Middle EastAnalysis

Win-win situation for Iran and Israel could escalate into lose-lose warfare

As of now, Israel and Iran have saved face. That would change if Israel responds to the weekend attack

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) pressured the country’s ruling clerics into mounting this weekend’s attack – the first by a regional state on Israel since Iraq fired scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War. Iran’s aerial blitz was meant to avenge seven officers, including general Mohammad Reza Zahdi, who were killed on April 1st by Israel’s air strike on Iran’s Damascus consulate.

Before the bombing, the clerics had argued against engaging Israel directly as this could expand into a regional conflict. That event angered the IRGC hardliners and the public, who criticised the government for failing to respond to Israeli assassinations of Iranian scientists as well as strikes on nuclear research sites and IRGC units deployed in Syria. Failure to retaliate for the consulate attack was regarded as “weakness” and an invitation for Israel to continue targeting Iran.

By striking Israel, Iran knew it could face punishing retaliation against which the country has few defences. Iran possesses an arsenal of offensive weapons – ballistic and cruise missiles and drones – but has no effective defensive capabilities, unlike Israel. Iran knew it would also encounter western condemnation and Arab criticism for risking regional conflict.

Both factors compelled Iran to design an attack which would not inflict large-scale death and destruction but send a message to Israel that it could no longer expect its attacks to go unpunished.


Several regional commentators initially believed Saturday’s hijacking of an Israeli-owned ship near the Strait of Hormuz was Iran’s message but this was a diversion. Iran’s overnight raid was a well advertised aerial attack with slow-moving cruise missiles and drones, which were easily intercepted by Israel and its allies before reaching Israeli airspace. Ballistic missiles inflicted minor damage at Israel’s Nevatim airbase.

Iran declared it had succeeded in punishing Israel while Israel claimed victory because 99 per cent of the missiles were shot down. So far, this is a win-win situation for both. If Israel mounts a major retaliation, Iran has said it would respond heavily. This could escalate into lose-lose warfare.

The Iranian attack has had unintended consequences. Western and regional powers have focused their efforts on calming the Iran-Israel front rather building pressure on Israel to call a ceasefire in Gaza and allow the delivery of life-giving humanitarian aid. Having pulled most of its troops out of Gaza, Israel has called up two reservist regiments which could stage its delayed Rafah offensive.

Once again seen as a victim, Israel has re-emerged from moral and political isolation caused by its conduct in Gaza. Before Iran’s attack, most Israelis wanted prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to resign, but his position has been somewhat strengthened by Israel’s successful defence against Iran’s attack.

Having snubbed Netanyahu for refusing to take his advice on Gaza, US president Joe Biden has resumed talking to him. While saying the US is fully behind Israel, Biden has warned against a full-scale Israeli attack on Iran and has said the US would not take part. Having made this an objective for decades, Netanyahu can be expected to continue trying to drag the US into a conflict.