Iran's attempt at a "Goldilocks retaliation" strike on Israel was designed to fail, but tensions remain high

Iran's attempt at a
Iran launched its first ever direct attack on Israel but only seven missiles got through its formidable air defences. But some say that was design as Tehran attempted a "Goldilocks retaliation" that was hard, but not so hard as to spark a regionwide war. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin, Tel Aviv April 14, 2024

Iran launched its first ever direct military attack on Israel on April 13 after decades of proxy war hostilities. As the dust settles the following morning, the attack seems to have failed with only seven missiles penetrating Israel’s formable defences that did minimal damage to the military base in the southern desert. But some analysts believe that was the point: Tehran was looking for a “Goldilocks retaliation” for Israel’s bombing of Iran’s consulate in Damascus that was hard enough to show strength, but not so hard as to provoke a major Israeli retaliation that could tip the region into open warfare.

The Damascus attack that killed seven including two senior generals hit the consulate, which under the Vienna convention is considered to be Iranian sovereign territory and was exceptionally provocative. Tehran was placed into a position where it had produced a calibrated response.

Three waves of one-way suicide drones took off in the evening of April 13 that were followed by ballistic and then cruise missiles, all timed to arrive at their destination at the same time in an effort to overwhelm Israeli air defences. Hundreds took the streets of Tehran to celebrate following the announcement of the start of the attack.

The attack saw Israel’s allies scramble planes and defences with not only the US, UK and French participating, but also Jordan and surprisingly the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) shooting down 97% of the inbound drones and missiles. The airspaces of several regional countries were closed, Israeli took to the bunkers and civilian aviation cancelled flights and avoided the airspace.

Nevertheless, Iran called the attack a “success” and that no further attacks were planned in an effort to head off a possible Israeli counter strike.

Iranian Major General Mohammad Bagheri said on Iranian state TV: “The operation was successfully completed. The reason for this operation was that the Zionist regime crossed Iran's red lines. We see this operation as a complete result and there is no intention to continue the operation. But if the Zionist regime responds, our next operation will be much bigger. We sent a message to the US through the Swiss embassy that if it cooperates with Israel in their possible next actions, their bases will not have any security and we will deal with that as well.”

As the sun came up on April 14 the worst now seems to have passed. Jordan, Iraq and Israel have reopened their airspaces and the action will move onto the floor of the UN in the afternoon of April 14 as the political fallout from the attack begins to settle.

But tensions remain high. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged Hamas rejected the latest proposal for a Gaza ceasefire agreement that was presented by mediators on April 13, and said he would press forward with the war on Gaza with "full force".

The increasingly embattled Netanyahu has been a big winner from the attack, which has silenced his domestic detractors and removed the spotlight from Israel’s callous bombing of Palestinians trapped in Gaza.

According to bne IntelliNews’ correspondent in Tel Aviv, locals remain nervous, but there is no panic and a renewed attack is not widely excepted by residents. The main result of Iran’s attacks has been to refocus Israeli attention from winning the return of hostages held by Hamas following its October 7 attacks, to concerns about the possibility of wider regional war and reinforcing a growing war weariness.

“People are growing tired of the tensions and definitely don’t want to see the conflict with our neighbours escalate,” bne IntelliNews’ correspondent Mathew Cohen said by phone from Tel Aviv.

Attacks fail

Iran launched a multi-layer attack with three waves of drones that take up to nine hours to reach Israel. In addition, a volley of ballistic missiles was fired that take two hours to make the journey and finally cruise missiles were launched that only take 12 minutes to arrive in Israel. All the drones and missiles were timed to arrive at their destination at the same time in an effort to overwhelm Israeli defences in a tactic that Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said Tehran has borrowed from Russia’s war in Ukraine, where Iranian drones are widely used.

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) as well as their allies from the USA, UK and Jordan brought down 324 out of 331 missiles and drones. Seven ballistic missiles were not. That’s an interception rate of 97.8%. The seven strikes have been confirmed on the Nevatim Air Base in Israel with three different videos.

