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Israel and Iran at the Precipice

The Middle East is no stranger to armed conflict, but the month of April nearly saw the region embroiled in its most substantial war in decades as long-term enemies Israel and Iran exchanged blows. Despite their decades-long animosity, these exchanges marked the first time that either country initiated direct military strikes against one another’s territory and threatened to drag an already tense region into all-out war. 

Weeks later, tensions have returned to a simmer and the threat of full-scale war seems to have passed by. However, these events remain significant developments in the future of war and peace in the Middle East, and their ramifications may continue to shape the region’s fate for years to come. 

What Just Happened?

On April 1, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) struck the Iranian Embassy complex in Damascus, Syria, reportedly killing seven Iranian military officials. The four officers and three generals reported as victims all belonged to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), which primarily works to support various militant and terrorist organizations throughout the region, such as the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas. 

The aftermath of Israel’s strike on the Iranian Embassy complex in Damascus, Syria. Image Source: New York Times

Immediately following the strike, Iran vowed that it would retaliate for what it considered a flagrant violation of its sovereignty over its diplomatic facilities. In spite of world leaders’ repeated attempts to urge Tehran to show restraint, it launched a massive counter-attack on April 13, firing more than 350 rockets and 150 ballistic missiles along with more than 170 drones at Israeli territory. Iran claims it provided a 72-hour warning prior to initiating this attack—which the United States disputes—and stated publicly that its object was to strike Israel’s Nevatim Airbase, which officials claimed was the source of the initial strike on Damascus. 99% of the weapons launched by Iran were reportedly shot down by Israeli, American, British, French, and Jordanian forces in a coordinated effort to protect Israeli territory. The Israeli government claimed that the only objects that struck its territory landed at the Nevatim base and caused very minor damage to a runway. Following the strike, Iran’s Mission to the United Nations said the matter was “concluded” as far as Tehran was concerned.

However, Israeli leaders immediately vowed to respond with force to the first direct assault on its territory by a foreign nation since 1991. Again, world leaders, led by U.S. President Biden, urged Israel to avoid escalating the conflict. These calls may have helped reign in the eventual Israeli response on April 18, which reportedly consisted of drone or missile strikes concentrated in Iran’s Isfahan region. Iranian state media claimed that Israel attempted to fly drones into Iranian airspace that were shot down in a “failed and humiliating” operation that caused no damage to Iranian territory. However, American officials claim, backed by analysis of satellite imagery, that Israeli missiles did hit an Iranian air base in Isfahan—stationed relatively near a significant nuclear facility—causing minor damage to multiple structures. Iran’s downplaying of the strike left it without a need to retaliate, which has allowed for tensions to subside in the ensuing weeks. 

While we are yet to fully understand exactly what took place on these three separate occasions, it is critical that we seek to understand the intentions and motivations of both parties—why they acted and reacted in the manner that they did. Understanding this can allow us to see just how close Israel and Iran came to engaging in all-out war, and how these events may affect the relationship between these two adversaries going forward.

Why did Israel Strike the Iranian Embassy?

Conventional wisdom may predict that, while it is embroiled in a serious armed conflict in Gaza, Israel would be hesitant to engage in aggressive actions against other regional players. But there are several reasons why Israel chose to strike the Damascus embassy, some rooted in reasonable calculations and others rooted in misperceptions of the consequences of such a strike. 

First, Israel has legitimate reasons to want to undermine the IRGC. For years, the corps has funded, supplied, and trained terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas and supported these groups’ efforts to attack Israeli territory and population centers. Though Hamas’ attack on October 7 of last year—which saw more than 1,200 Israelis killed and hundreds taken hostage—seemingly surprised Iran, it likely could not have occurred without Iran’s consistent backing of the organization. Since October 7, Hezbollah has also consistently been firing rockets into Israel from southern Lebanon, which has led to the displacement of thousands of living in northern Israel. The IRGC is the primary means through which Iran exports funds, weapons, and expertise to these terrorist groups which pose an ongoing and significant threat to Israel’s safety. One of the generals killed in the strike on Damascus, Mohamad Reza Zahedi, oversaw the IRGC’s operations in Syria and Lebanon, likely maintaining close ties with Hezbollah. Israel seemingly felt the opportunity to eliminate his influence upon adversarial militant groups was too good to ignore.

Israel may have been rational in considering Zahedi and his staff significant threats to its national security, but the IDF and Israeli government failed to accurately predict how Iran would respond to aggressive action. According to testimony from American and Israeli government officials, Israel did not expect Iran to interpret a strike on the embassy as a direct attack on its territory and anticipated that any eventual Iranian response would be fairly limited. Israel has conducted attacks in prior years against Iran-aligned forces in Syria without eliciting significant responses from Tehran. However, Israeli decision-makers seemingly did not grasp the extent to which they were escalating the long-term shadow war between the two countries by initiating a far more direct attack on senior Iranian military officials stationed at an Iranian diplomatic compound. Notably, this would not be the first time in recent memory that Israel made a significant military miscalculation; its total failure to anticipate and prevent Hamas’ October 7 attack has likewise been blamed on mistakes by military and government leaders, though we are yet to have a full picture of how this failure occurred. 

