Why did Iran and Israel Leave the Grey Zone?

With Israel’s attack on the consular section of the Iranian embassy and the killing of senior commanders of IRGC Al-Quds Force, including General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, who played a major role in coordinating Iran’s “resistance” strategy with armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, the West Bank, and Gaza, Iran attacked Israel for the first time with over 300 drones and missiles. 

The text was authored on 16th April 2024.

Israel has announced a retaliatory attack on Iran. The action was not supported by the US in the phone call between Biden and Netanyahu, despite the fact that Israel has announcedthat it will have no choice but to respond to Iran.

These developments have actually meant the withdrawal of Israel and Iran from conflict in a “grey area” where both sides experienced neither peace nor direct war. Within this status quo, Israel was threatening and attacking Iran’s interests in the region by the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ strategy. Based on this strategy, Israel targeted the interests of Iran and its proxies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, as well as interests within Iran’s integral territory; such actions included the assassination of nuclear scientists, sabotage against military and nuclear facilities, as well as attacks on Iranian ships in the region.

Iran’s responses were based on the same logic and also remained in the “grey zone,” including a range of attacks from its proxies in the region, cyber-attacks, and sabotage inside Israel.

After the Gaza war, Israel chose a change in the process of responding to Iran’s threats. The logic of this change lies in the ‘Octopus Doctrine:’ Israel believes that the head of the octopus, i.e., Iran, should be targeted, and the threat of the legs of the octopus, i.e., Iran’s proxy forces, cannot be deterrents against Iran.

Accordingly, Israel defined a new level of deterrence by assassinating Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a high-ranking Iranian general, in Syria and then attacking the Iranian consulate in Syria. The attack on the Iranian consulate, which was said to be in response to the attack carried out by the Iranian-backed Iraqi forces on a facility in the port of Eilat, Israel, sent a message to Iran that the consequences of the proxy forces‘ actions will directly affect Iran itself.

Ayatollah Khamenei evaluated this attack as an attack on Iranian soil, and Tehran formed the view that unless it leaves the “grey zone” and presents a strong deterrent response, it practically waits for more severe attacks by Israel, possibly within Iran’s territory. Therefore, Iran directly targeted Israel with missiles and drones for the first time.

Although a large number of these missiles and drones were destroyed by a coalition of Israel, the USA, the UK, France, and Jordan, Israel is contemplating retaliating. Iran has announced that this attack was in response to the attack on the Iranian consulate in Syria and that it has observed the principle of proportionality in this attack.

Iran’s logic has been to not fall into the trap of a direct war with Israel – which would undoubtedly drag the USA into war – while giving a deterrent message to Israel. Iran believes that Netanyahu is trying to get rid of internal disputes and remain in power and free from the pressure of world opinion as a result of the Gaza war, to enter into a direct war with Iran in order to bring the United States to war as well.

Dragging the United States into such open conflict would change the nature of Israel’s war with Gaza into the USA’s war with Iran. This could also possibly mean that Israel could more easily pursue goals such as a ground attack on Rafah.

Furthermore, such developments could also reduce the gap between Israel and Western countries. However, the US does not want to expand the war and has announced to Israel that it would not support it, including retaliatory measures.

Despite the fact that the US is Israel’s strategic ally and has protected it from Iran’s attacks, it is not willing to enter into a severe challenge in the Middle East, especially not with Netanyahu’s leadership of Israel. A further conflict in the Middle East would be in direct opposition to Washington’s ‘Offshore Balancing’ strategy regarding the region and cause a severe deviation from the United States’ policy of containing China. Although the developments in the region during the Biden administration have yet again pulled the USA into regional conflicts, Washington is not looking to get more involved in the area. During the Biden era, we witnessed the conclusion of a security agreement between the United States and Bahrain, which involves Washington in more robust engagement in regional security issues. On the other hand, one of the primary conditions for Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel is to give Riyadh extensive security assurances from Washington.

More conflict would also cause Tehran to take a more extreme approach to the nuclear issue. The basis of the American order in the region is to establish stability based on diplomacy and new regional alliances. Accordingly, the United States is trying to resolve the nuclear issue. Concurrently, while the US-Israeli alliance could not act as a deterrent to Iran’s attack, the United States showed off its extraordinary military power by intercepting and destroying most of Iran’s missiles and drones.

Thus, it seems that even the Persian Gulf Arabs, who do not want to be involved in the conflict between Iran and Israel, are currently considering the joint air defense system with the USA and Israel more seriously than before. For its Air Force defense system, this coordination promises to improve its ability to counter Iranian ballistic and cruise missiles and drones.

In addition, according to some news, Saudi Arabia and the UAE provided intelligence assistance to Israel and the United States before Iran’s attack on Israel, which shows the importance of strategic relations with Israel formed following the normalization of relations with Israel even after the Gaza war.

Considering the high costs of the war outside the grey zone, it does not seem to be the logic of the game after the recent developments to pursue a conflict outside this zone by Iran and Israel. Recent conflict may remain limited, but conflict outside the grey zone risks spiraling into widespread regional conflict. Therefore, we can expect the two sides to return to this zone.