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17 April 2024

Israel and Iran’s deadly game

They bet that direct attacks would not lead to a disastrous escalation. The Middle East is now on the brink.

By Jeremy Bowen

Phrases such as “Fortune favours the brave” or “Who dares wins” are not empty. They have stuck for a good reason. To be a successful wartime leader, it helps to have a gambler’s temperament. An appetite for risk can win wars. Risks must be calculated; successful gamblers believe they have systems that work. In the last fortnight or so, the leaders of Israel and Iran have sunk into a tale of two gambles. Neither has stopped the steady slide towards an all-out war in the Middle East. They might have made that slide steeper, and more slippery.

The first throw of the dice was at the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus. It stands on a broad and busy avenue in Mezzeh, a well-to-do district of Syria’s capital, and it is hard not to notice. The main building is a landmark, decorated with elaborately patterned, coloured tiles. I drove past it many times when I was a regular visitor to Damascus before the regime of President Bashar al-Assad – emboldened and much more secure thanks to the support of Russia and Iran – decided to stop issuing visas to foreign journalists who might ask how its powerful allies had helped it destroy its country. The Iranian embassy was on the way to a couple of regular stops for visiting reporters. One was the ministry of information, a gloomy building with a foyer dominated by a dusty, golden bust of the founder of the Syrian regime, Hafez al-Assad. The other, often compulsory after a morale-sapping visit to the ministry, was one of the best shawarma places in Damascus.

On 1 April, Israel destroyed the Iranian consulate, the building next to the tiled, crenelated embassy. The air strike killed at least seven people, among them Israel’s main target that day. He was Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior general in the Quds Force, the foreign-operations branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). His deputy and other top officials were killed alongside him. Zahedi was the senior representative of the IRGC in Syria and Lebanon, responsible for Iran’s relationship not just with the Assad regime but with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Those are two of the most significant spokes in the protective wheel of allies and proxies that Iran likes to call the “axis of resistance”, which made Zahedi a tempting target.

In Israel, one report said the strike was launched by an F-35, the latest American-made warplane. It claimed that the aircraft was somewhere close to the Golan Heights, around 35 miles from Damascus. The Golan is the plateau in southern Syria that was occupied by Israel in 1967, annexed in 1981 and recognised by Donald Trump as Israeli territory in 2019.

I was not far away, reporting for the BBC on the empty towns on Israel’s northern frontier with Lebanon, evacuated for the last six months because of the border war with Hezbollah. In the evenings in those first few days of April, Israeli combat aircraft roared across the sky over the Sea of Galilee and the borderlands with Lebanon and Syria.

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Israel’s gamble was not whether it could kill Zahedi. F-35s do not miss. The gamble was on Iran’s response. Israel took the shot while Zahedi and his team were in the embassy compound. Diplomatic premises are regarded as sovereign territory, akin to home soil.

The assassination was a significant coup for Israel’s intelligence services, which failed dismally in the run-up to 7 October to connect military manoeuvres staged by Hamas with a threat to breach the border, destroy, kill, rape and take hostages. It is hard to know how much Israel thought about the consequences of attacking diplomatic property. Afterwards, government spokespeople said the building had forfeited its diplomatic status because it was being used by the IRGC. The US designates the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, and it has urged its allies, including the UK, to do the same. But the IRGC is also a branch of Iran’s armed forces and it is not unusual for senior generals, visiting an ally, to meet in their country’s embassy. More important than that, Iran regarded it as a diplomatic mission, whatever Israel had decided. When I asked a senior Western diplomat how hard Israel had thought through the consequences of attacking the embassy compound, he said not at all, and quoted the 2,500-year-old saying by the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Iran had already made it clear that it did not want all-out war in the Middle East. It is possible that Israel conflated those signals with Iran’s past responses to assassinations and drew the wrong conclusions. General Zahedi was not the first senior IRGC commander to be killed by Israel since the 7 October attacks; Israel views the IRGC as the puppet master and financier of Hamas. Until Zahedi, one of Israel’s top scalps had been Razi Mousavi, a prominent Quds Force commander, in an air strike near Damascus on 25 December 2023. Following Mousavi’s death, Iran said Israel would suffer but did not launch serious reprisals.

Another key factor might have been the example of a US assassination in Iraq in January 2020. A US drone attacked a car carrying Qasem Soleimani, the IRGC’s top general, as he left Baghdad airport with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the senior commander of Iraq’s Shia militias. Both men, and their bodyguards, were blown to pieces. Soleimani was identified by a distinctive red ring on his severed hand. He was the man who had done more than any other to create and maintain the network of allies and proxies that comprise Iran’s axis of resistance. Soleimani was such a crucial part of Iran’s foreign networks that many people in the region expected a fierce response from Tehran. He was so important that his large red ring was subsequently registered as an Iranian national asset.

But rhetoric aside, Iran’s response was relatively mild. It hit US bases in Iraq with a missile barrage, but made it so clear what was coming that US military personnel were in their bunkers. No Americans were killed, though there were traumatic brain injuries from the impact of the blast. President Trump decided that would be the end of the matter.

