Iran launched a massive attack on Israel on April 14th using attack drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. After long years of a ‘shadow war’ between the two nations, Iran has directly attacked Israeli territory for the first time. The attack was in response to an attack by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on an Iranian consulate annex building next to the Iranian embassy in Damascus, the Syrian capital, on April 1st that led to the deaths of thirteen people, including IRGC officials. The dead included Brigadier General Reza Zahedi, a senior commander in the Quds Force, the overseas branch of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). He was a key figure in the Iranian operation to arm the Lebanese Shia armed militia, Hezbollah. At the time of writing, reports are coming in that Israel has retaliated against Iran and conducted attacks against sites in Natanz and Isfahan in central Iran and Tabriz in northwest Iran. The Iranian attack against Israel was mostly conducted using drones with comparatively fewer number of ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. Except minor damages to a military air base in southern Israel, the Iranian strikes caused very less damage. Likewise, Israel’s recent response to these strikes against targets in Iran also caused very less damage, according to the latest reports.

Israel has been conducting attacks against Iranian arms depots, buildings, bases and supply routes in Syria and Lebanon for quite some time now. Israel has also been assassinating senior officers of the IRGC in Syria and commanders of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israeli operations in Syria were conducted with the aim of preventing Iran from arming Hezbollah. These attacks intensified with the beginning of the present Gaza War. The Israeli attack against the Iranian consulate building in Damascus can be seen as a continuation of this campaign. But there are other reasons as well, including those related to Israel’s international relations and also its domestic politics. Israel’s brutal military campaign, resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, including women and children, has led to international condemnation of its actions. As of last count, more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the present Gaza war. Cases have been filed for the first time in the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of committing genocide. Several UN agencies and international human rights organisations have collected information and prepared reports on Israel’s attacks against civilians. More importantly for Israel, several allies, including the U.S., had begun criticising Israel’s actions in the war. There was a need to divert attention from the Gaza war and for international refocus on how Israel was a target of belligerent powers in West Asia. 

Domestically, protests against the present Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu had restarted after a lull during the course of the Gaza war. Criticism was raised against the manner in which the war was conducted by the Israeli government. Netanyahu’s decision making is presently seen as based on a single calculation. This means that demands for his resignation would crop up with greater strength if and when the war in Gaza and tensions in West Asia in general subside. So, it is in Netanyahu’s interest that Israel’s confrontation with its enemies continue in the present juncture. At the same time, it was understood in the early months of the Gaza war that Iran was not interested in a direct conflict with Israel. Iran would have to be forced to retaliate in order to create a justification for a direct Israeli attack on Iran. An attack on an Iranian diplomatic facility in a third country like Syria would be considered a direct attack on Iranian sovereignty and a violation of international law. On the part of Iran, it conducted its attack mostly using drones, which take hours to reach their targets in Israel. Iran claims that it had also given warnings in advance to countries in West Asia and the U.S. about its intention to attack Israel, though the U.S. denies that it received any such warning. Iran’s intention was to primarily give a warning to Israel and not cause extensive damage in Israel. Iran was forced to react, as inaction would have given the impression that Iran is weak in the region and would lead to doubts about its ability to deter enemies. But it did so in a manner in which Israel would have less reason to retaliate.

While Israel claimed that it would retaliate strongly in response to Iran’s attacks, information about the Israeli strikes against Iran proves that they were not formidable. The U.S. claimed that Israel had used air-launched ballistic missiles. Iran mainly reported that Israel had used drones, such as quadcopters, from within Iranian borders and that there were no attacks from outside Iranian borders. Quadcopters are extensively used in Gaza. The reason why Israel did not conduct a massive retaliation was because the U.S. had made it clear that it would not participate in a strike against Iran. A final evaluation by Israel is likely to have reduced the intensity of the attacks, as the chances of success without U.S. support would have been unlikely. At the same time, Israel had sent a message to Iran that it could target Isfahan and surrounding areas in central Iran, which are the locations of its prominent nuclear sites and defence industrial complex, which manufacture missiles and drones. While the crisis seems to have abated for the time being, West Asia has profoundly entered a new stage, heightening the stakes for all concerned. 

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

Dr Shelly Johny
Dr Shelly Johny
Dr Shelly Johny is Senior Fellow (West Asian & Security Studies) with Centre for Public Policy Research

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