Iran-Israel conflict no longer a shadow war - Hindustan Times
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Iran-Israel conflict no longer a shadow war

Apr 22, 2024 10:56 PM IST

Iran’s direct retaliation against Israel marks the end of the shadow war and the beginning of an uncertain future for the region.

On April 13, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) launched 300 drones, and cruise and ballistic missiles at Israel. Israel and its allies, including the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), France, and Jordan, intercepted the vast majority of the projectiles at a cost of more than $1 billion. But at least nine evaded the defence, causing minor damage to Nevatim Air Base in Southern Israel, where Israel’s F-35 fighter jets are based. Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said that Iran had carried out “minimum necessary punitive action” within the framework of the “legitimate right of self-defence” as outlined in Article 51 of the UN Charter. On April 1, Israeli strikes had targeted Iran’s consulate in Damascus, killing seven IRGC officers.

An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel on April 14. (REUTERS/File)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel on April 14. (REUTERS/File)(HT_PRINT)

In the early hours of April 18, attacks on Iran’s air defence base in the city of Isfahan were foiled, Tehran claimed. Though Israel did not claim responsibility, the US military has confirmed to major news sources that it was an Israeli response to the April 13 retaliatory action by Iran. Tehran, in the interim, has warned that if the attacks are traced to Tel Aviv then its “response will be immediate ... at the maximum level”.

Notably, Iran’s retaliatory strikes came two weeks after the Israeli attacks during which the UN Security Council was prevented by veto-wielding members of the US, the UK and France from condemning the aggression against the diplomatic facility of a country. Iranian foreign minister Hossein Abdollahian also embarked on a regional tour starting with Oman, a key diplomatic intermediary between Tehran and Washington. In Muscat, Abdollahian sought to assuage neighbouring countries’ concerns about Iran’s impending retaliation, stating that Tehran was committed to seeking justice through legal and international channels and in any counter-attacks Iran’s “sole goal in legitimate defence is to punish the Israeli regime”. Muscat reportedly relayed Iran’s message to the US that Iranian attacks will be calibrated to target military facilities and will avoid civilian casualties.

Even though Israel and its allies claimed successful blocking of Iranian projectiles, the point remains that Iran has the capacity and willingness to strike conventionally superior Israel more than 1,000 km away from Iran’s borders. Hossein Salami, the commander-in-chief of the IRGC, noted that Iran’s retaliatory strikes have established a new equation with Israel that from now on, if Israel attacks Iranian interests, figures and citizens anywhere, the IRGC will retaliate from Iran. Salami is credited with the revision of Iran’s defence doctrine along the lines of the “strategy of the threat against threat”. The IRGC under Salami responded to the US pressures by increasing regional insecurity through a series of deniable attacks on commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz in 2019.

Iran has a defensive military doctrine based on deterrence. As the strategy has evolved based on a continuous assessment of the threat environment, the primary objective remains to deter a direct war with the US. Over the last two decades, when Iran faced an enhanced US military presence near its borders with Iraq and Afghanistan and threats of US/Israeli strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, its counter-strategy was to unify the disparate “resistance” forces opposed to the US military presence and Israel in the so-called “axis-of-resistance”. Through the “axis-of-resistance” including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestinian Jihad in Gaza, and Assad-ruled Syria, Iran was able to extend the geography of its deterrence well beyond its borders. Deterrence through proxies has afforded it the ability to strike enemies and maintain plausible deniability, crucial for reducing the risk of direct response by the other side that could lead to escalation into a full-blown conflict.

The US and Israel have sought to counter Iran’s asymmetric strategy of deterrence through stringent sanctions to limit its ability to finance allies and proxies, and by fuelling domestic dissent against Iran’s ruling elite. Israel, under its “Octopus doctrine”, has focussed on countering Iran rather than its proxies. Over the last four years, Israel has carried out several covert attacks on nuclear and military facilities and assassinated nuclear scientists and military officers inside Iran. Iran has responded by directly striking Israeli and US interests in Iraq and elsewhere but has resisted striking Israel directly. Following the October 7 attacks, Israel has intensified its campaign targeting the highest-ranking IRGC commanders in Syria and Lebanon. Iran’s direct retaliation against Israel marks the end of the shadow war and the beginning of an uncertain future for the region.

Deepika Saraswat is associate fellow at the West Asia Center, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views expressed are personal

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