‘Nightmare Scenario’: The Risks Of Escalation As Israel Mulls Iran Response – Analysis


By Kian Sharifi

(RFE/RL) — Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel has put the Middle East in uncharted territory.

Tehran fired scores of drones and missiles at Israel on April 13, its first-ever direct attack on its archfoe.

In the wake of the assault, Israel has been weighing up its options, which analysts say could range from a diplomatic offensive to isolate Iran to directing military strikes on the Islamic republic.

With the risk of escalation higher than ever, the worst-case scenario of an all-out war between Iran and Israel is a distinct possibility, analysts say.

“Israel will have to take intentions into account, not just results, and this means there is a case that is going to be made in Israel for a response inside Iran — with all the risks that come with it,” said Michael Horowitz, head of intelligence at the Bahrain-based Le Beck International consultancy.

While neither Iran nor Israel may want an escalation, “the dance they’ve engaged in — trying to ‘out-deter’ the other — is a very dangerous one,” Horowitz said.

Iran’s attack was retaliation for the suspected Israeli air strike on the Iranian Embassy’s compound in Syria on April 1 that killed seven Iranian commanders, including two generals.

Suspected Israeli air strikes have killed at least 18 members of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the elite branch of Iran’s armed forces, in Syria since December.

Iran’s April 13 attack appeared to be highly choreographed and not intended to cause significant damage or casualties.

‘Nightmare Scenario’

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has said Israel has “no choice” but to respond to Iran’s attack. Tehran, however, has warned its response will be “stronger” and “more extensive” if Israel retaliates.

The IRGC’s chief commander Major General Hossein Salami, on April 14 said Iran’s operation — dubbed Honest Promise — had “changed the equation” and Tehran would respond to Israeli actions rather than exercise “strategic patience.”

“Iran wants a paradigm shift and has said that from now on, every Israeli action will receive a similar response,” Farzin Nadimi, a senior fellow with the Washington Institute, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

Any direct Israeli military action against Iran could trigger a full-blown war between Israel and Iran — what Horowitz calls the “nightmare scenario.”

Such a scenario could drag in the United States, Israel’s key ally, and trigger attacks on Israel by Iranian proxies and pro-Iranian militant groups in the region, including Lebanon’s Hizballah, Yemen’s Huthi rebels, and Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria.

“If we reach this point, we may see weeks of Israeli strikes in Iran, the full-scale engagement of Hizballah in an attack against Israel, an Israeli ground incursion in Lebanon, and Iranian attempts to close the Persian Gulf,” Horowitz said.

Iran has for years threatened to block the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a major route for world oil supplies.

Even in the absence of a direct Israeli attack on Iran, “a cycle of tit-for-tat attacks between Iran and Israel could get us there, if outside parties don’t act as they did so far to de-escalate tensions,” Horowitz warned.

‘Level Of Uncertainty’

Many global powers and regional actors have called for de-escalation, including the United States, which has called on Israel to show restraint.

U.S. President Joe Biden has told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington will not support an offensive strike against Iran, according to reports.

“The United States has enormous leverage over Israel, if it chooses to use it,” Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda. “It has not been using its leverage…. Now, with the possibility of a wider war looming, it appears the Biden administration has told Israel that if they do anything more, they’re on their own.”

While it is not impossible for Israel to ignore Washington and take matters into its own hands, Walt said the odds of a regional conflict were slim because “most of the actors in the region do not want this to happen.”

He said the only groups that “might have an interest” in a wider war are Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, and Netanyahu’s hard-line government.

Even so, there would be no real winners in a broader conflict, according to Horowitz.

“There is just no predicting how any of the warring sides will come out of an escalation, and this level of uncertainty generally isn’t good for anyone,” he said.

With reporting by Elaheh Ravanshad and Saeid Jafari


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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