Israel must respond to Iran without undermining its stunning regional coalition

Iran and Israel both have more to lose than gain from all-out war


An anti-missile system in operation after Iran launched missiles against Israel (Times Now)

April 16, 2024 11:05

Sunday’s Iranian attacks on Israel were a total contrast to the regime’s previous extreme caution in responding directly to Israel and risking a confrontation with the United States.

It had been faced with a dilemma after Israel’s assassination of Hasan Mahdavi, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in Syria. It could choose a moderate response, which would weaken the perception of Iranian deterrence; or a more extreme response, which could escalate the conflict. The Iranian leadership chose the latter.

It is clear that Iran now wants to respond directly to Israel rather than relying on its proxies. From its perspective, relying on proxies would be a sign of military weakness and risk exposing them – especially Hezbollah – to a potent Israeli response.

In that context, it appears that Sunday was not just about revenge. The Iranian leadership seems to think that without a significant operation, its ability to deter future attacks – either against overseas Iranian interests or against Iran itself – would be severely undermined.

But despite Tehran’s readiness for retaliation and preparations to escalate the conflict, the Iranian leadership is not preparing for a full-scale war. They are still constrained by concerns of a possible entanglement with US forces in the Gulf and a reluctance to sacrifice Hezbollah, Iran’s primary proxy in the Middle East, in a widespread campaign. It seems that after Sunday’s retaliation, the Iranian leadership wants to end the current conflict without being dragged into a direct and prolonged confrontation with Israel.

With Iranian attack carried out, the ball is back in Israel’s court.

Those who know the Middle East well know that Israel’s need to respond to Iran goes much further than last weekend’s attack. While the Islamic Republic may not have been fully appraised of all the details of Hamas’s October 7 attack, the military and financial assistance Iran has provided to Hamas – as well as the support of the Shiite militias, instructed by Iran since the start of the war in Gaza – show Iran’s overall responsibility. 

However, an extreme Israeli response such as a direct strike on Iranian soil could lead to a spiralling escalation and perhaps all-out war. While Iran is seeking to avoid an escalation, it would certainly respond to an open attack on its territory or elsewhere in the Middle East.

A disproportionate response to the Iranian attack could undermine Israel’s ability to achieve its primary goals of destroying Hamas and securing the release of the hostages.

Moreover, it would open a Pandora’s box that could draw in Hezbollah into the conflict in the north and force the IDF to shift its focus to Iran’s proxies right across that theatre. This would have dramatic and far-reaching implications for Israel’s defence establishment, its citizens and the economy –  which is gradually recovering from October 7 – as well as international support, which has dramatically diminished since the conflict began. That means considering a response that ends the current exchange without expanding the conflict.

The recent attack has also shown the importance of working within a coalition to counter Iran. If Israel attacks Iran in a way that counters the US administration's position and undermines the willingness of its Arab neighbours, it will become harder to recruit them again to a coalition against Iran.

In avenging the assassination of Mahdavi, Iran showed that the killing was not just another incident in Israel’s campaign against the Islamic Republic’s presence in Syria which it could ignore.

The Iranian leadership has been cautious and not directly involved in Operation Swords of Iron. But its willingness to take a massive risk and attack Israel directly represents a 180-degree shift in policy, and demonstrates that it is reconfiguring its deterrence strategy against Israel.

Despite all this, it is doubtful that Tehran wants to expand the conflict and engage in an all-out war. So the future direction of the conflict hinges on Israel’s response to Iran. A forceful Israeli response increases the chances of severe escalation between Israel, Iran, and Hezbollah, making it highly challenging for Israel to achieve its military goals against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Danny Citrinowicz is a Research Fellow in the Iran Program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel. He was head of the Iran branch in the Research and Analysis Division of the Israel Defence Intelligence (IDI).

April 16, 2024 11:05

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