The Iranian threat looms over Israel – but a full-scale war does not suit its agenda

Despite mounting tensions, all-out war is not inevitable at this point


Iranians in Tehran burn the Israeli flag during the annual rally to mark the anti-Israel Quds Day, which took place on 5 April this year (Photo: Getty)

April 11, 2024 10:42

Long before October 7, the Israeli security establishment identified Iran and its “axis of resistance” as the greatest threat to Israeli security and regional stability. Iran’s modus operandi was to replicate the Hezbollah model, aspiring to place proxy militias as a “ring of fire” surrounding Israel, in parallel to developing nuclear weapons. Indeed, although non-Arab and Shiite, the Iranian regime successfully inserted de facto influence over four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sanaa. Furthermore, for the last year or two there has been growing concern over Iranian attempts to co-opt Palestinians in the West Bank (perhaps even Israeli Arabs) and to destabilise Jordan, alongside their existing patronage of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The roots of Iranian entrenchment in Syria began in Westminster in 2013, when Parliament voted against military intervention, leaving then US president Obama unable to enforce his own red lines against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. The spineless response by the US and UK effectively opened the door for Russia and Iran to fill the vacuum and enter Syria, propping up Assad, with a simple division of labour: Russia from the sky, Iran on the ground.

Since then, Iran has sprung on the opportunity to open up another front against Israel from the Syrian Golan. It began building military posts and bringing in Shia militiamen. It placed battle-hardened Hezbollah commanders and began smuggling in weapons via land, air and sea both to these Shia proxies and Hezbollah itself. Some of these weapons were advanced “game changing weapons” such as Scud D and Yakhont missiles, as well as the technology to upgrade dumb bombs and convert them to precision guided missiles with GPS.

In response, Israel conceived the “campaign between the wars”. The concept focused on targeting these weapons shipments and storage facilities with a stealth aerial bombing campaign. A second feature of this campaign was to reach an understanding or “deconfliction mechanism" with the Russians, widely recognised as a de facto presence on Israel’s northern border, due to their influence over Syrian territory.

Although Israel did not (and still does not) publicly take responsibility for every attack, over the years senior figures have acknowledged hundreds of these strikes against Iranian military assets. In most of these attacks, Israel was careful to destroy the hardware but limited itself when it came to killing Iranians and Hezbollah commanders. A type of deterrence was established, with rules of the game understood by both sides.

October 7 – or more accurately October 8 (Hezbollah did not join the fighting immediately) – changed the calculus. For the last six months, Hezbollah has deployed four methods to attack northern Israel: rockets and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) – over 3,000 combined; drones, both for monitoring and weaponised with explosives; and personnel probing the border areas with a potential for infiltrations.

The vast majority of these attacks have been focused on the “line of contact” – the immediate area across the border. Nevertheless, this has led to around 80,000 Israeli residents of those areas having to leave their homes, internally displaced, with no guarantees when they will be able to return. Compounding the misery, one of the bitter twists is that according to the UN security council resolution 1701 that ended the second Lebanon war in 2006, it was Hezbollah that was meant to be distanced from the border in southern Lebanon. Instead, it is Israel that has effectively shrunk, and lost its presence in over 20 communities close to the border.

Israel’s response has also been fourfold: first, it has taken to responding to attacks, targeting the source of the fire; this has been particularly effective in targeting cells launching ATGMs. Second, it has continued to target Hezbollah infrastructure and weapons storage (similar to the past) but with increased intensity. Third, it has targeted cells of the elite Radwan commandos, who in their own propaganda videos (long before October 7) had threatened to infiltrate and occupy the Galilee. Fourth, Israel has changed the rules of the game and has actively targeted several senior Iranian commanders.

The most daring and significant attack was the targeted strike against the Iranian general Mohammad Reza Zahedi on 1 April, an audacious attack on the building adjacent to the Iranian embassy in Damascus, killing five other senior Iranian commanders too. Zahedi was Iran’s most senior commander responsible for both Lebanon and Syria, as well as for overseeing relations between all Iran’s regional affiliates and proxies, including Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Syrian authorities and Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq. In terms of regional influence, perhaps only Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was of greater importance than Zahedi.

Iran has threatened revenge, but this is not new. With other Iranian proxies, including from Iraq and Yemen, already launching attacks against Israel, there is broad speculation over what form their revenge will take. Some foresee a direct attack emanating from Iran. This would be new – possibly a swarming attack to overwhelm Israeli air defences. “Soft targets” including Israel’s embassies around the world have been put on high alert.

So far, Iran has given Hezbollah bandwidth to attack across the length of the border but largely kept it from striking deeper, despite a handful of attacks directed towards Tzfat, Haifa and Tiberius. The success and scale of any Iranian revenge strike would most likely precipitate a commensurate Israeli counterstrike.

However, the working assumption is that a full-scale war with Israel does not suit the Iranian agenda right now. Hezbollah’s 130,000 rocket stockpile is held primarily as an Iranian insurance policy in the event of an attack on their ever-advancing nuclear weapons capacity. There is high concern, of course, that this day could come soon too. For Israel, absent a diplomatic solution, sustainable security and the return of northern residents will be secured by force, once its operations in Gaza are sufficiently complete.

Richard Pater is an analyst based in Jerusalem, and CEO of BICOM

April 11, 2024 10:42

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