Separately, the Lebanese Al-Manar TV station, controlled by Hezbollah, reported slightly more severe, but still modest, damage at the Nevatim Air Base which it claimed was struck by 15 medium-range ballistic missiles that caused serious damage to infrastructure and aircraft of the Israeli Air Force.

Israeli Defence Forces Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said in a statement: “Iran launched approximately 170 drones, none of which breached Israeli territory thanks to interceptions by Israeli air force warplanes and allied air defence systems. Iran also fired over 30 cruise missiles; however, none entered Israeli territory, with 25 being intercepted by warplanes outside the country’s borders.

Additionally, out of over 120 ballistic missiles launched, only a few managed to cross into Israel. Most were intercepted, but those that did penetrate caused minor infrastructure damage at the Nevatim airbase. A 10-year-old girl was severely wounded by shrapnel. We are praying for her speedy recovery.” No fatalities were reported.

Israel rolled out its entire range of anti-missile defences including its exoatmospheric interception system that is part of its Arrow 3 hypersonic surface-to-air missile systems that hit inbound cruise missiles outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

Goldilocks response

The Iranian attack was carefully calibrated in an effort to find a “Goldilocks Retaliation”: hard enough to answer the Israeli missile attack on the Iranian Consulate in Damascus, but not so hard as to provoke a large-scale retaliation by Israel.

Iran’s attack marks a new stage in the long-standing hostilities between the two countries and an end to the proxy war that has been fought using forces like the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon backed by Tehran.

However, analysts are speculating that the Iranian attack was designed to fail, or at least the goal of the attack was not actually to do any damage but was merely to be a show of force in response to the Damascus consulate bombing.

“The Iranian attack was designed to be easily intercepted and reset the bar on deterrence,” Ian Bremmer, CEO and founder of the Eurasia Group said in a post. “The next steps will depend on the Biden administration (and allies’) ability to keep Israel from a direct military response on Iranian soil. Even so, plenty dangerous given all the actors/arenas of military conflict involved.”

The Iranian Defence minister’s comments on the morning of April 14 is an attempt to cut off any escalation or counter strike by Israel, but it remains to be seen if Netanyahu will order a counterstrike. In the run up to the attack Netanyahu vowed that any attack on Israel’s territory will be met with a “harsh” response.

Although US President Joe Biden threw his support behind Israel’s defence and the US reportedly participated in the shooting down of the incoming drones and missiles, Axios reports Biden told Netanyahu in a phone call on April 13 that “the US will oppose any Israeli counterattack against Iran.” Washington is keen to head off any escalation into a wider regional war, especially in an election year. A report from NBC News also said that Biden was worried Israel was trying to drag Washington into a wider regional war in the Middle East. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia will support Iran if the United States attacks Iran's soil in support of Israel.

Neighbours rally to Israel’s aid

Iran warned that any country that helped Israel would face consequences. Jordan briefly closed its airspace after the launch of the drones and reportedly participated in shooting down Iran’s missiles as they traversed its territory en route to Israel. “If Jordan helps Israel, it will be the next target,” Iranian state-controlled media said.

“Our country's armed forces are closely monitoring Jordan's movements during the attack on the Zionist regime, and if they (Jordan) take part in supporting Israel, they will become the next target. Before the operation, the necessary warnings were given to Jordan and the countries of the region,” Iranian media reported, citing sources in the Iranian armed forces.

Video posted on social media shows the skies over the Jordanian capital of Amman lit up by air defence shooting Iranian drones out of the sky on the night of April 13.

Likewise, KSA also participated in bringing down Iranian missiles, reports Al Arabiya. KSA has been playing an increasingly important role in the Middle East as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) attempts to position KSA as a regional leader and increase its diplomatic clout on the world stage in the context of an increasingly fractured world.

“If you take a few steps back, seeing Jordan and Saudi Arabia helping defend Israel against Iranian attacks is a pretty stunning development,” Thomas Juneau, Associate professor at the University of Ottawa said in a tweet.

