not want an escalation.

Biden said he’d meet with fellow G7 leaders Sunday to discuss a diplomatic response to Iran, which has long been his preferred path to managing the region. He stressed that he’d told Netanyahu in the call after Iran launched the attack that Israel had shown its defensive capabilities because the missiles and drones were largely thwarted.

“I told him that Israel demonstrated a remarkable capacity to defend against and defeat even unprecedented attacks — sending a clear message to its foes that they cannot effectively threaten the security of Israel,” Biden said in a statement.

The person familiar with the U.S.-Israeli conversation said Biden essentially told Netanyahu to “take the win” given that Israel escaped the attack largely unscathed.

But while Biden said Washington won’t join in an offensive strike on Iran, his stance does not mean the U.S. will not rhetorically defend or will outright oppose an Israeli strike on Iran, the person familiar with the conversation said. Axios previously reported elements of the Biden-Netanyahu call.

Iran’s decision to directly target Israeli soil, as opposed to using proxies or covert means to avenge Israel’s strike on its commanders, signaled a new front in the long-standing rivalry between the two countries.

However, U.S. officials also perceived that attack as somewhat limited and highly-telegraphed, hoping to both save face for Tehran but not escalate into a larger, regional war. The U.S. officials believed that Iran had to attack with an eye on a domestic political audience. But it did so with an announcement of slow-moving drones and missiles that were likely to be shot down — and its initial public statement included the language “the matter can be deemed concluded,” a signal that Tehran did not want more violence.

The Biden administration has long believed that Tehran does not want an escalation of the current conflict, which began on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants attacked Israel and killed some 1,200 people. Nor does the White House. But some in the Biden administration have theorized that Netanyahu may want to perpetuate the war in order to maintain his own grip on power.

Even prior to Iran’s strike Saturday, U.S. officials had been quietly counseling Israel to exercise caution in any reaction. Those warnings have continued in the hours since.

In a social media post, Netanyahu pledged victory in the faceoff — “ Together we will win,” he wrote. Some Israeli media, quoting an unnamed source, said Israel would have an “unprecedented response.” But there were no details as to what those promises would entail.

An Israeli official, having been granted anonymity to speak on a sensitive issue, said Israel is “deeply grateful for the steadfast support and commitment from the U.S., which played a leading role in defending Israel from the Iranian attack,” but added that “Israel reserves the right to defend itself following this unprecedented Iranian aggression.”

The sheer scale of the U.S. direct defensive military support for Israel — U.S. military forces knocked down dozens of the drones and missiles — also appeared to be unprecedented and could help send a message of deterrence to Iran.

Iran’s attack also drew attention away from Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, although the two are connected: Iran has long supported Hamas and Israel blames it in part for Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

The Iranian strike has, at least for the moment, put Biden and Netanyahu in the same corner after months of rising tensions between the two over how Israel has conducted the war in Gaza. U.S. officials also were startled by Israel’s decision to hit an Iranian diplomatic facility, a highly unusual move, even if Washington views the Iranian military officials gathered there as foes.

Speaking Sunday on NBC News’ Meet the Press, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby stressed that the multilayered response to the Iranian attack demonstrated that Israel “has friends, that it’s not standing alone, that it is not isolated on the world stage.”

But he was more circumspect on what Netanyahu and his colleagues should do next. “Whether and how the Israelis will respond, that’s going to be up to them,” Kirby said.