What does Iran’s “new equation” mean for the Middle East?

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The evening of 19th April marked a pivotal moment in the ongoing instability across the Middle East. The Iranian regime launched a direct assault on Israeli territory firing over 300 drones and missiles, according to Israeli sources. The attack was conducted in retaliation against Israel’s earlier strike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus, which killed two Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) generals, as well as six others.

Israel has heralded its defence from such an attack as a significant military victory, though there has been acknowledgement that Iran likely calibrated its attack so as to limit damage and to prevent the escalation of the conflict into all-out-war. 

Speaking on Iranian State Television, the General warned that Iran has “decided to create a new equation” in which “from now on, if Israel attacks Iranian interests, figures and citizens anywhere, we will retaliate from Iran”. 

The stark impact of the attack appears to be in the escalation of Iran’s action and rhetoric. Tensions have existed between the two countries for decades, but previous attacks by Iran on Israel have been carried out through proxies such as Hezbollah. Such attacks sow instability and send a clear political message but lack the same political gravity as an attack carried out by Iran itself. A statement from IRGC Major General Hossein Salami issued the day after Iran’s attack on Israel appears to herald an end to this convention of less direct clashes. Speaking on Iranian State Television, the General warned that Iran has “decided to create a new equation” in which “from now on, if Israel attacks Iranian interests, figures and citizens anywhere, we will retaliate from Iran”. 

This marks a substantial departure from Iran’s previous doctrine of “strategic patience”, in which Iranian leaders maintain that Iran will respond to threats and attacks, but that this will be done in a calculated manner, with the aim of avoiding escalation and conserving the resources of the heavily-sanctioned state.

The future trajectory of tension between Iran and Israel hinges on the latter’s response to this “new equation”.

Iran’s “new equation” and the attack which seemingly marked this doctrine’s beginning are a consequence of a wider, more prolonged ‘shadow war’ between the two nations, worsened by Israel’s recent conduct in Gaza. Throughout this ‘shadow war’, Israel has targeted a number of Iranian commanders, fostering a sense of insecurity within Iranian military leadership. The pressure to retaliate against Israel has risen with this sense of insecurity, apparently to intolerable levels.

The future trajectory of tension between Iran and Israel hinges on the latter’s response to this “new equation”. Israeli strikes against Iranian interests are common, and it seems improbable that Israeli leadership, led by Netanyahu and his far-right war cabinet, would abstain completely from further military action against Iranian targets.

In the immediate aftermath of Iran’s drone and missile attack, it would appear that Israel has taken the “new equation” seriously. With Israel and the US no longer able to assume that Iran would hold back in its response as has been the case in the past, Israel was subject to fierce lobbying from Western allies, who urged extreme restraint. For the most part, these warnings appear to have been considered. The retaliation appears to have been extremely limited in scope, with Israel alleged to have hit multiple sites near the Iranian city of Isfahan. Though very few details have been confirmed, it is thought the attack was calculated to show to Tehran that sensitive Iranian nuclear sites based in Isfahan are within reach of Israeli missiles.

With Israel and the US no longer able to assume that Iran would hold back in its response as has been the case in the past, Israel was subject to fierce lobbying from Western allies, who urged extreme restraint.

Whether Iran’s “new equation” remains legitimate now hangs in the balance. Despite Iranian officials warning that any Israeli retaliation could be met with a “much stronger response”, Iran has now stated it has no retaliation planned, and has distanced itself from the events in Isfahan, refusing to confirm any details or attribute the explosions heard to Israeli activity.

As tensions begin to calm, what clearly emerges from recent events is that Iran has proven its willingness to attack Israel from its own territory, and a red line has been crossed. Whilst Iran’s “new equation” could have been an isolated occurrence, or simply rhetorical, it will change the calculations of both Israel and the United States for years to come.

Image: Bahareh Asadi via Wikimedia Commons

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