Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iran-Israel: The New Deterrence Equation

Iran’s message to Israel asserts that any attack on Iranian sovereignty will be met with a direct and forceful military response from Tehran.

A member of the Israeli military personnel examines a part of an Iranian ballistic missile. Oren ZIV / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

In the late hours of Saturday, April 13, 2024, Iran made history by launching a combined strike against a series of Israeli bases. This marked the first time such an operation had been carried out, utilizing drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles.

This action was in direct response to Israeli airstrikes on the Iranian Consulate in Damascus earlier in the month, an attack that resulted in the deaths of prominent leaders in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

From a political perspective, this direct retaliation by Iran represents a significant turning point in Iranian-Israeli relations across the Middle East. Size and scale of the military response aside, Iran has effectively established a clear deterrent message to Israel.

This message asserts that any attack on Iranian sovereignty, including its territories and diplomatic missions, will be met with a direct and forceful military response from Tehran.

In essence, Iran’s strategy has evolved from relying solely on regional allies to retaliate against Israel to taking direct military action.

The Scope of the Iranian strike: A Broad but Precise and Limited Response

Before initiating its latest strike, Iran assessed the capabilities of the Israeli air defense system, widely recognized as the most advanced in the Middle East. The system comprises three integrated levels, each serving a distinct purpose.

First is the renowned “Iron Dome” system, adept at intercepting drones and short-range missiles. Following this is the “David’s Sling” system, tailored for intercepting medium-range missiles. Lastly, the “Arrow” system stands ready to intercept advanced ballistic missiles.

Augmenting these three layers, each equipped with its own suite of monitoring and radar apparatus, the Israeli military has enhanced the capabilities of its F-15 and F-35 warplanes. These aircraft can engage aerial threats, such as drones and ballistic missiles, with heightened effectiveness and precision.

This strategic development enables Israel to commence air defense operations against potential threats before they encroach upon its borders, thus alleviating pressure on its primary ground-based defense systems.

Given this reality, Iran’s strategic approach centered on overwhelming the Israeli air defense system with a substantial barrage of cost-effective missiles. The objective was to saturate the system, creating an opening for a limited number of missiles to penetrate through.

Simultaneously, Iran was resolute on containing the scope of potential retaliation within carefully delineated parameters, steering clear of escalating into a large-scale regional conflict with Israel.

Thus, the Iranian response was a delicate balance of two primary objectives: breadth of attack and precision in execution.

Combined Attack Form

Iran orchestrated a comprehensive assault involving the deployment of 170 drones, 30 cruise missiles and 120 ballistic missiles. This assault, viewed through a military lens, was a substantial aerial offensive designed to test Israel’s formidable interception capabilities.

Iran strategically diversified its targets across various geographical locations, including military installations in the Golan Heights, the central and southern Negev Desert and Beersheba. Consequently, video footage revealed that a portion of the projectiles managed to evade Israeli air defenses, striking the Nevatim military airport in southern Israel.

The Israeli military asserted that, in collaboration with its regional and international allies, it successfully repelled 99 per cent of the Iranian projectiles, downing all drones and the vast majority of missiles.

Nonetheless, the military reluctantly acknowledged “minor damage” at the Nevatim Airport, attributing it to the breach of Israeli air defenses by five cruise missiles and a “very limited” number of ballistic missiles.

Contrary to official reports, five days after the Iranian assault, the Hebrew newspaper Maariv challenged the military’s claims, asserting that Israeli air defenses repelled 84 percent of the attack.

Conversely, the Iranian National Security Council refrained from providing a detailed account regarding the specific targets struck or the extent of the damage inflicted by the assault. However, the Council’s statement announcing the retaliation explicitly outlined the limited nature of the operations and its objectives. It characterized the attack as “minimal punitive measures,” deliberately avoiding targeting economic facilities or infrastructure.

This reaffirmed the operation’s limited scope, focused on maintaining the deterrence equilibrium, achieving modest breakthroughs and steering clear of escalating into a full-scale conflict.

The Political Ramifications of the Strike

Once the Iranian strike concluded, both sides were assessing its impact on the balance of military power between them. The Israeli army celebrated successfully repelling the vast majority of projectiles aimed at it.

However, this success was only possible with the assistance of a coalition of regional and international powers. Among these were the United States, using its bases in Syria and Iraq; the British military, operating from its air bases in Cyprus; and the French army stationed in Jordan.

Notably, Jordan itself played a role in intercepting Iranian drones and missiles that breached its airspace, viewing these projectiles as a violation of its sovereignty.

This broad response from Iran reinforced the notion that Israel might struggle to fend off a future intensified Iranian assault without a substantial international and regional coalition. This would be especially true if Israeli air defenses were inundated with a large volume of projectiles.

Such a scenario would effectively hold Israel captive to an international and regional shield capable of defending it amid its ongoing conflict with the Iranian regime. It is from this perspective that Israeli War Council member Benny Gantz’s call for a regional alliance against Iran gains clarity following the conclusion of the Iranian military strike.

