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A truck is carrying Iranian-made Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) past Iranian flags during a military parade marking the anniversary of Iran's Army Day at an Army military base in Tehran, Iran, on April 17, 2024. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via AP)

Navigating a Tense Exchange: Israel and Iran Sent a Message, and Both Listened

The attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1 destroyed the building and killed seven Iranian soldiers, including Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the commander of the Lebanese and Syrian Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and one of Iran’s most senior military officials. After the attack, Iranian officials promised a tough response; Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in a speech on Eid al-Fitr that the attack had been tantamount to an attack on Iranian soil, and Israel “must be punished.” The promise of retribution was fulfilled in an operation the Iranians called “Operation Promise.” On April 14, the Islamic Republic launched several hundred missiles and drones from Iranian soil, with Israel in their sights. On the whole, though, this operation was unsuccessful; with extensive assistance from the United States, the  UK, France and Jordan, Israel shot down nearly all of the Iranian projectiles, sustaining virtually no casualties of any kind.

An All-Out War?

Iran believes that Israel’s attack on Iranian diplomatic facilities crossed a line in the two countries’ shadow conflict. Policymakers in Tehran have tried to exercise strategic patience and avoid a risky escalation since October 7—an attack that Tehran strenuously denies it had foreknowledge of, or involvement in. In fact, it has even been reported that in the last six months, Israel has killed eighteen officers in the IRGC, without eliciting a strong response from Iran.

However, this time is different. Tehran clearly regarded Israel’s overt attack on Iranian diplomatic property as an attack on its credibility in the eyes of the Axis of Resistance, and felt it necessary to respond to domestic calls for “harsh revenge” against its regional archrival. By launching a meaningful, direct attack against Israel, the Iranians are attempting to reestablish political and military deterrence, reminding the Israeli authorities that further escalation could incur severe costs for Tel Aviv.

Though the attack largely failed, there is no question that it could have caused severe damage to Israel if more missiles had evaded Israeli defense systems, or if help from the United States had not materialized. By launching 170 drones, 120 ballistic missiles, and 30 cruise missiles at several points in Israel, the IRGC Aerospace Force emphasized its deterrent capabilities—succeeding in the narrow sense that Iran had conveyed a strong message to Israeli authorities that further escalation would carry a serious threat. Indeed, while Israel launched its own strikes on Iran a short time later, its retaliation was limited to minor missile strikes against a base in Isfahan. In the aftermath, General Hossein Salami, the Commander-in-Chief of IRGC said that Iran had “decided to create a new equation…from now on, if the Zionist regime attacks our interests, properties, personalities, and citizens at any point, we will counterattack it from the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Despite this rhetoric, the reality that Iran telegraphed the attack and inflicted few casualties indicates that Iran did not seek an all-out war with Israel. There are several clear reasons for its reluctance. First, direct confrontation between the two states would divert international attention from Israel’s catastrophic war in Gaza, carry support to Israel in its confrontation with Iran, granting its international reputation a lifeline. Second, Iran’s brazen attack naturally elicited global condemnation because the Islamic Republic has consistently failed to prove itself a peaceful and reliable actor in the international community.

Third, Iran’s aggressive response will undoubtedly provoke a tightening of international sanctions, burdening Iran’s already-struggling economy and testing the nation’s resilience. Iran can ill afford to launch an expensive and distracting war with Israel, which is better armed and well-funded by the United States. Iran’s sovereign wealth fund is practically empty; Mehdi Ghazanfari, CEO of the National Sovereign Wealth Fund, said on May 11, 2023, that $140 billion of the fund’s $150 billion reserve had been spent.

Fourth, domestic public opinion in Iran does not support a war launched by the country’s clerical regime. Since the 2022 protests, the Iranian government has faced a continuing crisis of legitimacy, and it has lost the support of many of its people, with ongoing consequences for the Islamic Republic’s internal security. A prolonged international conflict may prove the last straw for the regime.

Finally, a direct war with Israel will invariably involve the United States, setting Iran up for a direct confrontation with the world’s greatest military power—a step that Tehran has long sought to avoid. In remarks shortly before the Iranian attack on Israel, President Joe Biden said that the United States was fully “devoted to the defense of Israel,” and U.S. forces were instrumental in foiling the attack. If Tehran continues down this path, it opens itself up to further U.S. attacks against its proxies in the region—and perhaps direct U.S. retaliation against Iranian territory itself.

What Iran Has Achieved

Opinions differ on whether Iran’s attack against Israel succeeded in its narrow aims. On the one hand, none of the Israeli officials that Iran had claimed to target with its strike were ever in any danger. Iran’s state television and news agencies claimed that 50 percent of the missiles had hit their targets, without providing evidence. Indeed, Tehran had little to show for its barrage; Israel and its partners ultimately intercepted 99 percent of the incoming missiles and drones.

It is noteworthy, however, that Iran did not use its most advanced missiles in the attack. The reasons for this are unclear. Tehran claimed in the aftermath of the attack that it intended to minimize the number of civilian casualties within Israel; indeed, there were no deaths from the attack and only one civilian injury. Although this may simply be posturing on Tehran’s part—indeed, the Iranian military had aimed the missiles at densely populated areas and may have caused significant casualties if they had not been intercepted—the fact that no Israelis died meant that Tehran was much more flexible in its response than it might otherwise have been. Some news outlets reported that Iran had informed Türkiye and the United States before the operation, though the Biden administration has denied this. Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian indicated that Iran had informed its allies and neighbors in the region 72 hours before the attack.

Rather than inflict meaningful damage or exact retribution, Iran’s true goal may have been to test the reaction of Israel and the United States. Tehran continues to evaluate the situation in the region and the new balance of power after October 7. From its perspective, the region’s various issues—the fate of the Axis of Resistance, the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and the JCPOA negotiations, instability in the Red Sea, and the de-escalation process with its Arab neighbors—are intertwined. Acting rashly against Israel and provoking an open conflict could impact several of these issues in ways beyond Tehran’s control, thereby jeopardizing its core national security interests.

Israel’s reaction to the Iranian attack follows a more straightforward logic. Tel Aviv considered two factors when calibrating its response: the reaction of the international community, and its own national stability. Like Tehran’s April 13 riposte, Israel small-scale missile strike on Isfahan was not intended to inflict significant pain on its adversary, but to send a clear message that further action could provoke greater retaliation—a message that Tehran appeared to heed when it indicated that it considered the matter settled and would not launch additional strikes.

Israel expects the international community not only to condemn Iran’s attack, but also to take strict and practical measures to isolate Iran internationally, It has pushed for friendly nations to brand the IRGC a terrorist group, strengthen an embargo against Iran on components that could be used in its missile development, and institute extensive restrictions against Iran’s nuclear program. On the other hand, as we get closer to a deal between Israel and Hamas, Tel Aviv is considering making concessions in the region and doing more to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Thus, in a narrow sense, both sides achieved their goals through this brief and relatively inconsequential exchange. Iran sent a clear message that it would not tolerate attacks like the one on its consulate in Damascus. Israel strengthened its relationships with the United States and western allies. The United States has demonstrated its ironclad commitment to its regional allies, with positive implications for its relationships elsewhere in the world. And the risk of an escalation toward all-out war between Israel and Iran has passed—for now.

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
Country: Iran

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Dr. Mohammad Salami holds a Ph.D. in International Relations. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. His areas of expertise include politics and governance, security, and counterterrorism. He writes as an analyst and columnist in various media outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @moh_salami


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