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A Restrained Response

Assessing the Iranian attack on Israel

22 April 2024

On the night of April 13, 2024, Iran launched an attack on Israel called the "True Promise" operation. This was in response to the targeting of the Iranian consulate in Damascus, which resulted in the death of several senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders in Syria and Lebanon. 

The "True Promise" attack is Tehran's largest foreign military operation since the end of the eight-year war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988. Military analysts have described it as the largest drone attack in history. It is also the first time since hostilities began between the two countries in 1979 that Iran has directly attacked Israel from its own territory. 

This strike raises concerns and questions about its impact, effectiveness, and objectives, which can be assessed by examining Tehran's internal and external assessments.

Tehran’s Assessments

Iranian internal considerations regarding the attacks undertaken against Israel are as follows:

1- Saving face: The Iranian regime's recent attack on Israel was aimed at preserving its image among the Iranian public. The public appeared unhappy with the repeated Israeli violations against military commanders, strategic installations, and diplomatic headquarters both inside and outside Iran. After the Iranian consulate in Damascus was attacked, dozens of people gathered to condemn the event and seek retribution. Additionally, Iran's parliamentary elections in early March 2024 strengthened the influence of fundamentalist conservatives, who advocate a hardline stance toward Israel. This puts the country in an embarrassing situation if it is unable to respond to the bombing of the diplomatic headquarters in Syria. On the other hand, the Iranian regime may have resorted to exporting internal problems by engaging in external crises. This has happened on several previous occasions. One notable example was the bombing in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and in Pakistan, following two other bombings that occurred in the Kerman province in early January 2024, resulting in the death of approximately 100 people. The Iranian attacks on Israel can thus be seen as attempts to quell the growing popular discontent with the current Iranian government's economic and social policies.

2- Testing the effectiveness of Iranian weapons: Iran's response to the attack on its consulate in Syria served as a test of its missile and drone capabilities. It is estimated that Iran launched approximately 180 drones, 110 ballistic missiles, and 36 cruise missiles towards Israel. These weapons had ranges between 1,000 and 2,000 km. The shortest distance between Iran and Israel is around 1,000 km, and Iranian missiles pass through Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. The Israeli army spokesperson stated that almost 99% of Iranian missiles were intercepted, either outside or above Israel. Israel utilized its air defenses, specifically David's Sling and Arrow, and received assistance from the US, Britain, and France in neutralizing Iranian drones and missiles. Iranian statements confirmed that the missiles and drones successfully targeted the Nevatim air base, from which the F-35 fighters were launched to bomb the Iranian consular headquarters in Damascus. They also targeted a "large information center" near the Syrian border, which Iran claims was used to direct strikes against Iranian targets over the past six months. Although the military sites that were hit were not completely destroyed, the Iranian attacks exposed both the weaknesses and strengths of Israeli defenses, as highlighted in a report by the American Institute for the Study of War. Some analysts suggest that Iran did not intend to target civilian locations, and that Israel's allies (the US, UK, and France) played crucial roles in repelling these attacks.

3- Role of the Iranian army and revolutionary guard: Previously, only the Iranian Revolutionary Guard responded to Israeli threats to Iran. This included attacking buildings in Iraqi Kurdistan believed to be linked to the Israeli Mossad, as well as capturing Israeli-owned ships in the region's commercial routes. However, after the recent attack on Israel, leaders from both the Iranian army and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard issued statements confirming their joint participation in the operation. This shift reflects a growing tendency within Tehran to give more importance to the Iranian army, which had been marginalized in favor of the Revolutionary Guard. The Revolutionary Guard is increasingly seen as the guardian of the Iranian regime and Tehran's regional project. As Iran's "advanced defense" doctrine, which relied on proxies for defense and attack, is changing, the army's role is being restored. Therefore, Tehran sees its response to Israel's targeting of its consulate in Syria as a defense of "Iranian territory," which represents the primary mission of the Iranian army.

4- Religious traits to the attacks: The Iranian leadership, in line with its internal and foreign policy, aimed to give religious significance to its attacks on Israel. The regime utilized political and media rhetoric to showcase that the Iranian operation "restored to Islam its glory and greatness," as stated by the Iranian newspaper Kayhan, which is affiliated with the Supreme Leader and featured this headline on its main page. Some analysts have also suggested that the timing of the attacks holds religious importance, as they were launched on the fifth of Shawwal, the same day as the "Al-Ahzab/Khandaq" battle in the fifth year of Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) Hijrah, or migration.

