In recent years, Israel has been targeting Iranian objectives in Syria, and allegedly in Iraq as well, in an attempt to thwart the establishment of an Iranian forward base close to the Israeli border, as was the case in Lebanon with Hezbollah.
On some occasions, Iran tried to strike back by launching missiles from Syria toward the Golan Heights, which caused no damage. On the other hand, Iranian forces and their allies in Syria suffered casualties and serious damages in the attacks attributed to Israel. Moreover, Tehran also suffered international humiliation. Could this ongoing friction instigate an all-out war between the two countries?
It is important to note that the Iranians still remember the huge trauma of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), which led to hundreds of thousands of Iranians casualties (there is no accurate figure) and do not want to repeat this grim experience. In the war in Syria, Iran lost about 2,100 troops.
Israel today has much fewer people and resources than Iraq had in the 1980s, yet Iran knows that Israel is a regional power with formidable military capabilities.
Many Iranians, including those who oppose their regime, might separate between their loyalty to their homeland and their severe criticism of the regime. They could support the government, particularly if they perceived Israel as the aggressor and Iran as the one that must retaliate. However, as long as the battle is contained to Arab states such as Syria, it would be difficult for Tehran to mobilize the Iranian people against Israel.
There is already an Iranian opposition to the country’s ongoing involvement in Syria, where Iran had invested heavily since 2011, to the tune of $20 billion. This money was taken from the Iranian people, who struggle to make ends meet. In that sense, the more money Iran pours into Syria, the higher the chances that the Iranian people might not tolerate it anymore and confront their regime. The Iranian aid, aimed at saving their Syrian ally, Bashar al Assad, might eventually be one of the reasons for the downfall of the Iranian regime. The Iranian-Israeli collision in Syria could turn out to be an Israeli trap, as part of the Israeli strategic goal to weaken the Iranian regime, and hopefully to topple it.
Should Iran decide to strike Israel, it could launch its arsenal of Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missiles, capable of reaching Israel from Iranian territory. Israel’s Arrow anti-missile system could intercept some of the missiles, while others might reach their targets. In retaliation, Israeli aircraft and Special Forces could try to destroy Iran’s bases from which the missiles were fired.
In addition to military targets, Iran might hit Israel’s population centers as well. In response, Israel could strike key facilities that belong to Iran’s energy industry. The Israeli Air Force might even strike Iran’s nuclear sites. In fact, this could be another Israeli trap: pushing Iran to attack Israel so the latter will have an opportunity to bomb Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. This issue is a top priority for Israel, particularly if the 2015 nuclear agreement (the JCPOA) will collapse and Iran will accelerate its nuclear weapons development. In recent weeks, Iran has taken steps to reinstate elements of its nuclear weapons program previously limited by the deal.
The two states might be dragged into a war that will last weeks or even months, which no side seems to be interested in at this point.
Another aspect that must be considered is the financial one. Iran may choose to embark upon a costly war, considering its economic crisis and the growing tension with the United States, Israel’s patron. Iran can prefer to conduct terror attacks against Israeli and Jewish objectives, without assuming responsibility. Tehran could also focus its efforts on advanced cyberattacks.
The current stage is part of the decades-long cold war between the two countries. While Iran could strike Israel in various ways, it might want to avoid an open conflict.