Iran-Israel Conflict: Analysis of an escalating crisis

Alberto Bueno

11 mins - 15 de Abril de 2024, 07:00

Iran’s retaliation against Israel following the latter’s attacks on Israeli diplomatic facilities in Syria is the latest episode in the conflict between the two powers, taking its volatility and uncertainty to the extreme. Now, both this clash and the potential Israeli counter-retaliation require moving away from linear analyses of what has happened in recent months in the region, and the “give and take” sustained in their particular cold war. The way in which retaliation is executed, Iran’s strategic calculations and Israel’s assumptions mark the analysis of a crisis with a military impact that goes beyond the region.

Iran has made a qualitative and quantitative leap in the way it carries out its retaliation: qualitative, because the regime has this time altered its classic indirect strategy, which employed linked third party actors in the region - such as Hezbollah or the Houthi militias; this does not imply that these groups do not have their own agenda or are mere pawns, but that they are heavily mediated and supported by Iran - to launch the attack from its own borders directly. It has established a dangerous novelty that breaks the traditional calculus and shifts the focus away from the Gaza war: it is an open Israel-Iran confrontation.

Quantitative, given the volume of delivery vehicles launched against Israel, adding drones, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles in waves. More than three hundred. In this respect, it is an offensive that surpasses, to give you an idea, Russia’s most violent attacks on Ukraine. This is another fact, beyond the contingency of the specific numbers, which also alters the initial calculation. The magnitude is no less significant for having been announced and expected.

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Several reflections follow. First, the delay in retaliation is indicative of diplomatic mediation to influence the response. Of course, Iran could not let Israeli aggression go unpunished - for its own survival, as a message to friends and strangers - but if Iran had wanted to inflict greater damage, the course taken would probably have been different, at least in time. Was there a will to avoid escalation? That Iran even announced the end of retaliation in an official communiqué - paradoxically, when the first drones had not yet reached Israel - points in that direction. Rarely does one see such a seemingly illustrative example of the logic of escalation to de-escalate. 

Second, the subsequent question is why Iran proceeded in such a way. The first option is that the diplomatic plumbing would have worked, seeking an accommodation, violent but accommodating for both sides. The second is that Iran did not want escalation in the region. However, what is interesting here is to link this supposed will with the regime’s own stability and survival, which seems to guide the entire strategic rationale of the Ayatollah regime. And third, that Tehran would have been deterred by Israel from an even larger attack. 

These different alternatives, which are not mutually exclusive, raise the question of Iran’s capabilities - or shortcomings - in a scenario of open warfare. This brings us back to the tactical level of the attack on the night of the 14th. In the absence of confirmation, we are talking about an impressive 95-99% interception by Israeli defences. As Guillermo Pulido has explained, Iran has spent years developing a specific doctrine just for the scenario observed. If the Israeli defence shield has worked, one must also ask at what cost and where it has failed - think of the survivability bias: nor can it be ruled out that ballistic missiles have managed to overcome the Arrow systems -; in the latter case, for what it might teach about the evolution of Iranian capabilities. 

In this respect, and this is another lesson identified in Ukraine, the salvo competition becomes a vital issue. Overwhelming costs - did Israel spend in the region of $2 billion on the night of 14 April - to defend itself, in the case of drones, against cheap and accessible systems, and in the case of missiles, against their massive use. The economic and technological gap is huge, so the strategic and economic calculus will be a key variable in operational terms. A derivative: European defence policies will have to consider whether or not to adopt their own “iron domes” to deal with, for example, drones.

As for deterrence, this is a key issue, because it offers interesting arguments both for and against - albeit, here, purely speculative - whether nuclear capability is a sufficient guarantee: Iran dared to respond, but in a non-escalatory manner, would be the hypothesis. This circumstance is linked to a debate also revived in Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, in that case, its offensive nuclear strategy and vertical or horizontal escalation tensions. These are two different wars, yes, but they offer relevant points of convergence on this issue; it is another derivative.

Third, alliances and their strategic value. Tactically, Israel’s response was supported by the US, the UK, France, Saudi Arabia and Jordan - openly acknowledged by the first three, who participated in shooting down various delivery vehicles; silence on the part of the latter. The involvement of several foreign powers in the interception of the missiles reflects the geopolitical complexities of the region and, again, the factors outside Gaza that have played a role in this serious crisis.