External Messages

The most notable external messages and considerations about Iranian strikes on Israel are as follows:

1- A warning to Israel: The recent military operation conducted by Iran serves as a warning to Israel, signaling that any direct attack on Iranian sovereignty will be met with a direct response. Notably, the bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus holds significant importance, as it differs from previous instances of covert confrontations between the two nations. Prior to the strikes, Iranian statements emphasized their intention to punish Israel for its actions. However, the actual strike fell short of their aspirations, with only an estimated 4% of offensive weapons hitting their intended targets. This relatively low success rate weakens Tehran's message to Tel Aviv. Consequently, the official Iranian discourse shifted following the attack. Instead of emphasizing the punitive nature of the strikes, Iranian officials now describe them as "limited, cautionary, and carefully calculated." They have also clarified that the strikes were not intended to target civilian populations or economic facilities, nor were they meant to provoke an open confrontation with Israel. Furthermore, Iranian statements have included a veiled threat, stating that any response by Israel to these strikes would be met with an even stronger response from Tehran. This implies that the Iranian move was mandatory and defensive in nature, rather than offensive.

2- Avoiding US intervention: Iran took steps to prevent US involvement in the conflict. Through intermediaries, Iran assured the American side that its strikes against Israel were limited and in self-defense. Additionally, Iran stated that its missiles and drones would not target American bases as they traveled towards Israeli targets. This was confirmed by the passage of Iranian missiles and drones through nations where they were planned to pass. In response to the escalating threat to Israel, the United States deployed warships closer to the Israeli shore as a show of support. General Michael Corella, Commander of the US Central Command (Centcom), also visited Tel Aviv two days prior to the strike to coordinate with military leadership on potential attacks. The US took action to minimize the impact of Iranian strikes on Israel and to assist Israel's defense forces in intercepting Iranian drones and missiles. However, the US made it clear that it would not participate in any potential response by Israel. President Joe Biden also advised Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu against launching a counterattack.

3- Neutralizing the role of proxies: In response to the targeting of its consulate in Damascus, Iran vowed to retaliate without significant involvement from its regional proxies. These proxies had not previously participated in any response. However, on April 12, 2024, the Lebanese Hezbollah launched around 50 missiles at northern Israel, and the Houthis launched several missiles at Eilat in southern Israel. These offensives may be linked to these nations' own conflict with Israel and may not be related to Iran. Tehran had three objectives in mind. First, it aimed to respond unilaterally, without relying on its proxies, as the attack on the consulate threatened Iranian sovereignty. Second, it sought to prevent the escalation of the war and avoid being drawn into a larger regional conflict. Third, it wanted to maintain its position as the leader of the so-called "Axis of Resistance." Therefore, Iran responded to reaffirm its leadership before its regionally connected armed organizations.

4- Informing regional parties: According to statements by Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Tehran informed regional parties of its intention to strike Israel 72 hours before the attack. Abdollahian revealed, "We informed our friends and neighbors in the region that Iran's response to Israel is certain, legitimate, and irreversible." This tactic serves two purposes. First, it aims to prevent losses caused by the launch of missiles and drones, which could damage air traffic, facilities, or harm people. As a result, several countries in the region redirected flights away from "areas of tension." Second, it is an effort to manage the expected outrage of neighboring countries towards Iran's assault on Israel. The consequences of this attack could have an impact on regional security and stability. This is particularly significant considering Tehran's recent attempts to improve relations with these parties. Notably, Iran signed an agreement to resume relations with Saudi Arabia under Chinese sponsorship on March 10, 2023.

Regardless of the outcome of the Iranian assaults on Israel, most estimates indicate that they were limited from a military standpoint. However, these attacks have opened a new door for bilateral conflict and have crossed the "red lines" and rules of engagement known in the past, potentially leading to open confrontation. Despite this, the new restrictions are still aimed at controlling the conflict between the two countries. This does not eliminate the risk of being drawn into an open war, which depends on Washington's ability to regulate the actions of both parties. Some voices within Tel Aviv argue that there should be a response to Iran's strikes.