A version of this article was originally published on the Substack “Thinking Middle East.”

With this latest escalation between Iran and Israel, the Middle East is entering a new era. What is new is not the tit-for-tat between the two states, but that this attack was launched from Iran proper, and only partly via proxies in Iraq and Yemen. Iran did use its territory for the attack against US bases in Iraq after the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, but using its territory for this attack on its major regional adversary, Israel, is a first. In a way, this brings to a close almost thirty years in which Iran promoted a “forward defense” strategy against Israel via proxies in Lebanon, and then in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. This “shadow war” enabled Iran to maintain a shred of deniability, and to largely shield Iran’s mainland from direct military engagement. By bringing Iran proper into the active arena of conflict, it will also risk making Iran’s mainland fair game for future military reaction by Israel. Given the limited support inside Iran for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) military adventurism, this escalation may create dynamics that Iran’s current leadership might eventually regret. Also, by bringing Iran proper directly into the conflicts in the region, this not only exposes it to future attack but will also drag it into necessary de-escalation and conflict management talks that it previously could stay away from and that it might prefer to avoid.

In Israel, this dramatic attack, although triggered by Israel’s own attack on the Iranian consulate in Syria, and even if the Iranian response did not cause much damage, will certainly increase the long-term concern about Iran. That concern was already high, but it was focused mainly on Iranian proxies or allied militias like Hamas and Hezbollah; but Iran has now demonstrated that it is able and willing to engage Israel directly. And given that Iran also appears to be moving quickly toward nuclear weapon capacity, this threat will return as the main concern for most Israelis. 

In the short run, it is not clear if Israel will choose to respond to this attack. In one perspective, it was quite a limited and fore-warned attack by Iran that caused minimal damage and so far no loss of life, and it was triggered by Israel’s own attack on the consulate; on the other hand, it will be read by hardliners in Israel as a major escalation: In their reading, they hit an Iranian consulate in a third country; Iran responded with an attack on Israel proper. Hard-line Israeli leaders might feel the need for Israel to strike Iran proper, sooner or later, to demonstrate parity of capacity and willingness with the Iranians. Such an Israeli retaliation, of course, would likely unleash another major wave of escalation.

Politically, the attack gives a lifeline to embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It will increase the “rally around the flag” dynamic in Israel and extend the timeline of “not removing a wartime prime minister” to the longer fight against Iran, which Netanyahu has long been warning about. Also, while Netanyahu, US President Joe Biden, and many Arab governments have come to vehemently disagree about the war in Gaza, most of those same players are much more in agreement about the threat represented by Iran. 

As for the war in Gaza, the escalation of threat might give Netanyahu the political space to go ahead with the operation in Rafah and try to bring the war in Gaza to an end on his terms, and then to pivot — appealing to the US and regional powers — to the threat from Iran. Netanyahu will try to distract political attention from the “day after” political and security arrangements in Gaza, and will certainly use it to dismiss any talk about a pathway toward a two-state solution at this time. 

Of course, more sober leadership in Israel, if it were to come to power, might learn different lessons from this attack. It might conclude that the escalating scope and intensity of threat to Israel necessitates a strategic rethink, and that prolonging the subjugation and conflict with the Palestinians only empowers Iran and other adversaries and weakens Israel’s long-term stability and security. Such sober leadership might see this escalation as cause for a change of direction, bringing the Gaza war to an end, and launching a political process with a revamped Palestinian Authority and with wide support from Arab countries, toward a two-state solution. Such an end game would greatly undermine Iran and its allies, and will create a much more stable and secure regional architecture. Currently and sadly, this scenario looks very unlikely.

In the US, administration officials will be laser focused in the short term on avoiding further escalation and urging the Israeli government to hold its fire. Netanyahu will certainly try to “cash in” on his short-term restraint with Iran by gaining more leeway in Gaza. The Iranian attack will also paper over some of the bitter disagreement between the US and Israel over the conduct of the war in Gaza; there is much wider agreement on Iran.  

In the long run, the US will also be forced to face the growing direct challenge from Iran. For many years, US administrations have talked largely about the asymmetric threat posed by Iran’s proxy militias — and this was corroborated over the last six months, when the challenges to Israel and US forces came from proxy militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. But with Iran bringing itself directly into regional military action, this will influence US thinking. And with Iran showing that it is willing to launch missiles and drones from its own territory against regional adversaries, this brings a new level of threat perception to the ongoing Iranian nuclear program.

Among Arab countries, most will be quite pleased that they stayed out of this fight. The Gulf countries in particular will be happy that they de-escalated their relations with Iran a couple of years ago and are not part of this dangerous escalation. Jordan was caught between allowing Iranian drones to cross its airspace or shooting them down; they did the latter and have received veiled threats from Iranian government press that they could be targeted if they do this again. The attack itself, launched directly from Iran, and the threats against Jordan, will raise concern in other Arab capitals about a new level of Iranian heavy-handedness in the region. Overall, however, the escalation will reinforce what Arab states have been insisting on, which is an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and bringing that war to an end, not only to end the suffering of Gazans but also to avoid the sort of regional escalation that just transpired.

In temporary conclusion, the immediate priority is for urgent diplomacy to avert a further escalation between Israel and Iran and concomitantly to work urgently for a cease-fire in Gaza, large-scale humanitarian aid, the release of hostages, and bringing that conflict to an end. This will both start to end the suffering in Gaza and also rapidly deescalate tensions in the wider Middle East and avoid the region slipping into a major war that would be catastrophic for most countries, as well as for the global economy.


Paul Salem is president and CEO of the Middle East Institute. He focuses on issues of political change, transition, and conflict as well as the regional and international relations of the Middle East.

Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

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