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Israeli military spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, display to the media one of the Iranian ballistic missiles Israel intercepted over the weekend, in Julis army base, southern Israel, Tuesday, April 16, 2024. Israel says that Iran launched over 300 missiles and attack drones in the weekend attack. It says most of the incoming fire was intercepted, but a handful of missiles landed in Israel, causing minor damage and wounding a young girl. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Analyzing the Iran-Israel Conflict in a Regional Context

There Is No Silver Bullet to Stop Escalation

Ambassador Patrick Theros

Strategic Advisor and Senior Scholar, Gulf International Forum

This recent series of performative actions between Iran and Israel seems to have thwarted Israel’s attempt to escalate the conflict through its bold raid on the Iranian consulate in Damascus. Israel’s strike on Esfahan on April 18 appears to have been designed to demonstrate resolve to its own people and to warn Iran that it could reach deep into Iranian territory. Saying that the strike, which barely made front line news in either country, as “reestablishing deterrence” following the numerically impressive but otherwise futile Iranian aerial assault on Israel on April 13. In fact, given the nature of the Iranian regime, no military action short of nuclear weapons could cow the Ayatollahs. On the other hand, any large-scale reprisals by Israel against Iran would have provoked Tehran to respond. More importantly, it could have crossed Biden’s “red lines.” It is only an educated guess, but it appears that Biden’s warning to Netanyahu that the U.S. “would not support” an Israeli retaliation included a threat not to defend Israel against an Iranian counter-counter strike. Given the indications that the U.S., UK, France and Jordan had taken out most of the Iranian attackers before they reached Israel, this is no small threat.

As a practical matter, Israel cannot effectively prosecute a war against Iran without active American support. Firing barrages of ballistic missiles and drones into Iran may damage some visible targets, such as airports or infrastructure, but they are next to useless against deep underground facilities critical to the Iranian government. Such barrages would deplete Israel’s limited inventory of medium range ballistic missiles, limiting its future capacity to retaliate against nearer foes such as Iran’s proxy groups in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Effective strikes require lots of aircraft. Even then, if the futility of American and British airstrikes against Houthi missiles sites is any indication, Israel has zero chance of effectively taking out Iran’s retaliatory capabilities. Moreover, in order to avoid crossing the airspace of the GCC countries—which GCC leaders could hardly permit without incurring serious domestic unrest—the Israeli Air Force would be restricted to entering Iranian territory via Syria and Iraq, channeling the Israeli attack and forfeiting surprise.

Washington has a vital interest in preventing an expansion of hostilities. The best outcome for the United States and for the region demands that all involved parties exercise restraint and that Israel’s Gaza campaign wind down quickly.

The GCC States Are the “Adults In The Room”

Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Fellow for the Middle East, the Baker Institute; Senior Non-Resident Fellow, Gulf International Forum

The escalation of the shadow conflict between Israel and Iran into a direct confrontation jeopardizes the Gulf states’ efforts since October 7 to ensure that the war with Hamas does not spread to consume the whole region. The Gulf’s American and European partners share an interest in preventing a broader regional war that would likely have catastrophic consequences for all involved. The primary challenge for policymakers in Washington and across Europe, however, is that the crisis has exposed the limits of their policies toward Iran, leaving the West with limited options to alter course—not least because of the lack of working bilateral relationships with all involved parties.

While the barrage of Iranian missiles and drone strikes on Israel on April 13 were described by Tehran as a response to the April 1 attack on the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus, the retaliation altered much of the policy discourse in Western capitals. Rather than continue to focus on the conduct of Israel’s war in Gaza, Western powers have now returned their attention to the threat posed by Iran. Tehran’s decision to directly target Israel will make it more difficult for advocates of diplomacy with Iran in Europe and in the United States to make their case. There is no substitute for political engagement—particularly in times of such heightened tensions, when a miscalculation or misunderstanding could trigger an escalatory cycle from which neither side can escape. However, in the aftermath of April 13, calls for additional sanctions on Iran are more likely than ever to dominate policy debates in Western capitals.

For the foreseeable future, European and U.S. foreign policy toward Iran is likely to be channeled through the Gulf states, some of which have a strong track record of acting as intermediaries. Nor will the West have only the Gulf’s smaller states to conduct diplomacy with Iran; the recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia provides another channel for diplomatic engagement, and may grant negotiations a greater level of legitimacy.

