The Israeli-Iran Conflict: Understanding the Tensions and Potential Escalations

2024-04-22 11:41:04

The war in Gaza and international pressure have contributed to Israel’s reluctance. An armed conflict with the Islamic Republic cannot be ruled out.

A woman in front of a poster in Tehran.

Majid Asgaripour / Wana / Reuters

The big war in the Middle East seems to have been averted for the time being. On Friday, Israel allegedly attacked an Iranian air force base – and then the weapons fell silent. Iran downplayed the attack and saw no reason for a further response over the weekend. On Sunday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei thanked Iranian forces for their previous attack on Israel. He didn’t mention the counterattack.

On April 14, the regime in Tehran attacked Israel for the first time from its own territory with over 300 rockets, cruise missiles and drones. 99 percent of the bullets were blocked. In the midst of the Gaza war, nuclear-armed Israel and the near-nuclear power Iran were on the verge of open conflict.

Sea satellite images Israel damaged an anti-aircraft system near Isfahan in central Iran on Friday. Israel is believed to have used drones and at least one missile fired from a fighter jet, according to Western and Iranian officials. Compared to the swarms of drones and missiles launched by Iran, Israeli retaliation was moderate. Why did Israel shy away from escalation with the Islamic Republic?

Gaza remains the first priority

“Israel has enough on its plate,” says Efraim Inbar to the NZZ. Israel is currently waging an open war on two fronts – in the Gaza Strip and in the north against Hezbollah. In addition, there are new tensions in the West Bank, says the head of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “That’s why the government retaliated against the Iranian attack so cautiously.”

For Israel, the war against Hamas and the release of the remaining hostages are still the top priority. In order to destroy Hamas’ military capabilities, the government has been preparing an offensive on Rafah for weeks. Around 1.5 million civilians have sought protection in the city in the south of the Gaza Strip – and, according to Israeli information, the last four Hamas battalions are also located here. The US has warned against a military operation to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.

In the wake of the Iran crisis, preparations for an invasion of Rafah continued. The day after the Iranian attack, two additional brigades of the Israeli Defense Forces were mobilized for “operational activities” on the Gaza frontline. Last Monday, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant met senior military officials to prepare for the evacuation of civilians from Rafah, his office said.

This could also have been the reason for a cautious reaction, says Efraim Inbar. “I think that there was an agreement between the USA and Israel: Israel reacts moderately, and in return it gets more freedom of movement in the Gaza Strip from the Americans.”

Without the partners it doesn’t work

President Joe Biden made it clear very early on that the US would not support a strike against Iran. “Israel cannot wage war against Iran alone,” says Iran expert Eldad Shavit from the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv in an interview. “Israel needs the support of the international community and especially the USA. That is not the case at the moment.”

The Iranian attack also showed that Israel can rely on other partners in Europe and the region in addition to the USA. Even its Arab neighbor Jordan shot down Iranian drones over its airspace. This fragile alliance might have collapsed if Israel had provoked a regional war. For Israel, support from the region is a strategic advantage in the confrontation with Iran that it does not want to squander.

Israel is keeping an eye on Iran’s nuclear program

Nevertheless, the Israeli counterattack has demonstrated that a war between Iran and Israel is not out of the question. Because Israel did not attack anywhere. The damaged defenses are located near Isfahan. Nuclear facilities are located there and 100 kilometers away near Natanz, which play an essential role in the production of enriched uranium.

With the strike, Israel is sending a clear message to Iran. The attack is a symbolic warning shot: the government in Jerusalem is still keeping a close eye on Iran’s nuclear program and will not allow Tehran to receive the bomb.

As long as Iran is not an official nuclear power, Israeli security experts assume that both parties will return to the so-called shadow war. Nevertheless, the risk of escalation is now much higher now that Iran has broken the taboo on direct attacks from its own territory. However, the calculation could change as soon as there is clear evidence that Iran is using its nuclear program militarily, says Eldad Shavit. “Then Israel could say: ‘Enough is enough’ and risk war.”

The only question is whether it won’t already be too late – or whether the time for Israel’s preemptive strike will soon come. David Albright, a former inspector at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), estimates that Iran can produce a so-called crude bomb that can be fired on a ballistic missile in six months.

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