Global Affairs April 15, 2024 by

Raffaele Petroni

Iran vs Israel: rationales and implications of Teheran’s attack

Iran’s attack on Israel opens a new chapter and marks a significant escalation in the ongoing conflict between the Jewish state and the republic of the Ayatollahs. It represents the first direct involvement of the latter against the former, prompting different layers of interpretations on the rationales, effects, and efficiency.

The events unfolding in the region since Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7, 2023 have underscored a stronger desire among Iran’s proxies for recognition and legitimacy on the international stage. Additionally, Iran has reaped benefits from the Gaza conflict and the activities of its proxies. Gradually, however, Israeli military operations against Teheran’s forces and network in Syria and Lebanon have shuffled the cards on the tables of the Middle East. As such, Iran’s attack has to be structured also in this regional framework.

The rocket barrage has been intercepted, for the most part, before reaching Israeli soil. American, British, French, and Jordanian forces and systems have also assisted in repelling the threat. Data suggests that one-third of the Iranian attack was intercepted by these forces, with the rest thwarted by Israel’s multi-layered anti-missile system, comprising the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow 2 and 3 systems.

The rationale behind Iran’s decision to launch over 300 UAVs, cruise, and ballistic missiles extends beyond a direct response to the attack on a facility near its consulate in Damascus. This facility was used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to coordinate operations against Israel through Lebanese and Syrian territories. The attack resulted in the death of senior Quds Force commander Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi.

One significant interpretation stems from the prevalent culture of honour and aversion to weakness in the Middle East. Iran sought to assert its strength, defend its honour, and showcase its capacity to launch attacks. In this context, the operation had multiple addressees: first, Israel; second, the Sunni states of the region; and third, its own population, governmental and non-governmental allies, and finally the Arab public opinion. While the first two align with regional conflicts and Iran’s policy to display its capabilities, the third addressees are more nuanced and therefore particularly significant.

Iran has historically pursued a military doctrine emphasising the extension of defensive lines beyond its borders and acting through proxies. The attack against Israel demonstrated Iran’s ability to operate directly, without relying on proxies. Since Hamas’s attacks on Israel on October 7, 2023, Arab public opinion expected Muslim countries in the region to take action against Israel. The failure to do so has sparked criticism of regional Muslim leadership. This attack has reshaped Iran’s visibility in the region, extending beyond strategic and military considerations. It has also influenced public perception of the Iranian government, especially after recent crackdowns on domestic opposition. An escalation in the conflict with Israel could further bolster support for the government.

An analysis of the operation’s conduct raises questions about Iran’s true intentions. Did Iran intend to cause significant damage to Israel? Public announcements regarding the launch of aerial devices and the use of drones, which were not particularly swift in flight, suggest that Iran, while feeling the need to respond, was more concerned about avoiding open war. If Iran truly intended to initiate hostilities, it would not have made announcements at the time of the drone and missile launches. It would have also involved proxies such as Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis, and utilised faster missiles launched from territories closer to Israeli soil where it exerts greater influence and control.

Beyond the political and strategic rationales, the limited results of and the way the operation was conducted lead to the conclusion that the Islamic Republic was more interested in containing a potential Israeli counter response, testing its own aerial offensive capabilities, and Israel’s anti-missiles systems with long range and ballistic missiles. It seemed more of a desire to show some sort of response, but without the intention to enlarge its direct involvement in the regional crises. 

Iran has declared that, as far as they are concerned, the situation is settled: Israel attacked, and Iran responded. However, Iran has also stated that if Israel retaliates, especially with American assistance, Iran will respond accordingly. Iran conveyed this message through letters to the president of the UN Security Council and the UN Secretary General, citing the principle of self-defence outlined in Article 51 of the UN Charter. Considering Iran’s historical role in conflicts with Israel, it remains unclear how Iran’s argument aligns with the principles of Article 51. Specifically, it’s uncertain where the boundaries of self-defence and the right to retaliate are drawn for the Islamic Republic.

A particular evaluation must be made regarding the effects of Iran’s operation: it has strategically shifted the burden onto Israel, leaving the government of Jerusalem with few viable options.

Will Israel respond? Yes, it will. The military doctrine of the Jewish State mandates a response to any threat to Israel’s security. The nature and timing of this response will unfold over time. Israel appears hesitant to react hastily, particularly given the minimal damage to its territory. However, the Israeli anti-missile systems have depleted a significant portion of their stocks in repelling the attack. Consequently, the repercussions extend beyond military considerations to financial implications, especially considering the substantial resources already expended in the conflict with Hamas in Gaza and its impact on the economy.

Would Israel deploy its military against Iranian territory? Iran’s strategic depth poses significant challenges for Israel. Conducting an efficient attack without American military support and supply is difficult, particularly without access to bunker buster bombs, which are essential for targeting Iranian nuclear facilities effectively. President Joe Biden, while reassuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of American intervention in the event of an attack on Israel, has also made it clear that the US will not endorse or assist any retaliatory action on Iranian soil. Biden’s stance underscores his call for moderation. The assistance provided by American forces in repelling the attack thus becomes a bargaining chip for the US President to persuade Netanyahu to consider the matter resolved.

Biden’s approach, however, diverges from the mindset prevalent in the Middle East, where any display of weakness is perceived as an opportunity for enemies to exploit and humiliate. This principle holds true across the region. Demonstrations of weakness do not encourage moderation from adversaries; rather, they tend to provoke further attacks. Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect and anticipate that Israel will refrain from responding.

In conclusion, the options on the table are all unfavourable. The tensions between Israel and Iran have steadily intensified over the decades, particularly since the onset of the American campaign against Iraq in 2003, followed by a gradual disengagement from the region starting in 2007. One consequence of the Iranian operation is Hamas’s rejection of a deal for the release of hostages and a ceasefire. Similarly, it can be expected that Hezbollah will also reject appeals for moderation and calls to withdraw its forces from the border with Israel. Likewise, the Houthis are likely to escalate their operations.

The Iranian attack has the potential to reshape realities on the ground and exacerbate hostilities. These conflicts are likely to impact the prices of energy products and disrupt supply chains. While it is challenging to predict the exact events that will unfold, it is reasonable to anticipate that the profound changes underway in the Middle East will have long-term consequences rather than short-term effects.

About the author

Raffaele Petroni

Raffaele Petroni