Cartoon by Marian Kamensky

The Middle East Could Still Explode: Iran and Israel May Not Be Finished

By Ali Vaez

Foreign Affairs: On April 13, Iran launched Operation True Promise, its response to Israel’s April 1 attack on its consulate in Syria. Over the course of less than 24 hours, Tehran fired a combination of more than 300 drones and missiles at Israeli military facilities. Senior commanders hailed the attack—which involved the first-ever direct strikes launched against Israel from Iranian territory—as successful in sending a message, even though Israel and its allies successfully downed nearly all the incoming fire.

Policymakers and pundits have known for days that the Islamic Republic would retaliate for Israel’s strike in Damascus, which killed several senior Iranian commanders and personnel. But until the drones and missiles took off, it was not clear whether Tehran would make what had previously been a covert and indirect conflict into an overt and direct one. Now the Rubicon has been crossed, and the next chapter is uncertain and fraught with danger for Iran, its regime, and the broader region.

But as the specifics of Iran’s retaliation and Israel’s success at countering it became clear, most policymakers and observers outside the Middle East expressed cautious optimism that further escalation could be avoided. It is too soon, however, for relief: both states are still rattling their sabers, and Israel may respond to Iran’s attacks with more strikes. The two states could keep trading escalating blows leading to an expanding war that draws in the United States and envelops the whole region.


For years, Iran has sought to fight Israel by creating what Israeli strategists call a “ring of fire” around the country. It did this by providing arms and funding to what Tehran calls the axis of resistance, a collection of aligned actors that includes Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and West Bank militants. It also includes Syria, Yemen’s Houthis, and paramilitary organizations in Iraq. Iran originally backed the latter set of groups as a means of checking Saudi Arabia and the United States, but since the start of the war in the Gaza Strip last October, these partners have aided Iran’s operations against Israel as well. Tehran has also pursued a nuclear program—now closer than ever to producing a weapon—that Israeli officials view as an existential threat.

In response to this multifront alliance, Israel has conducted its own campaign against Iran. It has repeatedly carried out covert activity on Iranian soil, including operations targeting nuclear facilities and scientists, as well as conventional facilities and experts. Outside Iran, in a campaign that Israeli policymakers have dubbed the “war between the wars,” the Israeli government regularly took aim at Iran’s weapons transfers, especially those dispatched into Lebanon and Syria.

The two sides were wary of letting their attacks on each other, which often followed a tit-for-tat pattern, get out of hand. But that delicate balance began to change after October 7, when Hamas attacked the Israeli communities surrounding the Gaza Strip. In a display of solidarity with Gaza residents and with the aim of ending the war there, members of Iran’s axis stepped up attacks against Israel and U.S. facilities with Tehran’s vocal support. In response, Israel attacked Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon and Syria, and then Iranian military personnel themselves. Between early December and late March, Israel killed nearly a dozen commanders and advisers in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds Force. Those strikes culminated in the airstrike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus in April, which killed General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the man reportedly in charge of coordinating the Quds Force’s operations across the Levant, and his deputy and several other IRGC members.

For Tehran, the Damascus strike had serious consequences. It reflected yet another massive intelligence failure, on the heels of numerous instances in which Israel outwitted Iranian defenses. It cost Iran yet another senior commander. And it prompted Iranian leaders to question just how secure they really were from attacks by Israeli forces. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated that “attacking our consulate is like attacking our soil.” He and a chorus of other political and military leaders pledged to punish Israel.


Iran’s eventual response highlights an apparent shift in Iranian thinking. For years, its approach toward Israel and the United States argely revolved around what Iranian officials describe as “strategic patience,” a long-term approach that entails reinforcing proxy groups without resorting to immediate, provocative retaliations. This strategy was based on a belief that the networks Iran had built up gave it the ability to project power without risking direct entanglement, exacting costs while maintaining a veneer of deniability.

But the regime’s hard-liners, who are now ascendant, increasingly thought of such patience as a sign of weakness. They therefore pushed the government to increase its risk tolerance and embrace confrontation. This thinking was evident in Iran’s behavior over the last several months. In January, Iran struck targets in northern Iraq and Syria, claiming they were linked to Israel or the Islamic State. The following day, it attacked on Pakistani soil, hitting what it said were the operating bases of militant groups that had struck Iran. Now, Iran has also attacked Israel. “The era of strategic patience is over,” a senior Iranian official posted to the social media platform X on April 14. “The equation has changed.”

Still, Iran’s government does not seem interested in going further. The April 13 barrage was tailored to thread between projecting military strength and avoiding retaliation from Israel (and potentially the United States). Iranian officials exchanged a flurry of messages with Washington and Middle East regional capitals before the attack, giving everyone time to prepare defensive systems. In its public and diplomatic messaging regarding the strikes, Iran emphasized that it was engaging in a limited and proportionate response. According to the White House, Iran said it would strike only “military facilities.” As the dust settled on the morning after the attacks, Iran’s military chief of staff declared, “Our operations are over and we have no intention to continue them.”

But this declaration does not make it so. Iran’s official statement may have “deemed concluded” its spat with Israel, but the Israeli government gets a say, as well. In anticipation of Iranian retaliation, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz declared that “if Iran attacks from its territory, Israel will respond and attack in Iran.” And although a robust defense has successfully blunted the potential toll of Iranian missile and drone strikes—Israeli officials have reported only light damage, no deaths, and just one injury—they may choose to go ahead >>>

ALI VAEZ is Director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group.