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Friday, May 24, 2024

Iran Plays Down Israeli Strikes, Averts Escalation in Shadow War

Explosions echoed across the Iranian city of Isfahan on Friday, in what sources described as an Israeli attack targeting the Islamic Republic’s defense infrastructure. However, Tehran’s measured response and decision to downplay the incident appeared to be a strategic move aimed at averting a regional conflagration amidst heightened tensions between the longstanding adversaries.

The limited scale of the attack and Iran’s muted reaction both signaled a successful effort by diplomats who have been working tirelessly to prevent an all-out war since an Iranian drone and missile attack on Israel last Saturday.

Iranian media and officials acknowledged a small number of explosions, attributing them to the country’s air defenses intercepting three drones over Isfahan. Notably, they refrained from directly accusing Israel, referring to the perpetrators as “infiltrators” – a deliberate choice of language that circumvents the need for immediate retaliation.

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An Iranian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to Reuters that there were no plans to respond against Israel for the incident. “The foreign source of the incident has not been confirmed. We have not received any external attack, and the discussion leans more towards infiltration than attack,” the official stated.

Israel, true to its policy of strategic ambiguity, neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in the strikes. However, the incident comes amid rising tensions and explicit Israeli threats of retaliation against Iran for Saturday’s strikes, which marked the first direct attack on Israeli soil by the Islamic Republic in decades of a shadow war waged through proxies – a conflict that has escalated across the Middle East over the past six months of violence in Gaza.

The two longstanding foes had been inching closer to direct confrontation since a presumed Israeli airstrike on April 1 that destroyed a building in Iran’s embassy compound in Damascus, killing several Iranian officers, including a top general. Iran’s unprecedented direct attack on Israel in response, while causing no casualties and only minor damage due to Israeli and allied air defenses, had raised fears of a spiraling escalation.

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In the wake of Friday’s strikes, allies including the United States, Britain, and Germany had been exerting significant diplomatic pressure to ensure any further retaliation would be calibrated to avoid provoking a cycle of hostilities. Western countries have also tightened sanctions on Iran, in an effort to mollify Israel’s hardline government, which has faced internal pressure from far-right elements for a more robust response.

Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s far-right national security minister, took to Twitter with a single, scathing word after Friday’s strikes: “Feeble!”

Globally, calls for restraint and de-escalation echoed from various quarters, with the EU Commission head Ursula von der Leyen emphasizing the necessity of regional stability and urging “all sides to refrain from further action.” Similar appeals came from Beijing and Arab states in the region.

Financial markets reacted nervously, with global shares dipping, oil prices surging, and U.S. bond yields falling as traders grappled with the risks of a potential broader conflict.

Within Iran, news coverage of the incident conspicuously omitted any mention of Israel, with state television analysts appearing dismissive of the scale of the strikes. One analyst described the targets as mini drones flown by “infiltrators from inside Iran” and subsequently shot down by air defenses.

“Shortly after midnight, three drones were observed in the sky over Isfahan. The air defense system became active and destroyed these drones in the sky,” Iranian state TV reported.

Senior army commander Siavosh Mihandoust was quoted by state TV as saying air defense systems had targeted a “suspicious object.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi had previously warned Israel that Tehran would deliver a “severe response” to any attack on its territory. On Thursday, Iran had told the United Nations Security Council that Israel “must be compelled to stop any further military adventurism against our interests” as the U.N. secretary-general cautioned that the Middle East was in a “moment of maximum peril.”

By morning, Iran had reopened airports and airspace that were shut during the strikes, signaling a conscious effort to restore normalcy and avoid escalation.

Nevertheless, the specter of heightened security risks loomed. The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem restricted U.S. government employees from travel outside Jerusalem, greater Tel Aviv, and Beersheba “out of an abundance of caution,” warning U.S. citizens of a “continued need for caution and increased personal security awareness as security incidents often take place without warning.”

The latest flare-up in tensions stems from Israel’s assault on Gaza, which began after Hamas Islamists attacked Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 according to Israeli tallies. Israel’s military offensive has claimed the lives of about 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the Gazan health ministry. Iran-backed groups have declared their support for Palestinians, carrying out attacks from Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq, fueling fears that the Gaza conflict could escalate into a wider regional war.

As the shadow war continues, Iran’s decision to downplay the Israeli strikes and avoid immediate retaliation appears to be a calculated move to maintain a tenuous balance and prevent an uncontrolled spiral of violence – at least for the time being. However, with deep-seated animosities and competing regional ambitions, the potential for further confrontation remains ever-present, underscoring the fragility of the current detente.

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