The onus is now on Israel as Iran makes its move

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The writer is director of regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies

On Saturday night, a long-awaited Iranian strike on Israel started with a bang and ended with a whimper. Even before the hundreds of drones, cruise and ballistic missiles fired hit Israel, Tehran’s diplomatic mission at the UN issued a statement announcing the end of that round. The incoming projectiles were intercepted above the skies of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel by an international coalition, and no serious damage or casualties were reported. 

This was the most dangerous step yet in the complex, high-stakes shadowboxing surrounding the Israel-Hamas war, tipping it into the light. Ever since October 7, Iran and Israel have been locked into a worsening stand-off, in which Israel repeatedly bloodies Iran’s face as the latter haltingly dances around while avoiding throwing a punch. 

These have been difficult times for Iran. Tehran has relished Israel’s diminished standing over its Gaza war, western moral embarrassment and Arab outrage. Its relative restraint has generated precious goodwill from its neighbours, partially reversing its long-standing isolation. But these gains have been fragile, and the ruling clique has known all along that a direct war with Israel may not only jeopardise its regional position but could also drag in the US and damage the regime itself.

Last night’s attacks produced enough footage for Iran and its partners to gleefully use for their propaganda. But as Tehran reacted out of humiliation, following Israeli strikes on its Damascus consulate earlier this month, yesterday’s events are likely to be less than satisfying strategically. 

Iran now sees the limits of relying on militia partners: this dilemma was started by the Gaza branch of Hamas, which initiated a major conflict without its knowledge. Israel’s subsequent blows exposed the misalignment between Iran’s low appetite for risk and the aggressive posture of the much-vaunted ‘Axis of Resistance’. The lack of retaliation for Israel’s repeated killings of senior IRGC commanders and allied militia fighters in Syria and Lebanon over the past few months has unnerved the regime’s praetorian guard.

The onus is now on Israel. Its air defences performed well last night, which has reassured its population and bought it time to calibrate its response. One Israeli official already promised one of “unprecedented proportions”. For Benjamin Netanyahu, this is a net win: the Iranian attack has galvanised western support after weeks of mounting criticism of the brutal campaign in Gaza. The concern now is that Israel’s sense it has prevailed in this round may make it less rather than more risk averse. It is possible that Netanyahu will tell Washington: if you don’t let us go after Iran, let us invade Rafah, the southern Gaza city.

But Israel owes this success to ample warning from Iran and to the help of the US, UK, France, Jordan and other Arab states. The operation has exposed its security dependency on the very partners it has slighted in recent months. The US administration does not want a wider war and continues to be worried about Netanyahu’s manoeuvring. Arab leaders are still more worried about Israeli belligerence in the short-term than Iranian. They know that a massive attack on Iranian command-and-control, military or nuclear facilities will probably compel Tehran and its allies to drop all restraints.

It would also be a mistake to dismiss the Iranian attack because it was militarily ineffective. Israel has come under attack by another state for the first time since 1991 and Iran will have learnt lessons from this. Iran has also set a precedent that it could respond directly and not necessarily through proxies. Signalling since the attack has been mixed: its foreign minister called for time off while the head of the IRGC announced “[Iran] has decided to create a new equation [with Israel].” US deterrence has also been eroded: its public intelligence disclosure was unsuccessful in convincing Iran not to proceed. 

Relegated in all this are the Palestinians of Gaza. For all its performative support for them, Iran’s attack may well push the war there down the global agenda just as calls for an immediate ceasefire and greater humanitarian access were gaining momentum. Negotiations over the Israeli hostages, already at an impasse, are likely to be suspended for some time. As long as Washington decouples a ceasefire in Gaza from dangerous regional dynamics, things will get worse. 

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