The Middle East is entering a new phase after unprecedented attacks by Israel and Iran during the first two weeks of April. Robin Wright, a senior fellow at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center who has covered the region for a half century, explores what happened, the strategic implications, the political context and the divided world reaction.

Pieces of an Iranian missile in a pickup truck outside Arad, Israel, on Sunday, April 14, 2024. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
Pieces of an Iranian missile in a pickup truck outside Arad, Israel, on Sunday, April 14, 2024. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

What happened in the new military operations by Israel and Iran?

The military operations carried out by Israel and Iran in April 2024 were a turning point in the long escalatory cycle of Middle East conflicts. They moved beyond the shadow war, which has played out since 1982, into a direct confrontation that increased the dangers for the entire region. Both countries demonstrated new daring and defiance in the process. An Israel airstrike killed three Revolutionary Guard generals and other military personnel at an Iranian diplomatic facility in Damascus on April 1. After days of angry threats, Tehran responded overnight on April 13-14 by unleashing 170 drones, at least 30 cruise missiles and more than 120 ballistic missiles on military sites in Israel. Iranian allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen also fired at Israel.

The Biden administration was blindsided by the initial Israeli strike on an Iranian diplomatic facility, which was technically protected by the Vienna Convention. The U.S. insisted it had not been involved or informed in advance. Washington messaged Tehran — publicly and through third countries — to emphasize its distance from the assassinations. The U.S. was even more shocked by the size and scope of Iran’s brazen “Operation True Promise” retaliation. Washington had expected the range to be much smaller, perhaps a dozen ballistic missiles. When U.S. Central Command upped the estimate to more than a hundred, a U.S. official described his hand shaking as he wrote down the revised number.

What did either country achieve — or lose?

Israel demonstrated both offensive and defensive superiority. The initial Israeli strike, conducted in just minutes by two U.S.-made F-35s, eliminated three key commanders who oversaw Iran’s covert foreign operations in Syria and Lebanon. It leveled the facility abutting Iran’s embassy in Damascus. Iranian intelligence was clearly caught off-guard. Its defense systems in Syria did not detect or defend Iranian forces, which have had a major presence in Syria for more than a decade both to support President Bashar Assad in a civil war and as a base to prop up Iran’s regional allies. Israel put Tehran on notice that no place or space was safe for its military, especially members of the Quds Force, the elite wing of the Revolutionary Guards that runs foreign operations.

Iran’s attack, by contrast, accomplished nothing, especially notable since it has the largest missile arsenal in the region. John Kirby, the National Security Council strategic coordinator, called the operation that lit up the skies across Israel for hours an “embarrassing” and “spectacular” failure. Israel won extensive military support from the U.S., Britain, France and Jordan to intercept or shoot down Iran’s weaponry, thus signaling Iran’s growing isolation as well as ineptitude. U.S. warplanes and air defense systems intercepted more than 80 suicide drones and six ballistic missiles in coordination with Israel. U.S. engagement, however, demonstrated that Israel needs backup, including American warships and warplanes, to fully defend itself. It’s not clear if the U.S. is prepared for an open-ended presence, given its priorities in other parts of the world.

What do these attacks indicate about the future?

Questions loom about the strategy of both countries in terms of what’s next. Israel has often played the short game with Iran and its proxies — detecting challenges and preempting them kinetically or in cyberattacks. It has long had a far superior military. It has now proven its deterrent capabilities. It also has a long track record of being able to destroy the military infrastructure, intercept arms transfers and kill key players in Iran’s Axis of Resistance network. It has the bomb in its back pocket, too. Yet Israel also has no long-term strategy beyond often unrealistic platitudes about defeating Iran or destroying its allies. Diplomacy, either regionally or internationally, seems moribund — at best. At the height of hostilities, there was no visible or viable diplomatic plan about how to defuse tensions. The same was true with Gaza, compounding the diplomatic conundrum.

Meanwhile, Iran is playing a longer game across the Middle East. It has gradually built the largest missile arsenal in the region. It used only a fraction of its assets — estimated in the thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles and hundreds of drones — in the attack on Israel. Since 1982, it has also built the most extensive network of allies in four countries — Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Together, they have generated havoc across the region in hundreds of attacks on Israel and on U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Syria as well as international shipping in the Red Sea. Iran’s nuclear advances since 2019 have also narrowed the time until it could make a bomb if it should make the political decision to move forward on the world’s deadliest weapon. Yet its rhetorical bravado about defeating Israel and forcing U.S. troops out of the Middle East is unrealistic — and unattainable. In the end, it increasingly looks like a dangerously reckless and isolated regime.

The bottom line: Whatever happens short-term in tit-for-tat operations, a military threshold has been crossed. Yet neither side can “win” against the other, in either a conventional or unconventional sense, anytime in the near future. And neither side is going to concede militarily or strategically long-term. Therein are the dangers.

What about the political environments that approved the attacks?

Both countries have the hardest-line governments in their histories — Israel since independence in 1948 and Iran since the 1979 revolution. And neither country is likely to change a lot politically anytime soon, even if leaders do. Whatever happens in the days or weeks ahead, they are on a collision course in the months and years ahead. Before it was often rhetorical. Now it is real.

The timing is awful. The heightened tensions between Israel and Iran coincide with a stalemate on a deal for Gaza and a total impasse on hostages, widening famine and an end to the fighting. And just like there is no viable plan (or willing takers) to get out of the mess in Gaza, there is no visible or viable way (or takers) to defuse tensions between Israel and Iran. While Washington vowed an “iron-clad” commitment to Israel’s security, it clearly stated its deep disagreements with Israel on the war in Gaza. Diplomatic tensions lurk under the surface.

How did the world react?

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency session on April 14, where all 15 members expressed alarm about the escalation and uniformly urged restraint. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the region is “on the brink” of a “devastating full-scale conflict.” But there were stark divisions, which reflected how much has changed since the world’s six major powers joined together to negotiate a deal with Iran in 2015 to limit its nuclear program. It has since fallen apart and, over time, become obsolete. In the meantime, the major powers have split over a future course with Iran.

The West rallied around Israel and condemned Iran. At the Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood said Iran’s intent was “to cause significant damage and death in Israel.” He vowed that Washington would push for new punitive measures to hold Iran accountable for its aggression. British Ambassador Barbara Woodward said Tehran was playing an “unacceptable role” that has destabilized the Middle East. “It also bears responsibility for the actions of the groups it has supported militarily, financially, and politically over many years. Through this attack, Iran has once again demonstrated that it is intent on sowing chaos in the region.”

The G-7 — the major industrialized countries of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy and the United States — also held an emergency session on April 14. “With its actions, Iran has further stepped toward the destabilization of the region and risks provoking an uncontrollable regional escalation,” they said. They jointly expressed solidarity with Israel and demanded that Iran and its proxies end their attacks. “We stand ready to take further measures now and in response to further destabilizing initiatives,” they warned.

But Russia and China, which have increased military and economic ties with Iran, charged that Israel had provoked the Iranian strike. At the U.N. Security Council, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the retaliation by Tehran “did not happen in a vacuum.” He called on Israel to “abandon the practice of provocative forceful acts,” which carry “extremely dangerous risks and consequences” for the entire Middle East. Chinese Deputy Ambassador Dai Bing charged that Israel’s attack an Iranian diplomatic facility was of an “extremely vicious nature” and “a grave violation” of both the U.N. Charter and international law.

Bottom line: The prospects of any international unity to calm the rising furies seem remote. The major powers are now taking sides.

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