How Many Retaliations Create A War? Israel And Iran’s Deterrence Dilemma

Beatrice Ala

On the night between Thursday and Friday, Israel has carried out a military strike on Iran, reportedly in the region of Isfahan. Although the exact scope and modality of the attack is still unclear, Iranian authorities minimized the effects of the strike, saying there were no casualties and no particular damages suffered. The International Atomic Energy Agency also reassured that there is no damage to Iran’s nuclear sites.

Although Israeli sources have not explicitly claimed responsibility for the attack, the episode seems to be in continuity with the military escalation that has characterized relations between Tel Aviv and Tehran in recent days. Last week, Iran carried out a vast-scale attack against Israel, unleashing missiles and drones in its first direct attack on Israeli territory. The attack was a explicit retaliation for April 1’s suspected Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus (Sirya), which killed 13 people including Mohammed Reza Zahedi, a high Pasdaran official.

An Israeli armored personnel carrier near the Gaza border after military operations, in southern Israel, on Wednesday, April 17, 2024. Iran’s unprecedented attack on Saturday night has further raised tensions in the region. (Source: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In addition to the Israeli response, which was announced in the past few days, the Iranian attack had also been widely anticipated: specifically, the capital’s willingness to respond was communicated on 2 April to the Swiss Chargé d’Affaires in Tehran. Moreover, other regional actors were also informed through emissaries hours before the operations began. According to American intelligence, there even was a specific US warning, which announced a concrete risk of action by the Islamic Republic towards Israeli soil within 48 hours of the warning itself. Reportedly, the U.S. even moved warships into position to protect Israel in anticipation of the attack.

The Iranian aerial attack was planned in an effort to overwhelm the Israeli air defenses. Despite the intensity of the attack, no major damage was reported on the Israeli side: Israel’s multilevel air defense shot down all of the attacking fleet even before it reached the targeted territory, aided by a wide range of air, naval, and land assets—mostly US, but also British, French, and regional countries. Some missiles struck the Nevatim airbase in the Negev, resulting in only minor overall damage. 

From a militar point of view, there were no significant material damages caused by either attack; rather, they appear to be a demonstration of power, a show of force and of military capability that underlines the mutual deterrence held upon one another. In fact, from Tehran’s perspective, the issue was officially closed. The Iranian authorities had cautioned Israel not to attempt any retaliation in the future, stressing out that if it did, the response would have been proportionate and even heavier. Now, Israel’s response to Iran’s retaliatory attack adds a layer of tension to a situation already on the verge of explosion.

SDEROT, ISRAEL – APRIL 17: A view of the battery of Israeli army’s ”Iron Dome” air defense system, which is used in drone and missile attacks, such the one on Israel from Iran. (Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images)

But what are the consequences of this attack on a regional scale? Could this give involved actors an opportunity to escalate the conflict even further?

It’s Iran the (State-level) newcomer to the conflict: while until now its presence was perceived on the battlefield only through proxies and its political and ideological influence, Tehran now shows a clear and decisive possibility to directly intervene in the conflict, that has now trascended the limits of the Gazan crisis and is set to become a full-scale confrontation between regional powers. It is noteworthy that we are dealing with the first direct attack to Israel from another State since 1973. In fact, despite their long-standing animosity, Israel and Iran have primarily waged their conflict through asymmetric war involving non-State actors, proxies or by targeting each other’s forces in third countries. 

On the other hand, Israel treads a razor’s edge, having to balance at least three critical issues: the fact that it has suffered another attack on its territory, the opportunity for Netanyahu to legitimize his government before an increasingly unstable domestic front, and the strained support of its allies. 

While the Iranian attack did not cause relevant material damages, it rather has taken shape as a symbolic act of aggression once again suffered by Israel. Internationally, this sparked an echo: G7 leaders issued a statement declaring their “full solidarity and support to Israel and its people” and that they “unequivocally condemn in the strongest terms Iran’s direct and unprecedented attack against Israel.”

On the other hand, dashing hopes of leaders urging for a de-escalation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed up on his promises and did, in fact, attack Iran. The counterattack waged on Friday night by Israel may be a part of a precise strategy by the Israeli government, serving as an occasion to reassemble the internal front against the enemy. This may be crucial for Netanyahu: he lately had to deal with the mounting of protests by Israeli people manifesting for his removal, over the fact that his stubbornness in pursuing a full-scale war against Hamas undermines a deal to bring the hostages back to their families.

In this way, Netanyahu is choosing to play the card of the crucial protection of Israel against external enemies, knowing that it’s a theme most likely to bring expendable success in Israeli public opinion. By shifting the focus towards the attack suffered and the impelling necessity of restoring war deterrence, Netanyahu may try to retrieve unity within the borders: the imperative of defense overrules any internal discrepancy. 

On the international level, a dynamic already seen in the past weeks is being replayed: Israel’s eagerness to restore its war deterrence is overwhelming compared to any strategy of balance and prudence advised by several of its allies that have explicitly advised against responding in order to avoid military escalation. Even the United States, who have always shown solidarity and protection to the Israeli ally, had firmly expressed their opposition to any military action by Tel Aviv against Iran. President Joe Biden has clearly stated that the US will not participate in any offensive action against Iran.

Israel’s war cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who holds a meeting to discuss the drone attack launched by Iran in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 14, 2024. (Photo by Israeli Government Press Office / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Finally, it is important to underline that we are not dealing with an unwarned and unprovoked attack by Iran, but it was Israel that first targeted and attacked the Iranian consulate in Damascus: according to international law, diplomatic sites are “inviolable” and are at all effects considered as part of the national territory of the sending State. The Iranian act was rather a response of a sovereign State to a first attack that came precisely from Israel; now that Tel Aviv has struck back, the balance is once again uneven. The second retaliation by Israel might set off a series of events whose scope is unpredictable and may bring allies on both sides into the conflict, beyond simple diplomatic consequences. The situation is constantly evolving, in a dispute that becomes more and more incandescent by the hour. 

The crux of the matter, once again, will concern the decisions of the actors involved: whether Iran will decide to respond again militarily, further aggravating a situation already on the verge of collapse; Israel’s possible reaction and the arms race. In the background, an increasingly ineffective international community, which urges for de-escalation but is unable to intervene – even diplomatically – with impartiality.

For more information:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

How Many Retaliations Cre…

by Beatrice Ala time to read: 5 min