Whether Israel calculated the risks of assassinating top IRGC commanders in the consulate in Damascus or simply took advantage of a tip-off and a moment of opportunity, the decision to strike was a disastrous miscalculation. Iran vowed to hit back. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed that Israel “must be punished and shall be punished” for an operation he said was the same as a direct attack on Iranian soil. An edict from the supreme leader counts as a commitment. Israel had gambled that Iran would not retaliate.

Then it was Iran’s turn to gamble. On the night of Saturday 13 April, Iran launched more than 300 drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles at Israel. The onslaught was thwarted by Israel’s powerful air-defence system, helped considerably by US combat aircraft and guided-missile destroyers off the coast. Britain, Jordan and, it seems, France also deployed aircraft, and between them shot down some of the projectiles. It was an impressive display of solidarity by Israel’s allies.

Like Israel, the Iranians pay a great deal of attention to their power to deter. Until the 7 October attacks, Israel had a strong conviction that it was deterring its enemies. Six months into the Middle East war, it is doubtful that Iran was equally complacent. Israel had already attacked and killed Iran’s people in Syria and its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. But any confidence that its deterrent powers were intact must have vanished when Israel did not just kill senior commanders but chose to do it at the diplomatic mission in Damascus.

Iran calibrated its attack on Israel to attempt to restore deterrence, and to show its citizens and allies that it was not intimidated. When Israel was still on high alert, Iran issued a statement at the UN announcing that its response to Israel’s attack “could be deemed concluded”.

It is hard to assess, as many of Iran’s projectiles were shot down before they reached Israeli airspace, but the Iranians seemed to be avoiding cities and mass casualties. The targets appear to have been military. Ofakim base in the Negev desert, where Israel keeps F-35s, was hit by at least one missile that evaded the layers of air defences. Not long afterwards, Israel released video of an F-35 landing there, to show that Ofakim was operational.

The bet was that Israel would agree to draw a line under the incident, as President Trump did in 2020. It was another miscalculation, a gamble that failed, misjudging badly the mood in Israel and of a government that is struggling to deliver its war aims in Gaza. So far Israel has not destroyed Hamas nor freed the surviving hostages taken on 7 October. It is not ready to let Hamas off the hook, and there is no reason to suppose that its attitude towards Iran would be different. Deep in Israel’s DNA, since independence in 1948, is a determination not to turn the other cheek to its enemies. At the very least, it demands an eye for an eye. It needs to show its enemies, now as much as ever, that they need to fear its power and resolve.

It was fanciful to suppose that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, or his generals and his cabinet, would not retaliate against Iran’s first direct attack on Israel in all the years of enmity since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Netanyahu has for decades regarded Iran, not the Palestinians – or anyone else for that matter – as Israel’s most dangerous enemy. Not long after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became Iran’s president in 2005, Netanyahu told me during a visit to the BBC office in Jerusalem that “it’s 1938 and Ahmadinejad is Hitler”. I wasn’t the only one who heard that phrase. In those years it was one of his key points, as Ahmadinejad called for the elimination of what he always called the “Zionist regime”.

As I write this, Israel’s war cabinet is once again in session deciding how it will respond. Joe Biden has urged Netanyahu to “take the win” after the Iranian attack was so comprehensively stopped. The US has said publicly that it will not assist an Israeli attack on Iran. Biden’s love and support for Israel transcends his terrible relationship with Netanyahu. But the American president knows the global dangers of an all-out Middle East war.

Iran’s state media is relaying warnings that it will not stay quiet if Israel attacks. The foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, has said he has told his British counterpart, David Cameron, that Iran will respond instantly and stronger than before if Israel retaliates. The chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, said the Iranian attack on Israel had been “limited” and promised a “far greater” response if Israel retaliated.

Nightmarish predictions are attached to fears of a wider Middle East war. On the West Bank, violence between Palestinians and Jewish settlers, protected by the Israeli army, is spiking. A broader war would include Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia and political movement that is Iran’s strongest ally, and the one located the closest to Israel. While Hezbollah has been exchanging increasingly heavy blows with Israel, both sides know the other could do much more damage.

The Americans have their own fears of being dragged into a wider Middle East war. They have said they will not assist if Israel takes the offensive. But what if Israel is attacked again? What if Israel finds a war on multiple fronts too much to handle? It is hard to believe that Joe Biden’s definition of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security would keep the US on the sidelines.

What will follow are more gambles and calculated risks about responses to military action. Miscalculation and misperception can start wars and escalate existing conflicts. The question is how much room is left for mistakes before the Middle East slides over the edge into something infinitely worse.

Jeremy Bowen is the international editor of BBC News. He is the author of “The Making of the Modern Middle East: A Personal History” (Picador)

This appeared in the 19-25 April issue of the New Statesman magazine

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

[See also: Why Iran’s attack on Israel failed]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran