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Escalation Dynamics

Israel's options for dealing with the new deterrence equation with Iran

26 April 2024

In a recent cycle of reciprocal retaliatory strikes, Israel launched an attack on a military site near the Iranian city of Isfahan in the early hours of April 19, 2024. Iran’s state television confirmed the sighting of three drones which Iran’s air defense systems shot down, causing them to fall in Tabriz, about 500 miles north of Isfahan.

Israel's limited, symbolic response, came less than a week after Iran launched  direct missile and drone attacks on the evening of April 13. Despite their limited impact, these attacks set a historic precedent in the deterrence equation between the two sides. The timing and method of Israel’s retaliation is based on its comprehensive assessment of the Iranian attacks.  Tel Aviv arguably gained numerous benefits from these attacks, including showcasing the strength of its air defenses and regaining international support. Accordingly,  extensive escalation would not be in Israel’s favor, especially after the United States declared that it does not support  any Israeli increased military action against Iran.

Israel’s Contained Response

Israel notified the US of its intention to carry out strikes in Iran on the evening of Thursday, April 18, an Israeli official told British newspaper The Financial Times. He added that the warning did not include details of the attack.

Asenior US official, however, told CNN that Israel assured Washington that it would not be targetting Iran's nuclear facilities. The official added that it was a "limited attack" targeting a military site Iran had used to launch its attack on Israel.

Reactions in Israel to the attack on the city of Isfahan varied. While Israeli Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben Gvir, described it as  “Lame” on ‘X’, his fellow Likud Knesset member Tally Gotliv praised the attack. The latter stated in the aftermath of the attack that it was “a morning to proudly hold our head up high. Israel is a strong and powerful country.”

Dana Weiss, a diplomatic-affairs analyst for Israel’s Channel 12 told viewers that “Israel can do elegant military maneuvers that neither cause commotion nor significant military damage but nonetheless deliver the message Israel wants to convey.” Israel’s message being that it can reach anywhere inside Iran.

In Iran, the media and officials played down the Israeli retaliatory strike on the city of Isfahan. Iranian state television stated that military and nuclear facilities in Isfahan were safe and aired footage of an otherwise-peaceful Isfahan.

Iranian social media users mocked the Israeli strike as "a trivial response” to a barrage of 300 rockets and drones launched by Iran.  Itwas therefore not surprising that Iran, leaked to the press, through an anonymous senior official, that it has no plan for immediate retaliation against Israel. 

It is worth noting that despite the limited nature of the Israeli attack, it targeted a strategically important city for Iran and its nuclear program. The central city of Isfahan is home to important military facilities. These include nuclear facilities, research and development centers, and the underground Natanz uranium enrichment site, which has been repeatedly targeted by suspected Israeli sabotage attacks. Additionally, in Isfahan, Iran has three small research reactors which were provided by China, as well as facilities for nuclear fuel production and other activities for the country’s nuclear program.

Assessment of the Iranian Attack

The limited Israeli retaliatory attack was based on Tel Aviv's assessment of the April 13 attack, which involved about 150 Iranian ballistic missiles carrying a combined 46 tons of explosive material, and approximately 200 drones loaded with a total of four tons of explosives.

Israel’s appraisal of the Iranian assault was balanced compared to assessments of October 7, 2023 launched by Palestinian factions from Gaza in the south, or the repeated attacks launched by Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the north. That is perhaps because the Iranian strike did not cause Israeli civilian casualties, and because it lacked the element of surprise. The Israelis had about two weeks to brace for Iran’s retaliation for the Israeli bombing of the Iranian embassy in Damascus on 1 April.

The main Israeli trends regarding Iranian attacks can be summarized as follows:

1. Redefining Iran's deterrence rules:

The Iranian attacks against Israel, which came in retaliation for the bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus in early April, were considered bigger and more complex compared to Iran's response to the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. The latter was the former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force and was killed on January 3, 2020. Therefore, Israel realizes that the Iranian strike was not merely symbolic, but  intended to redefine the mutual deterrence rules between the two sides.

From an Israeli perspective, Tel Aviv's deterrence against Tehran has become ineffective, and the danger lies in the possibility of Iran repeating the attacks using greater firepower. Consequently, there was a conviction in Israel that the response must be direct and within Iranian territory.

2. Tehran's desire to limit military escalation:

Israel realizes that Iran, during its redefinition of deterrence rules, was keen to limit the escalation to avoid a full-blown regional war. Iran could have launched - at the very least - half the number of missiles and drones it did without depleting its long-range military assets. Moreover, Iranian attacks focused on the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel. The strikes avoided cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa as targeting them would have likely resulted in Israeli civilian casualties.