The participation in Israel’s defence is a gesture by Riyadh that the door to reconciliation with Tel Aviv remains open and a continuation of Riyadh’s policy of rapprochement with Israel that started before the October 7 Hamas terror attacks on Israel. Relations have been temporarily frozen following Israel’s brutal retaliatory rocket attacks and ground operations in the Gaza Strip but MbS seems to be looking further down the road to when tensions eventually subside again.

Likewise, KSA re-established diplomatic relations with Tehran before the October attacks after an eight-year hiatus, part of the same long-term goals to quell long-standing regional tensions. Syria was also re-admitted to the Arab League in May last year after it was suspended 12 years ago following a brutal crackdown on opposition protestors.

Ukraine reaction

Kyiv was following the events in the Middle East closely too and condemned Iran’s attack on Israel. The escalating conflict in the Middle East has come at a terrible time for Kyiv which has been plunged into an ammo crisis as the US has become increasingly distracted with defending its ally Israel and cut off all financial and military aid to Kyiv in January.

Ukrainians on social media were outraged at the high level of support that the US and other Western allies, including the UK and France, provided to Israel at a time when Ukraine’s skies are now open to Russian missile and drone strikes. Ukraine has been suffering an intense barrage since March that is systematically destroying Ukraine’s power infrastructure.

After the drone launches were announced, Biden said in a statement: “At my discretion, to support the defence of Israel, the US military moved aircraft and ballistic missile defence destroyers to the region over the course of the past week. Tanks to these development to the deployments and the extraordinary skill of our servicemembers, we helped Israel take down nearly all of the incoming drones and missiles.”

The US military support has only increased the feeling of abandonment by the West that Ukrainians are feeling now, according to bne IntelliNews’ Ukrainian staff.

“Ukrainians sitting in shock watching how everyone scrambles to respond to Iran while the same drones and missiles along with North Korea’s have been raining down on Ukrainian cities and towns for over 2 years. The response in Ukraine is countless conferences and discussions,” Olga Lautman, an analyst with CEPA, said in a post.

“And the failure to realise all these conflicts are interconnected is mind blowing. Russia and Iran were helping Assad butcher hundreds of thousands of Syrians, the same Wagner and Russian military fighters were involved in the 2014 annexation of Crimea and occupation of Donbas and conflict in Syria. Russia has worked closely with Hezbollah, Iran, and [Revolutionary Guard Corps] for over a decade, they all partnered again to help Russia commit genocide in Ukraine, and now this. Same evil axis that should have been dealt with a long time ago. We wouldn’t be here today,” she added.

What’s next?

A UN Security Council meeting has been called for April 14 at 4pm New York time to respond to the strike and Biden also publicly said he was going to convene leaders of the G7 countries to coordinate a "diplomatic response" to the attacks.

Multiple airlines cancelled flights to Israel in the run up to the attack and Israel closed its airspace ahead as soon the drones were launched. A Flightradar24 map shows the entire region between Iran and Israel was devoid of planes as the tensions ratcheted up. However, bne IntelliNews’ correspondent in Tel Aviv reports that scheduled flights planned to leave on the evening of April 14 have been reinstated and it appears that Israel is not anticipating a renewed attack any time soon.

The security situation in the Straits of Hormuz has also come into focus as a result of the missile strikes on Israel. Earlier in the day on April 13 Iranian forces boarded a ship in the Strait of Hormuz that they said had links with Israel.

This waterway which abuts Iran controls about 30% of the world’s shipping of oil and has long been a key global chokepoint. With tensions now inflamed, some worry that Iran will attempt to close the straits to shipping. However, other analysts say that doing so is beyond Iran’s abilities at the moment.

“For Iran to close the Strait, it means occupation and the taking over of Oman's waters where most of the ships go through. This will immediately invoke the defence pact of the [Gulf Cooperation Council]: it means war among all,” Anas Alhajji, a Middle East energy expert, said in a tweet. “Iran's friends will be hurt more than its enemies by the closure of the Strait of Hormuz.”