A new wall mural is displayed at Palestine Square picturing Iran's attack on Israel in Tehran, Iran on April 14, 2024. Haydar Sahin / Anadolu (Photo by Haydar Sahin / ANADOLU / Anadolu via AFP)

Iran-Israel Tensions Emerge from the Shadows – Council Views

Middle East Council experts analyze the implications of the exchange of strikes between Iran and Israel for the ongoing war on Gaza.

April 23, 2024

On April 13, Iran attacked Israel directly for the first time in its history, retaliating for Israel’s killing of three top Iranian commanders in Damascus on April 1. Israel has since responded with a limited strike, and the United States and its allies imposed expanded sanctions on Iran. Middle East Council scholars examine the implications of these developments for the Middle East and the outlook of the increasingly regionalized war on Gaza.


Washington’s Israel Policy Is Fueling Regional Escalation  

Omar H. Rahman 

Although the Biden administration appears keen to avoid a full-scale regional war, it bears much of the responsibility for the recent direct confrontation between Israel and Iran through its own failed policy approach since October 7. By offering Israel unconditional support to carry out an ill-defined war of elimination against Hamas, the U.S. has allowed Israel carte blanche to wage a much broader war of elimination against Gaza and its civilian population, which has fueled regional unrest. Instead of addressing the source of tensions by reining in Israel, the U.S. has sought to deter other parties from intervening through military force, leading to direct confrontations across the region and fanning the flames of war.  

As a result, Israel’s onslaught on Gaza has come to be viewed in genocidal terms. Moreover, Israel has gone on the offensive in the region and struck its adversaries in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, often using the regional context to divert attention from mounting concern over its actions in Gaza, or to rally its allies to its defense when support appears to be wavering.  

The recent escalation between Israel and Iran arises from these conditions, in which the risk of full-scale war is ever-present. The United States appears to be playing into this and allowing Israel to dictate terms—a dangerous approach that risks American interests and regional stability. 


Russia Gains from Regional Tensions, But Not Full-Scale War 

Galip Dalay 

Anything short of a full-fledged war between state actors in the Middle East serves Russian interests. First, the ongoing war on Gaza diverts international focus away from the Ukraine invasion. Second, Iran-Israel tensions can magnify the divide between the West and the rest of the world, further delegitimizing the Western-led international order. Plus, in the Western imagination and discourse, the Ukraine invasion is held to a different standard than analogous crises, such as the invasion of Iraq, the Balkan wars, and the occupation of Palestine. The proliferation of wars and crises worldwide, as are the case with the Gaza invasion and the Iran-Israel confrontation, undermines the previously prominent depiction of the Ukraine War as “the war.” 

Third, for Russia, the U.S. withdrawing from, or becoming bogged down in, the Middle East are both positive outcomes, with the latter more likely considering recent events. Fourth, the Ukraine war has redefined Russia’s relations with regional powers, including with Iran, to Moscow’s disadvantage. The more Russia was squeezed on the battlefield in Ukraine, the more its hands were weakened when it came to dealing with these regional actors. The Gaza invasion and Iran-Israel tension increase Tehran’s need for regional and international partners, hence partially restrengthening Moscow’s hands in its relations with Tehran. Finally, the revisionist and anti-systemic nature of Iran’s foreign policy appeals to Russia, as it seeks to undermine the U.S.-led global order.   

Prior to October 7, Moscow maintained good ties with Iran, Arab states in the Gulf, Türkiye, and Israel, but now Russia’s relations with Tel Aviv have become fraught. A war between Tehran and Tel Aviv would strain Moscow’s ability to speak to all sides and would put pressure on Iran’s presence in regional conflict zones, not least in Syria. Moscow would be hard-pressed under current conditions to shift resources from Ukraine to Syria to fill any emerging void there. In short, Russia can benefit from rising tensions in the Middle East, but not from an all-out war between Iran and Israel. 


Iran Wants Deterrence, Not War 

Hamidreza Azizi 

Iran’s decision to abandon its “strategic patience” policy toward Israel was primarily triggered by a shift in Israel’s approach to their longstanding conflict. Traditionally, the confrontation between Iran and Israel occurred within a “shadow war” framework, where Israel engaged in indirect actions such as covert operations and targeted assassinations of Iranian military figures. In response, Iran typically used regional proxies, avoiding direct engagement. 

This approach allowed for a degree of plausible deniability and strategic flexibility. However, Israel’s direct attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1, using fighter jets, marked a significant departure from previous tactics. Tehran perceived this overt act as a deliberate escalation by Israel, challenging the established rules of engagement and necessitating a direct response. 

The targeting of senior IRGC commanders within the Iranian consulate prompted debates in Tehran about the necessity of a serious response to deter Israel from expanding the scope of its campaign against Iran. Although Iran’s retaliatory attack was significant, the planning and execution indicated that Tehran was still not seeking an outright war with Israel. This was evidenced by Iran’s notifications to its Arab neighbors, who say they warned the U.S. beforehand, leading to a high state of preparedness that enabled the interception of most of the drones and missiles. 

Overall, Iran’s attack, while significant, aimed to reassert deterrence without escalating to a full-scale war. The official Iranian stance afterward was that the matter was concluded, indicating a desire to restore balance without going into war. Even after an Israeli strike in Isfahan on April 19, Iranian authorities and media downplayed the incident, signaling an intention to avoid further escalation unless provoked by a significant Israeli offensive that would cause human fatalities or serious infrastructural damage. 


Iran-Israel Attacks: A Strategic Dilemma  

Adel Abdel Ghafar 

Israel and Iran have been engaged in a clandestine war for years, and now this war has come out into the open. The latest attacks have created a tough strategic dilemma for GCC states: Is Israel, and its assault on Gaza, more destabilizing for the region, or are Iran and its proxies the main strategic threat?  

As always, the answer to that question differs between GCC states. While all Gulf monarchies warned the U.S. not to launch strikes on Iran from their territory and airspace, reports indicated that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan helped Israel defend itself against the Iranian attack. This signals that Iran, more than Israel, remains a strategic threat to a number of regional countries.  

Washington has long advocated for a regionally integrated defense alliance that brings together Arab states with Israel—the so-called Arab NATO. However, countries in the region have so far avoided such an alliance, given their diverging threat perceptions and perspective on the ongoing Israeli onslaught on Gaza. While the Arab NATO concept has not taken off, the UAE and Bahrain went ahead with normalization with Israel via the Abraham Accords and have deepened economic and security cooperation with Israel. The Biden administration is reportedly making a fresh push for a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, which would further align Arab states with Israel against Iran. Any such deal would likely put Saudi’s own normalization with Iran from last year at risk.  

Ultimately, the attacks are further narrowing the ability of regional states to maneuver, and any further escalation may force them to answer the question of who is more of a menace to the region: Israel or Iran?   


Iran’s Revisionist Foreign Policy in Action 

Shahram Akbarzadeh 

Iran’s missile and drone operation against Israel was a response to the targeting of its consulate in Damascus, and framed in terms of the right of self-defense as per article 51 of the UN Charter. Still, it was an unprecedented step for a leadership that has refrained from direct confrontation with Israel in the past, despite intense rhetorical hostility and support for proxy actors that engage Israel. For Iran, the strike on its consulate crossed a threshold and required an equally brazen response. This meant breaking with past practice and activating Iran’s deterrence mechanism. Iranian authorities would have surely expected backlash from the U.S. and some European states but felt not responding to the Israeli attack carried too high a price in term of Iran’s deterrence credibility and standing among its many allies in the “Axis of Resistance.”  

