Israel and Iran: A Shadow War Emerging into the Open

Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Israel and Iran have been mortal enemies. In a speech given to his people on Iranian New Year in 1980, the ideological and political leader of the fundamentalist revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared that his government would “fight against the Western world — devourers led by America, Israel, and Zionism.” His words were not idle, and since that date, Iran has employed jihadist proxies, such as the infamous Hezbollah in Lebanon, to conduct shadow warfare against Israel and the United States.

Since October 7, 2023, when the Iran-armed-and-funded terrorist organization Hamas attacked Israel and killed nearly 1,200 people and kidnapped hundreds of others, tensions have risen yet further between Israel and Iran. Immediately after the October 7 massacre, Iranian leadership endorsed and celebrated the violence. In the war between Israel and Hamas that followed as a result of the attacks, Iran rallied its proxy network behind Hamas by providing further weapons and logistical support to groups such as the Houthis in Yemen and Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria, which then struck or attempted to strike Israel and its allies — in some cases with lethal consequences.

Iran escalated hostilities against Israel in March 2024 when it smuggled massive amounts of weapons into the West Bank destined for the hands of terrorists in the territory, a plot foiled by Israeli security services before the weapons could be used for violence. Israel retaliated against this provocation on April 1 by striking part of the Iranian embassy complex in Damascus, killing multiple high-ranking Iranian officers. Specifically, Israel targeted commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the division of the Iranian military most active in foreign interference and proxy militia engagement. Iran responded to this strike on April 13 by launching, in conjunction with its proxies, hundreds of missiles at Israel, marking the most significant military action taken by either country in their decades-long conflict.

The Israel-Iran rivalry represents perhaps the most volatile fault line in the Middle East. The two states possess the capabilities necessary to cause massive destruction to one another, and each state has very powerful backers — the United States for Israel, and Russia and China for Iran. Outside of ideologically-driven military struggle, Israel and Iran compete for geopolitical influence in their region. Israel attempts to negotiate normalization agreements with Arab states, preferring trade and cooperation over conflict with its neighbors. Successful cases of normalizing relations with Arab countries include Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and others. Meanwhile, Iran, a Shi’a Islamic theocracy, seeks primacy in the Middle East over its Sunni Islamic neighbors. By such means as leveraging the Palestinian question to rile up domestic populaces in Arab nations and employing limited strikes against targets like oil refineries, Iran competes for regional dominance and coerces its neighbors against normalizing relations with Israel.

While the Israel-Hamas conflict remains ongoing, Iran has additional opportunities to enact hostilities against the Jewish state via its proxies and its own military. The scope and scale of any future attacks, however, is dependent upon many factors, including how effectively the United States is able to deter Iranian aggression. While the United States maintains several options to retaliate against Iran and its proxies if they seriously threaten U.S. or allied interests, this approach does not come without the risk of escalation. Ultimately, the revolutionary and fundamentalist nature of the Iranian regime appears to be as significant as ever, suggesting that, until such a time comes when a different government takes power in Iran, Israel, the wider Middle East, and the Iranian people themselves will sadly not know peace.

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