Was Iran being pushed to the wall for too long?

Story by  Aditi Bhaduri | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 15-04-2024
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei


Aditi Bhaduri 

Late on April 13 Israel time, the Israeli military announced that Iran had launched an extensive attack of drone aircraft toward Israel.

Iranian state media confirmed that a strike was being conducted, calling it a drone operation launched by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) - an elite force of the Iranian military. A statement by the IRGC on the night of 13-14 April said that it was attacking Israeli territory in response to the destruction of the Iranian Consulate in Syria by Israeli aircraft in early April. 

Behind The News

According to reports at least 200-300 missiles and drones were used in this attack, including the "Shahed" suicide drone.

The Israeli Defense Forces said that its air defense systems had shot down almost 90 percent of the drones and missiles fired by Tehran. Military spokesman Daniel Hagari told the media that most of the more than 200 drones and missiles launched by Iran had been intercepted.

The attacks came after Tehran seized an Israeli-linked ship in the Strait of Hormuz, stoking fears of a widespread Middle East conflict. On April 13, Iranian state media reported that IRGC forces had seized a container ship near the Strait of Hormuz, claiming the vessel was “linked to Israel.” At least 20 of the crew are said to be Indians.

Iran's allies in the region joined the attack, with Yemen's Houthi rebels and Lebanon's Hezbollah also launching drones and missiles respectively at Israel. 

An attack by Tehran was widely anticipated following the suspected Israeli air strike on the Iranian Embassy compound in Damascus, Syria on April 1. According to a statement from the Syrian Ministry of Defense, the consulate building was destroyed in the attack. According to IRGC, seven of their officers were killed in the attacks. The Iranian Foreign Ministry stated at the time that it reserved the right to respond to the Israeli air strike on the Iranian Consulate General in Damascus and the right to take whatever measures to punish the aggressors.

Yet, when they came, the attacks took analysts and observers of the region by surprise. Decades of hostility notwithstanding, Iran had not launched any direct assault on Israel till now. It had relied on its proxies - primarily Hezbollah in Lebanon, and at times Hamas in Gaza to launch attacks on Israel while using Shiite militias loyal to it inside Iraq to target Americans there. 

A host of attacks on Iranian targets till now - and Iran's response to them - testify to this.

Neither the assassination of Iran's top military commander Qasem Soleimani by the US nor even the assassination, later, of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh inside Iran, alleged by the Iranians to be a Mossad operation, elicited any direct action from Iran. 

The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s remains the last instance where Iran actively participated in a war. Since then, it has embarked on a policy of cultivating and patronizing its Shiite proxy militias across the region to advance its influence politically and outsource its wars, without embroiling itself in direct conflict with its adversaries. 

Since the launch of Israel's war on Gaza, Iranian-backed Houthi militias in Yemen have been targeting ships linked to Israel in the Red Sea, resulting in billions of dollars of losses for global trade and disrupting supply chains.

Even the bombings in Kerman at the beginning of the year which killed more than 100 and injured many more Iranians, gathered to mark the anniversary of the death of Iran's top military leader General Qasem Soleimani did not elicit any Iranian response. While ISIS claimed the Kerman bombings, the Iranian leaders vowed to avenge and alleged that ISIS was created by Israel and the USA.

So what is different this time?

The lack of direct action by Iran till now may exactly be the reason it has been forced to act. For too long Iran has depended on its proxies, though bankrolling them. Even though Iranian generals and military counselors, together with Russia, helped Syrian President Basher El Assad to quell the ISIS and other Islamist terror groups there and end the Syrian civil war, inaction against Israel was becoming glaringly embarrassing. 

From the early days of Israel's attacks on Gaza - necessitated by the brutal 7 October attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians - harsh rhetoric from Tehran against Israel did not translate into any direct action for the Palestinians. Across the Muslim world, it was Hezbollah, and in particular, the Houthis of bleeding and starving Yemen that had become heroes, taking on Israel. Not to mention Hamas. With Gaza almost flattened, at least 33,000 civilians, at least half of them women and children, Hamas is still holding out and Israel has been unable to achieve its objective of freeing the still 100-odd Israeli civilians being held hostage by Hamas.

This inaction by Iran was perceived by much of the region as being the very cause of the numerous attacks on Iranian targets. The assault on the Iranian diplomatic mission became the most glaring violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions, though here it must be remembered that Israel has neither claimed nor denied responsibility for these attacks. Yet, as the state consistently attacks targets in Syria, Israel is widely perceived to be the hand behind it.

Not acting was no longer an option for Tehran. Most of all, the military action was necessary for Iran's domestic consumption. The Iranian authorities had used heavy-handed tactics to put down and suppress the popular domestic movement of women resisting the hijab. Domestically, Iran's mullah-run polity is under pressure. 

Iran had even launched strikes on neighbour and fellow Muslim Pakistan on charges of anticipated terrorist activities emanating from Pakistan’s territory. Yet, it seemed to stoically absorb attack after attack from its sworn enemy, whose destruction it is officially committed to while getting others to fight its war.

Iran could not afford to not act. It had to project military power.

Yet, Iran's action also demonstrates a clear will to not escalate the conflict. Iran’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Amir Saeed Irawani, said at a United Nations Security Council meeting that Iran’s attacks on Israel were only aimed at military targets and were intended not to cause harm to civilians and carried out with caution, and to minimize the possibility of escalation. It has also asked the US, whose President Joe Biden had earlier warned Tehran against any attacks on Israel, saying its support for Israel was "ironclad", to stay out of the conflict, which it said concerned only Iran and Israel. 

The greatest proof of Iran's unwillingness to further conflict escalation is its announcement that it would end matters there if Israel did not retaliate. "The matter can be deemed concluded," Iran's mission to the United Nations said in a post on social media platform X soon after the start of the operation late Saturday. It, however, warned of greater force if Israel would choose to retaliate.

The ball now is in Israel's court. Iran has made its move on the Middle East's geopolitical chess board.