Jason M. Brodsky

Israel’s attack on Iran was perfectly calibrated

(Photo: Getty)

Today, there have been reports of explosions in Isfahan, in central Iran, in what is presumed to be a strike by Israel. The world had been waiting for Israel’s promised retaliation after Iran launched an unprecedented attack at Israel directly from its own territory, using 300 missiles and drones. Despite the hysterical commentary that Israel is trying to drag the United States and its allies into war, its strikes in Iran appear to have been carefully calibrated to avoid escalation. After all, Israel has plenty of experience operating in Iran, and particularly Isfahan.

In January 2023, the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, launched a drone attack on an Iranian military facility in the heart of Isfahan. Iranian officials downplayed the event, saying there was little damage and that Israel’s quadcopter drones had been downed. Israel frequently uses quadcopter drones to attack Iranian regime facilities. Quadcopters were reportedly used by Israel to similarly target a centrifuge production centre in Karaj. Quadcopters also struck a military drone facility near Kermanshah in 2022. Iran did not retaliate.

Fast forward to April 2024, and American media outlets, citing US officials, are reporting that this time Israel used missiles against the Islamic Republic. This would mark the first time Israel launched a strike using long-distance aircraft with missiles at Iran’s territory since 1979. But the use of missiles was contradicted by Iranian reports, which suggested quadcopters were used. It may be that the leadership in Tehran was, at least initially, trying to minimise last night’s event, as previous drone attacks, which were launched from inside Iran, have not prompted a reaction from Iran.

The reaction was muted during Friday Prayers in Tehran as well on April 19. The secretariat of the Supreme National Security Council, Iran’s top policymaking body when there is deliberation over sensitive files, also denied an emergency meeting was being held after earlier reports suggested otherwise. Some Iranian media did not even mention Israel’s complicity in the events. State television was filled with quiet scenes and serene music trying to keep up appearances that all was well. The leadership in Tehran was trying to downplay public expectations of a response.

Israel’s exact target remains unclear at the time of writing. Fars News suggested ‘three explosions’ were heard around the eighth Shekari air base in Isfahan. The choice to focus on this base was notable as Iran has two militaries, the Artesh, or its regular army, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The eighth Shekari air base is affiliated with the Artesh. Concentrating on the Artesh rather than the IRGC may have been a way to find an off-ramp for Tehran, despite the IRGC presenting more of a threat to Israel. The IRGC holds greater significance, clout, and resources in the Iranian system than the Artesh. That may also reduce the risk for retaliation against Israel, given that many hawkish voices in Iran’s military establishment are associated with the IRGC.

This retaliation by Israel also took place during a symbolic week for the Islamic Republic. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei turned 85 on April 19. This may have been a signal from the Jewish state to Khamenei that it has the ability to strike deep inside Iran at a time when he is ageing and hoping to ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic after he passes away. This past week was also national army day in Iran, which the eighth Shekari air base takes part in. After Iran targeted the Nevatim air base in Israel on April 13, this would in essence even the score.

Israel has also underlined that it can do more damage in a limited precision missile strike than Iran could do with over 300 missiles and drones. This sends a signal to Tehran that its air defence system is inferior to Israel’s layered structure and shows that Israel has the capability to do more harm. This is especially the case given the panoply of sensitive nuclear, military, and defence industry facilities in Isfahan.

In the end, the recent bombast from Iranian officials pledging an immediate riposte if Israel struck Iran stands in contrast to the regime’s muted reaction now. Iran’s leaders believed they had created a ‘new equation’ after attacking Israel directly for the first time. But the Jewish state’s response on Thursday night has sent a message that it can hit back while not alienating its allies in the international community who have been pressing for de-escalation. Iran standing down, at least for now, indicates it has understood this message at a time when the regime is deeply unpopular at home.

Written by
Jason M. Brodsky

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program. He is on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.

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