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Commentary | 19 April 2024

Out of the shadow war? Iranian narratives of the confrontation with Israel

Image of Dr Hamidreza Azizi

Dr Hamidreza Azizi |Visiting Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)

Iran Deterrence Iran Middle East Nuclear Weapons Security Global Security Iran

Iran and Israel have been engaged for some time in what has been called a “shadow war”, mainly taking place in third countries in the Middle East. The confrontation has been escalating, raising fears of a direct war between one nuclear-armed state and another that has advanced nuclear technological capabilities. As this article was being published, news emerged of an Israeli aerial attack on Iran in the morning of 19th April, possibly involving quadcopter drones or missiles but with no reported casualties. Information was being confirmed at the time of publication, and the IAEA had issued a statement saying there was no damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities (correcting some online speculation and disinformation). This article focuses on the debates inside Iran between Iran’s first direct attack on Israel on 13th April, and the developments of today, which may help shed light on perceptions and narratives that will come into play in determining the options for escalation or de-escalation at a critical time.

This was the first time Iran – a state with advanced nuclear technological capabilities – directly targeted Israel, a nuclear-armed state. Hamidreza Azizi

On 13th April, Iran launched a massive attack from its own territory, targeting Israel with hundreds of missiles and drones. Notably, this was the first time Iran directly targeted Israel, a move interpreted as marking the end of the “shadow war” between Tehran and Tel Aviv and signalling the start of an overt confrontation. Iranian officials claimed that the recent attack was in response to an Israeli strike on the consular section of the Iranian embassy in Syria, which killed several senior members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including the highest-ranking Quds Force commander in the Levant.

According to Israeli reports, Israel’s air defences, assisted by its allies, successfully intercepted and destroyed “99 percent” of the incoming Iranian missiles and drones. Despite this, Israeli officials have underscored their right to retaliate against Iran. The rhetoric from Israel about imminent revenge, coupled with threats from Iranian officials of a severe response to any Israeli actions, has brought the two sides to the brink of war.

To better understand the motivations behind Iran’s decision to abandon its policy of “strategic patience” and launch a direct attack on Israel, examining both the official and unofficial discourse in Iran in recent days might be enlightening. This could also shed light on Tehran’s potential expectations from this attack and the anticipated consequences.

On the night of 13th April, while the Iranian missiles and drones were still en route to Israel, Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations declared that the attack “can be deemed concluded.” The statement justified Iran’s actions as legitimate self-defence under the United Nations Charter in response to the Israeli consulate attack. It criticised the Security Council for not condemning the Israeli strike and warned against “any further military adventures by the Israeli regime.” The statement also emphasised that Iran “does not seek to escalate or spill over conflict in the region.”

The statement from the Iranian delegation at the United Nations effectively summarises the Iranian stance, which was echoed by officials in Tehran in the days following the attack. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian highlighted that Tehran had informed “neighbors and regional countries” of its intent to attack Israel 72 hours before the assault. “We informed our brothers and friends in the region, where America has military bases, that our goal in legitimate defence is solely to punish the Israeli regime. We are not targeting American individuals or bases in the region.” He also noted that Iran had exchanged messages with the United States through the Swiss embassy in Tehran before and after the attack, some of which contained warnings that American involvement in a potential Israeli response would provoke a reaction from Tehran.

In analysing this aspect of the Iranian narrative, it appears that Tehran is trying to convey two messages simultaneously. First, Iran’s reassessment of its approach towards Israel does not imply an eagerness to escalate tensions with neighbouring Arab countries. In fact, it serves as reassurance to Arab states – some of which have official relations with Israel – that Iran’s moves, at least at this stage, will not compromise their security. This reflects the importance Tehran places on its recently improving relations with Arab neighbours. Tehran is aware that creating a threat among neighbours could backfire, potentially driving them to closer cooperation with Israel. The second message is directed at the United States, signalling that Iran is not seeking war, particularly not with the US. However, embedded within these relatively reassuring messages is a broader warning: in the event of an Israeli reaction and the outbreak of an actual war, no one would be safe from its repercussions, not Iran or Israel, not US forces in the region, and not even friendly Arab countries that host US bases.

