May 2024

A game of perceptions

Tanya Vatsa reports on the recent skirmish between regional rivals Tehran and Tel Aviv, the aims behind it, and the aftermath in terms of global opinion

Israel and Iran have been locking horns lately with a series of military exchanges, which have threatened to push the turbulent Middle East precariously close to becoming an active theatre of war. As a result, several international players have tried to intervene for a de-escalation of the conflict situation.

The strife began with an Israeli attack on the Iranian embassy and assets in Syria. Tehran declared that it will not take such acts of aggression silently and responded with a legion of missiles and drones, fired directly at Israeli territory. This was a first, despite the long established hostility between the two regional adversaries. The missiles set off air raid sirens in Israeli cities as their defence systems intercepted the incoming missiles.

While most of the drones and missiles were neutralised by Tel Aviv, with the help of forces from France, the UK, the US and Jordan, at this juncture, the conflict was dangerously teetering on the edge of a full-blown direct war between the two nations.

Tel Aviv’s moves against Tehran had so far received ‘ironclad’ support from Washington. The direct attack by Tehran, however, changed global perceptions and incited all major countries to raise calls for restraint. Israel, despite its promise of a firm response, launched a limited strike, destroying a critical piece of Iranian air defence, the ‘tombstone’ radar, located near the heavily fortified Natanz nuclear complex. It is speculated that this calculated move to disable critical infrastructure essential for tracking incoming air attacks and guiding interceptor missiles, was a subtle hint at Tel Aviv’s intention to de-escalate the impending crisis.

Israel PM
DESPERATE MEASURES: Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s war policies reflect a desperate attempt at regaining domestic popularity

Tehran took the hint and ended the skirmish by fixing the radar instead of escalating the bilateral tension into a regional war.

In hindsight, one might argue that the entire episode was aimed at flexing muscles and displaying each nation’s ability to launch direct attacks on the other’s territory. The breach of sovereignty, without any serious casualties, was a tactical response by both parties in order to uphold their integrity and evince their military prowess.

Historically, Israel and Iran have long been involved in shadow fighting, attacking each other’s assets, without becoming directly engaged in outright combat.The Iran-led ‘axis of resistance’comprises Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and Hamas in Palestine, as well as other armed Shi’ite groups in Iraq and Syria. It is through these groups that Iran has been covertly fighting against Israel for a long time.

In hindsight, one might argue that the entire episode was aimed at flexing muscles

For its part, Israel is facing significant dissent internally and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war policies reflect a desperate attempt at regaining domestic popularity. The Gaza war is now in its sixth month as Hamas still holds several Israelis hostage, creating mass resentment against the incompetence of the government at brokering a reasonable deal to bring people back home.

While Tel Aviv is continually engaged in skirmishes with the surrounding axis members backed by Iran, starting a direct confrontation with Tehran would be fatal for the Israeli government, which is gradually losing global support for the perpetuation of its military offensives in Gaza without being able to get Hamas to the negotiating table. The limited response to Tehran’s recent attack can,therefore, be seen as a prudent move and a clever indication of its intention to avoid a direct face-off with its regional rival. 

As for Iran’s shrewdaction of putting an end to the military exchanges by quietly fixing the radar and replacing it with a stronger counterpart, this achieved two significant goals: it upheld the country’s prestige without an outright response (which would have only exacerbated the brewing tensions), and it continued to showcase its ability to defend itself.

It is often said that diplomacy is nothing but deliberate manipulation of perceptions to create an illusion of righteousness

The ultimate goal behind the entire episode was to shape global perceptions. It is often said that diplomacy is nothing but deliberate manipulation of perceptions to create an illusion of righteousness. Israel wants to maintain a formidable front as it remains surrounded by Shi’ite groups that neither believe in its right to exist nor recognise its sovereignty. Tehran is, to some degree, similarly situated, being the only Shia-dominated Islamic country in a region of powerful Sunni Islamic nations, making it a common adversary to many.

Enmity against Tehran has also given Tel Aviv an opportunity to open communication with the Arab world. While both Israel and various Arab statesare American allies, they have been at loggerheads on the question of the state of Palestine. The muted Arabic response to the war in  Gaza, however, is a diplomatic victory for Washington in the Middle East, and also indirectly for Israel.

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Israel and Iran have long been involved in shadow fighting

Irrespective of how Iran and Israel view each other, the Middle Eastern theatre is currently very volatile and a direct tussle between a nuclear-powered Israel and nearly nuclear-enabled Iran could prove catastrophic. It is also likely to rope in all the major global players, giving rise to a world war situation.

The immediate call for de-escalation from all quarters was a positive development, signalling the greater reluctance towards participation in a tentative war. As long as the larger political inclination remains averse to direct active warfare, countries will find a way to build favourable perceptions, balancing minutely between deceptive words and ambiguous actions.

Tanya Vatsa is currently the Geopolitical and Predictive Intelligence specialist at Inquest Advisories in India, as well as Editor at the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Dept of Defence, United States of America. She completed her Master’s in Legal Studies at the University of Edinburgh after obtaining a law degree from Lucknow’s National Law University, India