FA: The Middle East could still explode – Iran and Israel may not be finished

12:15 18.04.2024 •

The Middle East did not explode on April 13, but it is still at risk of a bigger conflict that would have no winners, notes ‘The Foreign Affairs’.

On April 13, Iran launched Operation True Promise, its response to Israel’s April 1 attack on its consulate in Syria. Over the course of less than 24 hours, Tehran fired a combination of more than 300 drones and missiles at Israeli military facilities.

Policymakers and pundits have known for days that the Islamic Republic would retaliate for Israel’s strike in Damascus, which killed several senior Iranian commanders and personnel.

But as the specifics of Iran’s retaliation and Israel’s success at countering it became clear, most policymakers and observers outside the Middle East expressed cautious optimism that further escalation could be avoided. It is too soon, however, for relief: both states are still rattling their sabers, and Israel may respond to Iran’s attacks with more strikes. The two states could keep trading escalating blows leading to an expanding war that draws in the United States and envelops the whole region.

The two sides were wary of letting their attacks on each other, which often followed a tit-for-tat pattern, get out of hand. But that delicate balance began to change after October 7, when Hamas attacked the Israeli communities surrounding the Gaza Strip. In a display of solidarity with Gaza residents and with the aim of ending the war there, members of Iran’s axis stepped up attacks against Israel and U.S. facilities with Tehran’s vocal support. In response, Israel attacked Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon and Syria, and then Iranian military personnel themselves. Between early December and late March, Israel killed nearly a dozen commanders and advisers in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds Force. Those strikes culminated in the airstrike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus in April, which killed General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the man reportedly in charge of coordinating the Quds Force’s operations across the Levant, and his deputy and several other IRGC members.

For Tehran, the Damascus strike had serious consequences. And it prompted Iranian leaders to question just how secure they really were from attacks by Israeli forces. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated that “attacking our consulate is like attacking our soil.” He and a chorus of other political and military leaders pledged to punish Israel.

Iran’s eventual response highlights an apparent shift in Iranian thinking. For years, its approach toward Israel and the United States largely revolved around what Iranian officials describe as “strategic patience,” a long-term approach that entails reinforcing proxy groups without resorting to immediate, provocative retaliations. This strategy was based on a belief that the networks Iran had built up gave it the ability to project power without risking direct entanglement, exacting costs while maintaining a veneer of deniability.

But the regime’s hard-liners, who are now ascendant, increasingly thought of such patience as a sign of weakness. They therefore pushed the government to increase its risk tolerance and embrace confrontation.

Still, Iran’s government does not seem interested in going further. The April 13 barrage was tailored to thread between projecting military strength and avoiding retaliation from Israel (and potentially the United States). Iranian officials exchanged a flurry of messages with Washington and Middle East regional capitals before the attack, giving everyone time to prepare defensive systems. In its public and diplomatic messaging regarding the strikes, Iran emphasized that it was engaging in a limited and proportionate response. According to the White House, Iran said it would strike only “military facilities.” As the dust settled on the morning after the attacks, Iran’s military chief of staff declared, “Our operations are over and we have no intention to continue them.”

But this declaration does not make it so. Iran’s official statement may have “deemed concluded” its spat with Israel, but the Israeli government gets a say, as well. In anticipation of Iranian retaliation, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz declared that “if Iran attacks from its territory, Israel will respond and attack in Iran.”

If Israel does respond by striking Iranian territory, the situation could spiral out of control. The two states may find themselves in sustained, direct hostilities that result in high casualties and further destabilize an already dangerous region. Such a conflict could quickly spread. The United States, compelled to defend Israel, might directly enter the fray. Iran’s nonstate allies could become even more violent and belligerent. Iran might further align itself with China and Russia. Moreover, Western talk of stepping up sanctions could itself push Tehran to coordinate more with Beijing and Moscow. And having failed to fend off further Israeli attacks through its regional allies and conventional weapons, Tehran might try to use its highly advanced nuclear program to produce a nuclear weapon.

There is reason to hope that such escalation can be avoided. Washington has been trying to avert a full-on regional conflict since October, and according to reporting by Axios, its message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been to treat the successful defense of his country as a win and move on. The United States has substantial leverage with Israel and therefore may prevail. But Israel is not a U.S. proxy, so Washington cannot guarantee that Netanyahu will sit still. Tehran weighed risks against benefits in its unprecedented offensive, using a calculus likely shared by the Israeli leader, and decided that it needed to one-up Israel to prevent it from crossing redlines (such as attacking its consulate). The Israeli government may come to a similar conclusion.

The Iranians have already said that they are willing to go up the escalation ladder if Israel does retaliate. Israel could then strike back again. The Middle East did not explode on April 13, but it is still at risk of a bigger conflict that would have no winners, ‘The Foreign Affairs’ stresses.


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