Tehran’s Retaliation Logic

Tehran’s Retaliation Logic

The primary objective of Iran’s April 13 strike could have been to restore what they perceive as deterrence with Israel rather than initiate further escalation.

On April 13, Iran launched an aerial strike against Israel, retaliating for an Israeli attack on its embassy in Damascus, which resulted in the deaths of multiple senior IRGC commanders, including Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a prominent leader of the elite Quds Force. This unprecedented move has plunged the entire region into a new era of escalation. However, considering the survivalist orientation of Iran’s political establishment—founded by Ayatollah Khomeini, who famously prioritized the establishment’s existence over even the fundamental principles of Islam—it seems highly unlikely that Iran would undertake such a significant action without thorough planning. This planning undoubtedly encompasses both the military and political dimensions of their strike. In this context, analyzing Iran’s political and military considerations is crucial before deciding to conduct the attack.

Iran’s military strategy in this conflict appears straightforward. It focuses predominantly on psychological warfare, executed in several phases.

Step One: Exhaust the Enemy’s Morale

The campaign began by creating a deliberate atmosphere of uncertainty and panic among Israelis. This was achieved through a comprehensive use of psychological warfare that permeated official speeches, diplomatic messages, media outlets, and social media platforms. A notable instance was Ayatollah Khamenei’s post on his X account (formerly Twitter), where he issued a warning to Israelis in Hebrew about impending punishment. This extensive campaign served dual purposes: firstly, to reassure the political base of the Islamic Republic that their demands for revenge were being addressed, and secondly, to drain the morale of the IDF and Israeli populace by keeping them in a continuous emotional state of high alert.

Step Two: Reconnaissance in Force

Following the initial psychological operations, the next stage commenced on April 13, when Hezbollah launched a series of rocket barrages from southern Lebanon toward Israel. Although the barrage involved a considerable number of rockets—about forty in the largest wave—it was not enough to overwhelm Israel’s aerial defense capabilities. This stage is likely aimed at serving as a probing attack to assess the IDF’s readiness while escalating the psychological pressure on them. This tactical move helps gauge the enemy’s response and adapt subsequent strategies accordingly.

Step Three: Swarm Attack

On April 13, the Islamic Republic of Iran initiated a significant offensive by launching approximately 170 drones, marking a first in its history. This initial wave was soon followed by 120 ballistic missiles and 30 cruise missiles. Collectively, Iran and its proxies from Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen targeted Israel with a total of 330 missiles and drones. This high volume of drones, launched from various positions, was likely intended to overwhelm the layers of aerial defense operated by the United States in Iraq and Syria, the United Kingdom in Cyprus, the Jordanian military, and the IDF itself. The strategic objective of this overwhelming assault was likely to ensure that a portion of the ballistic and cruise missiles could penetrate these defenses and reach their intended targets.

As the attack unfolded, initial assessments from various sources indicated that most of the weaponry launched—except for a few impacts on the Nevatim and Ramon Airbases—was intercepted by Israel and its coalition of allies. In fact, the IDF reported that they had successfully shot down 99 percent of the missiles and drones launched by Iran and its Axis of Resistance toward Israel. Despite the relatively large scale of the arsenal deployed, the material impact of the attack in terms of damage to Israeli facilities was minimal. This outcome raises a significant question: Why did the Iranians launch such an extensive attack? More specifically, what were Iran’s political calculations prior to it?

Demonstrating Capability while Minimizing War Risks

The Iranian strike occurred seventy-two hours after Iran issued warnings to various Middle Eastern nations, including Turkey, a NATO member. Furthermore, Iranian sources claim that their diplomatic channels had informed the United States of a limited strike on Israel. This suggests that Iran was fully aware that these warnings would likely be communicated to Israel, thereby preparing the IDF and triggering its defense mechanisms.

In terms of military weaponry, while Iran claims to possess advanced hypersonic missiles like the medium-range Fattah-1, the initial strike primarily involved Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 drones. These drones operate at low altitudes and travel at a speed of 114 miles per hour, a combination that makes them highly susceptible to interception, potentially even without radar. Despite the capability to launch these drones from Syria or Lebanon—which might have reduced the likelihood of interception—Iran chose to launch a significant wave of drones directly from its own territory. This decision allowed the drones to pass through multiple layers of aerial defenses in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.

The likelihood of Iran miscalculating the potential interception of its drones seems low, especially given the vulnerabilities observed with Shahed drones in Ukraine when not used for short-range attacks. Additionally, Israel’s Iron Dome has demonstrated its effectiveness in intercepting similar aerial threats. In this context, Tehran’s strategy likely involved imposing a self-limit on the scale of the strike due to concerns over potential Israeli retaliation. Given that Iran does not possess the extensive alliance system or the sophisticated aerial defense capabilities that Israel has, full-scale conflict would pose significant risks.

Instead, Tehran might have opted for what could be termed a “demonstrative shot” rather than an all-out strike. By launching directly from its territory, Tehran intended to send a clear message of its capability to reach Israel and execute a complex, large-scale operation. This message carries significant weight, especially given the U.S. officials’ reports that Iran possesses the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East, with over 3,000 missiles. Coupled with Hezbollah’s formidable cache of 150,000 drones, rockets, and missiles, this arsenal has the potential to significantly challenge Israel’s aerial defenses and exceed their capacity to respond effectively. Furthermore, by coordinating attacks involving Iraqi Shia militias, Yemen’s Houthis, and Hezbollah, Iran aimed to showcase its ability to instigate widespread chaos across the region. This strategy not only threatens Israel but also U.S. interests in the Middle East and international maritime security. It is quite likely that Iranian officials believe the West is eager to prevent the emergence of a similar crisis to that in Ukraine, given the current international context.

Therefore, the primary objective of Iran’s April 13 strike could have been to restore what they perceive as deterrence with Israel rather than trigger further escalation. However, this strategic goal does not imply that Iran intended no harm. Given the scale of the strike and the accompanying political maneuvers, it seems plausible that Iran hoped to replicate the impact of the Al-Asad strike in Iraq by inflicting serious damage on a key Israeli facility without causing casualties—a scenario that could force Israel to respond more aggressively. Nevertheless, Israel thwarted this attempt with the assistance of the United States, the United Kingdom, Jordan, and France.

Arman Mahmoudian holds a PhD in Politics and International Affairs. He is an adjunct faculty member at the University of South Florida and a researcher at the USF Center for Global and National Security. Follow him on X at @MahmoudianArman.

Image: Shutterstock.com.