Has Iran Played Just Too Smart?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 21 Apr , 2024

The shocking attack of Hamas on Israel had also left enough signatures of intervention of a foreign power in the details of its execution. Israel was definitely never in doubt about the ‘real perpetrators’ as it fought a bloody guerrilla war in dense Gaza. The strike on the Iranian consulate appeared as bait to draw down Iran into direct confrontation. Israel now has this opportunity to ‘justifiably’ strike Iran with a license of retaliation. Fear is it will unlock a massive escalation matrix something the region is not prepared for and not probably even Iran.  

The attack by Hamas on Israel carries signatures of foreign intervention, with Israel pointing fingers at Iran for sponsoring the strike.

The Hogwash

While the fast-moving events in West Asia are being analysed and the world debates the pros and cons of it, more compelling evidence emerges that it might not be an accidental act after all. Now that some indications suggest Israel has initiated some kind of retaliation, the developing crisis is not much about, how much will Israel retaliate. Buy is it a larger play unfolding now, whether or not it becomes a controlled action only time will tell?

To understand the ploy we need to go back to the 7th October 2023, terror strike, that dreaded Saturday wasn’t an accident either and everything is flowing from there. Strangely, many think tanks are analysing the scope of Israeli retaliation, and the ramifications it may have.

Among many seasoned analysts, one global news network decided to bring in a retired IDF officer to explain what options Israel has, the gentlemen ended up explaining small, mid, and large-scale responses. The point is, that Israel will respond and it may not go by the playbook.

Iranians are now in a better position to understand and explain that. No one across the world was ever in doubt who could orchestrate Hamas to pull off such a massive and audacious attack on Israel and neither was Israel. Since day one Israel blamed Iran for actively sponsoring that deadly terror strike, and Iran didn’t even attempt to hide away as it congratulated Hamas in no time.

The Iranian demonstration of such a raw act was unexpected. Soon intelligence started pouring in that indeed Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard had given a final ‘go ahead’ just a week before the D Day. It is suggested that Iranian strategists felt the time had come to up the shadow boxing with Israel, it also demonstrated the overwhelming confidence it had in its multiple proxies.  

Geopolitical Slugfests

Israel was never in doubt about the real force behind the terror strike, it considered Hamas and Hezbollah as mere pawns of the geopolitical slugfests. Though it mounted an immediate strike on Hamas in Gaza, the larger picture was never lost on Israeli planners. Iran had its scripted playbook going till the time Israel continued fighting Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank as it routinely drew critical observations from global leadership.

Israel sees the strike on the Iranian consulate as bait to provoke Iran into direct confrontation, providing Israel with an opportunity for retaliation.

In urban operations as in Gaza, flaws were bound to happen some unintentional and some definitely avoidable. But the dragging urban war in very dense Gaza neighbourhood made Israelis impatient with no sign of hostage release or negotiated ceasefire. The domestic pressure was mounting on PM Netanyahu for a quick hostage release, but there was nothing much to show in the last six months’ of this war.

The extreme challenges of urban warfare, especially fighting a guerrilla war against a hardened enemy in an area which it has prepared over the last three decades, has taken a heavy toll on Israeli forces. Who have started to imagine enemies anywhere and everywhere, that’s the unforgiving character this warfare has. This is also the prime reason why the IDF has been making mistakes like firing on aid seekers. Successfully managing an urban war is not as easy as probably fighting a conventional war, especially on a foreign territory, this fact is known to military leaders.

The history of war is replete with the narration of such losing battles. The classic of them all was the American adventure in Vietnam which resulted in a humiliating retreat. One of the successful counters to such a guerrilla war was by the Indian forces in Kashmir. However, this was possible, only because it was India’s own territory and its own people. That’s not the case of Israel in Gaza, Israel may do whatever but it will have to leave Gaza. That brings everything back to square one and the iteration repeats itself over and over again. Iranians were banking upon such chaos which Israel will be blamed for and bring its operation to a humiliating closure!

Ironic Outcome

This is exactly where things started going out of the storyline, not getting enough operational results Israel sought to expand the combat theatre to punish the ‘actual perpetrators’. Israel wanted to directly attack Iran but advised against it every time. The April 1, 2024, strike on the Iranian consulate was a customized bait for Iran to open a direct confrontation. Iran did bite the bait. Its direct attack on Israel was a clear departure from an unwritten understanding of refraining from overt actions.

The direct attack from Iranian territory onto Israeli soil has handed over a license to Israel to take the fight right where it wanted in the first place. Israel considers Iran as the mother of its troubles where the umbilicals of Hamas and Hezbollah are connected. Not many would carry a divergent view from Israel’s assessment of that.

Israel views Hamas and Hezbollah as proxies in a larger geopolitical struggle, with Iran playing a significant role behind the scenes.

The delay in Israeli response is not for a lack of a decision but to work out maximising the impact and drag Iran into a very difficult conflict as a bonus. Already the US views have shifted from advising Israel ‘not to escalate’ to suggesting a limited scope of direct retaliation. This is not what Iran has planned for but unintentionally slipped into it.

There was strong public opinion in Iran due to the death of Brig Gen Mohammad Reza Zahedi in the Israeli attack. It had left Iran with very limited options but to ‘respond to avenge the assassination of its second Quds Force commander after Major General Qasem Solemani. Since Hamas and Hezbollah both already fighting Israel was stretched and had no capacity to mount a significant operation by itself, the onus fell on Iran.

Iran was fully aware of the strength of Israeli Air Defence, so mounting a limited operation and risking a complete failure would have brought bigger humiliation. That explains the massive scale of strikes, it was not hoping for a spectular outcome, but just as symbolis and to have a limited impact. Whether the scope and scale of the Iranian attack had the complete backing of Russia and China, the other two major players in the region is very doubtful.

Developments indicate otherwise; Firstly, there was a heads-up given to the US and Israel through a third party of the attack; Secondly, the comments from the Kremlin asking all parties to work towards de-escalation reflect Russian unwillingness to have ‘more involvement’ in this conflict, and lastly, quick Iranian announcement the next morning that its operations are ‘concluded’. Just indicating a desire to close this direct duel as early as possible.

The situation is complicated by the involvement of major powers like the US, Russia, and China, with potential implications for broader regional stability.

The Chaos

As Israel contemplates its further action it doesn’t seem to be in a hurry, it would be fully recognising the significance of the current situation. It would also know that a direct military response will not be the last one, and escalation will be inevitable. The Israeli cabinet in most probability would be caliberating their next to next action in this escalation matrix.

While the ball is in Israeli court, Iran faces a bigger quandrum. Should it be attacked by Israel, how will it react? Any hostile exchange now between these two will be qualitatively different than the incidents so far. Israel or Iran each has one single opportunity now, and whoever acts would need to come prepared for the worst-case scenario of a war.

The geopolitical settings for a direct confrontation don’t look very good for Iran. While US has conveyed that it will not be ‘part of’ any offensive against Iran, no such undertaking has been offered to convey that it will not form part of the defense of Israel as well. The US action often becomes a lead for other European powers in the region. The speed with which Western powers ensured Air Defense over Israel shows their prior coordination for such an event. These are unspoken assurances that manifested to their fullest during a live crisis.

Iran doesn’t have this luxury, while its bête noire is assured of support in strengthening its defensive war posture and canexploit all resources towards its offensive plans. Some theory suggests Iran has the tacit support of Russia and China, but even assuming that to be true, it doesn’t reflect an all-out commitment as demonstrated time and again by the US for Israel. The timing of this conflict makes Russian backing relatively weak as it is itself heavily committed in the Ukrainian theatre.

Some Western reports have suggested that Russia has been banking upon Iranian assets for its ongoing war. This makes Russia sparing its critical resources for the Iranian conflict highly suspect. On the other hand, expecting China to do anything beyond favourable noise will be too much at this juncture. China definitely did not have an active role in this game and at the level required. Chinese know a full-fledged support to Iran would imply a dangerous confrontation with the US and its allies.

China is known to be a loudmouth with little substance, it will never risk such a thing. But whateverless than that would keep the Iranian state highly vulnerable. The situation affords Israel to carry out a revenge strike not just for April 14 but to keep the initiative for even broadening the scope. The question that is now bewildering for many is has Iran played just too smart this time?  

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Ravi Srivastava

experienced in security and geopolitics, contributes to national publications and newspapers. His articles can be accessed on the popular blog site, focusing on geo-strategic affairs.

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