The Israel-Iran Crisis: A Chance to Step Back from the Brink
The Israel-Iran Crisis: A Chance to Step Back from the Brink
An image grab from AFPTV footage shows Jordanian onlookers and security agents standing around the debris of a missile intercepted over Amman amid an unprecedented Iranian drone and missile attack on Israel in the early hours of April 14, 2024
An image grab from AFPTV footage shows Jordanian onlookers and security agents standing around the debris of a missile intercepted over Amman amid an unprecedented Iranian drone and missile attack on Israel in the early hours of April 14, 2024. Ahmad SHOURA / AFP
Statement / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

The Israel-Iran Crisis: A Chance to Step Back from the Brink

Israel and its allies fended off almost all the armed drones and missiles fired by Iran on 13 April. This outcome affords both sides a face-saving way out of what could otherwise be a ruinous broader confrontation. 

On 13 April, following days of threats, Iran unleashed a massive aerial barrage aimed at Israeli military sites. The unprecedented flurry of armed drones and missiles, Iran said, was its riposte for an Israeli strike twelve days earlier on its Damascus consulate that killed several senior members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In the interim, Israel had warned explicitly that it would respond in kind to a direct Iranian counterstrike. As Israel now weighs what to do, the rules of engagement between the two bitter adversaries are being rewritten in perilous ways. Still, further escalation is not inevitable. All sides are now in a position to step back from confrontation. They should do so. 

Iran framed its barrage, dubbed Operation True Promise, as a calibrated response to Israel’s attack. It fired more than 300 drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, though the vast majority were intercepted by multilayered Israeli and allied air defences; according to the Israeli military, only a handful of missiles managed to penetrate Israeli airspace, and even fewer landed, causing minor damage at a military base, an injury and no fatalities. Israel and the U.S. have expressed satisfaction that, due to careful planning, they almost entirely thwarted an assault that could otherwise have proven devastating. The outcome reflects extensive coordination among U.S. partners in the Middle East, who provided both direct and indirect support in shooting down most of the drones and missiles. It may also indicate quiet efforts by both Tehran and Washington to keep the escalation in check; Iran gave the U.S. and Israel ample time to prepare for the event and seems to have trained its fire in ways that – for all the risks – seemed intended more to make a point than to inflict damage. 

In Tehran, officials are casting the result very differently, touting it as a “victory”, on the grounds that Iran tackled head on a much more powerful foe it has previously preferred to confront indirectly, perhaps setting a precedent for more destructive operations in the future. Iranian officials seek to reestablish a degree of deterrence against Israel, viewing its Damascus strike as violating the tenuous rules of the “shadow war” the two sides have been fighting for years. Now, they assert that they will hit back harder should Israel hit any Iranian target anywhere. Next time, they add, the retort may not be so measured and telegraphed. Nor is it clear what their ally Hizbollah in Lebanon – which has long-range rockets and precision-guided missiles capable of striking deep within Israel in a matter of minutes – might do. 

In Israel, speculation about how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will proceed has been rampant since the moment Iran’s fleet of projectiles took to the skies. Israel is determined to respond. Its goal – like Iran’s – is ostensibly to restore deterrence, sending a clear message to Tehran that an attack on its soil will incur sufficient costs to be an unattractive option, but without triggering a regional war. Yet, in deciding exactly how to respond, Israel faces a dilemma: on one hand, having fended off the Iranian attack, it has room to respond in a tempered way or not at all – as the U.S. and other Israeli partners have emphasised. But, on the other hand, targeting Iranian military assets or members outside Iranian soil – in Syria, for example – may seem like returning to the sort of constrained operations that Israel has been engaging in for years and therefore, in the military’s view, lack sufficient deterrence value. Also, because Iran attacked Israel directly from its territory, an unprecedented act that paralysed the entire country with fear, Israel might feel compelled to make a reciprocal statement by openly striking Iran itself. It has done so before, but largely covertly. Netanyahu’s domestic political calculations are also at play here, as he has a clear interest in prolonging and even expanding Israel’s war effort to divert attention from legal and political challenges that might cause him to lose his grip on power. 

But other factors in the Israeli calculus point in the other direction. Beyond weighing how Iran could retaliate for a strike, and whether Hizbollah would join it in doing so, Israel must consider whether it is prepared to bear the consequences. In addition to its six-month offensive in Gaza, which has achieved neither its goal of toppling Hamas nor its other goal of returning the hostages taken on 7 October 2023, Israel is fighting a limited war with Hizbollah, which has escalated incrementally in recent months, and taking occasional fire from Iran-backed groups in Iraq, Yemen and Syria. In the West Bank, tensions are on the rise as settler violence increases and more troops are deployed than in Gaza. With the country’s army overstretched, its economy strained by months of mobilising reservists and its international standing dented by the scale of suffering in Gaza, Israel’s leaders may wonder how much more near-term risk they want to take on. 

Still another consideration is how to respond in a way that does not alienate the countries that just came to its defence, chief among them the U.S., especially in light of the condemnation and increasing isolation Israel was experiencing for its destruction of Gaza until just a few days ago. The U.S. has urged Israel not to respond or to do so in a restrained manner. Israel might see this moment as a time to build on the direct and indirect cooperation it received from the U.S. and other regional actors on 13 April in developing a longer-term strategy for how to deal with the Iranian threat. Taking another cut at Tehran and risking the region’s dwindled stability in the process could squander that opportunity. Conversely, Iranian decision-makers, having already made one major gamble, should not double down if their efforts to deter Israel fail to forestall a limited response. 

Difficult as it is to step back from an escalatory spiral – all the more so given the scale of Iran’s 13 April attack – Israel is in a position to do so. Through calculation, preparation and a degree of luck, the major players in this crisis have thus far preserved a face-saving way out. Iran can claim that it made Israel pay a price for crossing the red line of attacking the consulate; Israel can claim that it warded off the Iranian drones and missiles and press its diplomatic advantage; and the U.S. can claim that it deterred Iran and defended Israel while averting wider hostilities. These might seem like slim pickings, particularly for the Israeli government, but another series of strikes and counterstrikes risks triggering a ruinous escalation not only for the protagonists but also for the wider region.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.