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The Escalating Israel–Iran Conflict

Dr Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • April 22, 2024

    The situation in West Asia continues to deteriorate with the Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus that killed seven Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officials on 1 April 2024 and the subsequent retaliatory Iranian attack on Israel on 13 April with more than 300 drones and missiles fired towards Israel. This is the first direct Iranian attack on Israel and the biggest escalation in the region since the beginning of the Israel–Hamas War in October 2023. Iran has also seized an Israel-linked ship in the Gulf near the Strait of Hormuz on 13 April.

    Israel has been successful in intercepting most of the drones and missiles before they entered its airspace. Israeli interceptions shows its military defensive capability and preparedness in the face of Iranian attack. While the 7 October Hamas attack exposed Israeli complacency and raised doubts about its claims of technological superiority and its application in national security, the successful interception of Iranian missiles and drones has effectively restored Israel's image as a superior military power. The US, UK and Jordan also intercepted several drones and missiles.

    The Iranian Argument

    In a statement before the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on 13 April, Iran stated that it has evoked Article 51 of the UN Charter for self-defence against the defiance of Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter by Israel on account of its military aggression against its diplomatic premises in Syria.1 Named as ‘Operation Truthful Promise’, the Iranian attack on Israel has also sent a larger message to the US, UK and other countries supporting Israel. The attack is seen as Iranian defiance of the Israeli military operations in Gaza and the Western support for Israel.

    Iran has stated that the 13 April attack was a retaliation against the Israeli attack on its consulate in Syria and there will be no more attacks on Israel as it “deemed the matter concluded.”2 It has also forewarned that if Israel or the US attacks Iran, then they will face a strong response from Iran.3 Iran has also stated that US military bases in the region will be in danger if it joined any Israeli attack against Iran.4

    The Iranian strategy of launching a retaliatory attack on Israel and then unilaterally declaring that it has “deemed the matter concluded” reflects growing Iranian confidence in dealing with Israel. Such an Iranian exhibition of military prowess and diplomatic assertiveness would further soar up tension between the two. Iran’s retaliatory attack and this statement would make Israel seriously think and ponder over its next course of action.  

    Israel Weighs its Options

    Israeli response after the first direct Iranian attack would, to a large extent, shape the course of the conflict. The Israeli war cabinet met on 15 April and decided to take action on Iran as the attack of this scale and nature cannot “pass without a reaction”.5 As a result of the pressure from its allies, there are indications that Israel will not engage in a large scale military response against Iran to avoid escalation in the region. However, an explosion was reported in Isfahan in central Iran in the early hours of 19 April. Three UAVs were intercepted by the Iranian Air Force. Though it is believed to be a ‘limited attack’ by Israel, it has not officially claimed the attack and the Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has downplayed the attack by stating that “It has not been proved to us that there is a connection between these and Israel.”6 Israeli ‘limited attack’ is a message to Iran though that it has the capability and intent to penetrate deep inside Iran’s sensitive areas.

    Whether the Benjamin Netanyahu government adopts a restrained or an aggressive approach towards Iran , the Israel–Iran rivalry has already taken a new and decisive turn. The chances of scaling down of the actions and approaches of Israel and Iran look slim. The possibility of an Israel–Iran direct face-off has been brewing since the beginning of the Israel–Hamas War in October 2023. Iran has backed Hamas and hosted its leaders in Tehran and, thus, Israel has alleged Iran of being indirectly fighting a war against it. Since the beginning of the War, Israel has faced attacks from Hezbollah from across the Lebanese border as well. Iran’s presence in Israel’s neighbourhood is a major national security challenge for Israel.

    Regional Impact

    Hamas has described the Iranian attack on Israel as “legitimate and deserved”.7 However, the recent escalation further limits the potential for negotiations and severely undermines any progress made in the talks between Israel and Hamas over the release of Israeli hostages and cessation of the war. Regional powers such as Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have expressed concerns and called for restraint from both Israel and Iran.

    However, if there is an escalation between Israel and Iran, their support for peace efforts may be adversely affected. Additionally, the situation in various regional flashpoints may deteriorate, leading to significant collateral damage in the event of a military escalation between Israel and Iran. Israeli airstrikes in Syria could escalate, and Hezbollah's involvement in the Israel–Hamas conflict, which has been limited thus far, may increase. The already tense situation in the Red Sea, with Houthi attacks on ships and the presence of foreign navies, would worsen in the event of an escalation.

    The situation remains tense amid the calls for restraint and de-escalation from regional and global leaders. As Israel weighs its options against Iran, a heightened fear pervades the entire region. Regional powers are urging de-escalation between Israel and Iran, recognising that a direct confrontation between these two major military forces would have devastating consequences for the region's security and stability.

    Israel finds itself in a dilemma, torn between demonstrating its deterrence and maintaining strategic patience. With Iran's expanding influence in the region and its political assertiveness posing significant challenges, any further significant Israeli strike on Iran in the near future will have severe repercussions for the region.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.