This new reality puts officials in the Gulf States in a potentially sensitive position, forcing them to exercise extreme caution in order to avoid falling afoul of public opinion on one of the most divisive issues in the Middle East. However, the current crisis also provides an opportunity for the Gulf states to make the case for dialogue and de-escalation. A wild card remains the outcome of the U.S. election in November, but the stability of U.S. policy toward Iran since 2021 suggests that a major shift is unlikely, irrespective of who is in the White House next year. Officials in the GCC states have been the “adults in the room” since October 7, consistently calling for diplomacy and dialogue. As the crisis enters a new phase of uncertainty, this role will only grow in importance.

U.S.-Gulf Diplomacy and Hard Power Are Essential

Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush

Scholar of International Affairs, International Geopolitical Consultant, and President of MidEast Analysts

When Israeli warplanes attacked the Iranian consulate in Syria on April 1, the United States immediately declared that it was not involved in the strike. By mid-April, Iran informed its Gulf neighbors, 72 hours in advance, of a pending retaliatory attack on Israel. Over the night of April 13-14, Iran launched more than 290 ballistic and cruise missiles and drones toward Israel. U.S. officials confirmed that American aircraft and warships had helped intercept the incoming projectiles, declaring Washington’s intention to fully defend Israel.

Moving forward, Washington will need its Gulf partners to step in and negotiate with Iran. Qatar and Oman, two leaders in regional mediation, could facilitate the exchange of views between Washington and Tehran. The United States would also need assurances of support from the Gulf states if Washington decides to blunt Iran’s threat through military force. However, asking Gulf countries to diplomatically engage with and contain Iran is a contradictory strategy. If diplomacy with Iran fails due to heightened regional militarization, U.S. foreign policy could be thwarted by rising tensions. Even if a display of hard power succeeds, it would neutralize threats from Iran at the risk of jeopardizing a fragile diplomatic process. Iran has kept busy urging caution and issuing stern warnings to others to stay out of the fight, or risk retaliatory strikes.

The Gulf states, meanwhile, must grapple with two competing interests: keeping communication channels with Iran open and reassuring the Islamic Republic that the Gulf airspace or land won’t be used by U.S. troops to undermine Iranian battlefield goals, while also guaranteeing the protection of the long-standing region-wide security cooperation structure that the United States upholds. Most Gulf states, including Qatar, have avoided normalization with Israel. Instead, they have established sufficient strategic autonomy to pursue foreign policy goals of their own that involve securing ties with Iran. Not surprisingly, recent news published by the Israeli press that Saudi Arabia might have intercepted the Iranian weapons targeting Israel were swiftly rejected by Saudi news sites. Moreover, according to unconfirmed Iranian press reports, Qatar and Kuwait may have even issued statements forbidding U.S. fighter jets from using the bases in their countries to launch strikes on Iran.

This situation puts U.S.-Gulf ties in an uncomfortable position. The complexities of the current crisis require that Washington contemplate how to preserve regional stability through strong regional diplomacy, all while achieving its military goals. There is no guarantee that any one side will emerge a winner from this approach. In the end, U.S.-Gulf ties will prove pivotal in shaping the aftermath of the current conflict. And instead of being led by the course of events, with the right nudge, Washington just might push Tehran to recalibrate and adapt, with some help from its Gulf partners.

Hezbollah’s All-Out War Calculations

Dr. Ibrahim Al-Assil

Senior Fellow, Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C

Lebanon and Syria remain significant focal points in the ongoing regional tension between Iran and Israel. Daily strikes between Israel and Hezbollah persist, raising the question of whether an all-out war between the two states is imminent.

During the 1980s, Iran played a direct role in the formation of Hezbollah in Lebanon as a regional counterbalance to Israel, leveraging the group as a strategic deterrent against any potential attacks on its nuclear facilities. However, in the ongoing Israeli and Iranian confrontations, Tehran could seek to involve Hezbollah further, potentially igniting a full-scale regional war. So far, however, Hezbollah has sought to avoid providing Israel with grounds for war, given Tel Aviv’s overwhelming conventional superiority and Hezbollah’s prized place within the “Axis of Resistance.”

