Can an Iran-Israel War Still be Avoided?

Are we (finally) witnessing the beginning of a full-blown war between Iran and Israel? Or is it business as usual?

On the night of April 13-14, approximately 185 drones, 36 cruise missiles, and 110 surface-to-surface missiles were launched from Iran, Iraq, and Yemen toward Israel in retaliation for the Israeli attack two weeks before on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria. While the relations between the two states – Iran and Israel – have been extremely hostile, we cannot even speak of direct relations, this level of conflict, i.e., direct confrontation, has so far been excluded.

From the Ancient Past to the Present

The Iranian-Israeli/Jewish relations go back several thousands of years, and the distinction bears relevance even today. The Jews in ancient times appeared on Iranian land twice: Jews were released from the Babylonian captivity with the assistance of the Biblical Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai, whose graveyards are still visited by many in the western Iranian city of Hamadan (the ancient Ekbatana). Several centuries later, following the defeat of the Jewish uprisings in the Roman Empire, the first direction of the exodus of Jewish groups was towards the east, the present-day territory of Iraq and Iran. While the numbers of the Jewish population have drastically decreased, primarily due to the establishment of the State of Israel and to the Arab-Israeli wars, the highest number of Jews in the Middle East (outside Israel) still lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where, according to the constitution, they can send one representative to the Majles (Iranian Parliament). (Before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the number of Jews in Iran was 100,000-150,000. Today, estimations are around 12,000-15,000.)

The two main events defining the relationship between Iranians and Jews were the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. While both Israel and Iran belonged to the US allies in the Middle East and thus observed close relations, the new Islamic Republic’s perspective was of a ‘Zionist regime occupying Jerusalem’ and has never acknowledged the State of Israel. This differentiation between Jews and Israel (the Zionist regime) has been present to this day.

Rivalry for Regional Power and ‘Existence’

Both Israel and Iran feel threatened in their existence. However, the United States provides ‘ironclad’ defense guarantees for Israel, ‘a major non-NATO ally’; while for Iran, it is the US that poses the main threat. The Israeli perception has been shaped by the holocaust experience and memories, as well as the Arab-Israeli wars. At the same time, Iran has been aware (and often reminded) of the fact that the United States wants regime change in the country. This conviction has been complemented by the fact that the US did carry out regime change – leading international coalitions – in 2001 in Afghanistan (Iran’s eastern neighbor) and in 2003 in Iraq (Iran’s western neighbor).

These have reinforced the need for deterrence and the preparation for defense in both countries. Israel is the best equipped with the most modern arsenal in the Middle East, receiving annually some 3.6 billion USD in military aid and – by various estimations – has a nuclear arsenal of 90–300 nuclear explosive devices. Israel has never acknowledged nor denied having nuclear weapons and has maintained this nuclear ambiguity as the basis of the Israeli strategic defense doctrine. Iran, despite the international sanctions of 2006–2010, has developed the full nuclear fuel cycle. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was meant to make sure Iran’s nuclear capacities could only be used for civilian purposes – an aim consistently stated by Iran and ordered by the ‘nuclear fatwa’ issued by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2005. Yet, the technical possibility of stepping over the nuclear threshold also provides Iran with a kind of nuclear ambiguity. 

In the past four decades, both Israel and Iran tried to weaken each other primarily through indirect or proxy activities, thus avoiding direct confrontation. Although in most cases, no direct connection could be ascertained, it has been taken for granted that Israel was involved in some noteworthy incidents against Iran, i.e., Iranian academic or military persons and infrastructure, such as e. g. the killing of five Iranian nuclear scientists between 2007 and 2020 within Iran. With regard to the infrastructure, the introduction of the STUXNET malicious computer worm into the Iranian nuclear program (especially the uranium centrifuges) and the cyber-attack on the Natanz nuclear facility in 2021 should be mentioned. Iran, on the other hand, is widely believed to be – either directly or indirectly – behind the (suicide) bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, the attacks on Israel-related ships passing the Persian Gulf, and several attacks on Israeli territory by the various armed groups in the so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’ in the region. Yet, a direct confrontation between Iran and Israel has not occurred till April 13–14, 2024. 

What’s Next?

The attack by Israel on the Iranian consulate on April 1, 2024, in Damascus signaled the potential of a new stage in the conflict, to which the Iranian leaders pledged revenge. (It should be noted that besides the nuclear scientists, there was an even more significant incident carried out by the United States at the beginning of January 2020, when the Head of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Force, General Qasem Soleymani, was killed in Baghdad. The Iranian leaders also pledged revenge, which was carried out in the form of a limited strike on a US military base in Iraq, planned in a way so as not to escalate the conflict.) The attack on Israel now seems also to be limited – according to Iranian calculations – in the sense that it was targeting a military base trying to avoid civilian losses, also most probably aware of the Israeli air defense capabilities, and was followed by a statement that from the Iranian side, this has finished the issue. No more Iranian attacks are to be expected if there are no attacks against Iranian territory. 

The question is if Israel is intent on retaliation – with the knowledge that the United States pledges to defend it but does not support any attack on Iran as this could escalate into a full regional war, or if it is satisfied with showing the world that it can defend itself from external attacks.

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