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A missile is on display with a sign on it reading in Farsi: "Death to Israel" in front of a mosque in the shape of Dome of the Rock of Jerusalem at an entrance of the Quds town west of the capital Tehran, Iran, Sunday, April 21, 2024. Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei on Sunday dismissed any discussion of whether Tehran's unprecedented drone-and-missile attack on Israel hit anything there, a tacit acknowledgment that despite launching a massive assault, few projectiles actually made through to their targets. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Strategic Messages and Capabilities: Analyzing the Retaliatory Strikes Between Iran and Israel

On April 1, as part of its periodic bombardment of Iranian and Iran-backed positions in Syria, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bombed the Iranian consulate in Damascus. The airstrike resulted in the deaths of seven military officers, including Quds Force Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi and his deputy, General Mohammad Hadi Hajriahimi. In retaliation, on April 13, Iran launched more than 300 drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles at Israeli territory. Five days later, IDF drones launched three missiles outside of Iran’s airspace, striking an Iranian military airbase in Isfahan, deep inside Iranian territory. These attacks mark the first time that Israel and Iran have openly and directly attacked one another’s territory, a worrying new milestone in one of the world’s most bitter rivalries. What makes the current situation particularly intriguing is the way that both nations have used military means not only to inflict pain upon each other, but also to communicate thresholds for tolerance—establishing a tit-for-tat formula for acts of revenge. Due to their unique capabilities, the two rivals differed in the scale and scope of kinetic action they could generate. At the same time, the bitter enemies exhibited several similarities in their tactical decisions and behavior, indicating that the two states—at least at the highest levels of government—share more commonalities than they would like to believe.

With an intense reflection on the evolving military dynamics between Israel and Iran, highlighting a critical escalation in their longstanding conflict, both nations demonstrated a keen strategic intent, focusing on military targets and utilizing dates with ideological significance. Despite the efforts to manage narratives and minimize damage, the exchanges underscore the precarious balance of power and the potential for broader regional instability.

Ideologically Symbolic Timing

Both nations chose significant calendar dates for their strikes, underscoring the ideological dimensions of their regional conflict. Iran launched its barrage against Israel just after Shabbat, a sacred time for the Jewish people. Similarly, Israel’s retaliation occurred immediately before the traditional Muslim Friday prayers.

Iran may have attempted to invoke the dark days of the Yom Kippur War—when, five decades ago, Egypt and Syria launched a joint surprise attack against the Jewish state—or to take advantage of any lapses caused by the sabbath. Meanwhile, Israel, by attacking on Friday, may have decided to avenge the Yom Kippur attack by targeting Iran on its own sacred day, or even to interfere with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s 85th birthday, which would be held 24 hours later, on April 19. Alternatively, both countries may have hoped that by choosing days of prayer,  they could minimize civilian casualties and lower regional tensions.

Focus on Military Targets

Both countries also predominantly focused on military targets. Neither struck population centers, and instead opted to strike military bases located far away from populated areas. Though Iran did launch missiles and drones against populated areas, its most serious attacks targeted the Nevatim Air Base, which is situated in a sparsely populated desert region. Maintaining an eye-for-an-eye calculus, Israel targeted an Iranian air base in a proportional response. Interestingly, each air base hosts the crown jewels of the opposing party’s air force: Nevatim Air Base is home to the IDF’s F-35s, while the Isfahan air base houses Iran’s prized American-made F-14s, which, despite being retired by the US Navy for nearly two decades, remain a key asset in the Iranian Air Forces.

Iran may have had additional motives in targeting Israel’s F-35s. Tehran understands that the F-35’s stealth capabilities would prove crucial to any Israeli effort to evade Iranian air defenses and strike within the territory of the Islamic Republic. Iran is also well aware that Tel Aviv’s aerial supremacy has always played a vital role in its ground victories, making Nevatim Air Base a valuable target. Israel had similar motives in targeting the Isfahan air base; the base is home to Iran’s stockpile of Russian-made S-300 air defense systems, a key anti-air platform and a significant obstacle for future Israeli aerial operations within Iran proper. In this context, it is possible that both nations were testing their capability to reach key targets in the event of a full-scale war.

Shaping the Story

The two strikes illustrated the essential task of managing the narrative when conflict threatens to erupt. Following the two strikes, both Iran and Israel launched extensive public relations campaigns to burnish their side’s performance and downplay the damage inflicted by the enemy. Initially, Israeli sources claimed to have neutralized nearly 99 percent of the objects launched by Iran. Though this figure was later revised downward to 84 percent, many had already accepted that nearly the entire Iranian barrage had been shot down. Conversely, Iranian sources disputed the occurrence of the Israeli counter-strike itself. When sources confirmed the strike, they downplayed the destruction.

Tehran loudly proclaimed that it had caused “severe damage” to Israel. Only much later did the government subtly acknowledge that only a small number of projectiles had reached their targets. This shift was epitomized by Khamenei himself, who appeared to evade questions about the attack’s effectiveness. “Debates by the other party about how many missiles were fired, how many hit their targets, and how many did not, are of secondary importance,” he said. “The main issue is the emergence of the Iranian nation and Iranian military’s will in an important international arena. This is what matters.”

