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Israel and Iran are avowed enemies. But despite the often bellicose utterances of their leaders, the consensus among analysts has long been that neither side really wants war. The same has been said of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, one of Iran’s main allies in the region.
Despite more than 200 Israeli airstrikes against Iranian or Hezbollah targets in Syria in recent years, most with minimal Iranian response, a strategic balance has prevailed. But as U.S. pressure on Iran has intensified, so too has Iran deepened its ties to and reliance on its allied militias. Its goal: to increase its own strategic depth and its deterrence against Israeli and U.S. military action.
Accordingly, Israel’s cross-regional strikes – starting with a July 19 bombing of an Iran-backed Shiite militia base in Iraq – are designed to prevent the growth of what Israeli officials call Iran’s “war machine” in Syria.
“Iran is trying to build an effective deterrence against Israelis, in Lebanon and Syria – this is the main part – and to a much lesser extent in Iraq,” says Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University. “So naturally, it’s very clear that what Israel wants is to prevent that.”
Just hours after Israel said it had launched airstrikes in Syria to stop an Iranian “killer drone” attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured the occupied Golan Heights – the supposed target of the foiled Iranian barrage.
The premier’s visit last weekend came amid a two-day whirlwind of strikes that were either claimed by Israel or were attributed to it and were aimed at Iranian forces or their allies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip.
As Israel and Iran surge past each other’s red lines, analysts are raising questions about how far such fresh escalations can go, short of all-out war. The region is already buckling under an array of proxy conflicts, the U.S.-Iran standoff in the Persian Gulf, and Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
Mr. Netanyahu explained why Israel is now striking further afield than ever before, to thwart Iran:
“If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first,” he said, invoking a line from the Talmud long embraced by Israel’s security services. “Any country that allows its territory to be used for attacks against Israel will bear the consequences.”
Until now a strategic balance between Israel and Iran has prevailed – despite more than 200 Israeli airstrikes against Iranian or Iran-linked targets in Syria in recent years, most with modest or no Iranian response.
But as U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military pressure on Iran has intensified, so too has Iran deepened its ties to and reliance on its allied militias. Its goal: to increase its own strategic depth and its deterrence against Israeli and U.S. military action.
Iran’s moves have given it enhanced freedom of action on Israel’s doorstep – despite Russian assurances that it would keep Iranian forces back from the border in southern Syria – and an improved capacity to upgrade the missile arsenal of Hezbollah, its ally in Lebanon.
But if Iran’s threat perception encompasses both Israel and its superpower ally the U.S., Israel’s gaze is focused on regional hegemon Iran and its lesser proxies.
Israeli strikes in Iraq
Its cross-regional strikes – starting with a July 19 bombing of an Iran-backed Shiite militia base near Baghdad, which reportedly struck guided missiles bound for Syria – are designed to limit Iran’s influence, raise the cost of foreign adventures for Tehran, and prevent the growth of what Israeli officials call Iran’s “war machine” in Syria.
Besides four strikes in Iraq this summer – the first Israeli attacks in Iraq since its 1981 destruction of a nuclear reactor – Israel was behind a drone attack in Beirut last Sunday, which is reported to have destroyed key Iranian-made equipment for upgrading Hezbollah missile guidance systems.
“The game is relatively clear for both parties,” says Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University.
“Iran is trying to build an effective deterrence against Israelis, in Lebanon and Syria – this is the main part – and to a much lesser extent in Iraq,” says Mr. Hadian. “That puts Iran in an advantageous position regarding Israel, because Iranian forces and proxies – if you want to use the term – are close to Israel’s border, but the Israelis are far away from Iranian borders.
“So naturally, it’s very clear that what Israel wants is to prevent that,” he says.
Indeed, from the Israeli perspective it is military pressure against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria that has prompted Tehran to shift operations inside the country northward and to increasingly use Lebanese and Iraqi territory.
“Israel has been quite successful in delaying or acting against Iranian attempts to come up with a strategic military infrastructure inside Syria,” says Raz Zimmt, an Iran expert with the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a think tank at Tel Aviv University.
“The Iranians are trying to adapt their strategy to the constraints in Syria and moving more activity to Lebanon and Iraq, [which] makes Israel realize that is has to expand its activity as well to [those] other fronts,” he says.
“Iran is not ready to give up Syria. It has spent too much money, and given too many Iranian soldiers until now, and it’s not ready to give up this opportunity,” Mr. Zimmt says. “Iran considers Syria its strategic depth, vis-a-vis Israel.”
Threats, but no interest in war
The result of Israel’s expansion of strikes has been outrage in parts of the Arab world. Both Iraq and Lebanon, as well as the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, called Israel’s actions a “declaration of war.”
Pointing to one possible constraint on Israeli action in Iraq, the Pentagon on Aug. 26 issued a statement denying any role in the attacks there and said it was “fully cooperating” with an Iraqi investigation.
A Twitter account believed to belong to IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani said Israel’s “insane operations are the last desperate moves” by Israel. A top Iranian official tweeted that Iran’s response would be “shocking and crippling.”
And Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said retribution for Israel’s strike in Beirut would come.
Such threats are a “rhetorical” part of the game, but no side wants war, says Mr. Hadian in Tehran.
“No doubt Israel thinks that Iran is building an effective force,” he says, ticking off the names of pro-Iranian militias, most of them Shiite Muslims, from Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, and even Pakistan.
Both the benefits to Israel of demonstrating its prowess, and the risks of Iran moving away from its past modest responses to a determined counter-escalation, are laid out in an analysis this week from the Israeli INSS.
“For the long term, Israel displays boldness, initiative, and proof of effectiveness of its long arm,” the INSS said. But it added: “The Iranian attempt to carry out weaponized drone attacks against northern Israel is testimony to Iran’s arrival at a critical point, forcing it to change the nature of its response to Israeli actions.”
Further improvement of Hezbollah weapons, the analysis noted, “and a crossing of the escalation threshold by Israel, will push Iran to react differently than it has done so far.”
Thwarted drone attack
The Israeli strike to prevent Iran’s alleged drone attack last weekend has received particular attention in the Israeli media, after military and intelligence officials released details that included video footage that, they said, showed a Hezbollah team led by Iranians preparing to launch drones against Israeli targets.
Israel said it had tracked some of the would-be bombers for weeks, and that the operation had been ordered specifically by Maj. Gen. Soleimani.
That attempted drone attack was “certainly a reaction” to Israel’s purported actions in Iraq, says Mr. Zimmt in Tel Aviv.
Israel’s thwarting of the attack “again shows that, at least in the last two years, whenever there was a confrontation, Israel has clearly shown that it has both the intelligence and operational superiority, and it is certainly ready to use it,” says Mr. Zimmt.
Yet Iran may have time on its side, he adds.
“If I were Soleimani, despite all the failures, I would say: ‘OK, even if Israel manages to hit 50%, 60% or 70% of what I’ve been trying to do’ – and I have to be quite skeptical about those percentages – ‘so it won’t take me one year to make it, it will take me three or four years to make it. But eventually we’ll get there,’” says Mr. Zimmt.
“It’s not like Iran and Israel are right now on the verge of a confrontation, so they have the time, and they have the patience,” he says.