It's only a matter of time before Iran and Israel test their new rules of engagement

With Israel’s consulate punch and Iran’s drone-and-missile counterpunch, will the new ‘rules of engagement’ restore calm or lead to more escalation?

It's only a matter of time before Iran and Israel test their new rules of engagement

For now, Israel and Iran seem to have stopped bombing each other, with most Middle East analysts breathing a sigh of relief.

Their recent and dramatic escalation began with the Israelis blowing up an Iranian consulate building in Damascus, killing several senior Iranian generals in the process.

The Iranian response was to send 170 drones, 30 cruise missiles, and 110-120 ballistic missiles to Israel. Almost all were intercepted, but four missiles got through.

Most were aimed at Israel’s Nevatim Air Base in the Negev. The Israelis said there was “light” damage. Iranian state TV described them as “heavy blows”.

Although the recent escalation has now abated, its ramifications are still being felt, not least because this confrontation sought to redefine the ‘rules of engagement’.

It also acted as a harbinger of potential future conflicts and functioned as a test of mutual understandings, subtly facilitated by Washington, the effects of which may become evident in the near future.

A shifting stance

Iran’s message with its drone and missile bombardment was to show that it was capable of targeting and reaching precise locations in Israel.

This marked a shift from Iran’s previous stance of “strategic patience” to one of “active deterrence”. It also signals a potential move away from proxy conflicts—in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen—to a direct confrontation with Israel.

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

Although very few landed, Tehran’s message with its launches was clear: any direct threat to Iranian interests would elicit a targeted response against Israel.

When Israel targeted the Iranian consulate, it presumed that Iran would limit its response to its ongoing proxy warfare. Instead, Tehran viewed the attack as a direct assault on its sovereignty and retaliated against Israel directly.

Although Iran and Israel have stopped bombing each other for now, the ramifications of the recent escalation are still being felt,

Despite this, Iran still spoke to Washington, with the intention of avoiding substantial destruction in Israel and preventing an all-out war. This approach aligns with guidance from Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who articulated a strategy of "minimising costs and maximising gains" on Sunday.

Soleimani's revenge

To many, the idea of one foe telling another how they will attack them militarily may seem counterintuitive since it gives the attacked party a chance to defend.

Yet this is not the first time that Iran has given forewarning.

Tehran informed Washington that it would retaliate for its killing of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani near Baghdad airport in 2020 by bombing a US base in Iraq. Because it did so, there were no human casualties.

Likewise, Iran said it would launch a barrage of missiles and drones against Israel before it did so. This telegraphing avoided human casualties.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted US President Joe Biden's advice not to hit Iran hard. Instead, Israel bombed the Isfahan air base—a major Iranian launch site for its 'Night of the Drones'.

This way, Israel got to send its own message: if you target us directly, we will target you directly. The underlying message was that Tehran may prefer to return to the old "rules of engagement" as existed before 1 April.

Washington's wishes

However, there is a lot more to the US-Israeli dialogue and relationship. Not least is the future of the Gaza Strip.

In the short-term, that includes Netanyahu's threat to storm Rafah, a city harbouring about 1.4 million displaced Palestinians, something Biden has stridently opposed.

Read more: After strike on Iran, Israel sets its sights back on Rafah offensive

The timing is interesting. The US House of Representatives has just signed off on a $26bn military aid package for Israel. Washington's wishes were always important in Tel Aviv, and no more so than when there is a bumper weapons shipment promised.

It is unclear if the threat of a direct Israel-Iran war has subsided or if further escalation is around the corner.

Beyond arms, America continues to provide diplomatic support for Israel, in particular against any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state in the United Nations.

The US has said it hopes to do so as part of a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Washington is also using its leverage to strengthen regional and Arab cooperation with Israel, notably against their common enemy: Iran.

Rules of engagement

The Israel-Iran tit-for-tat underscores a complex and delicate exchange of messages, facilitated by the United States, aimed at establishing new 'rules of engagement'.

Yet uncertainties remain. How, for instance, will Tehran respond to any Israeli targeting of its senior military leadership in Syria or Iraq? Will Israel adhere to these new rules?

If Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu initiates a significant offensive against Hezbollah, that could further complicate the situation.

It is unclear if the threat of a direct Israel-Iran war has subsided after both sides established their lines of deterrence or if further escalation is around the corner.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Galant, speaking from the occupied Syrian Golan on Sunday, indicated that efforts to thwart Iran's establishment in Syria are ongoing.

It remains to be seen whether Israel's efforts adhere to the new rules or the old. This being among the most deep-seated animosities in Middle East, there is no doubt that it will be tested before long.

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