Iran’s emphasis on prior warning in its attack was a deliberate effort to convey that Iran was more interested in sending a message of strength than in inflicting a decisive blow on Israel. However, the lack of desire for war does not mean that Iranian officials are not treading a risky path. Hamidreza Azizi

Simultaneously, as indicated by the statements of Amir-Abdollahian and other Iranian officials in recent days, Iran’s emphasis on prior warning in its attack was a deliberate effort to convey that Iran was more interested in sending a message of strength than in inflicting a decisive blow on Israel. Iran understood that notifying regional countries of the attack beforehand meant that Israel and its allies would also be prepared. This highlights Tehran’s official stance that, despite its change in approach, it still does not desire war.

However, the lack of desire for war does not mean that Iranian officials are not treading a risky path. Just hours after the attack, two senior Iranian military officials, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, the commander-in-chief of the IRGC, and Maj. Gen. Mohammad Baqeri, the chief of staff of the armed forces, spoke of a “new equation” against Israel. According to Baqeri, “If Israel acts against us, whether on our soil or against our facilities in Syria or another country, our next operation will be bigger.” Similarly, Salami stated, “A new equation has been formed; if Israel attacks, it will be met with a counterattack from Iranian territory.” In addition, Ahmad Haghtalab, a senior IRGC commander in charge of the security of Iran’s nuclear sites, said that if Israel targeted Iran’s nuclear sites, Iran could respond in kind by attacking Israeli nuclear facilities, and could also reassess the decisions it has been taking regarding its own nuclear programme.

These statements clearly emphasise a more assertive military stance towards Israel. The greatest risk here is that escalating the threshold for a military response might lead Israeli officials increasingly to consider future actions against Iran to be conducted on Iranian soil itself rather than in Syria or elsewhere. In other words, this kind of red line could lead to further escalation rather than deterring the other side.

Overall, it appears that the diplomatic statements, on the one hand, and comments from Iranian military officials, on the other, collectively strive to convey a key message: Iran is determined to revive its deterrence against Israel while avoiding an actual war. Undoubtedly, merging these two elements is an exceedingly difficult task, especially in light of Israel’s counter-response (depending, in turn, on what details are confirmed and whether the current round ends with the April 19 attack).

This matter is not lost on experts and analysts within Iran either. Kourosh Ahmadi, a former diplomat, stresses that the revival of Iranian deterrence depends on the success of the attack. “The crucial question is whether such an attack has managed to restore and strengthen Iran’s deterrence. This depends on the success of the operation.” Conversely, Ebrahim Mottaqi, a professor at the University of Tehran, believes that “Iran’s action could create a new type of relative deterrence and new levels of red lines.” He acknowledges the possibility of an Israeli response but suggests, “Israeli action will likely be a less intense retaliatory act to limit Iran’s power and serve as a warning,” which so far may be what is emerging.

However, other analysts warn that continuing the current trajectory could have disastrous effects. Morteza Mousavi Khalkhali, another former diplomat, warns of the possibility of Israel resorting to nuclear weapons. “If the series of actions and reactions, attacks, and counterattacks between Tehran and Tel Aviv continue to a point where Israel sees its existence at risk, it will not hesitate to use its full power.” Therefore, he believes that fuelling current tensions is not in the interest of Iran or the region.

This has led some to argue that Tehran could use the current situation as an opportunity to advance diplomacy. Javid Ghorban-Oghli, a former Iranian ambassador to South Africa, writes, “It seems that an opportune moment has arisen for the country’s diplomatic apparatus to harvest the fruits of military action against Israel and now negotiate with America from a position of strength.” Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor at the University of Tehran, expresses a similar viewpoint. He suggests that “now, given the disagreements between the US and Israel, Iran has an opportunity to engage in direct negotiations with America for once, to advance its interests through diplomatic means rather than ideology.” (A similar view was attributed to an unnamed US official quoted in Britain’s “i” newspaper on 18th April 18.

Overall, most political experts and analysts in Iran seem to agree that Iran’s goal has been to restore deterrence and not to enter into war. However, concerns about the outbreak of an unintended war and its destructive consequences appear to be more pronounced among experts than among official figures. Jalal Khoshchehreh, a political analyst, points to efforts by Israel’s Western allies to dissuade it from responding to the Iranian attack, but also writes: “Western and indeed global community concerns about the reactions of Netanyahu’s war cabinet are valid, but Tehran needs to consider all possibilities and be prepared for them.” He emphasises the need to “be vigilant and always consider the worst-case scenarios.”

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Wikimedia, Tasnim News Agency