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Direct military confrontation between Iran and Israel, a historic turning point

By launching a direct offensive on Israeli territory on 13 April, Iran has taken a historic step. After more than 40 years of indirect destabilisation and the use of proxies to carry out its operations against Israel, the Islamic Republic has decided to engage its own capabilities directly. While this decision foreshadowed the start of a regional escalation, Israel’s response in Iran a few days later was not followed by further offensives.

On Saturday 13th April, the Islamic Republic of Iran launched a military operation called ‘True Promise’ against the State of Israel. The attack was swiftly claimed by the Revolutionary Guards Corps: “In response to various crimes of the Zionist regime, including the attack on the Iranian consulate section in Damascus and the martyrdom of some of our country’s military commanders and advisers in Syria, the IRGC air force targeted specific objectives inside the occupied territories, striking them with dozens of missiles and drones”. This announcement was clarified by Iran’s Permanent Representation to the United Nations, which went further by invoking its own perception of respect for international law and the UN Charter: “Conducted on the basis of Article 51 of the UN Charter relating to self-defence, Iran’s military action was in response to the Zionist regime’s aggression against our diplomatic premises in Damascus”.

In the evening, the Lebanese Hezbollah followed in the footsteps of its Iranian ally, claiming responsibility for strikes on the Golan Heights to the north of Israel, while the Yemeni Houthis launched drones in the direction of Israeli territory, in coordination with the Iranian offensive. According to the Ambrey security company, the drones’ potential targets were several Israeli ports.

Beyond the fact that the attack is presented as a simple response to a previous aggression, Teheran wishes to assert what it considers to be its full right since 1979, namely the annihilation of what the regime regularly refers to as the “Zionist entity”. Israel’s strike on Damascus provides an important opportunity to strike directly at Israeli territory, while presenting the operation as a proportionate response. Nevertheless, the operation naturally triggered successive condemnations from numerous States, as well as from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres: “I strongly condemn the grave escalation represented by Iran’s large-scale attack against Israel. I call for an immediate cessation of these hostilities”.

Historically, this military operation marks a turning point in Iran’s diplomatic and strategic positioning. Since the 1979 revolution and the establishment of the government of the Khomeini Islamic Republic, Iran had never claimed responsibility for a direct attack on Israeli territory. The promotion of the destruction of the Jewish state was essentially based on threats and speeches calling for the mobilisation of other players, and when it came to investing military forces, an intermediary allied to Tehran was systematically used, limiting confrontations with Israel to a proxy war. The delivery of arms, funding and logistical assistance to these groups meant that confrontation took place at a distance and limited the risks of Israeli response on Iranian territory, in favour of IDF intervention via proxies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. This procedure meant that the Islamic Republic did not risk committing its conventional forces to a regional conflict and avoided the intervention of an international coalition led by Israel’s Western allies.

The end of the statement by the Iranian Permanent Representation to the United Nations also reflects the uncharted territory involved in the strikes on Israeli territory, and the fear that the United States might take the lead in assisting its ally: “This is a conflict between Iran and the rogue regime of Israel, and the United States MUST STAY AWAY!”

The results of the Iranian strikes

At around 10.30 in the evening, Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hagari confirmed in a televised statement that drones and missiles had been launched from Iran towards Israeli territory. The next day, the Times of Israel reported Tsahal’s information that around 99% of the missiles had been intercepted during the night by air defence systems. An accounting of the equipment used to carry out this offensive was also communicated: 170 drones were identified, none of which were able to enter Israeli airspace, and all of which were shot down before arriving at the borders of the Hebrew State. The same applies to the 30 cruise missiles, 25 of which were destroyed directly by the Israeli air force. Finally, of the 120 ballistic missiles used by Tehran, Daniel Hagari confirms that “Many of them were shot down by the Arrow long-range air defence system”. This system, co-developed by the United States and Israel, which targets and eliminates short- and medium-range missiles, has enabled the Israeli defence system, among others, to demonstrate near-perfect effectiveness.

The damage suffered ultimately amounted to serious injuries sustained by a 7-year-old girl in an Israeli Bedouin village, as well as minor material damage reported in military infrastructures in the south of the country. However, these consequences, although considered minimal, are not proportional to the scale of the Iranian attack, which according to some regional media was the largest drone offensive in history. So, despite the minor losses suffered by Israel, the offensive represents a turning point in the fragile status quo that existed between the two states.

Diplomatic consequences: Tehran’s failure to isolate Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has made clear his determination to respond to Iran and other actors intending to follow suit: “I have established a clear principle: whoever harms us, we will harm them. We will defend ourselves against any threat, and we will do so calmly and decisively”. This stance is in line with statements made since the Hamas attacks on 7 October 2023. Indeed, the Israeli government’s priority has been to demonstrate to regional players, but also to the international community as a whole, its unfailing commitment to restoring the security of the Israeli population. This position has recently been undermined by the numerous diplomatic pressures emanating in particular from its American ally, which for several weeks has been increasing its demands for a halt to the fighting between Tsahal and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Symbolically stronger than the official declarations, the United States decided on 25 March to abstain from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and the release of hostages held in Gaza.The refusal to approve the resolution was largely justified by the absence of any condemnation of Hamas’ actions in the text, as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pointed out: “This lack of condemnation of Hamas is particularly difficult to understand a few days after the world has once again witnessed horrific acts committed by terrorist groups.” Nevertheless, the US representation in New York did not use its veto power, which caused a certain chill with the Israeli ally.

After the Iranian attacks on 13 April, this dynamic was interrupted and American diplomacy reviewed its positions by reaffirming strong diplomatic and material support: 17 billion dollars in assistance was granted to the Jewish State, as well as 9 billion dollars in humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip for the Palestinian population. The aid to Israel, which was contested within the American Democratic Party, was nevertheless approved by President Joe Biden. So, from a diplomatic point of view, the Iranian offensive has prompted the United States to reaffirm its support and investment in the region.

For Iran, the advantages of such an attack, even taking into account Israel’s defence capabilities, are manifold. On the one hand, if the possibility of directly hitting and weakening Israel always proved beneficial in Teheran’s eyes, the scenario of an ineffective offensive could also have been fruitful, as it minimises Iran’s responsibility for such an attack in the eyes of other states, and pushes the Israeli government to react in one way or another to such a large-scale attack. The main advantage is undoubtedly to damage Israel’s image and take advantage of the context of the war with Hamas, while continuing to apply military pressure with the help of the ‘Axis of Resistance’ allies. From this point of view, the American rapprochement with Israel has proved to be a major failure in Iran’s strategy to isolate its regional enemy.

On the other hand, taking into account the internal Iranian security context characterised by numerous attacks on its own territory and claimed by various forces opposed to the Islamic Republic, the opportunity of such an operation enables the regime at national level to strengthen its legitimacy and to reposition itself at the forefront of resistance to ‘Western oppression’. This desire to boost the image of Iran’s military capabilities was expressed by Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Mohammed Bagheri, who welcomed the offensive: “This operation has demonstrated a new level of the Islamic Republic’s defence authority to the international community”.

Beyond Western aid, Saudi and Jordanian support

Another factor that suggests that the Iranian offensive was a failure is the cooperation of several states in neutralising the strikes. In fact, in addition to all the defence systems used by Tsahal, a number of neighbouring or allied states provided military assistance to shoot down the missiles and drones heading towards Israel.

At the forefront of this support is, unsurprisingly, Washington, whose United States Central Command, responsible for American operations in the Middle East, has announced that it has destroyed around 80 drones. The United Kingdom, whose Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had expressed his sympathy and strongly condemned the Iranian attack, announced through its Defence Minister Grant Shapps: “In response to the escalation in the region and in partnership with our allies, the Prime Minister and I have authorised the deployment of additional Royal Air Force assets. RAF jets and tankers will reinforce Operation Shader, the UK’s operation against Daesh in Iraq and Syria.In addition, these aircraft will intercept any air attacks within the range of our existing missions, should the need arise.” Finally, France has also deployed its defence capabilities in the region, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying, “For several years, we have had an air base in Jordan to fight terrorism. Jordanian airspace has been violated… We took our planes off the ground and intercepted what we had to intercept.”

While the assistance of these three states comes as no surprise, the cooperation of Jordan and Saudi Arabia should be highlighted. A number of missiles that had crossed Jordanian airspace and were heading for the city of Jerusalem were shot down by Jordanian fighters. Three days later, on 16 April, Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi sought to temper comments supporting the idea that Jordan was providing active assistance to Israel: “And let me be very clear: we will do the same, whatever the origin of these drones. From Israel, Iran or anyone else. Our priority is to protect Jordan and Jordanian citizens.” This statement enables Jordan to maintain a balanced position, and to avoid potential challenges from states hostile to Israel. What’s more, since the start of Israel’s military operation in Gaza, the Hashemite Kingdom has been a central player in the waves of protest against the Israeli government, as Queen Rania has repeatedly condemned the Hebrew State: “This is a slow-motion mass murder of children that has been going on for five months. Children who were thriving and healthy just a few months ago are dying before their parents eyes.”Despite the firm positions illustrated by these declarations, the aid provided by Jordan during the Iranian attack indicates a desire to re-establish a certain regional stability, while calling for an end to the fighting in Gaza. Despite a complex diplomatic context with neighbouring Israel, the government’s priority remains to minimise Iran’s potential for belligerence and avoid an escalation that would affect the whole region.

For Saudi Arabia, cooperation has meant the use of defence systems programmed to shoot down projectiles entering Saudi airspace. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which officially normalised its relations with Iran on 10 March 2023 under the aegis of China, is also maintaining a posture of balance rather than a desire to cooperate and assist Tehran in its decisions. On the contrary, a potential Saudi-Israeli normalisation was topical before the war in Gaza that broke out on 7 October. However, as the Saudi Foreign Minister indicated last January, Riyadh is calling for a ceasefire to relaunch the process, including recognition of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The Saudi intervention to prevent Iranian missiles from reaching Israeli territory coincides with this position, which does not guarantee any concrete element of normalisation for Israel, but which makes it possible to envisage an evolution in bilateral relations in the future.

For Iran, the first direct offensive on Israel therefore concludes without any major changes in the relations, official or otherwise, that the Sunni states maintain with the Hebrew state, and fosters the mistrust and tensions already present with the latter.

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