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An indelicate balance: Israel and Iran exchange blows


The calculus of terror and violence has been something of an unspoken rule in Middle Eastern politics for some decades. Massacre, bombings, targeted killings; the activities of militant, fundamentalist groups; sectarian and religious retribution.

For all that, the major powers of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia have kept a restraint on their hostile engagements. Preference has been given to battle waged via proxies, with aid supplied with some remove. Conflicts have taken place, but through a gauze film preventing a major military confrontation between the states. Israel, for instance, has preferred to wage what has been described as a ‘campaign between the wars’ with its foes, notably Iran. This campaign between the wars (or CBW, as it has come to be known) ‘developed into an extensive campaign in physical and geographical terms and was anchored in the IDF operations approach, with far-reaching strategic ramifications.’

Since 2013, the Israeli focus vis-à-vis Iran lay in interdicting and stifling the flow of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah and the judicious targeting of storage facilities. As Haid Haid of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme remarks, ‘Israel appeared to avoid, whenever feasible, killing Hezbollah or Iranian operatives during these operations.’  All things considered, such measures have been unevenly successful: Hezbollah, no longer a ragtag army of God, is now one of the most heavily armed of Israel’s foes.

The retributive, punishing attack on Gaza by the Israeli Defence Forces in response to the Hamas attacks of October 7 has threatened to upset the applecart. Called the Swords of Iron war, it increasingly draws in other powers. It has enlivened border skirmishes on the Lebanon border that have left almost 400 Lebanese dead and some 90,000 displaced civilians, and emboldened the rebel Houthis of Yemen, who insist on targeting Israeli commercial shipping and those friendly to Israel in the Red Sea. Military experts from the Institute for National Security Studies based in Tel Aviv warn that threats from the north posed by Iranian-backed groups such as Hezbollah, ‘will have to be addressed sooner or later.’

On April 1, an Israeli air strike on Iranian offices in Syria suggested that calculated restraint had been finally abandoned. The attack on Iran’s consular offices in Damascus was tantamount to striking Iranian soil. In the process, it left 12 Iranians dead, including Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi and other commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including Zahedi’s deputy, General Haji Rahimi. Retaliation was promised, with Iran’s ambassador to Syria, Hossein Akbari, vowing a response ‘at the same magnitude and harshness’.

On April 13, Tehran deployed an assortment of weapons against Israel proper, involving 185 drones, 110 ballistic missiles and 36 cruise missiles. The measure was condemned by Israel’s allies, with little or no reference made to Israel’s own reckless attack on Iran’s diplomatic mission.  But two things stood out from the strike: the minimum damage it caused in terms of military returns, with the missiles and drones shot down before reaching their targets; and the 72 hours’ notice given by Iran to neighbouring countries and the United States of the imminent strike.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, for instance, noted that it had spoken to diplomats in Washington and Tehran, and that the latter’s ‘reaction would be a response to Israel’s attack on its embassy in Damascus and that it would not go beyond this. We were aware of the possibilities.’ 


'The recent military engagements between Iran and Israel are a salutatory reminder that the war in Gaza is both incendiary and viral.'


Washington, for its part, claims that no such forewarning was given. ‘They did not given a notification,’ insisted an unnamed senior official from the Biden administration, ‘nor did they give any sense of … “these will be the targets, so evacuate them.”’ This seems implausible given that officials in Turkey, Jordan and Iraq were warned, and admitted as much, and would hardly not have shared that information with their US counterparts.

Some of Israel’s rhetoric was hot blooded. National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir demanded a ‘crushing’ counterattack and the abandonment of all measures of ‘restraint and proportionality’. Such notions, he argued, had been buried by the horrific events of October 7.

The more moderate Benny Gantz, who is a voting member of the war cabinet alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, preferred a ‘regional coalition’ to ‘exact the price from Iran, in the way and at the time that suits us. And most importantly, in the face of the desire of our enemies to harm us, we will unite and become stronger.’ According to Gantz, the immediate priorities were securing the release of Israeli hostages still in the hands of Hamas ‘and the removal of the threat against the residents of the north and south.’

The Biden administration was also very public on a measured response. ‘You got a win,’ President Joe Biden is reported to have told Netanyahu. ‘Take the win.’ US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also expressed the view that, ‘Strength and wisdom must be the two sides of the same coin.’

During the early hours of April 19, Israel issued its return serve with a missile strike on an S-300 air-defence system at an airfield located in Isfahan. There had been whirring speculation that a strike on facilities connected with Iran’s nuclear program was in the offing, but images released by BBC Verify suggested otherwise.

The recent military engagements between Iran and Israel are a salutatory reminder that the war in Gaza is both incendiary and viral. In a sense, Ben Gvir’s dark reflections about abandoning restraint and proportionality in the conflict have played out. How unfortunate, then, that such an abandonment was initiated, to a large extent, by Israel’s own military solution.




Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University. 

Main image: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men observe missile debris  near the city of Arad on April 30, 2024 in Arad, Israel. The missile debris resulted from Iran's aerial barrage on April 13, when the country launched a reported 170 drones and over 150 missiles at the country and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Israel, Iran, Middle East, Conflict



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Existing comments

The situation between Iran and its proxies and Israel and its main supporter, the USA, is connected to the situation of the Palestinians, which has global support, including amongst some elite universities, both here and in the wider Western world. It is a very complex situation. Who knows where it will end? One hopes for peace, despite everything.

Edward Fido | 07 May 2024  

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