After months of Israeli provocations, Iran finally strikes back

Iran launched a series of attacks on Israel overnight Saturday, and Israel’s war cabinet vows a “significant response”

Objects are intercepted in the sky after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel, April 14, 2024.
Reuters/Amir Cohen
Objects are intercepted in the sky after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel, April 14, 2024.

After months of Israeli provocations, Iran finally strikes back

With tensions between Tehran and Tel Aviv deepening by the day, the key calculation Western policymakers need to make as they weigh up their options is whether Iran is really willing to engage in a direct military confrontation with Israel.

In the four decades of their regional rivalry, Iran has steered clear of carrying out direct strikes against Israel.

While its leaders have been vocal in denouncing what they refer to as “the Zionist entity”, they have always avoided a direct confrontation with the Israelis—preferring instead to rely on proxy groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, to target Israel on their behalf.

Iran’s visceral antagonism towards Israel and its staunch supporters in the West—particularly the US and UK—was very much on display during February’s events to mark the 45th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.

At ceremonies held in central Tehran, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi accused Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza.

Read more: UN court hears South Africa genocide case against Israel

While Iranian-made missiles and military hardware formed the backdrop for the ceremony, Raisi demanded that Israel be expelled from the United Nations over its brutal assault on Gaza.

As he spoke, crowds chanted “Down with the United States,” “Down with Israel” and “Down with the United Kingdom”.

Yet, for all Tehran’s pronounced hatred of Israel, the regime has continued to avoid confronting the Israelis directly, preferring to rely on the likes of Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels to do their bidding.

In the four decades of their regional rivalry, Iran has steered clear of carrying out direct strikes against Israel.

Iran's non-confrontation policy tested

Iran's policy of non-confrontation, moreover, has been maintained despite Israel carrying out a series of strikes against Iranian-linked targets in Lebanon and Syria since 7 October.

In one of the more high-profile attacks in December, the Israelis assassinated Razi Mousavi, the head of the elite Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

The assassination of Mousavi, who was responsible for coordinating the military alliance between Iran and Syria, prompted Raisi to warn that Israel "will face the consequences" for his murder, while Iran's defence ministry warned that the Israelis should expect a "smart response".

In the event, no direct retaliation was forthcoming, which was taken as a sign of Iran's unwillingness to become involved in a direct military conflict with Israel.

Key factors in Iran's calculations

A key factor in Tehran's calculation in its approach to Israel is the impact any Iranian attack on the Israelis would have on Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, with the Israelis making constant threats to destroy the organisation if it oversteps the mark.

Read more: Israel banks on Iran's aversion to war to go after Hezbollah

Another consideration is that any Iranian attack would give the Israelis an excuse to target Iran's nuclear programme, which has been a constant source of tension between the Israelis and Iranians.

A picture shows the inside of the reactor at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran, 1200 Km south of Tehran.

There are now mounting concerns, though, that the long-standing assumption among Western policymakers that Iran is averse to targeting Israel directly may need to be reviewed in the wake of Israel's recent attack against the Iranian Consulate in Damascus, in which several senior Iranian commanders were killed.

As with previous attacks, Iran has vowed revenge, only on this occasion, the Iranians are warning that, because the Consulate is deemed to be Iranian sovereign territory under international law, Tehran would be well within its rights to carry out similar attacks against Israeli territory.

It was a point Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was keen to emphasise in his speech to mark the end of Ramadan on Wednesday when he reiterated Iran's pledge to take revenge on Israel. 

"When they attack the consulate, it is as if they have attacked our soil," he said. "The evil regime made a mistake and must be punished, and it shall be."

A serious prospect

The prospect of Tehran launching attacks against Israel is certainly being taken seriously by both the Israelis and Americans.

The Israeli army has responded by cancelling all leave for combat units while mobilising more reservists for aid defence units in anticipation of an Iranian attack.

Iran worries if it directly attacks Israel, it will be used as an excuse to target Iran's nuclear programme.

On Saturday, Iranian armed forces seized a container ship near the Strait of Hormuz amid rising tensions across the region after a deadly Israeli attack on Iran's consulate in Syria.

The ship was commandeered by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—the elite force that lost seven members, including two generals, in the Syria strike, Iranian state media reported on Saturday.

"The ship has now been guided towards our country's territorial waters," state-run IRNA reported.

The vessel was identified as the Portugal-flagged MSC Aries, which reportedly departed from a port in the United Arab Emirates en route to India. It is associated with the London-based Zodiac Maritime, a part of the Zodiac Group run by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer and his family.

Footage from the vessel's deck obtained by The Associated Press news agency on Saturday showed soldiers rappelling down from a helicopter.

"This seems to be just the first step potentially in what could be several moves against Israel or Israeli interests in the region," Jasmine El-Gamal, political analyst and former Pentagon Middle East advisor, told FRANCE 24.

Indeed, later Saturday night, Iran launched a series of missiles into Israel. Armed forces of allies and partners were helping to intercept many of the drones and missiles before they reached Israel.

Inevitably, some got through, causing what Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari—a spokesman for Israel's army—said was "minor damage" to a military base. There were few reports of casualties, apart from one girl who was critically injured. 

Israel's war cabinet met overnight, with one official saying there would be a "significant response".

The deepening tensions have also prompted US President Joe Biden, who does not enjoy the easiest of relationships with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to reaffirm Washington's commitment to Israel's defence.

Before the Iranian strikes, the US said it had received intelligence that Tehran was planning to launch "a significant attack in Israel" Biden said he had been in contact with Netanyahu to reassure him that "our commitment to Israel's security against these threats from Iran and its proxies is ironclad."

The president's remarks were accompanied by reports in Washington that the US military was preparing to intercept any Iranian missiles fired at Israel and might participate in any retaliatory strikes against Iran undertaken by the Israelis.

US officials had earlier said the intelligence they had received suggested any Iranian strike would likely be on military and government buildings, not civilian targets, with one source telling Bloomberg that an attack was considered a matter of when not if.

Foreign embassies in the region had begun evacuations in anticipation of an attack.

The sudden upsurge in tensions between Iran and Israel certainly suggests that the dangerous game of brinkmanship the two countries have indulged in for decades may be about to enter a new phase—one that has all the potential to escalate the conflict in the Middle East to a direct war between two of the region's biggest powers.

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