From strategic patience to sincere promise: Where will Iran's strike take the region?

Its direct military action on Israel showed how the strategic calculus in a turbulent region has changed. Will the US try to use Iran's strike on Israel to hit back at Tehran and weaken it regionally?

From strategic patience to sincere promise: Where will Iran's strike take the region?

Iran’s retaliation to the Israeli attack on its consulate in Damascus was both considered and surprising.

Tehran, which took just two weeks to act, changed its usual tactic of responding over an extended period, or what it has called “at the right time and place”.

This form of words was used for years by Iran and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. The change of pace amounts to a significant shift in Iran’s doctrine of “strategic patience”.

Over the years, Israel has hit its nuclear facilities and assassinated key personnel within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its allied militias across Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.

In late 2020, Israel killed Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the mastermind behind Iran’s nuclear ambitions near Tehran, and in December 2023, it killed Razi Mousavi—a high-ranking IRGC official—in Damascus. There have also been numerous strikes on arms convoys and depots throughout the region.

Intensified provocations

Over the last six months—alongside its intense campaign against the Palestinians in Gaza—it has intensified provocations, with Iran largely practising restraint.

Tehran's change in approach is now clear, but its full consequences are not.

Not interested in a wider regional war, Iran–from the Supreme Leader to the president and the foreign minister—did not directly involve itself in the defence of Gaza under Israeli assault.

It also placed limits on the scope and intensity of Hezbollah's strikes into Israel, not wanting to sacrifice its crown jewel militia in the region over the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

In the past six months, Israel frequently targeted Hezbollah bases and areas of deployment in Lebanon, reaching as far away as Baalbek, the Bekaa Valley, the southern suburbs of Beirut, and, of course, in Syria—and these attacks continue.

All the while, Iran exercised restraint and patience. Now, things have changed. The change in approach is now clear, but the full consequences are not.

Why now?

Iran's direct response to Israeli aggression came about for several reasons, including a sense in Iran that it was losing face among the Arab militias in the region belonging to its so-called "Axis of Resistance".

Certainly, there were reports that Hamas was disappointed that Iran did not come to its immediate support during the first weeks of the war.

It also believed that participating in the war would not necessarily bring about meaningful change for Palestinians despite the growing popular support for their cause globally.

Read more: Palestinians must capitalise on the growing global support for their cause

One of the reasons for Iran's direct response was that it was losing face among the Arab militias in the region.

There are also doubts that Iran actually wants a Palestinian state since it has been able to exploit the issue for its own strategic gain in the region.

Three observations

Regardless of the reasons why Iran finally chose to strike back, three observations can be drawn showing how its actions made it look weak.

First, if Iran is truly interested in confronting Israel, wouldn't it have been better to do so from the start of the war in October to demonstrate its seriousness in confronting its so-called arch-enemy?

Second, If its response was meant to be serious, wouldn't it have coordinated with Hezbollah to launch a dual offensive?

Third, Iran's action appeared to be more about bolstering its domestic and regional popularity.

Additionally, if Iran were truly serious about weakening Israel, it wouldn't have thrown its weight, money and efforts at weakening Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq in the past decade. Its regional interventions in Arab states have only made Israel stronger.

Whatever else, it is too early to predict the future actions of Iran or Israel. Will the region enter a stage of more dangerous escalations, or will global efforts to cool off tensions prevail?

Will the US try to use Iran's strike on Israel to hit back at Tehran and weaken its regional proxies?

The answers may become clearer based on Israel's forthcoming action – or inaction – in the days ahead.

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