The Middle East is not yet at the brink of all out war – but Iran’s missile attack on Israel has certainly made it closer

Israeli Iron Dome intercepting enemy missiles. EPA-EFE/MOHAMMED SABER


Luckily for the world, most policy decisions are not made on X. If they were, we most likely would already find ourselves in a shooting war between NATO and Russia while Iranian and Israeli troops fight it out somewhere in the Syrian desert. 

For some reason many commentators seem to be itching for a broader war, a sentiment that is truly reminiscent of how parts of the media acted in 1914. We all know how that ended.

So lets take a sober look at what unfolded between Israel and Iran over the last 48 hours, and what the true significance of these events is.

First of all, Israel did not strike the Iranian embassy in Damascus on April 1. What was hit was a consulate building adjacent to the Iranian embassy – something that is still dicey under international law, but is not, as some commentators claimed, an irrefutable cause for all out war between Israel and Iran.

There is, in fact, a certain irony in Iran insisting on respecting the sanctity of diplomatic institutions. High ranking members of the theocratic regime took part in the storming and hostage taking at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. For 444 days the hostages were at the mercy of the Iranians. Although the United States made a failed rescue attempt, Washington never declared war on Iran.

Luckily for the world, in 1998 China did also not declare war on the US after the latter accidentally bombed Beijing’s embassy in Belgrade during NATO air raids on Serbia.

Then and now, the involved parties had no interest in escalating beyond what was deemed absolutely necessary: Israel has been targeting members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for a while and has been supported in doing so by the US. In 2020, for example, the then strategic mastermind of the IRGC, Qasem Soleimani, was taken out by a US drone.

While Joe Biden is pursuing a significantly less aggressive policy vis-à-vis Iran, even his administration knows that taking out the top brass of the IRGC is an efficient way to reduce Iranian operational capabilities.

Pursuing a strategy of asymmetric warfare puts a strong emphasis on supply logistics and operational talent, something that often depends on the extraordinary skills of an individual – like Qasem Soleimani.

A similar strategy was applied in the April 1 strike on Damascus, with Mohammed Reza Zahedi being a main target. Zahedi has been identified as the Iranian general who helped Hamas plan and execute the October 7 massacre.

In the past, the Tehran’s strategy of supporting proxies logistically but avoiding open involvement had its advantages, because it afforded Tehran plausible deniability: They fund terrorism around the world but are barely ever executing such acts themselves.

After the atrocities of October 7, for example, Iran denied any knowledge or involvement with the events of that day. This is done precisely to avoid and minimize the risk of interstate war.

When Iranian proxies used suicide bombers to attack a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina that left 85 people dead and wounded over 300, the attack could not be directly traced back to Iran. But an Argentinian court found that the attack was “carried out by the Shia militant organization Hezbollah and responded to a ‘political and strategic design’ by Iran”.

Based on Iranian behavior of the past, it remains unlikely that the Mullahs would risk all out war due to the bombing of the consulate.

Clearly, given the current political temperature in the Middle East, some response was necessary. And it came in form of a missile and drone attack that was in some ways unprecedented, but in other ways followed the traditional Iranian playbook of avoiding a direct confrontation.

There was the timing. Executed from Saturday to Sunday, this avoided too much of an impact on markets. Then there was the significant announcement of what would happen when, including the visible crossing of Iranian drones into Iraqi airspace.

Obviously, Tehran was eager to avoid catching Israel’s defense forces by surprise, giving them ample time to prepare. Not surprisingly, 99 per cent of drones and missiles were intercepted.

At the time of writing tragically a 7-year-old Bedouin girl was wounded in Southern Israel by shrapnel from an intercepted ballistic missile and remains in a life-threatening condition.

Nonetheless, there is a new aspect to the Israel-Iran conflict. For the first time, Iran has directly attacked Israel and not gone through proxies like Hezbollah or Hamas.

The takeaway therefore is that the regime in Tehran is willing to forego deniability and engage directly with Israel. This time it was mostly symbolic, but it does not have to stay this way.

None of this means, of course, that there will be any form of rapprochement between Iran and Israel soon, but it does show that both sides are assiduous calculators of risk.

Even that does not preclude miscalculations, as can currently be seen with Israel’s war in Gaza, which – once again contrary to many commentators – has not been executed swiftly and brutally but was up to now a slow and grinding military operation of urban warfare.

The longer it takes, however, the more global opinion is turning against Israel, something that Hamas was counting on while Israel underestimated it.

Nonetheless, it is always a mistake to base one’s assessment of politics in the Middle East solely on what politicians say and ignore what they actually do.

Even the US and Iran can cooperate if needed, as demonstrated by Washington backing off sanctions enforcement so that Iranian crude can help calm global oil markets.

Similarly Iranian threats to close down the Strait of Hormuz are nothing more but rhetoric, because it is a needed lifeline for Iranian exports. 

In conclusion, it is unlikely that the events of this weekend will be the direct cause of a wider conflict, but as with all wars, at some point someone will miscalculate the existing risk. And then all bets are off.