Why Did Iran Feel the Need to Respond so Boldly?

It is a basic principle of international relations that force can be utilized as a deterrent against force. Iran legitimately interpreted Israel’s actions as a violation of its sovereignty and an act of aggression against its security forces. Just as Iran targeted American forces in Iraq in 2020 after the US killed IRGC leader Qassem Soleimani, Iran chose to retaliate against Israel to demonstrate that such aggressive actions must come at a cost. If Iran were to not respond to the killing of senior generals, it would send a message to its enemies that it was willing to suffer significant losses without retaliation. This would offer no incentive for hostile actors to restrain themselves from attacking Iranian interests and territory in the future. 

While Iran’s decision to retaliate makes sense from the perspective of deterrence, the manner in which it did so invites a more complicated discussion. Iran could have chosen to respond by carefully targeting Israeli military facilities in a measured and limited attack. Instead, it chose to unleash a massive bombardment upon Israel that sought to inflict heavy casualties and damage upon targeted areas. It seems clear that, despite the scale of its attack, Iran hoped to avoid initiating a full-scale war with Israel, as its declaration that the matter was “concluded” indicates that Tehran hoped no further military actions would be taking place. Also, Iran’s decision to delay its attack and to provide advanced warning indicates that it wanted to give Israel and its allies a chance to defend against the bombardment and to reduce the number of potential casualties.

This image released by the IDF purportedly shows the minor damage to done Israel’s Nevatim Airbase by Iran’s attack.
Image Source: The Jerusalem Post

The scale of Iran’s attack serves multiple purposes. First, it may have served as a test of Israel’s highly advanced air-defense capabilities and the resolve of Israel’s regional allies in coming to its defense. Iran may have wanted to gain information about the effectiveness of Israel’s automated Iron Dome missile interceptors should they seek to launch a more aggressive attack in the future. Additionally, Iran may have felt that the time was right to demonstrate some of its capabilities and to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that its weaponry does pose a substantial threat to Israel’s safety. In the end, if it hoped to convey this message, it did not do so in the most effective manner, given how it caused virtually no damage to Israeli territory. However, that has not stopped the Iranian regime from touting the supposed success of the attack with a domestic audience that has grown less supportive of the government amid mass protests and economic struggles in recent years—which hints at an additional motive behind the scale of the attack. 

Why Did Israel Respond?

Iran threw the proverbial kitchen sink at Israel, but with the help of its Western and Arab allies, Israel emerged almost entirely unscathed. Though Iran was not necessarily counting on inflicting heavy damage, Israel emerged from the incident clearly as the more formidable military power. Thus, again, President Biden and other world leaders urged Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cabinet to accept victory and refrain from striking back. Ultimately, Israel did not heed these suggestions; though according to anonymous officials, it did scale down its original retaliation plan—which would have included several substantial strikes on Iranian territory—settling instead for the limited assault on the Isfahan air base. 

But why did Israel feel the need to respond at all? Firstly, it should be noted that it is quite rare for a country to launch hundreds of projectiles at another state and then expect to not face retaliation. Again, the deterrence principle argues that Israel has reason to initiate some kind of response in order to send the message that such aggressive and dangerous acts will not go unpunished. However, responding to Iran in kind would run the risk of provoking all-out war. Israel thus sought to find a middle option that could demonstrate their willingness and ability to punish Iran for aggressive actions, but that would not provoke Iran to continue escalating the situation towards war. 

Striking Isfahan is a calculated move by Israel to demonstrate to Iran that its nuclear facilities—which are growing increasingly close to being able to produce nuclear weapons—will not be safe should they conduct any further provocative actions. But the strike was also limited enough that the Iranian government was able to claim that it was harmless and futile before its domestic audience.

A man holds aloft an image of General Qassem Soleimani, killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2020, as Iranians celebrate the attack on Israel in the streets of Tehran on April 14. Image Source: Reuters

What Happens Now?

War between Israel and Iran appears to have been averted, at least for the near future. Both sides seem averse to war, and both seem content that they have sufficiently proven their strength to their enemy. Iran had the chance to show Israel its ability to pose it a direct threat, and its increasingly unpopular leaders had the opportunity to score some political points by weaponizing national pride. Israel can be thankful that its miscalculation did not end up costing it more dearly, and its allies in the West as well as in the Arab world have shown their commitment to ensuring its safety and military superiority. At this point, it seems as if neither side feels the need to rattle their sabres more than they already have.

But this conflict is most certainly not over. This may have been the first time that Israel and Iran directly attacked one another’s territory, but it almost certainly will not be the last. The next time either actor miscalculates and steps over the line, the consequences may be far more severe. Only time will tell if both sides will be deterred by this recent exchange, or whether this has only confirmed the existential and perpetual danger that they pose one another, a danger that can only be eradicated through military victory. It will be important to watch the likes of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis in the coming months and years to gauge whether Iran will feel the need to step up its reliance upon proxy armies or whether it will begin to take matters into its own hands more often.

The Middle East can breathe for now, resting assured that a regional war is not on the immediate horizon. But while tensions are no longer at boiling point, they will continue to simmer for the foreseeable future.

Featured Image Source: Reuters

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