Israel-Iran escalation sends region into unchartered territory

When Israel considers its next move after Iran's retaliatory attack, it is not simply calculating the cost and benefits of a response but will also be creating a new equation for future exchanges.

Netanyahu left and Defense Minister Yoav Galant at the IDF headquarters
Netanyahu left and Defense Minister Yoav Galant at the IDF headquarters

Israel-Iran escalation sends region into unchartered territory

Overnight on 13 April, the Middle East entered unchartered territory.

Never before had the region seen a direct, publicly acknowledged Iranian attack against Israel. Never before had the region seen hundreds of drones and missiles being launched in a single wave. How Israel reacts will determine whether this is the only “unprecedented” attack the region will see.

Until the recent escalation, the latent conflict between Israel and Iran had been kept in the ‘shadow’, for a simple reason: it suited both parties.

By not acknowledging the de facto state of war that existed, neither side backed the other in a corner. There is a certain wiggle room there: by not using the word "war", it meant there wasn’t one. There was always room to manoeuvre and space to de-escalate.

For Israel, the “campaign between the wars”—as the strategy used against Iran is often referred to—was an efficient way to take shots at Iran and interdict some of the most worrying capabilities while still avoiding a full-scale conflict. The goal of the “campaign between the wars” was to weaken Iran and its proxies without actually triggering a full-scale war.

Beyond the military aspect, the Iranian threat has also served as a solid door-opener in the region, helping boost Israeli-Arab normalisation at times. In many ways, Iran has been Israel’s best salesman.

At the same time, by building its regional ambitions around the claim that it was “resisting” Israel and "fighting for Palestine", Iran has also built itself influence and manpower across the region. It was especially convenient that the fighting took place mostly outside of Iran's borders and rarely against Israel.

Even as it fired missiles at the city, Iran’s Supreme Leader claimed it was working to “liberate Palestine”. And per all of Hezbollah’s death notices, any member of the group killed by Israel died “on the way to Jerusalem”—though most have also taken a slight detour in Syria’s Aleppo or Qusayr.

The recent exchange of violence has seemingly killed this uneasy dynamic—either for good or just for a time—raising the stakes dramatically. Israel’s strike in Damascus was viewed as crossing a red line by Iran, while Iran’s response is also deemed as a line-crossing attack.

REUTERS/Amir Cohen
An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel, April 14, 2024.

Setting the rules of a new “equation”

The fact that the recent blows Iran and Israel traded are all setting precedents is exactly what makes them dangerous. Neither side is simply thinking about the best way to respond now but also how this will affect the future dynamic of a conflict that has, up until now, been waged in the shadows.

In other words, when Israel thinks about how to respond to Iran’s unprecedented attack, it is not simply calculating the cost and benefits of a response (or absence of one), but also gauging how this will change the dynamics of future rounds of violence.

Both sides are reexamining the proverbial “equation”—a term Iran and Israel often use to refer to the conflict's set of unwritten rules.

The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps himself said that, with its unprecedented attack, Iran had “changed the equation” and would now respond directly from Iran to any attack against Iran’s territory, assets, or citizens.

Whether he meant it or not, this phrase is another argument convincing segments of the Israeli leadership the attack simply cannot go unanswered.

The other is the nature of the attack itself: Iran did not simply launch dozens of slow-moving drones; it also fired more than 100 ballistic missiles, making its assault one of the heaviest such barrages in history.

While Iran did not use the full range of its capabilities, including Hezbollah, its most potent proxy, it also did not just carry out a symbolic attack.

It sought to achieve hits on three different Israeli bases and possibly on Jerusalem. Sure, Iran telegraphed its intention to hit Israel ahead of time, knowing this would help Israel prepare.

The recent blows traded by Iran and Israel will affect the future dynamic of a conflict that has, up until now, been waged in the shadows.

But it used an amount of force that went far beyond an effort to have its missile harmlessly "splash" Israel's car window. Several sources in the US have said they were surprised by the scope of the attack. Intent matters just as much as the result.

The Iranian response was not calibrated "just" to set a precedent of attacking Israel directly but of doing so in a way that led to limited but specific damage. This is a notch above a simple "signal attack."

The message was clear: Iran took some precautions but was also willing to take risks. In the future, Iran may be willing to take them again when Israel and its partners aren't paying as much attention.

Israel's options

In the wake of the Iranian attack, Israeli commentators and international media have been furiously commenting and speculating on the possible Israeli response—likely mirroring the debates ongoing inside the Israeli cabinet.

Several reports suggest that one thing is clear: despite international pressure to de-escalate, Israel is bound to respond. What's discussed is not whether Israel will respond but how and when

Netanyahu is said to have ignored several calls from foreign leaders, which, for those following Israeli politics, is generally a sure sign that he will take action.

The scope and nature of the Israeli retaliation is of great importance. Israel does have a plethora of options to respond, but these options will be far more limited if it does seek to maintain a balance between the perceived need to retaliate and the need to also not drag or be dragged in a regional war.

To be sure, some are advocating Israel literally "go berserk"— namely, Itamar Ben Gvir, who said that in the Middle East, when someone is attacked, the only response is to "go crazy".

This does, in a way, refer to the "madman theory", which suggests deterrence is best achieved when the enemy thinks you are acting crazy.

Sara Gironi Carnevale

Read more: Israel's war on Gaza and Einstein's definition of madness

But Ben Gvir has little sway over the Israeli response, as the decision befalls the Israeli War Cabinet of Minister Benny Gantz, PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.

"Going crazy" would probably mean picking high-impact options, such as bombing Iran's nuclear site, which would be sure to trigger a regional confrontation, with the involvement of Hezbollah, and the possibility that Iran will look to close the Gulf, as it has threatened.

For Israel, this option, without support from the US, is truly crazy. If unsuccessful, Israel may demonstrate that the threat of using the military option against Iran's nuclear programme, which may be the only reason why Iran isn't a nuclear state by now, doesn't exist. It may then encourage Iran to make the jump and move from being a nuclear-threshold state to a nuclear-armed one.

Other more limited options exist. This includes an attack against specific military facilities inside Iran, including those from which missiles were launched or drone-manufacturing sites used to build the Shahed "suicide drones".

This latter option may be discussed, given that Shahed drones have been used by Russia against Ukraine, and hitting production lines may indirectly get more support from Europe and the US—but also raise tensions with Russia.

If it decides to hit back at Iran, Israel may also prefer a non-kinetic option, namely a cyber-attack. Given the risks of hitting Iran directly, Israel may also pick an option that focuses mostly or even entirely on targets outside of the country, including Syria, Iraq, or Lebanon.

While this may be viewed as Israel's best option not to trigger a regional war, it may also be seen as too little for some.

What's clear is that the region has never been this close to a direct confrontation between Iran and Israel. Effectively, Iran and Israel are two cars launched at each other.

The critical question is what either side fears most: Being viewed as the one who blinked and swerved to avoid a collision or ending up slamming into the other at full speed.

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