Iran and Israel move on (for now)

The restrained Israeli response allows both countries to save face and claim achievements in deterring the enemy, in a sort of return to the covert war they had been waging until the bombing of Damascus that triggered the escalation

Naqsh-e Jahan Square
Naqsh-e Jahan Square, this Friday in Isfahan (Iran).Rasoul Shojaie (via REUTERS)
Antonio Pita

After days of dialectic warfare and threats of all kinds between Israel and Iran, the anecdote speaks for itself. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian was on his way Friday to a meeting with ambassadors of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation when a journalist asked him, “Any comment on last night’s attack? Will Iran retaliate?” The minister ignored the questions and a member of his entourage responded without pause, “Which attack?”

The two countries seem to be trying to move on after the restrained Israeli retaliation. At least for the time being, it is a sort of return to the hidden war they had been waging until the bombing of an Iranian consular building in Damascus, which has raised fears of a regional war in the last three weeks. Israel remains silent after a retaliation that allows it to save face, both before the great American ally and its public opinion, without adding much fuel to the already smoldering fire in the Middle East. And Iran plays it down and even sows doubts about who is behind it, exempting itself from the symbolic obligation to launch the “painful” and “imminent” response it had promised.

“It’s a crisis deferred, not a crisis resolved,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project of the U.S. think tank International Crisis Group, sums up by telephone. Israel has shown its archenemy that it “cannot unilaterally rewrite the rules of the strategic competition” they maintain, without at the same time putting it “in a position that would force it to retaliate.” “This is most likely due to Israel’s reluctance to an open war in which it would have to fight on many fronts at once and pressure from the United States. As long as it remains a one-off episode, it can be considered closed, but there is still the possibility of an outbreak” because, in this new and “ambiguous” status quo, it is no longer clear where the red lines are.

Tehran is hiding behind the limited nature of the attack and doubts about the authorship of the attack to avoid responding immediately. Four days earlier, its president, Ebrahim Raisi, had made it clear that “the slightest action” by Israel would receive a “painful” response. And the deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri, that it would come “within seconds”.

Air defenses shot down quadcopter drones, according to Iran’s National Space Center spokesman Hossein Dalirian. These are unmanned, four-propeller, medium-sized drones, to which explosive charges can be added, and which Israel has used against Iranian territory in the past. The most recent, in January 2023, against a military center, also in Isfahan, in an action that U.S. official sources attributed to the Mossad, the secret service abroad. Also in 2021, in a sabotage of uranium enrichment centrifuges and, two years earlier, in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, against a stronghold of Hezbollah, Iran’s main allied militia.

The Brent thermometer

The markets have also sensed the desire for a clean slate. The Brent oil barrel is a great thermometer of how nervous the Middle East conflict makes the markets, because Iran is the world’s eighth largest producer and a founding member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). On learning of the activation of air defenses in the province of Isfahan, which houses the heart of Iran’s nuclear program, it soared by 4.5%. After more details emerged, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that no nuclear facilities had been damaged and a senior Iranian official clarified that it did not plan to respond immediately, the rise was down 1% ($88.2).

The impression now is that both sides are back to square one with achievements to claim. Israel, two: having the last word (which usually shows who is the stronger in an action-reaction dynamic) and having fulfilled its promise to respond directly with an attack on Iran, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did when Tehran gave clear signals that it would not let the killings in Damascus pass. And Iran can present the response as a sign that Israel was afraid and brag about how cheaply it broke the unwritten rules and launched an unprecedented attack last week.

Israel killed 13 people, including three senior officers of the Revolutionary Force. Both the profile, the place (a consular building in Damascus, considered sovereign territory) and the moment (after six months of bloody invasion in Gaza) led Tehran to draw a red line and show with facts that this attack, unlike others, would not go unanswered. Last Saturday, for the first time in the history of the two countries, it launched an attack from its territory against Israel, with more than 300 drones and missiles.

In public, Israel played down reports that Tehran had warned neighboring countries and that the United States (which shot down most of the projectiles) had negotiated the scope of the response through Turkey, raising fears that the escalation could led to open war. Iran also raised the tone with unprecedented threats and Netanyahu, now silent, kept up the belligerent rhetoric, with one eye on his electorate and the other on his US ally, who had asked him for restraint in his response after the successful interception.

