Iran’s missiles were shot down – but they still delivered what Tehran was hoping for | Esfandyar Batmanghelidj

Earlier this month, after an Israeli airstrike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus killed several military commanders, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used his sermon to mark Eid al-Fitr to equate Israel’s attack on the diplomatic facility to an attack on Iranian soil, and vowed that Israel’s “mistake” would be punished. At just that moment, the broadcast of the sermon cut to a face in the crowd – Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh. Hajizadeh commands the aerospace forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). His grin was knowing.

A few days later, on Sunday, 300 drones and long-range missiles were launched from Iran toward Israel. The attack marked the first time Iran had attacked Israel directly from its own territory, rather than relying on its proxies in Iraq, Syria or Lebanon. Though Israeli jets and air defences responded, with the support of American, British, French and Jordanian forces, and successfully intercepted most of the drones and missiles, the spectacle of missiles flying above the Dome of the Rock – the third holiest shrine in Islam – seemed to portend a full-blown war.

Shifting dynamics in Washington are more important for the trajectory of this conflict than the dynamics in Tel Aviv or Tehran. US president Joe Biden has reportedly warned Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the US would not support an Israeli counterattack against Iran. American officials are briefing reporters on Biden’s concerns that Netanyahu may be seeking to drag him into a wider conflict.

Israel and Iran have been engaged in a “shadow war” for years. Iran has endured many embarrassments in this war. Senior generals have been killed. Nuclear scientists have been assassinated. Israeli cyber-attacks have repeatedly hit military sites, nuclear facilities and civilian infrastructure across Iran. Iran’s willingness to absorb these attacks reflected the fear that a direct response could bring the war with Israel out of the shadows. Even now, Iran’s military commanders, while eager to project their strength, remain wary of starting a fight with Israel they might not win. The supreme leader has his own deep-rooted concerns.

Khamenei became Iran’s leader just one year after the end of the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war, in which more than 200,000 Iranians were killed. For Khamenei and his generation of revolutionaries, the first achievement of the Islamic revolution was the “stability and security of the country”, exemplified in the “sacred defence” of Iran against Saddam Hussein’s invasion. The maintenance of Iran’s stability and security is fundamental to Khamenei’s legacy and to the advancement of the Islamic revolution, particularly at a time when many Iranians have come to feel fundamentally unsafe, perceiving their leaders as reckless and repressive.

It is therefore surprising that Iran chose to attack Israeli territory from its own on Saturday night. Officials and analysts had expected a measured retaliation. Importantly, Iran had given Israel and its partners ample time to prepare for an assault. Iran also engaged in back-channel talks to make clear that it was not seeking to trigger a war. Once the attack was over, the Iranian mission to the United Nations issued a statement saying that the “matter can be deemed concluded”.

President Joe Biden arrives on Air Force One in Delaware last week. Photograph: Pablo Martínez Monsiváis/AP

But the direct nature of the attack, which made it so spectacular and frightening, may still compel a strong Israeli response, possibly triggering a new and dangerous cycle of escalation. In a warning to Israeli leaders, Hossein Salami, the commander of the IRGC, hailed the attack as establishing a “new equation” in which Israel can no longer attack Iranian “people, property, or interests” without triggering a “reciprocal” response launched from Iran.

The Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, has declared that “the campaign is not over yet”. In taking the fight to Iran, Israel sees an opportunity to regain international support, so eroded by its horrendous conduct in Gaza. But it is unclear whether the United States will help Israel strike back.

President Biden’s statement on the Iranian attack reiterates the US’s “ironclad commitment to the security of Israel”, but it also includes some remarkable language. The statement makes clear that Iran attacked “military facilities”, downplaying the threat to civilian lives. It emphasises that the defence was successful and that Israel’s enemies “cannot effectively threaten” its security, pre-empting arguments that Israel faces an existential threat from Iran. Biden vows to coordinate a united “diplomatic response” to Iran’s aggression, ruling out an immediate military response. The statement concludes by making clear that American forces had not been attacked – a crucial signal to the American public.

During the third debate in the 2012 presidential election, both the president, Barack Obama, and his opponent, governor Mitt Romney, were asked about Iran and whether they would declare that “an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States”. This was once the widely understood meaning of the US’s “ironclad commitment to Israeli security”. But today, the American electorate no longer understands what national security interests are at stake in the Middle East, and increasingly believes that ironclad commitments should have brassbound conditions. Notably, most American voters now disapprove of Israeli military actions in Gaza.

As Iran’s leadership has doggedly pursued the dismantling of the longstanding security architecture in the Middle East, including the withdrawal of US forces, it has sought to expose the limits of American security guarantees. To this end, it has developed an acute understanding of Biden’s deep reluctance to enter a new war, most recently evidenced by his response to the death of three US soldiers in an attack at the al-Tank military base in Syria in January.

This may explain why Iran opted for a direct, if calibrated, attack on Israel. It did not directly restore Iranian deterrence, but it did expose a critical American reluctance. The effect may be the same.

Biden’s statement makes it clear that Israel remains perfectly capable of defending its territory and will have US support in doing so. But if Israel continues to go on the offensive, it may be forced to do so alone. This fact, more than anything else, may moderate Israel’s next move.

The Guardian