Reality check: Israel and Iran cry havoc

Events that have occurred over the past days have caused anxiety over a potential war between Israel and Iran. Israel has continued to strike Iranian positions in Syria, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s supposed exposé on Iranian activities related to nuclear weapons development appear to be providing a casus belli for a broader conflict. The reality is, however, that these actions and declarations come at a time when Israel is trying to achieve objectives short of war.

Israeli policy makers are clearly communicating a threat of war through their actions. The statements regarding the Iranian nuclear programme, and a law voted by the Knesset that removes some constraints on the prime minister to declare war, clearly show Israel saying “tread carefully”. The continued strikes against Iranian positions within Syria further boost this message, by demonstrating a level of impunity in Israeli military action against Iran.

At this time, however, the goal is unlikely to be actual war. The critical objective for Israel in some of these actions is related more to the potential resumption of sanctions on Iran. While Israel itself is not party to the JCPOA – the nuclear deal between Iran, the US, France, China, Russia, the UK and Germany – it is attempting to influence the outcome of the JCPOA at a time when it is at its weakest. Threats by US President Donald Trump to abandon the JCPOA, and Iranian statements that it will abandon the agreement with all partners even if only the US drops out, could lead to a reinstatement of sanctions on the Iranian economy and military.

The disclosure of Israeli intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program was a very clear attempt at trying to solidify Trump’s position in this regard. Even though the intelligence did not disclose any information on the Iranian nuclear programme that had not been known prior to the JCPOA, Netanyahu is attempting to generate a perception that supports the potential decision to abandon the JCPOA. Both in Israel and in the United States, this decision is very contested. Intelligence and military officials in both countries have stated in the past that the JCPOA has resulted in a more secure environment, regardless of the intent of the heads of state.

This attempt to scuttle the JCPOA does not equate with a declaration of war. Those that favor the reinstatement of sanctions consider this to be a useful step towards containing Iran in and of itself. Adding the threat of war, or at a minimum speculation over this potential course of action, can even be considered to be lowering the barrier towards a reinstatement of sanctions as this could now be considered a way to take punitive action while avoiding actual armed conflict.

The potential for direct armed conflict between Israel and Iran is highly unlikely, however, due to limitations on both of their capabilities. That is to say, an escalation to a more severe, or all-out armed conflict is unlikely. In a way, we are already seeing an armed conflict between the two play out through Israel’s military actions in Syria. These actions, however, have been extremely limited and this is the case exactly because Israel does not intend to escalate this conflict to a higher level.

The strikes that the Israeli Air Force conducts in Syria are typically very surgical strikes targeting very specific weapon systems or activities that either pose a direct threat to Israel, or an indirect threat through the armament of Hezbollah. While this of course includes kinetic action directed at Iranian forces, the fact that these strikes are only taking place within Syria, and targeting weapons transfers to Hezbollah or Iranian drone bases that have been used to fly UAV over Israeli territory, has so far allowed these to be seen in a separate isolated context.

Even though Iran has threatened with severe retaliations for these strikes, the actual means for such a retaliation are limited to Iran. The conflict in Syria has taken up a lot of its assets in that particular region, including Hezbollah, and the limited size of the Iranian expeditionary force within Syria is unlikely to be able to sustain any significant military action against Israel. Both Russia and Syria, have no interest in directly engaging Israel, and Russia has even show it will refrain from targeting Israeli aircraft operating over Syria, so this leaves Tehran with very limited options in this particular theater.

Retaliation through Iran’s ballistic missile forces are technically a possibility, but Iran could stand to lose more than it could gain through this. First off, there is the risk of immediate retaliation, not only by Israel, but also by other countries such as the US, that would deem Iran’s use of ballistic missiles unacceptable. Furthermore, the future of the JCPOA and the reinstatement of sanctions would pretty much become a given at that point. The second main risk involved with such an action would be the potential for a failure. If Iran’s missiles do not reach their intended targets, or are shot down by Israel’s advanced missile defense capabilities, the deterrent imposed by Iran’s missile forces could be disintegrated completely. For this reason, Iran will have to think long and hard over using their ballistic missiles in this context, as it may deny them the ability to play this card again in the future.

From the Israeli point of view, this means that the threat from Iran is relatively limited at this point, all things considered. This significantly lowers the need for radical action to be taken by Israel against them as well. There is a threat consisting of the strengthening of Iran’s position within Syria, and the direct support it provides to Hezbollah, but Israel has seen it fit to deal directly with these dynamics in a limited manner. A larger conflict, however, including a potential incursion into Lebanon and Syria or even a direct strike against Iran does not appear to lead to any attainable objectives for Israel. Israel still remembers the costly 2006 offensive against Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, and is not seeking to enter a similar position against a Hezbollah that has grown stronger and more capable over the course of the Syrian civil war.

In the case of a direct strike against Iran, Israel would have to risk a considerable amount of resources for a temporary operation, as it could not sustain all-out warfare at this distance from home. The objectives attainable through such actions would also be extremely limited, and while Israel may be able to temporarily set back the Iranian missile programme for some time, or cause damage to IRGC infrastructure, the effects of such an attack do not outweigh the risk involved with undertaking it.

So, while the threat of war is definitely being thrown around between Israel and Iran at this point, it is important to consider these within a context of realistic military capabilities and ambitions. Governments are attempting to shape perception in order to influence particular decisions, but military action is at this point only conducted in a very limited and controlled manner.