Uncertainty lingers after apparent Israeli response to Iran’s strike

A large billboard depicting Iranian missiles is displayed on a public square, Tehran, Iran, April 19, 2024. /CFP

A large billboard depicting Iranian missiles is displayed on a public square, Tehran, Iran, April 19, 2024. /CFP

Open confrontation between Iran and Israel has stretched into a new phase filled with uncertainties after Israel on Friday apparently responded to Iran’s first-ever direct strike on Israeli territory.

Iran last Saturday launched a salvo of explosive drones and missiles on Israel in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on its diplomatic compound in Syria earlier this month, further raising the risk of a full-blown regional conflict since Hamas’ October 7 attack on southern Israel.

While most of the Iranian launches were intercepted, causing no fatalities, media reports say Israel carried out a counterattack with drones and possibly missiles, targeting an Iranian Air Force base near the city of Isfahan.

Iranian officials made no reference to Israel when describing the incident, which they said caused no damage or casualties, signaling no plans for a retaliation that Tehran had warned it would launch should it come under a major Israeli attack.

The nature and extent of Friday’s attack are not yet clear, Sami Ramadani, an Iraqi-born lecturer in sociology at London Metropolitan University and writer on Middle East affairs, told CGTN.

“We don’t know whether the attack came from Israel or from within Iran, and I don’t think Iran was downplaying it,” he said, casting doubt on media speculations that Tehran did so to stave off a need to retaliate, a move that would be consistent with its deescalatory tone over the past week.

Israel has kept silent since the attack, which is widely believed to be a message demonstrating its capability to strike deep inside Iran, also in proximity to nuclear facilities, while averting major escalations.

“If it becomes clear that the strike did come from Israel, Iran’s reaction might be different,” Ramadani said, adding that a distinction will be made to determine whether it was “an internal security matter or external aggression.”

The risk of a full-blown regional conflict had prompted the U.S., Israel’s closest ally, to urge it not to pursue any counterattacks against Iran, and that has reportedly translated into what appeared to be Friday’s limited strike, albeit with a caveat.

According to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, a Qatari media outlet, Washington has given its consent to Israel’s plan for a military offensive in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, reversing previous opposition in exchange for a restrained response to Iran’s strike.

Rafah, which has so far escaped an Israeli invasion amid its six-month-long war against Hamas, has been packed with Palestinians fleeing from other parts of the coastal enclave, and United Nations officials have warned of a dramatic exacerbation of a humanitarian disaster should Israel go ahead with its plan.

However, with Israel focusing on its confrontation with Iran, it might have to delay its planned operation in Rafah, which the Israeli military says is Hamas’ last stronghold, Yu Guoqing, a research fellow at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told CGTN.

“Such delays could sustain at least until after Israel has responded in a way it deems satisfactory,” Yu said.

Similar to the tough position that Iran had been in as it felt compelled to respond to Israel’s Syria strike while avoiding war, Israel has been facing an equally challenging dilemma.

To heed the calls of its Western allies, Israel had to resist domestic pressure for a large-scale counterattack and forgo its longstanding strategy of projecting deterrence against regional foes.

Today’s Israel faces a largely different environment in the region than it did in the past, “with its improved relations with Arab countries diminishing the urgency of showing strength,” Yu said.

Some Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, had reportedly shared intelligence about Iran’s strike with the U.S., albeit rejecting a U.S. request to use its base to block the strike. Jordan, whose forces shot down some of the drones headed toward Israel, is caught in an awkward position as it compromises the kingdom’s stance against the Gaza war.

This was the first time that Arab states in the region showed silent support for Israel in its confrontation with Iran, marking “a major change from the past,” Meir Litvak, chair of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, told CGTN.

In the meantime, Israel also had to weigh how the counterattack might affect its regional standing without angering those represented by Saudi Arabia, Yu added. Bolstering the assumption that Friday’s attack was indeed Israel’s “limited and calculated” response were media reports about Israel’s cancellations of at least two strikes during the past week, as well as Gulf states’ forceful appeals for only a restrained reprisal.

Despite Friday’s strike causing no immediate exacerbation of the situation, tensions remain high as Israel’s clashes with Iran-aligned forces have persisted. Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite movement, has engaged Israeli troops in an escalation of mutual attacks in the past few days, while an Iraqi militia group claimed on Saturday a drone attack on Israel.

Despite what Israel and the West describe as Iran’s proxies, “these forces have their own local issues and reasons to stop Israel from its military operation in Gaza, and the situation will escalate further if Israel invades Rafah,” Ramadani said.

Against its wish to deescalate, Iran will continue to back them, he added.

Prior to recent escalations, Hezbollah had told the top commander of Iran’s elite force that it would fight Israel on its own, a pledge aimed at not drawing Iran into open confrontation with Israel, according to a Reuters report.

As for now, however, Litvak said that in the absence of a major Israeli attack on Iran, “they are more likely to continue what they do – a limited war of attrition against Israel.”