Diplomacy In Middle East Grey Zones – Analysis


By Mauricio D. Aceves 

The confrontation between Israel and Iran has been driven through shadows and non-direct operations since the Islamic Revolution, moving through periods of high tension and deceleration Covert actions to impair Iran’s nuclear program, military facilities, and energy infrastructure and tit-for-tat attacks on the high seas and in cyberspace[1] have been the preferred means to express mutual hostility. The Israeli airstrike on 1 April against an Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria, which killed officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including the Quds Force’s General Mohammad Reza Zahedi,[2] has been part of this chronology.

The response from Iran was an attack from its homeland, through 170 drones being launched simultaneously with 120 surface-to-surface ballistic missiles and 30 cruise missiles.[3] The counter-attack from Israel targeting Iranian air defence facilities close to Isfahan was also registered.[4] According to press statements and media reports, most projectiles were intercepted in both operations, and the damage was not critical; only a few missiles hit their targets-. 

These last few days mark the end of one stage and the beginning of a new one. The exchange of direct fire combined with hybrid operations has set a precedent that might re-condition the region’s dynamics. Several messages from both sides were delivered. Teheran drew a red line of warning by its direct hits to Israel and showed the might of its firepower to neighbours. The symmetrical response by Israel demonstrates its technical capabilities to face direct military engagement and that it can hold the line on multiple fronts across a broad geographical spectrum and the range of its strikes over Iranian territory.

So far, deterrence capabilities developed by regional powers over the last decades appear to have failed. Alliances with numerous non-state actors have been the selected option through which Iran has built a network, especially in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, to increment its deterrence capabilities and build military pressure for geopolitical advances and attrition of rivals. Other countries have replicated this model and provided the power of deniability to avoid scalations or direct retaliations. 

On the other side of the table, even as the U.S. withdrawal from the region has not concluded, its influence has waned, weakening the security pact with Israel. Meanwhile, the state of democracy in Israel has also altered operational and diplomatic communication.

The First Gulf War, perhaps, was the last symmetric war in the region, with professional conventional armies engaging by all means. It ended with eight years of war-exhaustion, no border gains and was the prelude of the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in 1990. The current situation has switched on the regional alarms. But it does not mean the Middle East is on the brink of collapse; rather, a new dimension of conflict has unfolded. 

In the last decades, the shadows and grey zones of warfare have been the accepted battlefield of the contest. In contrast, direct engagement is now accepted as an option, though policymakers recognize the danger of a noticeable escalation. This scenario represents a new task for regional stability. Iran has shown no interest in continuing to feed the spiral of retaliation, and the U.S. has called on Israel to contain its responses. 

Western leaders have called for restraint to prevent a wider regional war, and negotiations mediated by major countries are ongoing[5], disregarding the stagnation in the Security Council.[6] It is unclear whether these efforts will deter belligerent actions or relieve the devastation and humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Concerns and inconveniences are aligned even when different interests collide, which is sufficient to keep diplomacy alive. From the regional perspective, scalation will severely harm the region, and gains are insignificant or nonexistent.

In contrast, what does a victory look like? 

The decisions and the long diplomatic mediation experiences of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Türkiye, Qatar, Jordan, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates will be crucial in future developments. The negotiations of Saudi Arabia with the U.S. and Israel regarding adherence to the Abraham Accords, resumption of relations with Iran through the Joint Trilateral Statement, and talks within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are diplomatic movements that aim for balance, rather than navigating through a large-scale conflict only to exhaust what has been gained in terms of regional stability, national developments and international prestige. Ongoing talks cannot be lost; negotiations in diplomacy are like rest in the night; better to have some than nothing. 

The Teheran Conference of 1943 was a milestone in creating a strategy to end the Second World War. The Middle East must be a place to reach once again a treaty to build a new format for long-term warranties. The current framework bears no semblance to those found in the history books. The regional environment is unstable, and some of its roots are located in the inner instability of nations. Yet, a new regional understanding must be reached. At the edge of war, “escalate to de-escalate” could be the path to negotiations and finding an emergency exit, but only solid governments can pledge this amidst upheaval.

For now, even while bypassing a cycle of diplomatic isolation – at most minor in the current multilateral atmosphere – the government of Israel has demonstrated capabilities to operate effectively beyond its border and use its cutting-edge technology to gain superiority in some military spheres, even as its national security strategy and final goals are not settled. Intentions, capabilities, and emotions linger, hidden within the grey zones; uncovering them is part of the reality of conflict – and also of a possible solution.

  • About the author: Mauricio D. Aceves is an advisor for security and border issues at STRATOP Risk Consulting and an author in Foreign Affairs Latin America on the contemporary Middle East and Central Asia issues.
  • Source: This article was written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.


[1] International Crisis Group, “Iran-Israel “Shadow War” Risks Spinning Out of Control“, ICG, April 12, 2024. https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iran-israelpalestine/iran-israel-shadow-war

[2] Shaikh, Shaan, “The Iran-Israel Air Conflict, One Week In”, Center for Strategic § International Studies, April 19, 2024. https://www.csis.org/analysis/iran-israel-air-conflict-one-week

[3] Ídem.

[4] Atlantic Council, “Experts react: Israel just conducted a limited strike in Iran. Is this the end of the tit for tat?”, Atlantic Council, April 19, 2024. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/experts-react/experts-react-israel-just-conducted-a-limited-strike-inside-iran/

[5]  Gordon, Michael R., Said, Summer, Gordon, Lubold, “White House Makes Fresh Push for Historic Deal to Forge Saudi-Israel Ties“, The Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2024.  https://www.wsj.com/world/middle-east/white-house-makes-fresh-push-for-historic-deal-to-forge-saudi-israel-ties-68ed3a8c#

[6] UN News, “US vetoes Palestine’s request for full UN membership”, United Nations, April 18, 2024. https://news.un.org/en/story/2024/04/1148731

Gateway House

Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations is a foreign policy think-tank established in 2009, to engage India’s leading corporations and individuals in debate and scholarship on India’s foreign policy and its role in global affairs. Gateway House’s studies programme will be at the heart of the institute’s scholarship, with original research by global and local scholars in Geo-economics, Geopolitics, Foreign Policy analysis, Bilateral relations, Democracy and nation-building, National security, ethnic conflict and terrorism, Science, technology and innovation, and Energy and Environment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *