Iran-Israel “Shadow War” Risks Spinning Out of Control
Iran-Israel “Shadow War” Risks Spinning Out of Control
Iran-Israel - conflict alert
Emergency personnel extinguish a fire caused by a strike on the Iranian consulate in Syria's capital Damascus on 1 April 2024. LOUAI BESHARA / AFP
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Iran-Israel “Shadow War” Risks Spinning Out of Control

Iran and Israel are trading threats and counter-threats following the 1 April strike, attributed to Israel, on the Iranian consulate in Damascus. It is imperative that both sides avoid further escalation – or an all-out Middle East conflagration could result.

The 1 April airstrike, attributed to Israel, that killed several members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including senior commanders, at the Iranian consulate in Damascus could transform the years-long “shadow war” between Israel and Iran into open and all-out regional conflict. In the succeeding days, the leadership in Tehran has been warning that it will take revenge, trading threats and counter-threats with Israel over retaliatory action that U.S. and allied intelligence agencies believe is indeed forthcoming.

Tensions between Iran and Israel have been building for years. In Syria, Israel has been conducting an active military campaign its strategists call “the war between the wars”, targeting Iranian arms shipments, some of which are headed to Lebanon, and Iranian-linked personnel; the Damascus strike was the latest in a series of operations since late 2023 against members of the Revolutionary Guards and its Qods Force. It has also carried out repeated covert actions to impair Iran’s nuclear program, military facilities and energy infrastructure; and exchanged tit-for-tat attacks with Iran on the high seas and in cyberspace. Iran, meanwhile, for whose government hostility to Israel is a core revolutionary tenet, has long supported a variety of militias that Israel views with concern. Iran has long armed and trained Hamas; it applauded the group’s deadly 7 October 2023 attack in southern Israel. It has endorsed actions on multiple fronts against Israel and its chief external backer, the United States – by Yemen’s Houthis, Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Islamic Resistance in Iraq and Syria – over the course of the subsequent conflict in Gaza, while also reportedly funnelling arms into the West Bank. 

Brinkmanship between these two arch-foes threatens to turn the “war between wars” into a direct confrontation.

Against the backdrop of the Gaza conflict, now in its seventh month, brinkmanship between these two arch-foes threatens to turn the “war between wars” into a direct confrontation. Iran’s leadership has typically sought to maintain what Iranian officials call “strategic patience” in response to past attacks, countering nuclear sabotage with redoubled nuclear expansion and strikes upon its senior commanders with deeper commitment to strengthening the capabilities of its non-state allies in the region. Some in Tehran warn of an escalatory trap, whereby an attack in retaliation for the consulate strike could see the Islamic Republic squaring off against not only Israel, but also the U.S., which has vowed publicly to defend Israel; others contend that Iran’s adversaries will interpret failure to respond to this latest in a long line of targeted operations as weakness, thus bringing further, even more significant Israeli attacks.

Yet the risk of miscalculation is increasing, and the implications could be profound. An attack by Iranian forces on Israel, especially a direct one, is likely to invite an escalatory response in the form of Israeli reprisal. Israeli officials have made clear that Israel would reciprocate in kind to a direct targeting of its territory. Washington is unlikely to sit idly by, either, regardless of its disagreements with Israel over Gaza. In other words, Iranian action, even if conceived in Tehran as calibrated in nature and limited in scope, could quickly spark a wider confrontation involving each side’s respective allies.

It is imperative that both sides, with encouragement and pressure from their partners, avoid a major escalation or at least contain it in time and scope. Even if they succeed in doing so on this occasion, the continuation of the war in Gaza is pushing the Middle East closer to the cliff, a catastrophic scenario in which everyone will lose.

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