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Iran’s Strikes on Israel

The prospects of regional war and actors' calculations

3 mins read
This photo taken on April 14, 2024 shows flares from explosions in the sky over Jerusalem as Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts missiles and drones from Iran. (Photo by Jamal Awad/Xinhua)

I am sure many of my readers were up late last night live-tracking the strikes by Iran and its ‘axis of resistance’ against Israel in retaliation for the Israeli bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus. The strikes themselves were bigger in scale than might have been expected but were nonetheless calibrated, with Iran considering its response to be sufficient if the response deters future Israeli strikes on Iranian targets.

In light of the unprecedented nature of the strikes on Israel, it is tempting to carry headlines about how the fate of the entire Middle East supposedly hangs on the edge. Yet this sort of talk is very sensationalist. The prospect of an all-out regional war is still far-fetched, simply because neither Israel nor Iran wants it. Ultimately, as Jonathan Spyer has pointed out, the Iranian and ‘resistance axis’ long-term strategy regarding Israel is not that a major regional war needs to be launched or that nuclear weapons need to be acquired for the purpose of striking and wiping out Israel in one massive blow . Rather, the logic is that Israel is seen as internally weak and fragile (hence the common refrain that Israel is supposedly ‘weaker than a spider’s web’) and thus continual pressure without launching an all-out regional war can eventually induce Israel’s collapse. There is no reason to think that this logic has changed. In this context also, Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons manufacturing capability should be seen as motivated by a desire to establish deterrence against disruption of its activities and those of its regional allies.

The issue of intentions in this exchange of strikes leads to a question of Israel’s calculations in launching the attack on Iran’s consulate in Damascus. On one reading that exists among some of Israel’s critics, Israel carried out this strike precisely in the hope of provoking a direct Iranian retaliation against Israel so that Israel can finally get the all-out war it supposedly wants with Iran and drag the United States into it. This is little more than a conspiracy theory. The more logical explanation is that Israel carried out the attack on Iranian consulate because Israel developed a very high risk tolerance when it came to launching strikes aimed at hitting Iranian and ‘resistance axis’ targets in Syria. Put another way, Israel did not think that Iran would launch meaningful retaliation, because it has been able to carry out so many strikes on Syrian territory before without consequence and accountability.

This lack of consequence and accountability was foremost embodied in the fact that the Iranians, Syrians, Hezbollah etc. did not themselves conduct meaningful retaliation. There was no real response even when Israel repeatedly managed to take out high-value targets, including senior personnel in both the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah, or caused damage and disruption to sites like Damascus airport. Moreover, Syrian air defences have done a very poor job in trying to repel strikes when they happen.

The second aspect of this lack of consequence and accountability (though less significant in impacting Israel’s calculations) is that the world in general treated the Israeli strikes on Syria with indifference, essentially regarding them as being like the weather. Consider the following (for example): when was the last time you saw an independent investigation (published by a media outlet or a research institute) into an Israeli strike(s) on Syria asking and exploring critical questions like who exactly the targets were, what information did the Israelis have on the targets they hit, was there an imminent threat to Israel posed by those targets, and whether the intelligence might have been faulty? The norm instead has been to quote something like the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights or recycle some Arabic-language social media rumours without any real attempt at verification.

I accept that there are great obstacles to conducting investigations, but it is still worth trying as far as possible in the interest of the objective historical record. My own investigations into those strikes have primarily involved talking to relatives or associates of those who get killed in these strikes. From what I have found, Israel does indeed have deep intelligence penetration of the IRGC and Hezbollah networks in Syria and those networks have been highly vulnerable to Israeli strikes. There is also a possibility that some instances might be cases of mistaken or not wholly certain identification of a target as being linked to Iran and Hezbollah. In any event, the point is that the general indifference and lack of questions about these strikes added to the calculation that strikes could be conducted in Syria without real risks and consequences: very much secondary to the fact that Iran and the ‘resistance axis’ themselves did not retaliate, but still a factor of note in my view.

Finally, what about the consequences of the strikes on Israel? Already some of the pro-‘resistance’ types are talking of how Iran has supposedly now ‘deterred’ Israel. Others are talking of Iran’s actions as a strategic error from its point of view. Both of these judgements are premature. The key question is what Iran does next, especially since there is likely to be some Israeli military response. From the Iranian perspective, the issue is whether the equation of escalation and de-escalation is fundamentally altered. If the Iranians actually implement a new policy whereby from now on any Israeli strike on Iranian personnel and assets will be met with a meaningful direct response targeting Israel’s territory, there might be something to establishing a new formula of deterrence. Otherwise, the trend will probably go back to the old status quo.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is an independent analyst and a doctoral candidate at Swansea University, where he focuses on the role of historical narratives in Islamic State propaganda. His public media work focuses primarily on the Islamic State, Iraq, and Syria, and he has been cited in numerous outlets for his insights, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Agence France-Presse, and the Associated Press. His website is www.aymennjawad.org.

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