Iran News

Iran and Israel Shift From Proxy War to Direct Conflict

In April, both Iran and Israel launched air strikes into each other’s territory for the first time. This is a significant escalation in a decades-long cold war that has seen Iran put pressure on Israel via Arab proxy militias. While the direct strikes have inflicted no casualties yet, the adversaries have now crossed a line they cannot uncross.

Iranian missiles spotted in flight over the Old City of Jerusalem. Via Mehr News Agency (CC BY 4.0).

April 23, 2024 03:54 EDT

On April 1, a targeted Israeli strike killed two Iranian generals and five other personnel in Damascus. In response, on April 13, Iran attacked Israel directly, launching over 300 drones and missiles. Israel, with its Iron Dome air defense system, was reportedly able to intercept 99% of the incoming weapons and suffered no casualties. On April 19, Israel retaliated with a limited strike in Isfahan, in central Iran, also with no casualties.

Iran and Israel have not yet killed each other’s citizens on their own soil with these strikes, but they are coming dangerously close to war. How did we get here?

“Death to Israel”

Conflicts do not just erupt out of the blue. There is always history involved, especially in the Middle East. The State of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran have a history of bad blood that dates back to the latter’s very inception in February 1979.

The Islamic Revolution changed everything in Iran, obliterating the legacy of the failed monarchy. The monarchy had followed a foreign policy rooted in Iranian nationalism. In this context, Israel was not an enemy, but rather a very helpful collaborator. Iran’s new leaders, the mullahs, however, adopted an Islamist foreign policy. In their picture of the Middle East Israel was the enemy, the Little Satan, and the regional sub-contractor of the Great Satan, the US.

The mullahs pursued the strategy of proxy war against Israel from the very beginning. The first area of this indirect collision was Lebanon, where already in 1979 the Shia movement called Islamic Amal became the nucleus of the pro-Iran forces in Lebanon. Later, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Hezbollah took on this role, leading the struggle which finally drove Israel out of Lebanon in 2000. Clearly, this strategy paid them off with Hezbollah becoming the most powerful force in Lebanon. From Iran’s perspective Hezbollah became an unofficial wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, tasked both with the gradual weakening of Israel and also supporting the Assad regime in Syria and anti-American Shi’i forces in Iraq. Later, Iran also supported the Shia Houthi insurgency in Yemen. 

Iran has been systematically building up forces around Israel with the aim of using them against the ‘’Zionist Entity’’ when the time comes. Simultaneously, it has relentlessly continued its quest for an atomic bomb. Such a weapon would play two important roles for Iran. First, it would serve as a deterrence against Israel, the US and their Arab allies. Second, it would be the ace up Iran’s sleeve in case conflict with Israel ever got out of control.

The failed Israeli policy on Iran

The top question emerging from all the above is: Why has Israel allowed this state of affairs to take shape?.How has Iran succeeded in mobilizing all these forces against Israel?

Here is the answer. For the last 15 years, Israel’s leader has been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For him, the nuclear threat posed by Iran is the most important challenge to Israel’s security and survival. For Jews who still remember the Holocaust less than a century ago, the annihilation of the Jewish people is a real fear, and it is legitimate and understandable that they connect that fear with an existential threat like Iran.

However, there are three main problems with Netanyahu’s policy. First, he did not offer a viable strategy to deal with the Iran nuclear program, an absence which became dramatic following the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 and the subsequent US abandonment of the treaty under President Donald Trump. Second, despite all of Netanyahu’s rhetoric about preparing an independent Israeli military option to deal with the Iranian nuclear project , Israel has to date prepared no such alternative. Thirdly, while the Iran nuclear program was the uppermost topic on his agenda, Netanyahu neglected dealing with the gradual strengthening of Hamas and Hezbollah, and under his watch both organizations became full-fledged armies. The results of this development have been in clear display since the October 7, 2023, Hamas assault on Israel.

Yes, Netanyahu did carry out an air campaign in Syria with the stated aim of hampering Iranian presence there and arms shipments via Syria to Lebanon, but while this campaign yielded tactical local successes, it failed strategically. Iran has had the upper hand, and it managed to solidify a circle of active, effective enemies around Israel. Most importantly, it has continued the race towards the bomb uninterruptedly.

Interpreting the April strikes

It is in this context that we should look at the current skirmishes between Iran and Israel. Both parties have abandoned long-held policies. Iran, for the first time, attacked Israel directly and not through proxies. Israel directly attacked Iran in a justified retaliation, albeit a muted one — though the choice of target still gives a wink towards the nuclear program; Israel destroyed a radar system protecting nuclear facilities near Isfahan. So, the strike was clearly an escalation.

Iran lost tactically, as its attack was mostly thwarted, while Israel proved capabilities which show potential for more. But, that is merely tactical failure and success. What about the strategic results?

Here we are in the guessing game .What are the lessons learnt by the two sides?

I will offer my guesses. Iran will not abandon the policies and goals it has pursued since 1979. The Islamic regime has turned them into a question of its very raison d’etre. They will continue to use proxies and will directly engage at their choosing. In their minds, they have already crossed the Rubicon, and they can thus continue to attack Israel directly.

The onus falls on Israel. The Israeli leadership is still with Netanyahu, but most of them already have their minds on the post-Netanyahu era (after the next elections which I believe, actually hope, will be around the autumn of 2024). They will have to make difficult decisions. Will Israel go all the way against Hezbollah or not? How will Israel finish the job of eliminating Hamas in Gaza? Above all, what will Israel do about the Iranian nuclear program?

With such choices and dilemmas facing the two protagonists, we can unfortunately be certain that the last round of hostilities was not the beginning of the end; maybe not even the end of the beginning. Stay tuned.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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