I join those who argue that Iran made a strategic mistake, as reflected in the support Israel received. The Hebrew state was going through a moment of harsh criticism from its main allies, including the Biden administration. US influence, whether to prevent further retaliation or to sustain Israel at a critical moment, was outstanding. Major Western powers responded, breaking the Israeli government’s moment of isolation. 

A necessary excursus here on Spain and the acceleration that the Sánchez government intends to give to the international recognition of Palestine. In the midst of a European tour, stopping in ‘safe harbours’ such as that of the current Norwegian government, one should think, not about the goodness of the recognition - in the absence of all the details, which have never been provided - but about the opportunity of having done so in a week when such risky possibilities were being tested, far removed from the initial reasons for Gaza. The coordinates of the regional crisis were different and perhaps it was not the ideal moment - if we think in terms of foreign policy - to raise this flag.  

So, in the light of this analysis, is everyone satisfied? If you want to control escalation, if the defence was a success... Israel would have every incentive to stop there; tactically, it was a victory. But the interpretation of the real Iranian will and whether that victory really was a strategic achievement differs from such clear causality. 

Two factors may influence Israeli thinking in the opposite direction to this inertia: first, whether the response it wants to offer is consubstantial to the dimensions of the attack launched or to the consequences on the ground. The Netanyahu government’s top-down agenda and its undisguised calculations of a larger-scale war are in favour of a tough “retaliation”. Not appreciating Western support as a reinforcement of its alliances, but as a sign of Israel’s ultimate weakness. Not equating the success of its defence system with victory. In this framework, if Israel decided not to counter-attack, it could be understood that it would be deterred, not the other way around. Moreover, if in Iran we underline the continuity of the regime itself, here too the continuity of the prime minister and his government - with even more hardline positions within it than Netanyahu’s own - are at stake.

Second, the perception of existential struggle in Israel. I believe that this is the other variable that is discarded in the examination of this “give and take” when a sort of “stalemate” is reached after these April clashes. If security and identity are consubstantial in the Hebrew state, I believe it is wrong to think that this Israel is the same as the one before 7 October 2023. The assumption in Israel is that it is now fighting a war for its survival as a country. The nation under siege is more real than ever; it is Gaza, but also southern Lebanon, western Yemen, and Iran.  

That is why this supposed Israeli victory by avoiding drone and missile strikes should not lead one to think simply that there will be no response. Israel is in a different frame of mind. I think this perception is what is driving the strategy in Gaza, what is of course driving Netanyahu and his cabinet - which does not necessarily imply that it is correct - and that it can be driven by the idea of a response, not limited to the Iranian proxy actors, but directly against Iran. This “give and take” goes far beyond the context of the Gaza war. That is why, I believe, the idea of a forthcoming de-escalation with Iran will not happen.

Thus, with the breaking of this “perverse circle” ruled out by mere will or the a priori obvious linear relationship between events, the political conjecture between the two actors remains. Part of Israel’s response will lie in US military support or not, or even in potential formulas with those other allies in the region and enemies of Iran. In retaliation and its potential backlash, the tactical and the strategic intersect. Open war may be avoidable, but it is difficult to sustain such a precarious balance.

And three extra balls, with second and third order effects: 

- This war in the Middle East shows again that the EU is not a strategic actor, but that it is national wills and capabilities that move the agenda. This is obvious, once and for all, but it serves to put those who speak of European strategic autonomy and the need to break away from US tutelage on the right side of the debate. It also reminds us that similar attacks are suffered by Ukraine on a daily basis and no Western country is so involved in its defence - a fact that demonstrates that the West’s supposed bellicosity in its support for Ukraine is more ideological rhetoric than reality.

- Moving on to Ukraine: in recent months, US military aid to Ukraine has been mixed with that to Israel, with spurious arguments in cross vetoes. Perhaps now, for different reasons, a greater determination to help Israel in its confrontation with Iran will facilitate assistance to Ukrainian forces. 

- If Israel were to decide to attack Iranian drone production factories, such as the Shahed, or Iran were to fear a sustained medium-term confrontation with Iran, how would this impact, in practical terms, on the relationship between Iran and Russia? Make a note.
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