Redefining Iran’s Role in its Latest ‘Shadow War’ Against Israel

May 24, 2021 Topic: Iran Region: Middle East Tags: IranHezbollahGazaIsraelMissiles

Redefining Iran’s Role in its Latest ‘Shadow War’ Against Israel

As Iran works to make its proxies more militarily self-sufficient, opportunities for weapons interception will be reduced and claims of attribution against Tehran will become harder.

Specifically, after each round of fighting, Iran has re-armed its clients with more lethal capabilities and aided them in the move towards domestic production. Renewed fighting offers Tehran a chance to test these new capabilities, as well as to continually assess the performance of Israel’s layered air and missile defense systems. Changes in the number of rockets fired and salvos by Hamas and PIJ, as well as more multidirectional rocket and drone attacks, all point to an assertive Iran looking to overwhelm systems on a battlefield where Arabs and Israelis will bear the brunt.

But the loss of life or erosion of deterrence are not the only prices Tehran has sought to extract. During the latest round of fighting, Iran’s hardline media framed the costs Israel must go to in order to defend itself from relatively cheaper projectiles as a measure of victory. “Whether they hit or don’t hit, they lose!” claimed Fars News Agency. The IRGC long-ago understood that its ballistic missile program required its adversaries to invest heavily in expensive missile defense systems in order offset Iran’s unmanned aerial threats. As is now evident through bursts of rocket fire, Iran’s proxies also understand this dynamic. The more they fire, the greater the budgetary vs security tradeoff for Israel as it makes interceptions. 

Despite all these changes, the logic animating Iran’s arms proliferation and technical support remains the same. First, the more a proxy’s military aptitudes increase, the greater the deterrent dividend for their patron. States have less room for maneuver against Iran today because they have to factor in the capabilities of Iran’s diverse militia network. Second, by continuing to offer arms, components, expertise, money, or even political support, Iran stands a greater chance of continuing to control regional hotspots and using proxies as spoilers against peace efforts. And third, the greater the quantity and quality of weapons in the hands of Iran’s proxies, the more secure they feel in their ability to resist an attack, and the more likely they are to end up using these weapons or escalating a crisis to achieve their goals. In the case of Hamas, PIJ, and their patron, their ultimate goal is the eradication of Israel through a graduated military and political strategy akin to a death by a thousand cuts approach. 

Iranian officials frame wars with Israel from 2006 onwards—be it with Lebanese Hezbollah or Gaza-based groups—as a success due to their proxies’ ability to survive, adapt, continue to land blows, and the creation of a politically and militarily precarious situation for Israel between conflicts. Iran’s IRGC Commander has already laid the groundwork for this claim by saying, “Americans and Israelis are between two defeats, if they retreat, they will be defeated, and if they stand, they will again be defeated.” 

In this respect, Iran’s latest “shadow war” against Israel does not differ significantly from Israel’s past experience with interstate conflict. During the 1973 War, former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat framed his country’s military aims as seeking “to prove to the whole world that the Israeli theory of security would collapse.” Fast forward four and half decades, the Islamic Republic and its proxies are similarly looking to prove that Israeli security and deterrence will collapse, and are committed to prodding their way forward regardless of the recent ceasefire. As Khamenei proclaimed, “One day Palestinian youth would defend themselves by throwing stones, and today they respond to the enemy by launching precision missiles [rockets].” The Islamic Republic is the party most responsible for this evolution and is the one most inclined to do something with it in the future. 

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington DC. 

Image: Reuters