Iran's attacks on Israel open a dangerous new chapter for old rivals

Iran has retaliated directly against Israel for the killing of its generals in Damascus, Syria, with an attack of more than 300 drones and missiles aimed at restoring its credibility and deterrence, officials and analysts say.

This represents a time of great risk, with key questions still to be answered, they say. Was Iran's attack enough to satisfy its demands for revenge? Or, given the relatively paltry results – almost all drones and missiles have been intercepted by Israel and the United States – will he feel compelled to strike again? And will Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, consider the excellent performance of his country's air defenses as a sufficient response? Or will he choose to escalate further with an attack on Iran itself?

Now that Iran has attacked Israel as it promised, it will want to avoid a wider war, officials and analysts say, pointing out that the Iranians have targeted only military sites in an apparent attempt to avoid civilian casualties and have publicized their attack widely advance. .

“The Iranian government appears to have concluded that the attack on Damascus was a strategic turning point, where failure to retaliate would bring more harm than benefit,” said Ali Vaez, Iran director of the International Crisis Group. “But in doing so, the shadow war he has been waging for years with Israel threatens to turn into a very real and very damaging conflict,” which could drag into the United States, he said.

“The Iranians have played their card for now,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House. “They chose to call Israel's bluff, and they felt the need to do so, because they see the last six months as a persistent effort to bring them back across the region.”

Iranian leaders said on Sunday that the military operation against Israel was over, but warned they may launch a larger one depending on Israel's response.

Brig. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, Iran's top military officer, said “the operation has produced its full result” and “there is no intention to continue it.” But, he added, if Israel attacked Iran on its own soil, or elsewhere, “our next operation will be much bigger than this one.”

For years, Iran has suffered blow after blow from Israel: assassinations of its nuclear scientists and military commanders, explosions at its nuclear and military bases, cyberattacks, intelligence infiltrations, an embarrassing theft of nuclear documents, and recent attacks on its critical infrastructures.

But since the Hamas-led assault on October 7 pushed Israel into war in Gaza, Israel has stepped up its attacks against Iranian interests and commanders in Syria. In a series of attacks from December onwards, Israel assassinated at least 18 Iranian commanders and military personnel of the Quds Force, the elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that operates outside Iran's borders, they said. the Iranian media.

The Iranian government has been criticized by hardliners for its cautious stance during the war in Gaza.

With this weekend's attacks, Ms. Vakil said: “I think Tehran saw the need to draw this red line and make it clear to Israel that Iran has red lines and will not continue to tolerate the slow degradation of its position.” .

Tehran felt it had to respond, even though its attack elicited firm American support and broad Western diplomatic support for Israel, dispersing some of Israel's pressure on its war in Gaza, at least temporarily, and once again isolating Iran. .

Now, Ms. Vakil said, the two sides were in a stalemate in which both were prepared for an escalation despite knowing it would cause enormous damage to themselves.

At the same time, the old equation has changed, with Israel and Iran striking each other directly, on each other's territory, and not through Iranian representatives abroad.

The Israeli attack on the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus, followed by a direct Iranian attack on Israel, represents a dangerous new chapter in the long, sometimes hidden, war between Israel and Iran, which has said it wants Israel to be deleted from the map. Sometimes known as “the shadow war,” the conflict has been waged primarily between Israel and Iran's allies and proxies – in Gaza, southern Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria.

Both sides claim to be acting in national self-defense: Israel against groups committed to its destruction, with Iran as its main ally and controller, and Iran against any potential Israeli war against it, often in the name of the Palestinians.

Iran increasingly refers to its rapidly expanding nuclear program, which has enriched uranium to near weapons-grade level, as a deterrent against Israel, while at the same time denying it has any intention of building a nuclear weapon. But Iran is increasingly viewed by experts as a nuclear threshold state, capable of creating high-yield nuclear material within weeks and a crude nuclear weapon within a year or so.

Iran is also going through a slow and complicated transition as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and commander-in-chief, is said to be ill and has faced an internal uprising in 2022, led by women, calling for an end to the government clerical.

Khamenei himself ordered the attacks on Israel from inside Iran to send a clear message that Iran was moving from “strategic patience” to more active deterrence, according to four Iranian officials, two of them members of the Revolutionary Guards. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

“The Iranian operation sends a very clear message to Israel and its allies: the rules of the game have changed and from now on, if Israel hits any Iranian target or kills any Iranian, we will be willing to strike in a big way and from our side. part. own territory,” Nasser Imani, a prominent Tehran-based analyst close to the government, said in a telephone interview. “The days of covert operations and patience are over.”

Iran also wanted to seize what it saw as a “golden opportunity” to retaliate on this scale, because Israel was being widely criticized over Gaza, including by its key allies, such as the United States, Imani said.

Iran's reach for regional hegemony, bolstered by its proxies and nuclear capabilities, has antagonized the region's traditional Sunni Arab governments, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf nations. The Islamic revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1979 was initially aimed at regional revolution, overthrowing these governments, most of which are monarchies or military dictatorships, so Israel's efforts to limit the power of Iran, a non-Arab Shiite nation, have had silent support from Arab countries, including Israel's war against Hamas.

Now the risks of regional escalation have increased considerably. During the war in Gaza, Iran was careful to restrain its proxies surrounding Israel from major attacks, and to avoid serious Israeli retaliation against Hezbollah particularly in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah, with its thousands of rockets aimed at Israel, is considered an important deterrent that prevents Israel from directly attacking Iran and in particular its nuclear and missile programs.

Given Iran's new isolation after this attack, Israel should not respond, said Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in France. “But a threshold has been crossed,” he said. And the threshold for “a massive Israeli attack on Iranian territory,” he continued, “which always represents an extreme option for Israel, whatever commentators say, is now lowered.”

Netanyahu, who has been warning about the Iranian threat for two decades and faces intense pressure to respond from within his shaky far-right coalition, may choose to respond more forcefully, either directly to Iran or to Hezbollah. But Washington, having not been warned of the attack on Damascus, will now probably insist on prior consultation.

But the modest outcome of the Iranian attacks “could reinforce the Israeli perception that Tehran is on the defensive, lacking the willpower and capacity for deeper engagement, and that now is the time for Israel to deal a deeper blow, a long wanted, to Iran and the nation. its regional delegates,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa director for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Israel's challenge has always been to “counter the main attack while leaving an opening that allows the Iranians to say they have achieved their objective,” wrote Nahum Barnea, a commentator for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. The danger comes from two extremes, he continued: “An excessively successful Iranian operation risks turning into a regional war; one excessively failed Iranian operation will invite another Iranian operation.”

Iran's mission to the United Nations suggested in a statement on social media on Saturday that if Israel did not respond, Iran would withdraw.

“The matter can be considered concluded. However, if the Israeli regime makes another mistake, Iran's response will be significantly more severe.” the statement said. She also warned that “the US MUST STAY AWAY!”

Leily Nikounazar contributed reporting from Leuven, Belgium.

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