Author : Navdeep Suri

Originally Published The Tribune Published on Apr 16, 2024

Iran has indicated that it is willing to call it quits, but will respond strongly if Israel retaliates

Shadow-boxing in West Asia

ISRAEL’s war on Gaza, now in its seventh month, has always carried the risk of spiralling into a wider regional conflagration. After all, the veneer of shadow-boxing between Israel on the one side and Iran and its partners and proxies on the other could only be stretched to a point before it ruptured. That rupture came on the night of April 13 as Iran launched a wave of kamikaze drones and missiles towards Israel. This was the first time after four-and-a-half decades of fiery rhetoric against its ‘Zionist enemy’ that Iran had actually carried out a strike directed at Israeli territory. An immutable red line had been breached, some analysts felt. The gloves were off and a devastating revenge strike by Israel would inevitably take the region closer to the abyss. But is that really the case, or are we simply witnessing a new act in a long-running shadow-boxing drama?

The next few days will be crucial as PM Netanyahu weighs US pressure against domestic politics to fashion a response that could have far-reaching consequences.

The fire and brimstone that characterise Iran’s declamations in support of the Palestinian cause often conceal an underlying reality that is now quite apparent. The government of the Islamic Republic under its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is actually a lot more cautious and risk-averse and has shown little appetite for a frontal confrontation. Its preferred approach towards deterrence is to deploy its advanced capabilities in asymmetric warfare through proxies to send warnings to unfriendly states, even as it maintains a plausible deniability of its own actions. The operative principle, as the old song goes, is ‘samajhne waale samajh gaye hain...’

An Iranian hand behind the October 7 attack by Hamas was widely presumed, even though there was no smoking gun to link Tehran or its Quds force to the attacks. As Israel started its destructive offensive against Gaza, there was genuine concern that Iran might unleash the battle-hardened cadres of Hezbollah to target Israeli assets from Lebanon, possibly opening a second front to support its Hamas allies in Gaza. However, six months down the road, it is clear that both Iran and Hezbollah have continued to stay within the unwritten red lines that have maintained an uneasy equilibrium on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Hezbollah’s precision munitions have mainly been used against the now depopulated villages and settlements in northern Israel, while military and civilian targets a few miles south have not been touched, even though they are well within the range of Hezbollah missiles. Israel has responded with dire threats against Lebanon if Hezbollah escalates the conflict. It has carried out targeted airstrikes against top Hezbollah personnel and assets in Lebanon and Syria, but has so far refrained from a frontal attack on Hezbollah.

The Houthis in Yemen, another proxy carefully nurtured by Iran over the years, have unleashed their drones and missiles to play havoc with merchant shipping in the maritime lanes of the Red Sea. There is little doubt about the origins of its stockpiles, training and tactics, but Iran has been content to play the ringmaster and quietly assert the influence that it can wield as a disruptor if the West continues with its hostile posture.

That fragile equilibrium, however, was shaken on April 1 when an Israeli airstrike on the consular building of the Iranian embassy in Damascus killed Hassan Mahdavi, head of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria and Lebanon. The precision strike also took out six of Mahdavi’s compatriots and created a furore in Tehran. Israel had in December 2023 killed Sayyed Razi Mousavi, Iran’s seniormost commander in Syria, and there was mounting pressure by hardliners in Tehran that the leadership’s frequent threats of severe retribution should now be matched by firm action.

However, the military action that eventually came on April 13 had been telegraphed by Tehran for almost two weeks. There was widespread expectation that it would come soon after the end of the Eid-ul-Fitr festivities, and it did. Iran has also confirmed that it gave a 72-hour notice to countries in the region, giving enough time to India and others to suspend flights and issue warnings to their citizens. Little wonder that ’99 per cent’ of the drones and missiles were successfully intercepted by Israel’s formidable Iron Dome and other air defence systems and by a range of allies, including the US, the UK, France and even Jordan. A statement issued by the US Central Command confirmed that it had destroyed more than 80 drones and six ballistic missiles. The ones that got through caused relatively minor damage at one Israeli airbase in the Negev desert. For now, it appears that this attack was neither a true reflection of Iran’s offensive capabilities nor a real test of Israel’s air defences.

For Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Netanyahu, the timing couldn’t have been better. Until last weekend, allies like the US, the UK and France were becoming increasingly critical of the wanton destruction and humanitarian suffering being caused in Gaza. But within hours of Iran’s attack, the US administration reiterated its ‘ironclad support’ for Israel, while the UK and France deployed their naval assets to interdict the incoming projectiles. The Israel Defence Forces’ reputation for invincibility, which had taken a hit on October 7, was again burnished by its success in neutralising the overwhelming majority of the drones and missiles. Gaza is off the front pages for now, and yes, Netanyahu is again at the centre stage as the US, India and other nations predictably counsel restraint and warn against the dangers of escalation.

Iran has indicated that since its shadow-boxers have landed their faux punch, it is willing to call it quits, but will respond strongly if Israel retaliates. Within Israel, the fractious polity is split down the middle. Right-wing leaders want to teach Iran a lesson for crossing the red line, with National Security Minister Ben-Gvir suggesting that Israel should ‘go berserk’ to establish deterrence, while Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has called for a response that “echoes throughout the Middle East for generations to come”. More moderate figures like Benny Gantz and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant have counselled against a rash reaction and advised Netanyahu to pay heed to Israel’s allies and rebuild its strategic alliance against Iran.

The next few days will be crucial as Netanyahu weighs US pressure against domestic politics to fashion a response that could have far-reaching consequences.

This commentary originally appeared in The Tribune.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.