Risk of War Looms Between Iran and Israel, But It Is Being Averted For Now

April’s military escalation between Iran and Israel drew international headlines, with both countries launching offensive strikes against one another. But there are still good reasons, such as a flurry of diplomatic initiatives, for the two nations to avert direct combat. More importantly, as the only non-Arab countries of the Middle East along with Turkey, Iran and Israel continue to express little broader interest in escalating a conflict that could have dire regional repercussions.

These factors could explain why frequent military brawls between Iran and Israel are underplayed by both sides. For years, Israel has been targeting Iranian military strongholds in Syria and threatening the advancement of the Iranian nuclear program and military industrial complex. Iran reciprocates by aiding its regional allies in the Middle East to target Israel. While both sides engage in retaliatory strikes, they often diplomatically downplay them – a sign that all-out war or conflict is being carefully averted.

We have seen no signs of major escalation despite Iran launching for the first time hundreds of missiles and drones directly toward Israel over the night of April 13-14,  in response to an Israeli aerial attack on the Iranian consulate in Syria on April 1. Oddly enough, Tehran’s action is designed to prevent war. Israel’s response, in the form of limited military operations against Iran’s air defense radar system on April 19, convinced Tehran that it did not warrant an unnecessary counter strike. However, Iran has cautioned  that it might change its nuclear doctrine and strike Israel’s nuclear facilities, but only if its own atomic centers were attacked.

Iran’s multiple flanks complicate the conflict, but deter bigger war

Iran opened a second front when it launched its mid-April strike on Israel. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group, staged its own attack, as did possibly Iranian-backed Iraqi militias and the Houthis in Yemen, according to Israeli sources. Israel has also been under constant fire by Iranian allies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen after the outbreak of war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas last October. Although Iran says it is not aiding Hamas in this war, the group is a key member of the Iranian Axis of Resistance which rejects Israel’s existence.

By encircling Israel through multiple regional flanks, Iran could fire up hotspots in the Middle East that would be hard to contain, and strain Israeli capability to defend itself without Washington’s help. Iran warns that it would target US interests in the region if Washington aids Israel against Tehran. The warning arrived after the US dispatched aircraft and ballistic missile defense destroyers to intercept the Iranian projectiles. But US military operations on Israelis’ behalf could risk embroiling it in long, drawn out conflicts, a case in point being frequent US strikes against the Houthis in Yemen to supposedly “protect Red Sea shipping routes” and on  Iran allied groups in Iraq and Syria. Iran’s ability to operationalize these flanks may have encouraged the Biden administration to decide not to take part in an Israeli counter-strike against Iran for the time being.

Paradoxically, Iran’s attack on Israel, and the Israeli counter-response, carry inherent deterrent value because both sides show clear signs of wanting to shun war for now despite an ability to wage the war. Following Iran’s strike, its Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York posted on X that “the matter can be deemed concluded,” along with a warning that Israel should not make “another mistake” or risk a response “considerably more severe”. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) issued two statements threatening that an Israeli counter-strike would receive a response. But the most immediate response came from Iran’s ally, the Islamic Resistance of Iraq, when it fired rockets targeting the US-led military coalition base in Syria on April 22. Hezbollah launched a drone attack deep on an Israeli base, but said it was for Israeli forces killing one of the group’s fighters. Hinting that it might be seeking de-escalation without a clear war strategy in sight, Israel’s leadership is mute about its strike on the Iranian radar system. 

Rationalizing attacks as legitimate defense has limits, but it works for now

Iran’s attack on Israel was designed partly to boost its prestige and international standing after the strike on its diplomatic mission. Tehran says sanctioning it, which the US and the European Union (EU) are planning to do, is illegitimate and irrational because its action against Israel was in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter stipulating an inherent right to exercise self-defense in response to aggression.

Israel is not buying this argument. Before an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), it called the Iranian missile and drone attack a serious threat to global peace and security. To neutralize Israel’s statement, Iran and Pakistan are urging the body to take stern action against Israeli aggression. Iran-based policy analysts meanwhile insist that the strikes on Israel served peace by discouraging it from seeking a wider war, evidenced by the small scale of its military counter response. Speaking to UN Secretary-General Antony Guterres on April 16, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian clarified that Iran’s operations were in the framework of international law, implying that its stance was to refrain from wide-ranging military operations.

Risk of further escalation makes diplomacy essential

Iran’s power calculations are designed to show that it will take direct military action against Israel if need be. President Ebrahim Raisi is hinting that if Israel were to carry out another attack, there would be “nothing left” for the Israeli government to claim as its own, an implied over-the-top threat that could mean Iranian willingness to help Palestinian fighters defeat Israel and take its lands in a mother of all wars. The  Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls the Iranian strikes including those that reportedly hit the Nevatim Air Base in Israel,  a “success,” and claimed it displayed power and resolve, even if most projectiles were intercepted.

Tehran is signaling that it is not shying away from war, but it is clearly shunning it by calling for restraint and remaining open to holding diplomatic talks. At the UNSC emergency talks on April 18, Amirabdollahian countered a speech by Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan demanding action, by calling for an end to further adventurism. Tehran meanwhile insists that had the UNSC taken action to condemn the Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate, it could have averted the Iranian retaliatory strike.

Regional diplomacy has subsequently picked up. Seizing the opportunity, the US Central Intelligence Agency has asked Turkey’s Chief of National Intelligence Organization Ibrahim Kalin to mediate the tensions between Iran and Israel, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly blamed Israel for Iran’s attack despite criticism of Iran’s action in the Turkish press. Earlier, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Muhammad Shia’ Al-Sudani, flew to Washington to meet with US President Joe Biden on April 15. He stressed the region could not stand tension between Iran and Israel, and confirmed with the US President that they were committed to building regional stability. Amirabdollahian is holding his own regular talks with Iran’s Arab neighbors including Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Statements from Tehran show that diplomacy is essential if a Plan B to go to war is to be averted. Hardline parliamentarian Javad Karimi Ghodoosi is calling on the EU to start negotiations to reduce tensions. When UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for maximum restraint, Tehran said it was a rational actor but calls for restraint in war should be observed by all sides. Amirabdollahian said Tehran even messaged Washington before carrying out the strikes on Israel to show it was committed to security for its neighbors and the region, but the US rejects that it received the message.

At the UNSC, meanwhile, members from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas are now debating the Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate, with Russia calling it an “act of aggression”. World leaders are expressing fear that it and Iranian retaliation would impact the region.  The Biden administration tried to avoid a wider Middle East war as well, urging Israel to restrain its actions. Iran itself calculates that a massive war will have equally devastating impact on its limited military capabilities. These are factors that explain why the two countries are unlikely to go to war for now, although the shadow of war still looms, despite the recent diplomatic overdrive to mitigate tensions.

Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and author of The World Powers and Iran: Before, During and After the Nuclear Deal.

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