Perhaps more importantly, Iran did not push Hezbollah to join its recent attack on Israel. From a military standpoint, Hezbollah's involvement would have impacted the effectiveness of Israel’s air defenses and could have triggered a full-scale war with Israel. Tehran would therefore not play the Hezbollah card unless there were existential threats to the Iranian regime. Consequently, Israel struck back with an equal amount of force, without provoking Tehran.

3. Success of Israel's defensive strategy:

Israel's ability to intercept 99% of Iranian missiles and drones, according to official statements, was considered a huge success for its defensive strategy including its air defense systems. Additionally, Israel succeeded in operating within the framework of a Western military partnership including the United States, Britain, and France, which may pave the way for strengthening this defense alliance in confronting Iranian military practices. This success has likely created a sense of satisfaction within Israel and its military establishment, reducing pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu's government regarding the necessity of immediate retaliatory responses.

4. Israel’s political gains:

Although Israeli experts believe that the Iranian attacks inherently conveyed dangerous messages, their overall assessment suggests that Tel Aviv achieved numerous political gains from them. Israel Defense Forces showcased themselves as a strong institution capable of countering external threats. Also, Tel Aviv broke out of the relative isolation it had experienced amid international calls for a ceasefire. Additionally, there was a shift in the stance of the U.S. Congress, with the House of Representatives voting on April 20 for a wide-ranging aid package for Israel totaling around $26 billion. In this context, Israeli military theorist, Brig. Gen. (res.) Eran Ortal concluded that Iran gave Israel its first strategic achievement in this war. Prime Minister Netanyahu recognized these gains and did not want to jeopardize them. Additionally, Netanyahu did not want to upset Washington after President Biden informed him that the US would not support any Israeli retaliatory strike against Iran. This led the Israel PM to opt for a "limited symbolic strike."

Potential Israeli Moves

Although they remain limited in scope, Israel and Iran’s recent series of strikes and counter-strikes are poised for escalation. It is not certain that Israel will be satisfied with its attack on Isfahan, and Iran may not necessarily refrain from responding again.

In this context, Israel has three primary options for military action in the near future, whether to curb Iran’s military power or to respond to a new Iranian retaliatory attack, as follows:

1. All-out escalation:

It is not unlikely that Israel could launch direct military strikes against Iran, targeting Revolutionary Guard Corps’ bases or economic assets such as oil fields. Regardless of the intensity of such strikes or the losses they incur, they could mark the beginning of  wide-ranging military escalation— potentially leading to  a ground confrontation with Hezbollah in northern Israel.

This option would be in compliance with Israelis who believe that the Iranian attacks, even if non-lethal, usher in a new phase of escalation between Israel and Iran. In this scenario,  Tel Aviv is vulnerable to Iran's military arsenal and curbing the latter’s threat would also limit the threat posed by Hezbollah, Hamas and Yemen’s Houthi group.

Netanyahu might opt for this scenario if the situation deteriorates further in Gaza or the northern front, with extremist members of his cabinet increasing political pressure on him. Additionally, Israeli-American relations may worsen in the lead-up to such an escalation.

2. Continuing the “campaign-between-wars” strategy:

This option entails conducting cyberattacks on Iran’s critical infrastructure or accelerating small-scale attacks including assassinations. This is a scenario that the Israeli military is seriously preparing for. On April 16, Israel conducted a drill in which both combat and cyber and technology forces deployed throughout the North, on all fronts, to simulate an all-out hybrid, digital, and kinetic war.

It should be noted that Israel started to carry out its “campaign-between-wars” military campaign against Iran and its proxies in 2013. Known in Hebrew by the acronym “mabam”, this strategy involves a mix of military and non-military tactics. The latter are systematically used to reduce the adversary's capabilities while improving Israel's position in any future war with it.

3. Intensifying attacks on Iran's proxies:

This option involves a limited military operation against Hezbollah in the north, possibly accompanied by intensified airstrikes on Iranian military concentrations in Syria. Although Israeli military circles say that the army was already planning an operation on the northern front to undermine Hezbollah's military arsenal, Israel could promote it as a response to the Iranian strike. Particularly if it decides to carry out this operation in the summer of 2024, according to Israeli reports leaked weeks ago.

These reports suggest that Israeli military leaders believe that the greatest threat facing the country comes from Hezbollah, not Tehran, because of its massive arsenal and proximity to Israeli borders. According to Israeli military estimates, Tel Aviv will not be able to manage a direct military conflict with Tehran before it undermines Hezbollah's military capabilities.

Overall, the past six months since the start of the Israeli war on Gaza, have proved that all escalation scenarios are on the tableWhat some considered only weeks ago a distant possibility is now closer to reality. As long as the war on Gaza continues and Israel's confrontations with Iran and its proxies persist, the security landscape in the region remains prone to explosion at any time.