Internal dynamics within Lebanon also present challenges for Hezbollah. Israel’s strategy may include implementing the ‘Dahiya doctrine,’ which advocates for the use of disproportionate force against both enemy combatants and civilian infrastructure, aiming to inflict significant damage on capabilities and morale to deter future aggression. While Hezbollah claimed that it “won” its 2006 war with Israel, the group faced a dramatically weakened position within Lebanon in the aftermath, as other Lebanese parties judged that it had intentionally provoked Israel into a war and disregarded the well-being of Lebanon as a whole. There is no reason to suspect that a second Israel-Hezbollah conflict would lead to a different outcome.

The regional landscape has evolved dramatically since 2006. Wealthy regional players and international organizations are focused on humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in Gaza and have little bandwidth to address another regional crisis. Amid diminishing investment from the GCC states in Lebanon, it is unlikely that any country would step in to fund Lebanon’s post-war reconstruction, as the Gulf states largely did following the 2006 conflict. This lack of support significantly raises the risk of war for Hezbollah.

Hezbollah would be further hurt by the high likelihood that Lebanese civilian casualties would be dramatically higher in a second war than they were in the first. The simple and immovable fact is that there is no place for Lebanese refugees to shelter in the event of another conflict. In 2006, refugees were able to seek shelter in Syria, where they were welcomed by bordering towns and cities in Damascus’s Ghouta region. However, many of these areas now lie in ruins—ironically due to Hezbollah besieging and displacing the local population in support of Bashar Al-Assad regime. In a cruel twist of fate, the group’s actions have eliminated the only potential refuge for civilians in southern Lebanon—its core base of support—in the event of a conflict with Israel.

In short, Syria is likely to remain a theater for continued conflict between Israel, Iran, and the “Axis of Resistance.” It remains a vital conduit for weapons and supplies to Hezbollah, and Israeli strikes and potential assassinations will no doubt continue. However, given its difficult position within Lebanon itself, Hezbollah has no desire to start a war that could risk undoing all that it has gained in its own backyard.

Iran Sees Victory, Even in Failure

Shukriya Bradost

Doctoral Researcher at Virginia Tech University Specializing in Middle East Region Security

Iran’s retaliatory attacks against Israel on April 13 served as a strategic message—not only to Israel, but to global and regional observers as well. Over 300 missiles and drones underscored Iran’s unwavering position that any assault on its sovereign territory—necessarily including its foreign consulates, the target of an April 1 Israeli attack—constitutes a clear red line. This message comes at a significant time, as concerns mount that Iran may seek to acquire the ultimate deterrent: a nuclear weapon. However, Israel’s strike on April 18 at Isfahan, deep within Iran’s mainland and far from any borders, starkly challenged this red line set by Iran.

Despite these broader concerns, the outcome of the April 13 attack clearly failed to achieve Iran’s strategic goals. The interception of nearly every missile and drone launched by Iran towards Israel represented a major propaganda victory for the United States and Israel, and a humiliation for Iran. To rub salt in the wound, Washington and Tel Aviv were even aided by Arab states who would otherwise oppose Israel—highlighting the extent to which Iran is perceived as a threat in the region, and a common enemy for would-be adversaries to unite against. Furthermore, the Arab nations’ assistance to intercept Iranian drones and missiles highlights Iran’s absence of genuine regional allies, echoing a historic experience for the Islamic Republic dating back to the Iran-Iraq War.

Iran lacks allies in the region because, somewhat ironically, it has long sought to establish itself as the hegemon of the Middle East. Despite being a non-Arab, Shia state in a predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood, this quest for preeminence has shaped its foreign policy objectives and conduct for decades. Iran has successfully wielded influence over four Arab states—Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, to varying success—through its proxies, also known as the “Axis of Resistance.” However, this strategy has often led to instability and strife and has led to lasting animosity between Iran and the other primary regional powers: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The recent collaboration among some Arab countries and the West to shoot down Iranian weapons systems underscores broader apprehensions towards Iran’s ambitions.

Despite the tactical failure of its attack, Iran’s decision to directly retaliate against Israel rather than through its proxies serves multiple strategic purposes. It reinforces Iran’s political credibility among its proxy groups by demonstrating its capability and willingness to defend itself against attacks on its soil. It also aims to garner support among Arab and Muslim populations sympathetic to reprisals against Israel. By reserving the option to leverage the power of its proxy groups in response to Israel operation, Iran maintains a level of strategic flexibility.

Thus, Iran’s response to the attack on its consulate in Damascus is a multifaceted message to its friends and enemies alike—showing that Tehran will bolster its political credibility, confront external threats, and proactively navigate the complex dynamics of the region.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security, Geopolitics
Country: GCC, Iran

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