TEHRAN BLOG: Are Iran and Israel going to war? It’s already begun

TEHRAN BLOG: Are Iran and Israel going to war? It’s already begun
Recent attacks from both sides suggest the cold war has turned hot in recent hours. / bne IntelliNews
By bne bureau April 8, 2024

Tensions in the Middle East have soared as Iran puts its army on full alert and is threatening to strike against Israel in retaliation for an attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus last week. The region is now standing on the brink of a wider war breaking out that could come any day from now.

The Middle East is no stranger to tension, and recent developments have shattered the delicate balance of peace and conflict. The bombing of the consulate in Damascus has upset that balance and Tehran has made it clear it will respond in kind. However, the exact form of that response is key as neither side want to see events spin out of control and drag everyone into a fresh region-wide war.

Iranian social media reported that senior commanders of the Iranian military had retreated to an underground shelter in Isfahan, known as the Doomsday Bunker (Base 8), signalling the gravity of the situation.

With Ramadan ending in the next 48 hours, the clock is ticking, and the anticipation of Iran's response grows with each passing moment. Moreover, Tehran's right to retaliate has not been denied by any international actor, including the United States, according to embassy cables, bne IntelliNews learned.

While not obstructing Iran's right to respond, the global community hopes for restraint to avoid further escalation. In a flurry of diplomatic efforts on all sides, the US has sent messages to Iran via the Omanis and Swiss to not retaliate directly against Israeli diplomatic compounds Iran responded allegedly promising not to hit Israeli assets if they call a ceasefire in Gaza and pull out of the strip, according to some sources. And indeed, Israel has temporarily withdrawn its troops from part of the Gaza strip, indicative of the seriousness of the situation.

Hot war, not cold

Publicly, however, Iran has made it clear that it will not act through proxies this time but will respond directly in its own name, considering the damage Israel caused to its diplomatic compound and the killing of senior IRGC members. A like-for-like Iranian missile or drone strike on a high value target would be the natural retaliation that many are expecting.

However, low level shooting has never ceased. On early April 8, Israel and Iran have been hitting each other by proxy, with Tel Aviv killing three Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iraqi Shi’ite groups hurling drones into Israel via Syria.

Such realities lead to a consensus on the inevitability of an Iranian response. Yet, the nature and extent of this response remain a subject of speculation. Iran's retaliation is expected to be significant enough to send a strong message yet measured to avoid pushing the situation over the edge into full-scale war. Something all sides have attempted to avoid thus far. But that window shrinks rapidly every hour. Israel suspects an Eid-e Fitr attack, the feast that marks the end of Ramadan, local sources said.

But what comes after such a retaliation is a matter of concern. While fanatics may dream of a Middle East without Israel, the pragmatic view in Tehran recognises the necessity of Israel's existence. Israel serves as a unifying adversary for various factions and a vent for the region's internal frustrations. The disappearance of Israel could lead to internal strife within the Muslim world, reigniting the age-old Shia-Sunni schism something Saudi Arabia has been doing its best to avoid under the de facto rule of Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) and its wider giga projects of NEOM and Red Sea tourism destinations which are now in the direct line of fire of the Houthis in Yemen.


Hence Iran's response must be artfully calculated to hurt yet not kill Israel. Israel, known for its resilience and unwillingness to capitulate, will likely respond to any Iranian attack, so the possibility of even a modestly restrained response by Tehran could easily run out of control. The tit-for-tat cycle of killings and bombing is self-perpetuating and leads away from the painful path of regional reconciliation that was being trodden before the terrorist attack on Israel on October 7 last year that left over 1,200 dead.

Yet if a full-blown war is to be avoided, certain realities must be acknowledged. It is highly unlikely that any country would enter into a formal coalition with either side. Iran is already a pariah, but US Israeli relations have also become strained as evidenced by the recent heated conversations between the Israeli Prime Minister and the US President.

While Washington and Moscow might provide verbal support, financial aid, and arms, most nations would prefer to keep a safe distance, watching as Iran and Israel weaken each other.

The insistence on a direct confrontation by Iran, despite the dangers,  suggests external pressures or interests at play within the Iranian government and the wider region. The coming likely strike by Iran on Israel will destabilise the region at large and create opportunities that could lead to Iran’s local enemies using the situation to foment more chaos.

While it's hard to pinpoint exactly who benefits from such a conflict, it is clear that neither Israel, Iran, nor major powers like the United States, China or Russia stand to gain. The situation hints at the involvement of other regional players or even global financial interests betting on war.

Recent attacks by insurgent groups in Iran’s southern Sistan and Baluchistan region suggest that Iran’s enemies are also able to asymmetrically attack Iran via proxies. There are many groups who actively seek the downfall of the Shi’ite Islamic Republic; first in the line is the Sunni minority in the country, which has been treated terribly by Khamenei and his clique in Tehran and Qom (the holy centre of Shi’ism in Iran). The April 6 attack on Chabahar and Rask which killed at least 16 Iranian police in Sistan and Baluchistan suggests that insurgent elements have now been activated to distract the Iranian clerical leadership.

However, in locations including Moscow, which is still in the midst of its war in Ukraine, fears are growing about a potential conflagration spiralling out of control would also play to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advantage as being more distraction from the already dwindling attention Kyiv is getting in Washington. Putin is unlikely to actively interfere, but Moscow has already allied itself with the like-sanctioned Tehran and Putin is well capable to of using the events for Russia’s tactical advantage in its geopolitical showdown with the US>

The US by arming Israel has now learned the latter will no longer take directions from Washington, while Iran has mostly ignored foreign powers since 1979; this mirroring of both actors suggests this war will get hot.

Russian Senator from the Leningrad region Sergei Perminov, in a 47channel article, shared his opinion on the situation, assessing how long Iran will remain silent and to what extent the response will be severe: "The situation in the Middle East is still tense due to the actions of Israel. The international community is sending increasingly strong signals about the importance of considering the interests of civilians in Gaza. They are noting the declining moral authority of the Israeli state. However, progress towards resolving the crisis remains quite slow," he noted. According to him, indiscriminate actions on the part of Israel only aggravate the situation with other contradictions that have been present in the region for a long time.

Its relationship with Iran is one such contentious aspect because the differences are so fundamental that they have long been an integral part of the parties' viewpoints. The attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus is a provocative step, which, without a doubt, increases tension in the conflict, the senator added.

"The Iranian leadership is known for reacting cautiously after conducting a thorough analysis of the situation. In such cases, they prioritise the quality of their response over speed. The severity of their response will depend on the overall goals that the Iranian leadership is trying to achieve in both the Israeli direction and the Middle East as a whole," explained Perminov.