Iran’s failure to secure a UNSC condemnation of Israel due to objections from the U.S. and UK, and the subsequent U.S. announcement regarding new sanctions on Iran in relation to Iran’s retaliation, reinforces the Iranian narrative that the international system is broken. Iran will wear new sanctions as a badge of honor. From its early days, the Islamic Republic has espoused the idea that the international system and its many institutions serve the interests of the U.S. and its allies to the detriment of the rest. Iran’s revisionist outlook on international affairs has gained force as Moscow and Beijing have been at increasing odds with Washington. Iran’s leadership sees this as an opportunity to advance its anti-U.S. agenda, while its sanction-busting strategy benefits from the polarization of the world and the erosion of U.S. ability to keep many of its Arab allies in the Gulf in line with its policies.  

This is clearly a new phase in Iran-Israel hostilities. Israel’s retaliation could lead to an intensification in regional hostility toward Israel and possibly the U.S. It could also pose challenges for Iran’s internal stability, as open hostilities with Israel could serve as the spark for another eruption of public turmoil amid widespread domestic discontent.  


Iran’s Attack May Backfire 

Ranj Alaaldin

Iran’s drone and missile attack on Israel—the first since the 1979 Islamic revolution—upended the previous rules of engagement that confined Iran’s war with Israel to Syria and Iraq. In response, Israel launched an unprecedented airstrike deep within Iranian territory. Although no nuclear sites were damaged, this demonstrated Israel’s capacity to target them if it chooses. These are game-changing attacks that bring the two countries closer to a full-scale war.  

The notion that the two countries could limit their tit-for-tat military conflict to targets outside of their territories was unrealistic, given heightened tensions in the wider region since October 7. It is highly unlikely that they will go back to a shadow conflict. Israel can continue to draw on Iran’s brazen action to widen the scope and scale of further retaliations within Iran and against its proxy groups in the region. Israel will also likely have wider international support for such operations than in the past. It could seek to capitalize on this with marked impact, both militarily and diplomatically. On that basis, Iran may have shot itself in the foot.  

Iran has so far played down Israel’s attack in Isfahan, which indicates Tehran’s apprehensions over an extended, direct conflict. Iran also hopes this will divert international attention back onto the war in Gaza, which it has instrumentalized with great effect and exploited to re-assert the dominance of its proxies, most notably in Yemen and Iraq. Such groups, especially Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have their own ability to strike Israel. The road ahead is paved with uncertainties and unintended consequences, and regional security is likely to get much worse before it gets any better. 


Threat of Regional War Impacts Ongoing Conflicts 

Özge Genç 

The most recent Iranian and Israeli attacks, although executed with precision and restraint, mark a crucial moment in the Middle East and indicate a geopolitical shift from covert to overt confrontation between these long-term enemies. The region is already witnessing an alarming trend of escalating conflicts, such as those in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen—overshadowed by Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip. The looming specter of a regional war underscores the inherent volatility of the region and undermines regional efforts for peace, prosperity, and development. 

Building upon this scenario, Iran’s retaliatory strike against Israel aimed to bolster its regional influence and assert its military capabilities. Israel’s cautious deliberation, and the United States’ unwillingness to take part in any counterattack, compelled Tel Aviv to exercise a measure of restraint. For now, the parties have managed to save face through these limited, carefully calibrated military exchanges. The threat of further escalation has alleviated pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who faces political crises at home and abroad, and who is likely to expand the military’s campaign into a ground offensive in Rafah. 

When war alarms ring out, the voices of peace are often overshadowed, and mediators, risking backlash, are less able to take effective action. For example, on April 19, the United States vetoed a broadly endorsed resolution at the UN Security Council supporting Palestine’s UN membership that could have paved the way for a Palestinian state. On April 18, Hamas expressed readiness to disband its military wing upon the establishment of a Palestinian state along 1967 borders, according to Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan in a press conference with his Qatari counterpart. The same day, Doha announced that it is re-evaluating its role as a mediator amid criticism and stalled negotiations.  


Council Views is an ME Council article series that brings together our experts’ insights on headline issues facing the Middle East and North Africa region.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.


Issue: Great Power Competition, Israel War on Gaza, Regional Relations
Country: Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine-Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Yemen