Israel's attack was smaller than expected, as was Iran's reaction

The relatively limited scope of Israel's overnight attacks on Iran, and a moderate response by Iranian officials, may have reduced the chances of an immediate escalation in clashes between the two countries, analysts said on Friday.

While Israel is still fighting wars on two fronts, against Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the likelihood of a third front has diminished, at least for now.

There have been fears for days that a strong Israeli response to Iran's attack on southern Israel last weekend could provoke an even more aggressive response from Iran, potentially turning an “eye for an eye” confrontation into a broader war.

Foreign leaders have advised Israel to view its successful defense against Iran's missile barrage as a victory that required no retaliation, warning of a counterattack that could further destabilize a region already racked by Israel's wars with two Iranian allies, Hamas and Hezbollah, and by tensions with a third ally. , the Houthis in Yemen.

But when Friday finally arrived, the Israeli attack appeared less damaging than expected, allowing Iranian officials and state media outlets to downplay its significance, at least for now.

In public, only one senior Iranian official, the foreign minister, had acknowledged Israel's role in the strike on Friday evening. The Iranian government's relative silence and Israel's failure to acknowledge responsibility have given Tehran a chance to move forward without feeling humiliated, analysts said.

Iranian officials said that no enemy aircraft were detected in Iranian airspace and that the main attack – apparently against a military base in central Iran – was initiated by small unmanned drones that were most likely launched from inside the Iranian territory. The nature of the attack had precedent: Israel used similar methods in an attack on a military facility in Isfahan last year.

A Western official and two Iranian officials, who discussed security matters only anonymously, said Israeli warplanes also fired missiles from outside Iran. It is not yet clear what type of missiles were used, where they were launched from or whether they were intercepted.

By dawn, Iranian state news outlets were predicting a quick return to normality, broadcasting footage of calm street scenes, as officials publicly dismissed the attack's impact. Airports also reopened after a brief overnight closure.

Analysts have warned that any outcome is still possible.

Last Saturday, there was an airstrike on a base in Iraq's Babylon province used by an Iranian-backed armed group, according to an arm of Iraqi security forces. A hospital said three people were injured. There was no claim of liability; the US Army said in a statement who had not participated in any attack in Iraq.

The initial Iranian reaction to the attack the day before suggested that the country's leaders would not rush to respond, despite warning in recent days that they would react forcefully and quickly to any Israeli attack.

“The way they present it to their people, and the fact that the skies are already open, allows them to decide not to respond,” said Sima Shine, former head of research for Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, and an Iranian Expert.

But, he added, “We made so many errors in judgment that I'm very hesitant to say that definitively.”

In a miscalculation that sparked the current wave of violence, Israel struck the Iranian embassy compound in Syria on April 1, killing seven Iranian officials, including three senior commanders.

For years, Israel had launched similar attacks against Iranian interests in Syria, as well as Iran, without provoking a direct response from Iran. But the scale of Israel's attack on April 1 appeared to have put an end to Iran's patience, with the nation's leaders warning that it would no longer accept Israeli strikes against Iranian interests anywhere in the region. Two weeks later, Iran fired more than 300 missiles and drones at Israel, causing little damage but shocking Israelis with the scale of the attack.

While Iran did not respond similarly to Friday's Israeli attack, it left the world wondering how it would respond to future attacks, Shine said.

Syrian authorities said on Friday that Israel had struck a site in Syria again, around the same time as the attack on Iran. It was the type of attack that Israel had carried out dozens of times in the past without provoking a direct Iranian reaction, but which – given Iran's response to Israel's April 1 attack in Syria – could now provoke a more aggressive retaliation from Iran. of Tehran.

“The question is whether they will stick to the red line,” Ms. Shine said. “But what exactly is the red line? Are they just high-ranking people? Is it just the embassies? Or does it concern all Iranian targets in Syria?”

For some Iran analysts, the Iranian government is unlikely to seek all-out war, given that its main priority is to shore up its power at home amid growing domestic discontent. In recent decades, Tehran has attempted to gradually expand its regional influence through proxies and allies, rather than risk everything in a direct confrontation with Israel.

While recent Iranian missile attacks have successfully challenged Israeli assumptions about how Iran operates, “at the end of the day, escalation is not in Iran's interest,” said Sanam Vakil, program director Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House, a research group based in London.

“Above all, he is trying to preserve the security and stability of the regime,” as well as strengthen his allies and gradually reduce American influence in the Middle East, Dr. Vakil said in an email. “De-escalation allows us to return to those objectives that require patience and slow progress amid regional chaos and emptiness,” he added.

Inside Israel, some described the country's attack as a failure that caused little damage and suggested that Israel had ultimately been intimidated into carrying out only a small retaliatory attack compared to the very large attack. more aggressive than Iran. In an apparent allusion to the strike on social media, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right Israeli government minister, wrote a single word, roughly translated as “Pathetic!” Before the attack, Ben-Gvir had pushed for a stronger response.

Others hailed it as a clever tactical success that gave Iran the chance to avoid retaliation without losing face, while demonstrating to Tehran that Israel can strike undetected in the heart of Iranian territory – and do so with far more cunning than before. Iranian attack last weekend. .

Nahum Barnea, a prominent Israeli commentator, compared the Israeli attack to the biblical story of how David, the ancient Jewish leader, attacked King Saul, another biblical figure. In the story, David chose not to kill Saul even though he had the ability to do so, and instead cut off a fragment of Saul's robe.

“The intention was to signal to the Iranians that we can reach Iranian soil,” Barnea said in a telephone interview. “Not to open a front.”

But if on Friday it seemed that moderation had prevailed for now, experts warned that it was only a matter of time before another major clash occurred.

“The recent open confrontation between the two is just the beginning,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli professor who teaches Iranian studies at Reichman University in Israel. “Sooner or later the two will face each other directly again.”

Cassandra Vinograd, Johnatan Reiss AND Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed to the reporting.

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