The message of the Iranian display of force, announced and almost choreographed as a spectacle, was not so much the damage as the ability to do it and the possession of weaponry to reach the enemy anywhere. Just like Israel this Friday. An official U.S. source in fact told ABC that the attack included not only drones, but also three missiles launched from outside Iran against the air defense radar system protecting the Natanz uranium enrichment center. It was, according to the source, “very limited.” In other words, a message of the capability to leave Natanz unprotected.

Israel rarely acknowledges its foreign operations, at least not immediately. But it could have rushed to show its muscle with one of the typical statements in which a high-ranking political or military official suggests responsibility, without expressly acknowledging it. Only the Minister of National Security, the ultra-right-wing Itamar Ben Gvir, has spoken out, with a one-word message (translatable as “weak”) reflecting his disappointment that it was not more powerful. His ministry controls the police, but he is not part of the war cabinet that makes military decisions, so it has been almost unanimously interpreted as a way to distinguish himself at a time when polls put him out of power.

Israeli government sources have criticized the message from anonymity and the leader of the opposition, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, has been particularly harsh: “Never has a minister in the security cabinet done so much damage to the country’s security, its image and its international status. In an unforgivable one-word tweet, Ben Gvir has managed to mock and embarrass Israel from Tehran to Washington.”

The two enemies also have other ways to respond later. The first, with more assassinations of members of the Revolutionary Guards in Syria or Lebanon or of nuclear scientists, or cyber-attacks. The second, with attacks abroad against Israeli interests or through its allied militias, mainly Hezbollah, in Lebanon. And, of course, it has the nuclear ace up its sleeve. This Thursday, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard in charge of nuclear security, Ahmad Haghtalab, dropped the possibility of “reviewing the nuclear doctrine and policies to deviate from the considerations announced in the past” in the face of the use of “the threat of attacking nuclear centers as a pressure tool”.

Nuclear arsenal

Israel is one of the few countries in the world and the only one in the Middle East with an atomic arsenal, although it is voluntarily ambiguous about its existence because it violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement. In fact, during the Iranian attack, the army gave special instructions to the population in the city of Dimona, whose nuclear power plant is considered the heart of the program.

To continue to maintain this strategic superiority (which it obtained with the help of France in the 1950s and perceives as a guarantee of its survival), the Jewish state abandons the heavy hand of sanctions and military threats, and actively boycotted the international agreement with Tehran to control its atomic program, which the United States abandoned in the Donald Trump era.

It has also done so by the use of arms. In 1981 it bombed a nuclear reactor in Osirak, in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In 2007 it destroyed an attempt at another in Syria. It is one of the few bombings abroad that he has formally recognized (11 years later). In his longest period in power (2009-2021), Netanyahu was on the verge of decreeing an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities in the face of voices warning that the development of an atomic weapon was a matter of months.

Russian support

The Israeli population was also divided on the issue, aware both that Iran is a state and far more powerful than Hamas, the militia that launched the Oct. 7 attack, and that a war with a Russian-backed regional power in the midst of a schism with the West over the war in Ukraine would not pay off with the loss of some 260 soldiers, the most in half a year of war in Gaza. While the invasion of the Strip continues to enjoy solid support, 52% of respondents opposed their country responding to the Iranian attack, according to a poll released Monday by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Among the 48% who supported retaliation, more than half even if it had evolved into open conflict, is Zaki Shalom, an expert on Israeli defense policy at the Jerusalem-based Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, who laments the loss of a “unique opportunity” to respond on the very night of the attack to show the entire region the price of provoking Israel. “I don’t agree that this is going to be the new security equation with Iran. It doesn’t put us in a good place as a deterrent force,” he says by phone.

Israel would have been able to overcome Iranian anti-aircraft defenses in a wider attack. They are, in fact, similar to those in place in Syria since 2015, where its air force frequently bombs (most recently this very Friday) against targets linked to Tehran and has been gathering information for a decade on how to avoid them. This was recalled this Thursday by the former head of the Israeli air defense, Brigadier General in reserve Zvika Haimovich. The regime of the ayatollahs is a “superpower in tactical ballistic missiles and drones”, but not in air defense, based mainly on Russian systems or their local equivalents, including U.S. fighters dating from the time of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, an ally of Washington and overthrown by the Islamic revolution in 1979.

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