Analysis & Opinions - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Iran and Israel's Dangerous Gambit

| Apr. 18, 2024

The regional adversaries have moved from a long-simmering shadow conflict to direct confrontation.

Iran's April 13 attack on Israel was a watershed moment in the countries' history. The attack involved the first-ever direct strikes launched from Iranian territory onto Israeli soil, with an unprecedented number of ballistic missiles fired in a single military operation by Iran. The decision to retaliate directly against Israel's attack on an Iranian embassy was intended not only to showcase Iran's resolve but also to restore conventional deterrence with Israel. Moreover, the attack marked a significant shift in the country's strategic thinking and approach to dealing with its longtime regional adversary. Rather than restoring the balance with Israel, Iran has opened up the prospect of further escalation.

WAR BETWEEN WARS

Iran's retaliation for Israeli strikes on its consulate in Damascus marks a further escalation in the two countries' protracted shadow conflict, characterized by covert operations, targeted airstrikes, and the use of proxy forces. The so-called war between wars has primarily unfolded in Syria, where Iranian-backed militias and Hezbollah have been perennial targets of Israeli strikes to curb Tehran's growing influence and prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to its proxies.

For years, Iran had relied on a policy of "strategic patience," which involved supporting and strengthening proxy groups to project power in the region while maintaining a degree of plausible deniability and avoiding direct confrontation with Israel. However, since October 7, Israeli strikes against Iranian assets in Syria have intensified, and Iran's strategic patience and reputation among allies and adversaries alike has been tested.

In December, Israeli strikes in Damascus killed Seyed Razi Mousavi, a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) adviser who served as the main conduit for Iranian interests in Syria. In response, Iran launched a barrage of ballistic missiles at apparent Israeli targets in Erbil, Iraq, which the commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force (IRGC-AF) claimed targeted a "Mossad espionage base."

The turning point came on April 1, when Israeli F-35 fighter jets launched six missiles at the consular section of the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, killing General Mohammad Zahedi, the former head of the IRGC ground forces. Though Iran and Israel had long engaged in tit-for-tat attacks in the region, the April 1 strikes were viewed as a provocative act that demanded a forceful response. The targeting of a diplomatic compound, which is considered Iranian territory under international law, and the death of a high-ranking general suggested a potential intelligence breach and a marked escalation compared to previous Israeli strikes—even if the material losses were less extensive than previous ones inflicted on munitions factories or military assets based in Syria....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Grajewski, Nicole."Iran and Israel's Dangerous Gambit." Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 18, 2024.

The Author

Nicole Grajewski