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IranSource April 23, 2024

This round of Iran-Israel escalation is over, but the next could be just around the corner

By Raz Zimmt

Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel on April 14, in retaliation for an alleged Israeli airstrike in Syria, represented the most dangerous round of conflict between the two countries in decades. This attack involved more than 350 ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones.

The killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Mohammad Reza Zahedi at the Iranian embassy complex in Damascus on April 1 was the final straw. Zahedi joined a long list of Iranian officers killed in Syria by Israel since December 2023, including Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a senior IRGC officer assassinated on December 25, 2023, in Damascus. Despite threats by senior Iranians that the Islamic Republic would respond harshly to Israel’s assassinations, Iran ultimately took limited action. On January 17, the IRGC-Navy launched an attack on two Israeli-owned ships in the Indian Ocean, and another attack targeted a building identified by Iran as the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad’s headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Following Mousavi’s assassination, voices in Iran calling for a rethinking of Iran’s “strategic patience” policy toward Israel grew louder in an effort to reestablish deterrence. The Tabnak news agency claimed that Israel’s recent actions represent an unprecedented surge in the “level of Zionist arrogance” and that Iran’s failure to respond to Israeli attacks may reveal its weakness. The conservative website Alef asserted that the concept of strategic patience had been misinterpreted as apathy and lack of response, resulting in the series of assassinations carried out by Israel. The website cautioned that continuing the existing policy will expose senior commanders to threats and undermine Iranian deterrence.


The attack in Damascus does not necessarily signify a shift in Iran’s strategy geared at avoiding a full-fledged direct military confrontation with Israel, let alone the United States. Some claim that Iran’s April 14 strike on Israel conflicted with the perception that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was “cautious” and would never order an attack, suggesting that this perception now requires study and reevaluation. However, this is not necessarily the case. It seems more likely that Zahedi’s assassination at a building adjacent to the Iranian consulate in Damascus was deemed one step too far, altering the Iranian calculus. Despite the extensive messages sent to Tehran in the days preceding the attack, urging it to refrain from a direct response against Israel, the Iranian leadership chose to abandon its containment policy. Instead, it sought to restore its deterrence against Israel, even at the cost of a potential military escalation.

The first direct Iranian attack on Israel marks a new phase in the two countries’ strategic rivalry. For years, Iran has opted to act against Israel through its regional network of partners and proxies to retain deniability and minimize the risk of political or military consequences for its actions. However, the civil war in Syria that began in 2011 led to increased Iranian efforts to use its presence in Syria to militarily entrench itself in the country, eventually leading to Iran and Israel’s first direct military engagement on Syrian soil. Concurrently, starting in 2010, a shadow war emerged between Iran and Israel over Israel’s efforts to hinder Iran’s nuclear program and military buildup through espionage, targeted assassinations, sabotage, and cyberattacks.  

Iran’s attack on Israel has shifted from the use of proxies and engagement with Israel in Syria to include direct military confrontation. For the first time since the 1991 Gulf War, Israel faced a state-launched missile attack, which Iran portrayed as a significant accomplishment despite Israel and its allies successfully intercepting the vast majority of the barrage. Following the attack on Israel, IRGC commander Hossein Salami said that Iran had formed a new approach toward the “Zionist regime” and would directly counterattack Israel henceforth. The Kayhan newspaper, affiliated with the supreme leader, described the attack as the most severe military reaction against Israel since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, claiming that Iran was able to penetrate Israel’s multilayered defense envelope and inflict damage even though it was not a secret or surprise attack.

These professions of satisfaction could indicate an assessment that the Islamic Republic is heading toward a strategic equilibrium with Israel despite Israel’s continued aerial, technological, and intelligence supremacy. The Iranian leadership appears to have concluded that the country’s geo-strategic situation is steadily improving thanks to better strategic military capabilities, a network of proxies, and the support of Russia and China, two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

During a memorial ceremony for Mahdavi, Yahya Rahim Safavi, the supreme leader’s senior military adviser, expressed confidence in the victory of the Resistance Axis led by Iran and declared that a new Middle East is emerging with Iran at its heart. According to Safavi, the victory of the Resistance Axis is certain because Israel has lost international support, faces domestic rivalries, and has lost the Gaza war. A few days later, IRGC-affiliated hardline daily Javan asserted that the Iranian attack on Israel marks a watershed moment and that a new order will be established in the region, with Iran as its architect. These might seem like empty phrases and expressions of the regime’s propaganda, but they may reflect an authentic—if slightly exaggerated—assessment on the part of the Iranian leadership, which is now totally dominated by conservative and extreme hawks after more pragmatic individuals have been excluded from positions of power over the years.

Israel’s measured response to Iran’s April 19 attack allowed the two countries to temporarily close their current round of conflict. Iranian officials have downplayed and ridiculed Israel’s response, demonstrating their willingness to avoid further escalation. However, the continuous campaign between the foes is unlikely to end, and the precedent set by their direct military engagement has become another option on the confrontation table. It is unclear whether Tehran received the message Israel intended to convey with its reaction attack, which indicated its refusal to comply with the new Iranian equation.

The transition of the Israeli-Iranian confrontation into a new phase is risky. The dramatic escalation between the two countries in recent weeks highlights the high potential for miscalculation in the lack of direct communication channels. This danger will get even more serious if Iran decides to abandon its status as a nuclear-threshold state and turns its policy toward attaining nuclear weapons. Ahmad Haghtalab, the IRGC commander in charge of nuclear security in Iran, was quoted as saying that the Israeli threats could push Iran to reconsider its nuclear doctrine and deviate from its previous considerations. The escalating conflict between Israel and Iran, the transition from indirect to direct conflict, and Iran’s nuclear-threshold status necessitate an ongoing and unrelenting exploration of the possibility of establishing future communication channels—even if covert and indirect—between the two countries to convey messages and de-escalate tensions.

These developments should also require Israel to review and adopt a comprehensive, updated policy for Iran, allowing it to respond more effectively to the threats the Islamic Republic poses to its national security, particularly Iran’s nuclear program, military buildup, and regional activities. Dealing with Iran will necessitate Israel working with both the United States and Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. In contrast to Iran’s New Middle East vision, it should pursue an alternative approach—one centered on establishing a new regional architecture, deepening connections with the United States, and pursuing normalization processes with the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia.

Dr. Raz Zimmt is a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies and the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. He is also a veteran Iran watcher in the Israeli Defense Forces. Follow him on X: @RZimmt.

Further reading

Image: An anti-Israel billboard with a picture of Iranian missiles is seen on a street in Tehran, Iran April 19, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS