Experts: US officials must aim to prevent 'tit-for-tat' escalation between Israel, Iran

WASHINGTON (OSV News) -- As the White House responds to Iran's attack against Israel, Catholic experts said U.S. officials should seek to prevent further escalation in the region.

Iran's unprecedented aerial attack on Israel overnight April 13-14 followed a suspected Israeli strike two weeks prior on an Iranian consular building in Damascus, killing 16 people including two Iranian generals. Iran launched over 300 drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles at Israel, 99% of which were intercepted by Israel's military in coordination with a U.S.-led coalition of allies, according to Israel's military.

Despite decades of hostile posturing towards Israel from Iran, the attack marked Iran's first direct military assault on the state of Israel, raising concern the conflict could spread through the region.

In an April 13 statement, Biden said, "Iran -- and its proxies operating out of Yemen, Syria and Iraq -- launched an unprecedented air attack against military facilities in Israel."

"I condemn these attacks in the strongest possible terms," Biden said.

Biden said that at his direction, "to support the defense of Israel, the U.S. military moved aircraft and ballistic missile defense destroyers to the region over the course of the past week. Thanks to these deployments and the extraordinary skill of our servicemembers, we helped Israel take down nearly all of the incoming drones and missiles."

Biden added he spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu "to reaffirm America's ironclad commitment to the security of Israel."

"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.

Biden said he would convene "fellow G7 leaders to coordinate a united diplomatic response to Iran's brazen attack."

Mary Ellen O'Connell, a professor at Notre Dame Law School who specializes in international law and conflict resolution, told OSV News that "the clear success in countering Iran's missile and drone strikes on Israel is a dramatic demonstration of the true legal and moral meaning of 'self-defense.'"

"It is not pre-empting potential attacks that may never happen or assassinating a person and killing those around him or carrying out punitive strikes," O'Connell said. "True self-defense means to 'halt and repel' incoming attacks."

However, O'Connell added, "If Israel carries out an attack on Iran in the aftermath of drone and missile attacks, Israel, too will be violating the law and morality. Because such a response will not be in self-defense. Israel's attack in Syria on Iran's diplomatic premises was not self-defense."O'Connell said "the tit-for-tat retaliatory cycle needs to end -- replaced by true self-defense."

"The response to Iran on April 13 was lawful, moral and effective," she said. "President Biden needs to ensure that is the standard the U.S. follows itself and holds its allies, too. Then he needs to win ceasefires in Gaza and Sudan."

Robert Kennedy, a professor of Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, told OSV News the U.S. is "faced with some very difficult choices" in the broader conflict.

"And among those choices, I think, is simply to take steps to make it clear that those who want Israel to disappear cannot win," he said.

Kennedy said the U.S. and some other nations "are in a position to ensure a relatively peaceful world or to disrupt a relatively peaceful world."

"I think we need to be realistic about our opponents and about our own actions," he said, "and whether they promote peace and harmony or disrupt peace and harmony."

- - - Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on X (formerly known as Twitter) @kgscanlon.