A three-dimensional view of the Israel-Iran crisis

For years, Iran has shown strategic patience in its shadow war with Israel, but Tel Aviv’s bombing in Damascus seems to have altered Tehran’s thinking

Updated - April 29, 2024 02:14 pm IST

Published - April 29, 2024 12:59 am IST

‘A shadow war has been going on between Israel and Iran for years’

‘A shadow war has been going on between Israel and Iran for years’ | Photo Credit: AP

In March 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu was asked in an interview what the three greatest threats Israel was facing were. “Iran, Iran, Iran,” responded the Prime Minister. “Iran is building an aggressive empire in the Middle East,” he added. Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, has never minced words about Iran. His opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, brokered by the Obama administration and unilaterally destroyed by Donald Trump, was hardly a secret. He projected himself, to both his voters at home and allies abroad, as a tough leader who could stand up to the Iran threat. Yet, it was on Mr. Netanyahu’s watch that Iran launched a massive barrage of drones and missiles on Israel on April 14 — the first such attack on the Jewish nation by a state actor in over three decades.

Iran crossed a red line when it launched a direct attack on Israel. It shattered the Jewish nation’s deterrence. The United States still reined Israel in. And Israel’s response to the Iran attack was rather “feeble”, as Mr. Netanyahu’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir himself called it. After the first round, when both sides step back from the brink, the multi-dimensional crisis reinforces Iran’s growing risk appetite in an increasingly volatile and violent West Asia, America’s strategic reluctance and Israel’s near-total dependency on the United States for its security.

The Biden doctrine

Ever since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, the Biden administration’s focus has been on preventing the Israel-Hamas conflict from escalating into a regional war. President Joe Biden offered his full support for Israel’s military operation in Gaza, but at the same time unleashed a diplomatic initiative to keep tensions low between Israel and its neighbours. This approach, however, faced two challenges. One, while the Biden administration successfully kept Israel-Arab ties stable, Washington had little leverage over Iran. Two, Israel fought its war in two theatres — one in Gaza and the other in its neighbourhood where it sought to roll back Iranian influence. This set the path for a potential Israel-Iran confrontation open.

When Israel bombed the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus on April 1, 2024, killing senior Revolutionary Guard officers, this became a plausible scenario. The U.S. knew Iran would retaliate and had leaked its intelligence to the press. Mr. Biden realised that if Iran carried out a successful attack and Israel retaliated, it would lead to a regional war from which the U.S. could not stay out. A war with Iran and its proxies is not in America’s interests. The U.S. has other immediate strategic priorities, in Eastern Europe and in the Indo-Pacific. So, the U.S. and its allies helped intercept “99%” of Iranian projectiles, averting a disaster on Israeli soil. And then, Mr. Biden told Mr. Netanyahu that the U.S. would not participate in any Israeli retaliation against Iran. The message from Washington was clear: de-escalate.

Netanyahu’s dilemma

A shadow war has been going on between Israel and Iran for years. In recent years, Israel has carried out over 400 air strikes in Syria alone, targeting Iranian interests. It has also carried out operations inside Iran, including the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior nuclear scientist, in November 2020. These operations were relatively cost-free as Iran never responded forcefully, emboldening Israel further. In other words, Israel kept drilling tiny holes into Iran’s deterrence.

After October 7, Israel has stepped up this shadow war. On December 25, it killed Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps adviser, in a strike in Syria. Once again, Iran’s response was muted. When the Israelis got the intelligence that Mohammed Reza Zahedi, a top IRGC commander, was present in the embassy compound in Damascus, Israel went ahead with the strike. Israeli officials later told American media that they did not expect Iran to launch a direct attack when they carried out the Damascus strike.

Iran’s retaliation has left Mr. Netanyahu in a dilemma. He has always favoured force against Tehran. The Iranian attack, many argued, gave him a perfect opportunity to hit the Mullahs hard. But the strategic reality in which Iran carried out its strike was not favourable to Mr. Netanyahu. While Mr. Netanyahu favoured force against Iran, his plan has never been to fight Iran alone. He wanted America’s lead, participation and support. But when Mr. Biden told him that the U.S. would not join Israel’s retaliation, it limited Mr. Netanyahu’s options. He could still have gone ahead testing America’s will to stay out of a direct Israel-Iran war. But Israel’s war in Gaza remained unfinished and it wanted Mr. Biden’s continued support in the offensive. So, Mr. Netanyahu resorted to a largely symbolic strike inside Iran, targeting a radar system, according to the American media, and did not even claim the attack. This was a rare victory for the Biden administration as it reined in its ally to avoid a regional war. But from an Israeli point of view, it was a weak response that did little to bolster its deterrence.

The Ayatollah’s calculus

For years, Iran has shown strategic patience in its shadow war with Israel. That was also because Iran had taken a long-term view of its growing presence in the region. It has lost a host of senior officers and scientists in the shadow war, but the Israeli strikes have hardly scuttled Iran’s influence. Its nuclear programme continues to expand and its proxies continue to strengthen their muscles. But the Israeli bombing on its embassy annex seems to have altered the strategic thinking in Tehran. After the attack, Iran has decided to impose a cost on Israel’s continuing strikes on its officials. While the embassy attack was the trigger, a host of other factors seem to influence the change. Iran today has better strategic ties with Russia and China. While its relationship with China is largely economic, the strategic partnership with Russia is multilayered, especially after Iran started supplying drones to Russia to fight the Ukrainians. Iran has also rightly assessed that the U.S. has a low appetite to get involved in another prolonged war in West Asia, at a time when China and Russia are directly challenging America’s leadership of the world.

And in West Asia, after six months of fighting Hamas, Israel is far from meeting its objectives, i.e., dismantling Hamas, releasing hostages and strengthening its deterrence. Israel’s vengeful use of massive force on Gaza, which has destroyed northern and central Gaza, killed 34,000 people, and turned nearly the entire population of Gaza into refugees, has triggered an international uproar. There is a genocide case against Israel in the International Court of Justice. Iran’s view was that the October 7 attack and the subsequent war on Gaza have substantially weakened the state of Israel in a region where the U.S. security commitments are no longer as “iron clad” as Washington claims it is. This has allowed Iran to change the rules of the game by launching an open attack on Israel. And despite the collective defence of the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Jordan and Israel, some Iranian ballistic missiles still hit Israel proper.

Israel’s meek response and its refusal to claim its attack, along with the call for restraint from its allies in the West, all suggest that Iran’s risk assessment was relatively accurate. This is likely to embolden Tehran further. As of now, Iran is the only country in West Asia to have launched missile/drone attacks against the U.S. and two of its closest allies. In 2019, drones attacked two Saudi oil facilities, knocking off half of the kingdom’s output for days; in 2020, Iran launched 12 ballistic missiles at America’s As-Assad air base in Iraq in retaliation against the killing of General Qassem Soleimani. And on April 14, it attacked Israel. On all three occasions, Iran walked free, or with a tap on its wrist, which speaks volumes of the new strategic reality of West Asia.


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