OPINIONS

Fri 19 Apr 2024 10:27 am - Jerusalem Time

Iran and Israel’s Dangerous Gambit

NICOLE GRAJEWSKI

Iran’s April 13 attack on Israel was a watershed moment in the countries’ history. The attack involved the first-ever direct strikes launched from Iranian territory onto Israeli soil, with an unprecedented number of ballistic missiles fired in a single military operation by Iran. The decision to retaliate directly against Israel’s attack on an Iranian embassy was intended not only to showcase Iran’s resolve but also to restore conventional deterrence with Israel. Moreover, the attack marked a significant shift in the country’s strategic thinking and approach to dealing with its longtime regional adversary. Rather than restoring the balance with Israel, Iran has opened up the prospect of further escalation.

WAR BETWEEN WARS

Iran’s retaliation for Israeli strikes on its consulate in Damascus marks a further escalation in the two countries’ protracted shadow conflict, characterized by covert operations, targeted airstrikes, and the use of proxy forces. The so-called war between wars has primarily unfolded in Syria, where Iranian-backed militias and Hezbollah have been perennial targets of Israeli strikes to curb Tehran’s growing influence and prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to its proxies.

For years, Iran had relied on a policy of “strategic patience,” which involved supporting and strengthening proxy groups to project power in the region while maintaining a degree of plausible deniability and avoiding direct confrontation with Israel. However, since October 7, Israeli strikes against Iranian assets in Syria have intensified, and Iran’s strategic patience and reputation among allies and adversaries alike has been tested.

In December, Israeli strikes in Damascus killed Seyed Razi Mousavi, a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) adviser who served as the main conduit for Iranian interests in Syria. In response, Iran launched a barrage of ballistic missiles at apparent Israeli targets in Erbil, Iraq, which the commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force (IRGC-AF) claimed targeted a “Mossad espionage base.”

The turning point came on April 1, when Israeli F-35 fighter jets launched six missiles at the consular section of the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, killing General Mohammad Zahedi, the former head of the IRGC ground forces. Though Iran and Israel had long engaged in tit-for-tat attacks in the region, the April 1 strikes were viewed as a provocative act that demanded a forceful response. The targeting of a diplomatic compound, which is considered Iranian territory under international law, and the death of a high-ranking general suggested a potential intelligence breach and a marked escalation compared to previous Israeli strikes—even if the material losses were less extensive than previous ones inflicted on munitions factories or military assets based in Syria.

Many Iranian officials argued that Israel’s actions must be countered, and Tehran demonstrated a greater willingness to bear the burden of short-term escalation in order to deter future Israeli aggression and prevent additional military casualties. Moreover, Iran’s hard-line factions had grown increasingly dissatisfied with the country’s inability to effectively counter Israeli strikes in Syria and viewed Iran’s restraint as a weakness that emboldened its adversaries. Thus, Iran aimed to send a powerful message that it was no longer willing to tolerate Israeli aggression and was ready to engage in direct confrontation to deter future attacks.

From April 1 to April 13, Iran released a series of statements about the impending response to Israel as domestic pundits contemplated the appropriate response. Many argued for directly targeting an Israeli diplomatic facility, and some even suggested targeting Israel’s Dimona nuclear site. In his Eid al-Fitr speech, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated that Israel had “committed another mistake” and that “when they attack our consulate, it means they have attacked our soil.” The video shared by the supreme leader’s press office inconspicuously panned to the commander of the IRGC-AF smiling when Khamenei stated that Israel “must be punished.”

Behind the scenes, Iran communicated through various channels to emphasize its stance and intentions. Utilizing the Swiss Embassy, Tehran issued a warning to Washington that U.S. military bases in the region could become targets if the United States supported any Israeli counterstrike. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian disclosed that seventy-two hours before the strikes, Iran notified the regional countries hosting these U.S. bases about its impending military actions. Iran’s behind-the-scenes communications and warnings, while intended to control escalation and shape the narrative, ultimately could neither mitigate the risks nor mollify the uncertainty that would ensue from its direct strike on Israel.

OPERATION TRUE PROMISE

Twelve days after the Damascus attack, Iran launched a wave of drones followed by cruise and ballistic missiles from Iran to Israeli territory. Before the drones had even entered Israeli airspace, the IRGC released a statement announcing that in response to Israel’s “numerous crimes including the attack on the consular section of Iran’s Embassy in Damascus and the martyrdom of a number of our country’s commanders and military advisors in Syria,” the IRGC Aerospace Force “launched tens of missiles and drones against certain targets inside the occupied territories.”

Operation True Promise, as Iran called its response, was unprecedented in the sheer number of drones, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles fired from Iranian territory in a single conflict since the Iran-Iraq War. Moreover, Iran’s decision to largely keep its regional proxies and Hezbollah out of the conflict departed from its usual modus operandi. The scale of the operation and minimal proxy involvement suggested that Iran intended to send a message to Israel about its willingness to strike Israeli targets directly. The nature of the operation also signaled that Iran sought to contain the escalatory dynamics—a goal seldom achieved easily.

The extensive advance warning given to Israeli air defenses and allied fighter jets reduced the military effectiveness of the Iranian operation, as it allowed ample time for the majority of the drones and missiles to be intercepted before reaching their targets. Israeli air defense systems, notably the Iron Dome and Arrow, combined with U.S. fighters, intercepted most of the missiles, effectively neutralizing nearly all of them before they could cause substantial damage. In reality, the interception of most of Iran’s weapons, even with ample warning, exposed the weakness of its offensive capabilities, which have been touted over the years.

Despite the considerable escalation, official Iranian statements were careful to frame the operation as a limited and proportionate response. According to Iranian Chief of Staff Mohammad Bagheri, the primary targets of the strikes were the Nevatim Airbase, from which Israel launched the Damascus attack, and the intelligence center in Mount Hermon, which had allegedly provided the intelligence for the consulate attack. Tehran emphasized that it had no intention of further escalating the conflict, with Bagheri declaring, “Our operations are over.”

Iranian state-led media portrayed the operation as a successful attempt to restore deterrence against Israel. These outlets downplayed the number of drones and missiles that were intercepted by Israeli defenses, focusing instead on the symbolic significance of the strikes. This spin was likely aimed at shaping domestic public opinion and bolstering support for the government’s more aggressive stance toward Israel, particularly among hard-line factions that had been pushing for a stronger response to Israel.

WAITING FOR A RESPONSE

The big risk in all this is that rather than restore deterrence, the scale of the strikes may elicit an Israeli response on Iranian territory that could lead to a dangerous cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation. Even though Iran sought to change Israel’s risk calculus and deter it from further provocations, Tehran has likely put itself in a precarious position, waiting for an Israeli response that could escalate the conflict further.

Although the United States has said that it will not partake in offensive operations against Iran, Washington would need to dissuade Israel from directly targeting Iranian territory in order to avoid further escalation. This is not an easy task, especially as Israel has vowed retribution. But de-escalation is in each nation’s interest, even if particular leaders may see it differently. Further Iranian attacks will not destroy Israel, improve its treatment of Palestinians, or make it stop targeting IRGC leaders and supply chains. Likewise, further Israeli strikes will not improve Iran’s atrocious human rights record or stimulate the abandonment of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Israeli adversaries.

At some point, mutual de-escalation will need to happen. Sooner would be better than later for everyone. 

 

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Iran and Israel’s Dangerous Gambit

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