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Iran attack highlights shadow war, triggers fears of wider conflict

The massive Iranian attack on Israel over the weekend thrust the decades-long shadow war between the two countries out into the open, highlighting a spiraling conflict that threatens to grow even more dangerous in the future.

Iran’s brazen attack, which included some 300 ballistic and cruise missiles along with explosive drones, was largely defeated by Israeli and allied defense systems. 

But Tehran’s bold move to directly launch an assault on Israel for the first time underscores the volatile track both nations are on. Whether they continue to teeter toward a wider war largely depends on how Israeli officials decide to retaliate.

“We are already in the larger conflict that we say that we’re trying to avoid,” said Gene Moran, a retired Navy captain who is now an adjunct professor of public policy at Florida State University.

Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East initiative, said the Iran attack has the effect of bringing the Iran-Israel battle “out of the shadows and into the light.” 

“What is clear is that this is the beginning of a new era, one in which Iran is willing to respond directly to Israeli attacks and in doing so risk retaliation against the Iranian homeland,” he wrote in an analysis

A focus of the Biden administration even since the initial Hamas attack on Israel in October that killed nearly 1,200 has been to prevent a wider war from emerging.

While Israel’s response to Hamas — an assault of Gaza that has killed 32,000 — has led to an international outcry, it has not created a regional war.

An attack on an Iranian consulate in Syria earlier this month attributed to Israel killed members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and led to Iran’s counterattack.

President Biden reportedly told Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he should take the “win” over Iran, saying the U.S. would not support a retaliatory attack on Tehran.  

But Israeli’s war Cabinet is still debating the matter, and the chances of further skirmishes and a larger war are higher than they have been before.

Kiron Skinner, a former adviser on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for the Pentagon, said any Israeli counterattack could push tensions even further. 

“This could be a very, very deadly conflict that would affect every part of the globe,” said Skinner, also a former State Department official. 

There are reasons to think Israel could opt not to counterattack.

Its forces, with some help from the U.S. and other allies, stopped the vast majority of the Iranian missiles and drones. No Israelis died, and there was only light damage to infrastructure. The international community condemned Iran and stood by Israel for the most part.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said whether Israel responds is “an Israeli decision to make.” 

“The president from the beginning of this conflict on Oct. 7 has been steadfast and consistent,” he told reporters Monday. “We don’t want to see a war with Iran. We don’t want to see a broader regional conflict. We will do what we have to do to defend Israel.” 

Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said in a Monday statement that officials are still “considering” steps but appeared to suggest that there will be a response.

“This launch of so many missiles, cruise missiles, and [drones] into the territory of the State of Israel will be met with a response,” he said, according to a statement shared by Israeli media. 

Shortly after the missiles were fired Saturday night, Iran said the matter could be “concluded” and that Tehran was ready to move on. But it has threatened to respond more aggressively should Israel retaliate.

“Should the Israeli regime plan to continue its wicked actions against Iran, by any means or methods or at any levels, it will get a response ten times harsher,” reads a statement shared by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and shared by state-run media. 

Iranian officials publicly warned for more than a week that forces were going to attack, defeating the element of surprise.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said the Iranian attack was likely “intended to cause significant damage below the threshold that would trigger a massive Israeli response.”  

The ISW also said the attack was more limited than expected because Iran “underestimated the tremendous advantages Israel has in defending against such strikes compared with Ukraine.”  

Retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, the former head of U.S. Central Command, said it was “absolutely nonsense” that Iran scaled down its attack, saying Tehran acted out of “desperation.”  

“This was a maximum effort,” he said in a Monday webinar event with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).

McKenzie said Iran launched most of its ballistic missiles capable of hitting the country and prepared heavily for the response. “It was an indiscriminate effort. It was designed to greatly injure Israel.” 

Either way, the world is now looking toward Israel as officials weigh a response. World leaders from France, Germany and Britain all urged Israel not to respond and to de-escalate the situation.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres condemned the Iran attack at a Security Council meeting Sunday but called for further restraint. 

“It’s time to step back from the brink,” he said. “It’s vital to avoid any military action that could lead to major military confrontations on multiple fronts in the Middle East. Civilians are already bearing the brunt and paying the highest price.”

Retired Israeli Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, a previous national security adviser to the country’s prime minister, said Israel has to take into consideration multiple factors when weighing a response, including the ongoing war in Gaza and conflict with Hezbollah in the north, along with the U.S. position.

Still, he said in a webinar event that Israel may seek to retaliate in order to avoid being seen as “afraid” or “weak” to other nations in the region.

“The natural reaction of most of the Israelis: ’Let’s do something,’” said Amidror, now a fellow at JINSA.

Yaacov Ayish, also a retired major general who is JINSA’s senior vice president for Israeli affairs, said there are other ways to hit back at Iran outside of direct military action and the “reaction should not be emotional.” 

“It seems to me like many Israelis [tend to react] to things in an emotional way, and I hope it’s not penetrating the rooms of our leadership while they are assessing the situation,” he said.  

Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official, said a failure to respond to Iran will create “added risk for Israel of future attacks from Iran and other enemies” and predicted a response in the “near future.” 

“It’s very possible that Israel will respond to the direct attack with a series of covert operations within Iranian borders,” he said in an email.

Source: The Hill

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