Finally, the strikes showcased the strategic alliances each country relies on to ensure its security. Iran’s operation was supported by Hezbollah, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, and Yemen’s Houthis, illustrating the extent to which Iran’s network of regional partnerships in the loosely organized “Axis of Resistance” may coalesce in the event of an actual war. Conversely, Israel’s defense efforts were bolstered by support from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Tellingly, Jordan and other Arab states also intercepted Iranian missiles violated their airspace, signaling how both new and old allies would come to Tel Aviv’s aid if war were to erupt.

Clandestine Tactics

Despite the many similarities between the Iranian and Israeli strikes, there are three major differences between the two operations that, although subtle, are significant and warrant attention. First, the extent and nature of the secrecy surrounding the operations of Iran and Israel were markedly different. The Iranian military clearly telegraphed its intention to strike Israel to many nations in the region: Turkey, a key NATO member, acknowledged that it had been made aware of the operation 72 hours prior to its commencement, guaranteeing that the United States—and by extension Israel—would also know. Iran also launched its projectiles directly from its mainland, more than 1,000 miles (1,700 kilometers) from Israeli territory. The initial wave of the strike involved some ballistic and cruise missiles, but also Shahed drones, which have a maximum speed of 115 miles per hour. Thus, hours before the strike arrived in Israel, footage of Iranian drones appeared on social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok—eliminating any vestige of secrecy and giving Israel a key source of information to help foil the strike.

By contrast, the Israeli strike was executed with extreme secrecy. Israel did not broadcast its intentions to any regional countries, informing the United States only a few hours before the operation. Some Israeli sources also reported that the IDF decided to delay any retaliatory strike against Iran until after the Passover holidays, which ended on April 22. Rather than launch the attack from Israeli territory, giving Iranian air defenses additional hours to detect it and prepare, Israel appears to have used the airspace of Iraq.

Scale of Operations and Capabilities

The tactical decisions that defined the exchange of fire showcase another major difference between the two. The IRGC’s operation was notably large, complex, and diverse. It included a significant number of projectiles—according to some reports as many as 370 drones, along with ballistic and cruise missiles. As mentioned, the barrage charted a protracted course to reach Israel. Moreover, the operation required coordination with Iran’s proxies across the region, demonstrating the strike’s strategic complexity.

By contrast, the IDF’s operation was much more limited in scale. Israeli aircraft launched only three missiles to strike the target. This precise approach allowed Israel to target specific objectives without risking significant military assets—a stark contrast to the extensive and multifaceted, but ultimately less successful, operation executed by the IRGC.

The final major difference between the IRGC and IDF strikes lies in the two sides’ respective use of espionage or intelligence elements during the operations. Sources indicate that during its strike on the Isfahan air base, the IDF employed quadcopter drones to distract and confuse Iranian air defenses and radar systems. Given the limited range of these drones, it is highly likely that they were operated from within Iran—demonstrating the IDF’s capability to operate within the territory of the Islamic Republic and activate assets embedded inside the country. The IRGC clearly lacks the same technical sophistication and penetration within Israel. This strategic use of intelligence assets underscores the IDF’s ability to enhance the effectiveness of Israel’s military actions through advanced reconnaissance and deception tactics.

It would be an oversimplification to assess that the differences and similarities between the Iranian and Israeli operations were purely coincidental, especially given the long history of disputes between the two countries and their historical proclivity for symbolic gestures.

Between April 13 and April 19, both nations attempted to convey specific messages. Iran emphasized its capability to reach Israel with a large-scale operation, showcased impressive operational coordination, and underlined the threat posed by the Islamic Republic’s proxy network. The upshot was simple: Iran and its associated forces could overwhelm the IDF with massive barrages of drones, missiles, and rockets in the event of a full-scale war. Iran also intended to communicate a more ominous warning. One ballistic missile slipped through the IDF’s air defense network and landed in Israel, policymakers in Tel Aviv hardly need to be reminded that Iran’s ballistic missile program is nuclear-capable.

Israel’s response was crafted to highlight its ability to surgically strike back at Iran and neutralize its aerial defenses without risking its pilots in sorties within Iranian airspace. Moreover, Israel demonstrated its mastery in employing the element of surprise and harnessing the power of clandestine, “fifth column” capabilities. Unlike its traditional approach of responding to an attack with an even more forceful counterattack, Israel chose to de-escalate matters through a calculated show of force.

In the meantime, as both nations continue to showcase their military prowess, the true efficacy and reliability of these capabilities in a real-world conflict remain uncertain. The hope is that such a test never comes, and that the two rivals may preserve regional stability and avoid the devastating consequences of war.

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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Arman Mahmoudian, PhD, is a lecturer of Russian and Middle Eastern Studies and also a researcher at the USF Global and National Security Institutes, where he focuses on Iran’s regional policy and Shia militias in the Middle East. Arman has appeared on Al-Jazeera and the BBC and has been published by the National Interest, Stimson Center, Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy, London School of Economics Middle East Center, Atlantic Council, Middle East Eye, Politics Today, New Arab, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and Trends Research and Advisory. Follow Arman on Twitter @MahmoudianArman.


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