Neither Israel nor Iran wants a war, but they could blunder into one

Neither country can back down.


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Are Iran and Israel heading to war? That’s the question posed by this week’s New Statesman and one being asked by growing numbers of people following an exchange of hostilities between the two nations along the Israel-Syria border. Iran fired 20 missiles at Israeli military installations on the Golan Heights, although none were successfully hit. In response, Israel launched in excess of 60 missiles at Iranian military installations in Syria, destroying much of Tehran’s military capability in that country and killing at least 20, according to reports.

Although it comes in the same week that Donald Trump ended American participation in the Iran nuclear deal (the accord between Iran, the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and Germany to halt Tehran’s attempts to acquire a nuclear bomb), the attack and counter-attack are not the result of the US president’s actions.

Israel and Iran have been engaging in military tit-for-tat since an armed Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace – it was shot down and the Israeli air force launched a series of bombing raids on Iranian military installations in Syria. The most devastating of the attacks was a strike on the T4 military base last month, in which seven Iranian military officials were killed. Iran’s attack on the Golan Heights was the response.

In addition, Israel is determined to prevent a permanent Iranian presence emerging in Syria, worsening the collision course the two nations are on in the region.

But it’s worth looking at Iran’s attack in detail, which although it fell short of Iranian hopes in failing to hit a single military target, was well below the full extent of the country’s capabilities given its presence in Syria. Ditto, Israel’s response, while a ratcheting up of force in comparison, was again, well below the upper limit of Israel’s abilities. In addition, Israel did not respond to an attack on what it regards as Israeli territory with an attack on Iranian territory.

Why? Because neither side wants a war, or at least not yet. No Israeli prime minister has survived an election following a war and Israel’s military might means it is not straightforward for Iran either.

Instead, both nations are following the well-established pattern for regional and global powers in the Syrian civil war: largely restricting their contact with one another to Syria. Iran and Israel are also doing their best to avoid accidentally involving any of the other powers in Syria: Israel notified Russia of its plan to hit Iranian military installations beforehand.

But just because neither side wants war doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The strategic orthodoxy of the Israeli government is that any attack has to be met with a heavier response than what came before: Israel is a small nation – it is a touch smaller than Wales and has fewer inhabitants than London – and its leaders believe that only the fear of a disproportionate response keeps the nation safe. As Yoav Galant, a minister in the Israeli government, warned in a meeting with journalists arranged for us by the organisation Bicom, a serious attack will result in a reprisal that will take “50 years” to recover from.

And that strategy, coupled with Iran's ambitions for the post-civil war status quo in Syria, could mean that both sides end up in a war that neither wants.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.