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Rising tensions between Israel and Iran: Have the rules of the game changed?


Wed, 24-04-2024 07:57 PM, Aden

Neither Iran’s missiles nor Israel’s caused any noticeable material damage in each other’s territory. However, even so, the significance of those events should not be underestimated

Dr. Marta Furlan (South24)

On Friday April 19th, Iranian state media reported that the country had activated its air defence systems to shoot down three small unknown flying objects. The operation took place near the central city of Isfahan, which is important for its military-industrial facilities, the presence of a facility linked to Iran’s nuclear program, and an airbase known as the 8th Tactical Air Base, which is home to Iran’s fleet of US-made F-14 Tomcats (purchased by the late Shah before the 1979 revolution). 

Following the event, flights heading to the cities of Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz, the airports of the West, North West and South West were briefly suspended over Teheran, Isfahan, and Shiraz.

Reports soon emerged suggesting that it was Israeli missiles that had hit Isfahan, while Israel unsurprisingly refrained from commenting on the incident – true to its typical pattern in similar, past occasions in which it was accused of attacks against Iranian or Iranian-linked targets.

For their part, the Iranians proceeded to downplay the attacks and to announce that no damage was reported in the incident. This was also unsurprising, as Teheran has been trying to convince its own domestic public that Israel does not pose a serious threat to Iran’s security and that, therefore, retaliation is not needed at this point. 

The latest, unprecedented, act in a long chain of hostilities

The explosions in Isfahan took place amid a constant escalation in tensions between Iran and Israel since the beginning of the [Israeli-Palestinian] war on October 7th. To be fair, tensions between Israel and Iran are nothing new in the Middle Eastern reality: the two countries, in fact, have fought a “shadow war” for decades, exchanging attacks by land, sea, air, and in cyberspace.

In July 2021, for instance, an oil tanker managed by an Israeli-owned shipping company was attacked off the coast of Oman. Officials said that the attack was likely carried out by Iranian drones. While Iran did not explicitly claim or deny responsibility, a state-owned television channel described the episode as a response to an Israeli strike in Syria. In November 2021, Israel killed Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, whom Western and Israeli intelligence had long indicated as the father of the Iranian nuclear weapons programme. 

In May 2022, Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was shot five times outside of his home in Tehran. A member of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council reported that the assassination was “definitely the work of Israel”. Late last year, Iran accused Israel of killing a high-level military figure, Brig. Gen. Sayyed Razi Mousavi, in a missile strike in Syria.

Recent months, however, have brought tensions to a new point, one that has generated concerns (in the region and internationally) that the war in Gaza may escalate into a wider regional conflict.

April, in particular, was a month marked by unprecedented events in the confrontation between Israel and Iran. On April 1st, Israel launched an airstrike against the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, killing the senior commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Mohammed Reza Zahedi, and his deputy, Gen. Mohammad Hadi Hajriahimi, among others.

Related: Israel-Iran: A Tale of Growing Hostilities 

In response, on April 13th, Iranian armed forces seized an Israeli-linked vessel near the Strait of Hormuz and directed it towards Iranian territorial waters. As such, Iran engaged in a pirate operation remindful of the kind of attacks and hijacking attempts carried out by the Yemeni Houthis for the past half year. 

On that same night, Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles against Israel, in an attack dubbed Operation True Promise. The attack involved more than 120 ballistic missiles, 170 drones and more than 30 cruise missiles and was aimed at restoring Iranian deterrence vis-à-vis Israel after the attack in Damascus. Significantly, this was the first-ever direct strike on Israel from Iranian soil.

Almost all missiles (99%) were intercepted by Israel’s multi-layered defense system, with the support of the US and France, and failed to cause any remarkable damage. The day after the strike, nonetheless, Iran’s President announced that “last night, your zealous and courageous children in the IRGC, with the cooperation and coordination of all the defense and political sectors of the country, turned a new page in the history of Iran’s authority and taught a lesson to the Zionist enemy. […] the Islamic Republic of Iran tactfully and intelligently targeted some of the military bases of the occupying, anti-security, and anti-stability regime in its drone and missile operation.”

The significance of the latest events

As noted above, neither Iran’s missiles nor Israel’s caused any noticeable material damage in each other’s territory. However, even so, the significance of those events should not be underestimated. 

For the first time in 45 years – that is, since the establishment of the Islamic Republic and the end of the friendly relations that had existed the two countries under the Shah – Iran and Israel exchanged direct attacks on their sovereign territory and brough their conflict from the “shadow” into the open.

Until April 13th, in fact, Iran had traditionally preferred to engage in asymmetrical, indirect, proxy wars with Israel rather than direct conflicts. In other words, it was only Iran’s regional proxies — especially Hezbollah, the Houthis, and armed groups in Iraq and Syria — that used to launch missiles and drones at Israel on Teheran’s behalf. Operation True Promise seems to have set a new precedent, to have piloted a new modus operandi that could be repeated in the future. 

Israel’s attacks also set a new precedent and crossed a threshold that had been previously (silently) established. Moreover, the Israeli attack took place in the center of the country, deep into Iranian territory. This certainly sent a deafening message to the Iranian leadership about the vulnerability of its security and defense system, as it showed that Israel has a deep operational access (perhaps more than expected in Teheran).

The fact that both countries, in their retaliatory responses, opted for limitation and constraint is a reassuring sign that – for now, at least – neither of them is interested in an escalation. Having tested each other’s limits, both Iran and Israel are content not to pursue a greater confrontation. However, it seems that their confrontation, while contained for the moment, has acquired a new, more dynamic and more open, character.

Dr. Marta Furlan

Non-resident fellow at South24 Center. Research Program Officer at The Liberation of the Slaves (FTS), an NGO working to end human trafficking and modern slavery. She is also a non-resident fellow at the Orion Policy Institute (OPI) and a fellow at the Center on Armed Groups.

IranPalestineIsraelHamasOctober 7MissileDronesAttackAirbaseTehranIsfahanTel AvivProxiesHouthis