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Pulling Punches: Iran's Failed Offensive Against Israel

Iran's failed attack on Israel highlights the danger of miscalculation and escalation in the Middle East. With the risk of further conflict and the looming threat of a nuclear Iran, the region faces a dangerous crossroads.

Primed for launch: missile systems operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps take part in an exercise in northwestern Iran

During the early hours of 14 April, Iran launched its biggest direct military offensive since the Iran–Iraq war, and its very first against the state of Israel. The strike was an almost complete military failure: Israel and its allies prevented more than 99% of all attacks, consisting of Shahed drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. The launch was detected immediately, and was predicted with Israeli and allied forces on high alert who had approximately two hours of response time before the drones reached Israeli airspace. The strike was then taken apart as it moved across the Middle East by members of the US-led Middle East Air Defence Alliance, which includes jets from the RAF, the Jordanian Air Forces, the US Air Force and many more. Most of the surviving munitions were then intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system. At least five missiles did penetrate through these defences and struck targets in and around an air base in the Negev Desert. These five hits resulted in no casualties and caused next to no reported damage.

In the aftermath of the strike, therefore, there should be relief. Israel and its allies successfully repulsed an unprecedented attack and also ensured that there were no casualties. This is a major success for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and for Benjamin Netanyahu’s government; it was able to demonstrate credibly to a population still reeling from the political and security failures which hampered Israeli responses to the attacks on 7 October that Israeli military superiority remains undiminished.

Over the past weeks, the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has announced three times that Iran would seek retribution for Israeli attacks on its sovereign territory. This followed the Israeli bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus on 1 April, killing Brigadier-General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, and some of his officers. Of course, this is not the first time that IRGC generals have been targeted and killed, but the targeting of the consulate building does represent the first attack on Iranian sovereign territory and on a public building.

Despite the military failure of its attack, the Iranian leadership will be content knowing that it has succeeded in asserting itself, thereby reinforcing its credibility domestically

Iran also seems to have directed its attacks away from population centres in Israel, instead focusing its efforts on the air base from which the Israeli 1 April operation was launched. The main Iranian strike was also supported and replicated by its allies in Iraq and Yemen, though not in Lebanon, despite Hezbollah’s proximity to Israel and its vast stores of weapons. The Iranian choice not to activate Hezbollah reveals restraint on its part, both in order to preserve Hezbollah as a key ally and to preserve its main deterrent against Israel. In this way, Iran intended for the attack to be as public and spectacular as possible, while inflicting minimal damage.

From Iran’s side, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has publicly confirmed that it considers the attack to be over. Despite the military failure of its attack, the Iranian leadership will be content knowing that it has succeeded in asserting itself, thereby reinforcing its credibility domestically – including to an Iranian political elite increasingly dominated by the IRGC – as well as in the wider Middle East. This enhanced legitimacy is particularly relevant in the aftermath of protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in state custody in 2022 and recent elections which had the lowest voter turnout since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. What was an abject military failure – and the first time that Israel’s phenomenal air defences have been proven at this scale – is being communicated in Iran as a success, and misinformation is being deliberately spread. Indeed, reports and images on social media have been circulating in both Farsi and Arabic which fabricate a version of events of Sunday morning in which the Israeli Air Force base is completely reduced to rubble. Iran’s chief foreign and defence policy dogma is ensuring that it continues to fight its wars with Israel and Israeli allies far from Iranian soil, in territories such as Yemen and Lebanon. The 1 April attack and this subsequent reaction demonstrates its commitment to this doctrine.

On Israel’s side, there will be elements within Netanyahu’s coalition and the IDF who are deeply disappointed that Hezbollah did not join the Iranian attack. Indeed, this would have validated their belief that Israel should open a new front in the north while it retains international support and is already on a war footing. With or without further escalation, Israeli and Western forces will continue to respond by targeting Iran’s allies in Iraq and Yemen.

While the attack was ultimately ineffective, it illustrates that the regime in Tehran is deeply reckless, and seemingly comfortable with the risk that one drone or missile strike could have hit a densely populated urban target

US President Joe Biden also exerted a large amount of pressure on Netanyahu not to respond to Iran’s escalation; in a phone call on Sunday morning, Biden reportedly urged Netanyahu to be content with the almost complete victory of Israel’s air defences. Biden did also reaffirm the US’s ‘ironclad’ support for Israel and ongoing commitment to its defence, as illustrated by the deployment of the USS Dwight Eisenhower aircraft carrier near Israel’s shores. It is true, however, that such reassurances from Western leaders are all that they are really able to do to try to influence Netanyahu’s decision-making. The dangers of escalation are obvious, and the key preoccupation for the US will be the risk that Iran could effectively close the Straits of Hormuz – where it has already begun seizing ‘Israel-linked’ ships – by placing sea mines. Any disruption to freedom of navigation in the Straits would be catastrophic: around 17 million barrels of oil travel through the area each day, accounting for nearly 30% of global total consumption.

There is also the increasingly obvious although as yet unspoken reality that in less than a year’s time, the world may well be contending with a nuclear Iran. We are now over five years on from the breakdown of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear agreement negotiated by the administration of former President Barack Obama but subsequently repudiated by his successor, Donald Trump – and three years on from Biden’s failed attempts to renegotiate, and there is still no new methodology for engaging with Iran. While the recent Iranian attack was ultimately ineffective, it illustrates that the regime in Tehran is deeply reckless, and seemingly comfortable with the risk that one drone or missile strike could have hit a densely populated urban target and completely changed Israel’s response. The prospect of Iran owning nuclear weapons immediately raises the question of what the West’s policy to prevent further proliferation in the region will be, and how it will seek to manage a nuclear Iran.

Israel remains in an untenable deadlock in Gaza, where around 130 Israeli hostages are still unaccounted for, while its allies grow increasingly uneasy with its prosecution of the current conflict. With no hostage deal or ceasefire mechanisms apparent, the risk of miscalculation remains high. This leaves the region in a uniquely dangerous position in which Netanyahu may feel that he has little choice but to escalate with Iran in order to maintain public support, keep his war coalition together and, ultimately, ensure his own political survival.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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