Iran talks a big game, but lacks capability to respond to Israel 


Photo: Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei looks at the coffins of members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who were killed in the Israeli airstrike on the Iranian embassy complex in the Syrian capital Damascus, during a funeral ceremony in Tehran, Iran April 4, 2024. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS

By Saeid Jafari

Since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, 2023, a worry has weighed heavily on the Middle East: that the war’s geography would widen and Iran and Israel would enter into a direct conflict with each other beyond its shadow war confines. As the Gaza war enters its sixth month, this possibility is now more likely than ever, with the level of military confrontation between the two countries rising to an unprecedented level.

On April 1, an Israeli airstrike targeted the building of the Islamic Republic’s consulate in Damascus, killing several senior members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, including Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the commander for Lebanon and Syria, and his deputy, Mohammad Hadi Haj Rahimi. As expected, Iranian officials vowed to take revenge against Israel.

“The evil Zionist regime will be punished at the hands of our brave men. We will make them regret this crime and the other ones,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a statement published on his official website on April 2.

On the same day, President Ebrahim Raisi emphasized that Israel’s action would not go unanswered. In Tehran’s Palestine Square, a billboard of Zahedi has been hung on the wall of a building with Persian and Hebrew versions of the phrase: “You will be punished, and we will make you regret it.” Since April 1, such comments have been featured in state media outlets and made by other ranking Iranian officials.

Bracing for retaliation, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have taken into account the possibility of an Iranian response. The IDF announced on April 4 that they were suspending leave for all combat units, a day after they announced they were mobilizing more troops. Israel has reportedly also scrambled its Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking across the country to confuse targeting systems, and even evacuated ambassadors and staff at various embassies.

However, contrary to the rhetoric coming from Tehran, it seems that Iran doesn’t have the capabilities to respond to Israel directly.

Shifting balances

Since the beginning of the conflict between Hamas and Israel, the regional balance in the Middle East has significantly shifted in favor of Iran and to the detriment of Israel.

Hamidreza Azizi, an Alexander von Humboldt fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, told me, “During this time, Iran has endeavored to engage its proxy groups with Israel within the grey zone conflict framework, keeping Israel preoccupied without directly engaging in war and thus inflicting damage upon its adversary without bearing the direct costs of war with Israel.”

The greatest advantage of this strategy for Iran is plausible deniability. It allows Tehran to shirk responsibility for its actions within the proxy war context and allows its adversaries not to attribute these actions directly to Iran, thereby avoiding direct retaliation against Israel. For example, during this period, proxy groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon repeatedly targeted positions in Israel, and Shia militias in Iraq and Syria attacked US bases in the region.

Before October 7, 2023, Iran and Israel had been engaged in a shadow war in which Israel targeted Iranian assets in Syria, specifically weapon shipments or military and logistical warehouses belonging to the Quds Force. While Israel had previously avoided targeting Iranian forces in its operations for a long time, it has shifted gears since the Gaza war began and changed its policy, as signified by the killing of Razi Mousavi, the logistics coordinator for the IRGC’s Quds Force on December 25, 2023. Since then, Israel has killed at least five senior commanders of the IRGC in Syria.

Despite comments by Iranian officials in the wake of the April 1 attack, since October 7, 2023, Iranian military and political officials have repeatedly emphasized that they are not seeking a broader confrontation in the region. This is also evident in the case of Israeli ground operations in Gaza, which Iranian officials initially identified as Tehran’s red line.

Highlighting the country’s inability to respond directly, Azizi explained to me, “Iran’s defense doctrine is fundamentally based on asymmetric defense, part of which is focused on missile and drone industries, and the other part is entrusted to proxy groups.”

Iran has little room for effective maneuvering outside the grey zone and faces significant limitations both in terms of global support and the required military capabilities for conventional warfare.

Revenge rings hollow

Iran is neither technologically competitive with Israel in terms of weaponry nor comforted by the support of a powerful ally like the United States, while Israel has such capacity. 

Though Iran can respond to Israel’s actions on multiple levels, each of which has its limitations, if Tehran seeks to reciprocate, it must carry out an operation at the same level as the one that resulted in the killing of a senior IRGC commander. However, Iran lacks such capabilities, in terms of both intelligence and military power.

After the US assassination of Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani in 2020, Iranian officials have repeatedly threatened revenge. Tehran responded by firing ballistic missiles at bases housing US troops in Iraq, giving brain injuries to more than one hundred troops. It has also repeatedly threatened to assassinate former Donald Trump administration officials who were involved in the decision-making process regarding the assassination, all of whom now travel with a security detail.

The next option is to take action in a third country, like what happened in IRGC missile attacks on Iraqi Kurdistan or targeting Israeli positions in other countries. However, past experiences show Iran has not succeeded in this area either. The unsuccessful bombings in IndiaGeorgia, and Thailand in 2012, which was designed to target Israel, not only failed to achieve any results for Iran, but also cost Tehran politically, making it once again known as an actor that designs terrorist operations in other countries.

Moreover, Iran recognizes the possible ramifications of engaging in direct conflict with Israel. Such an altercation could swiftly spiral into a full-fledged war, resulting in dire consequences for both parties. If Tehran were to respond directly, the international community would be inclined to denounce Iran. This condemnation could exacerbate Tehran’s isolation and complicate its pursuit of regional objectives.

But Iran’s capabilities aren’t weak only in terms of the military. The country is grappling with various internal hurdles, such as a significant economic downturn and widespread social and political dissatisfaction. These challenges have constrained the government’s capacity to prioritize foreign policy matters, even though the lack of direct response disappoints and disheartens the regime’s supporters and its proxy groups across the region.  

There is no doubt that Tehran will respond in some capacity. However, the main issue is that Iran cannot provide an effective and equivalent response. Despite Tehran’s calls for revenge, it doesn’t possess the necessary power, willingness, and ability to engage in a conflict with the potential to escalate into a full-scale regional war with Israel.

Saeid Jafari is a Middle East analyst based in Europe. 




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