The Israel-Iran Clash Will Be a Battle of Small Increments, Not an All Out War

Faisal Al Yafai

Even now, nearly two weeks on from the most serious clash between Iran and Israel inside Syria on May 9, it is not clear what actually happened. The story, repeated without compelling evidence by most media outlets, is that Iran fired around 20 rockets at the Israeli army in the Golan Heights, Syrian territory that Israel has occupied for decades. In response, Israel fired missiles at Iranian targets inside Syria, some of which struck their targets and some of which were intercepted by Syrian air defences.

The broad outlines are no doubt true, but there is an essential, unconfirmed nugget: did Iranian forces actually strike the Golan, and did they do so with the approval of Tehran? That is the crucial aspect to the story. A direct attack on Israel by Iran would be a new development. Certainly the Israelis were talking it up as such. But at the moment it is at best unconfirmed that that happened.

The more compelling explanation is that the attack was an attempt to derail the nuclear deal even further by provoking an Iranian reaction – remember that it came in the days after Donald Trump said he would pull America out of the agreement. So most likely the attack on the Golan was conducted by Iranian forces without government approval, or came from proxy forces using Iranian-supplied weaponry, and Israel took its chance to respond forcefully. It is noticeable that Tehran has remained silent since the attack. As always with war, there is a fog of lies and half-truths.

Yet Iranian-Israeli clashes do seem inevitable. The rhetoric on the Israeli side is certainly escalating and while Iran has not stepped up its rhetoric – in response to the raids, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani merely said “new tensions” in the Middle East were not what his country wanted – that is chiefly because the country feels it has time on its hands. But even if – or when – those clashes happen, neither country genuinely wants a real, all-out war. They prefer the steady state of managed chaos, of tit-for-tat attacks, of a long-drawn out battle of inches.

To understand why, it’s important to recognize that the status quo broadly suits them both.

For Iran, a hot war would only come about through miscalculation. A low-level war of attrition, however, is acceptable. Most of the casualties that Iran has sustained inside Syria are proxy forces anyway, so there is little domestic response to dead Iranians, and the constant attacks allows Tehran to utilize its rhetoric of resistance to build support inside Iran and across the Arab world. Being seen to rival Israel gives Iran a halo of power that lends legitimacy to the regime.

But what it really offers Tehran is time. The regime is nothing if not patient and a long-drawn out conflict with Israel gives it time to consolidate its grip on strategic areas in Syria. As long as the civil war grinds on, there isn’t a great deal anyone can do to stop Tehran patiently building bases. Regular strikes by Israel will slow it down – but also gives it crucial experience of Israel’s military technology and tactics, without facing it in a real war. As Tehran’s decades-long support for Hezbollah shows, the regime can be patient in its pursuit of strategic goals.

For Israel, a low-level conflict is better than an uncertain war. Inside Tel Aviv’s military establishment, memories of the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah loom large. Here was a non-state actor on Israel’s border standing up to all the Western weaponry Israel had purchased – and coming within touching distance of a victory. It shook the establishment. The question is whether a war with Hezbollah today would end better or worse. On the one hand, the group has new Iranian technology and is battle-hardened from its years fighting for the Assad regime in Syria. But the war has drained the group and taken it further from its Lebanese roots.

A second issue is Iran’s anti-aircraft defenses. If Iran could construct anti-aircraft batteries near the Syrian border, it would ground Israel’s aircraft or at least expose them to being shot down more regularly, as one was in February. Preventing that will take regular attacks, but not all out war.

For Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the constant threat of conflict is vital for his survival. He is now embroiled in three separate corruption cases, has seen his home raided by police, his wife questioned, members of his inner circle arrested and one of his former close aides agree to cooperate with the investigation and hand over hours of recorded conversations with him. Against this background, and with social and economic divisions in Israel escalating, his rivals are hoping to see him gone even before next year’s election. Keeping the attention of the Israel public beyond its borders helps him.

It is Netanyahu who is the fly in the ointment of this tandem dance between Israel and Iran. With 18 months to go to an election, he knows sabre-rattling with Iran is his best chance.

And so, regardless of what the military establishments of both countries want, Netanyahu might push for a war just to save his career. He has spent his career warning of the danger of an Iranian conflict – now by escalating one, he hopes to prolong the other.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.