Iran crosses a red line with Israel to regain balance of power in Middle East

The attack on Israel came after successive assassinations of senior Revolutionary Guard officers. Tehran intends to restore the deterrence that these undermined, according to experts

Iran Israel
A huge billboard depicting a torn Israeli flag and a barrage of missiles in Tehran's Palestine Square, April 14, 2024.Majid Asgaripour (via REUTERS)

Huge banners hanging from buildings in Tehran have been a means of propaganda for Iran’s regime since 1979. On Sunday at dawn, a property in the Iranian capital’s Palestine Square was covered with a huge banner displaying a torn Israeli flag flying in the face of a hail of missiles. “The next slap will be harder,” the banner read, in Persian and Hebrew. That message is the graphic embodiment of statements such as those from the Iranian Chief of Staff, Major-General Mohamed Bagheri, who has threatened “considerably more severe” action than the barrage of drones and missiles launched against Israel if it elects to retaliate. Bagheri, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and members of Iran’s mission to the United Nations are among a raft of officials who have stressed that their country acted in “self-defense.” However, the attack crossed a red line; that of hitting Israeli territory. For its part, Iran believes Israel has stepped over the line in ways Tehran considers intolerable, such as the April 1 attack on the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus that killed Revolutionary Guard General Mohammad Reza Zahedi and 15 others.

Last December 25, Israel killed another Revolutionary Guard general, Razi Mousavi, in an airstrike on his house in Damascus. Three days later, 11 other members of the same corps were killed in the Syrian capital. On January 20, the Revolutionary Guard’s head of intelligence in Syria, Brigadier General Sadegh Omidzadeh, was killed along with his deputy and three of his advisors.

“When you kill a general in a diplomatic building, you take the confrontation to another level,” says Rouzbeh Parsi, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. When Iran attempted to secure condemnation for the attack in the U.N. Security Council, three permanent members of the veto-wielding body — the United States, the United Kingdom and France — opposed and reproached Tehran for its support of pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen. The same reproach was addressed to Iran by the G-7 countries in a communiqué condemning its attack on Israel.

Iran is not a democracy and has a dismal record of human rights violations. Israel is a democracy only for Jews, while it imposes on Palestinians — except, with nuances, on those with Israeli citizenship — a regime that NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch define as apartheid. It is also facing a case of possible genocide at the U.N. International Court of Justice over its offensive in Gaza, in which almost 34,000 Palestinians have died, according to the Ministry of Health in the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip. However, Israel enjoys “ironclad” support from the United States, while Washington considers Iran a state sponsor of terrorism.

The Israeli attack on the Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus convinced Tehran that “its deterrence capability” was being challenged by its failure to respond to these successive Israeli assassinations, explains Spanish-Iranian analyst Daniel Bashandeh.

With its attack — which was revealed in advance by official Iranian media and caused only minor material damage, although seriously injuring a Palestinian girl — Iran is sending “a warning” to Israel and the international community, says Bashandeh. That warning is that from now on, Tehran will respond to aggression and “open itself to direct targeted attacks.” “We have decided to put a new equation [with regard to Israel] into action. From now on, any assault on our people, our properties, or our interests will trigger a reciprocal response from the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” warned Revolutionary Guard Commander-in-Chief Hossein Salami.

According to Bashandeh, the drone and missile barrage against Israel also underpins the regime’s “internal credibility” in the eyes of the sector of the population that still supports it, despite the impoverishment of Iranians, corruption and oppression, which in the case of women is symbolized by the imposition of the veil. At the same time, “it serves for the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his circle to reinforce the regime’s hard line and the internal support of the military elite: the Revolutionary Guard,” explains Bashandeh. Iran is seeking to “regain the balance of power in the region,” the analyst notes.

A mistake or success for Tehran?

From almost the very beginning of the attack, when Iran’s mission to the U.N. stated that the operation marked the end of its retaliation for the assassination of General Zahedi, Tehran attempted to emphasize the measured nature of its response, which Parsi describes as “choreographed:” first, the warning to neighboring countries in the region 72 hours in advance, according to the Iranian Foreign Minister; then the announcement of the launch of drones which would take a few hours to arrive, and finally, the missiles.

These projectiles are the main basis of Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari’s denial that the attack was limited. Hagari has stressed that Iran launched as many as 120 ballistic missiles, an “escalation factor” that sought to cause “far more significant” damage than it achieved. His narrative points to Israel trying to position itself as the only one entitled to the “legitimate self-defense” also invoked by Iran. Hagari highlighted the achievement of Israel and its allies of intercepting 99% of the missiles and drones launched.

Judging by Hagari’s account and that of the Iranian authorities, Sunday’s attack produced only winners. Iranian officials are also claiming victory, while a possible Israeli response is still in the air, a move that could drag both countries into a regional conflict that the United States has indicated it does not want to become involved in.

U.S. President Joe Biden has already told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he will not support him in retaliation against Iran. “If the Israelis show restraint, then everyone will go home pretending to be the victor and Iran will be seen to have pulled off a smart move. If the Israelis refuse to play that game and there is an escalation leading to open war, everyone will say that Tehran has made a mistake,” says Parsi.

On Saturday, Vali Nasr, an Iran expert at Johns Hopkins University, acknowledged in a tweet: “By threatening retaliation, Iran has already got a number of wins. Europe and Gulf states have had found themselves in undesirable situation of pleading restraint with Iran, which also puts the onus on them going forward to also restrain Israel’s response [...] That goes along way to achieve Iran’s goal of establishing deterrence with Israel.”

Whether this Israeli reaction is forthcoming or not, Iran has shown satisfaction with the effects of the attack. On Sunday, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, an intellectual who serves as the regime’s unofficial spokesman and who is considered very close to the hard line of the Islamic Republic, boasted that the attack had been “just a small slap in the face” for Israel.

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