Iran and Israel have engaged in a secret war, where both countries utilized covert means to sabotage, subvert and attack the other. The tensions between the two countries were apparent through policy statements from Iranian and Israeli leadership. The key drivers behind these tensions are ideological and strategic. West Asia has remained a volatile region and remains a strategic priority for the United States and its allies, who have supported Israel unconditionally.

Iran’s anti-American and Israel narrative has shaped its role as a revisionist power that does not conform to the norms set by Western Powers.

As PM Netanyahu’s government opted for a military response to the Oct 7 Hamas attack, this impacted the entire region. The primary result was an overall shift in sentiment against Israel. Especially when Israel was getting warm with the Gulf States, normalization could have been a foreseeable trajectory. Netanyahu’s popularity declined over time as IDF carried out HR violations in Gaza, even in Western circles. PM Netanyahu’s use of religious rhetoric by referring to verses on ‘amalekites’ and his preference for a military solution to the conflict has embarrassed his backers in the west.

The decline in popularity and the growing concern with local discontent likely prompted Tel Aviv to expand the scope of the conflict by striking Iranian targets in Syria and Iraq. The strategic thinking behind this type of brinksmanship must have been to deliberately escalate tensions with a revisionist Iran, knowing that these actions could potentially put Tehran on a warpath. Under these circumstances, Tel Aviv expected to force the hand of its Western allies to engage Iran.

On April 2, Israeli F-35s shot six projectiles at the Iranian embassy in Damascus, killing a senior IRGC General and 3 others with Diplomatic credentials. For most observers, this action defied rational behaviour, as it violated the Geneva Convention and was an open challenge to Iran. This can be termed a focal event that altered perceptions of States in the West Asian region. The Israeli strike was a display of capabilities and a statement that Israel would preemptively strike targets on Iranian soil. It can be analyzed as an ill-timed power projection for political purposes.

The Israelis may not have wargamed how Tehran may respond, and analysts suggested that Iranian response will be against perceived targets on Syrian or Iraqi territory – a face saving.

The thinking in Tehran opted for a calculated response that would negate the perception about Israeli defenses against missile attacks. The salvo of 350+ missiles and drones likely overwhelmed the Iron Dome system, prompting Israel’s allies to scramble their assets to intercept the projectiles. Iranians calculated their response and did the unthinkable.

This indicates the political will and public sentiment backing the state to assert their stance and maintain their deterrence in the region at any cost. At the same time, we saw a coordinated response by Israel’s allies to defend it, and this was also unprecedented.

An Israeli drone strike was reported over Isfahan – a strategic location – but the Iranians were not irked by it, and the mood in Tehran remained calm. This was expected as the decision-making in Tel Aviv was likely focusing on face-saving and appeasing a dissatisfied public. Perceptions and narratives are key features of strategic power plays, and in this scenario, the Iranians won the game of narratives despite being viewed as a rogue in the West.

De-escalation is the likely scenario, but at the cost of exposing the response timing and defensive posturing of both Iran & Israel. This focal event will inform the strategic calculations for Tel Aviv and Tehran, and most importantly, it will mark the beginning of more confrontations in West Asia. Other players in the regions will perceive this as a cause of concern and threat perceptions will multiply in Riyadh, Doha, Ankara and Cairo.

The trajectory of Iran-Israel escalations will have implications for the regions and beyond.

Firstly, the exchange between the two countries will certainly embolden the National Security Establishment in Tehran, and we can expect Iran-backed proxies to be more active in their attacks against the U.S. and Israel. Both Tel Aviv and Iran will likely continue their covert war against one another, and in this regard, the intelligence in both countries will focus on sabotage and subversion. The net result will be increased disruptions to maritime and land trade and heightened regional tensions. For other regional players, this will deepen their security dilemma.

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