At the same time, military assessments revealed that the Israeli army bore a significant financial cost of approximately $1.5 billion to repel the Iranian attack. The Arrow defense system, designed for intercepting long-range missiles, boasts missiles priced at over $3.5 million each, while the “David’s Sling” system, targeting medium-range threats, features missiles exceeding $1 million each. In contrast, Iran incurred only 10 per cent of the cost endured by Israel in repelling the attack.

This discrepancy highlights a potential vulnerability in the Israeli defense system when facing a sustained, long-term war of attrition with Iran. The exorbitant cost of defense systems contrasts sharply with Iran’s reliance on comparatively low-cost offensive capabilities. It is worth noting that Russia used a similar strategy in its attack on Ukraine, relying on inexpensive Iranian drones against Ukrainian defenses armed with costly NATO weaponry.

The Israeli Response and Easing of Tensions

After the conclusion of the Iranian strike, the world held its breath, anticipating Israel’s response. The potential for a significant regional clash between the two nations loomed, with the threat of disruption to oil supply lines in the Gulf region.

Five days following Iran’s retaliation, the Shikari military base in Isfahan, Iran, was targeted by a mysterious strike, shrouded in undisclosed details. Satellite imagery revealed the destruction of Iranian S-300 air defense systems, crucial for safeguarding nearby nuclear facilities. Consequently, this strike was widely interpreted as Israel’s reaction – an effort to save face and underscore its capability to intervene in Iran’s nuclear program as necessary.

Israel, however, chose not to publicly claim responsibility for the attack, likely to avoid embarrassing Iran and to avert potential retaliation. Nevertheless, Israel’s silence or refusal to deny involvement tacitly confirmed to observers its role in the operation, a direct response to Iran’s prior strike.

Iran, for its part, opted against escalating tensions further, downplaying the attack as a thwarted attempt at infiltration by “minor incursions,” refraining from directly accusing Israel.

This enigmatic strike served as an exit strategy, allowing both sides to ease tensions and halt the cycle of escalation.

Iran had achieved its objective with the initial strike – establishing a new deterrence paradigm – without seeking a broader regional confrontation with Israel and its Western allies.

Israel, aware of the lack of Western support for such a confrontation, preferred a measured and ambiguous response to close the chapter on Iran’s retaliation, showcasing its capacity to strike deep within Iran when necessary.

Political Implications and International Positions

Since the outset of these events, Iran has shown a deliberate effort to avoid escalating tensions with U.S. forces stationed in the Middle East. This stance reflects the Iranian regime’s interest in the ongoing indirect negotiations with the U.S. administration, which could potentially lead to a revival of the previous nuclear agreement should U.S. President Joe Biden secure another term.

Due to these dynamics, Iran engaged in diplomatic communications with the United States prior to the attack, seeking to mitigate the fallout of its response. Essentially, Iran informed the Americans of the timing of its actions and provided assurances that it did not intend to further provoke Israel.

Similarly, Western nations were eager to prevent a full-blown conflict with Iran, leading them to counsel Israel against significant escalation post-attack. Consequently, Western reactions sought to downplay the impact of Iran’s strike and report its failure, instead emphasizing Israel’s success in repelling it. This strategy aimed to uphold Israel’s political stature and encourage restraint to prevent a larger confrontation with Tehran.

Despite the push for de-escalation, the U.S., U.K. and France publicly reiterated their commitment to defending Israel in any potential conflict with Iran. These strong, public assurances likely contributed to Western countries’ ability to influence Israel’s response and steer it toward a limited, ambiguous action that wouldn’t necessitate a broader confrontation with Iran. Western military support for Israel translates into political leverage over its decisions in direct confrontations with Iran.

On the political front, it was notable that the vast majority of Western nations swiftly condemned the Iranian strike, framing Israel’s actions as self-defense. This contrasts with their relatively muted response when Israel targeted the Iranian Consulate in Damascus, a move seen as a clear breach of international law. These countries’ selective stances were evident when they took a firm position against Ecuador following its police forces’ raid on the Mexican Embassy on April 5, 2024, just days after the bombing of the Iranian Consulate.

Diversity of Regional Positions

At the regional level, the recent developments have sparked diverse reactions from the Arab Gulf states, leading them to engage diplomatically with Iran and the United States to mitigate the escalating tensions.

The Gulf countries’ stance aligns with their regional interests as oil and gas exporters, making them vulnerable to any escalation threatening navigation in the Gulf region. Moreover, all Arab Gulf countries host American military bases, posing a security concern in the event of heightened tensions between Iran and the United States.

Among the regional players, only Jordan has actively intercepted Iranian missiles. Jordan’s decision stemmed from its stated position against turning its airspace into a battleground between Israel and Iran. The regime in Jordan is wary of the potential impact of such security incidents on internal political dynamics, particularly its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological root of the Hamas Movement.

In contrast, Syria and Iraq have chosen to remain observers amid these events. American forces in both countries have intercepted Iranian missiles and drones as part of their response.

It is crucial to note that Iran’s recent strike did not aim to alter the existing dynamics of the conflict in the Gaza Strip. Iran clarified that its operation was limited to safeguarding its national security interests.

The primary objective was to deter Israel from crossing red lines, particularly concerning attacks on Iranian territory or diplomatic facilities. Iran’s allies in the region are expected to handle further responses beyond this point.

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