The ‘Isfahan incident’: a nail in Israel’s coffin

Khalil Harb, The Cradle, April 23, 2024 ─

Iran’s Operation True Promise strikes on 13 April have reopened the deep wounds Israel incurred during Hamas’ 7 October attack. While Operation Al-Aqsa Flood shook the occupation state’s security bubble at its core, a single night of Iranian rockets and drones left Israelis straggling to hold on to even a sliver of their famed deterrence posture. 

As military spokesman for Hamas’ Qassam Brigades Abu Obeida succinctly highlighted in his 23 April speech:

Iran’s response, in its size and nature, established new rules and confused the enemy’s calculations.

This is the region’s new status quo. And Israel’s mysterious ‘Isfahan attack’ has done nothing to shake Iran’s confidence. In short, the alleged Israeli counter has reaffirmed the regional view – militarily, at least – that Tehran has checkmated Tel Aviv and rewritten the rules of engagement.

After years of provocations, and for the first time in its history, Iran has launched a direct offensive against Israel, confidently claiming that it utilized only a fraction of its military capabilities – many of these “obsolete” missiles within its fast-evolving arsenal.

Iran targeted Israel’s key Nevatim and Ramon air bases precisely, despite the spectacular display of lights from intercepted decoy explosions that lit up the skies. Many, quick to judge, misinterpreted the massive salvo as a sign of a broader strategic offensive from the Unity of Fronts – the Resistance alliance that poses a multi-front dilemma for Tel Aviv – aimed at devastating Israel in one blow. 

A slap in the face 

In fact, Iran conducted the operation alone, which makes the seriousness of Iran’s “slap” all the more significant. 

The night of the Iranian missile attack also demonstrated the limits of Iranian patience and Tehran’s strategic shift from caution to calculated aggression, necessitating the intervention of three western nuclear powers and the “Arab fig leaf,” Jordan, to counteract the assault. 

The Iranians backed their military actions with public statements and shared images of their commanders orchestrating the operations. Conversely, Israel’s response to the events in Isfahan was ambiguous and poorly communicated, with only sporadic information leaking to the US and Israeli press in a feeble attempt to project resolve. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian mocked the Israeli response in an interview with NBC News, where he dismissed the Israeli drones as trivial, likening them to “toys that our children play with.”

Israel’s ‘ridiculous’ comeback 

Israel’s military counter is now widely perceived as a dud, derided even within Israel itself by figures such as Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, who describes it as “ridiculous.” 

Despite Tel Aviv’s formidable military arsenal, which includes undeclared nuclear weapons, and its historical posture as a reliable western ally in the region, the events of 13 April have exposed gaping vulnerabilities in its ability to respond to credible threats, especially from Iran.

This ineffectiveness was highlighted amidst the symbolism of Isfahan – home to Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility – where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long positioned himself as a stalwart against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, appeared uncharacteristically passive. 

The Israeli PM’s lack of any tangible response was a departure from his usual hyperbole, painting a picture of Israel as unprepared and hesitant – retreating rather than confronting.

Furthermore, Iran’s nuclear program has paradoxically also emerged as a potent tool in Tehran’s strategic arsenal. The explicit warning from the Islamic Republic about possibly revising its nuclear doctrine in response to an escalated Israeli threat suggests a bold new stance, despite Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s fatwa (Islamic decree) against nuclear arms. 

Is Israeli deterrence dead?

The Isfahan incident did little to bolster Israel’s deterrence posture, which has been eroding since Al-Aqsa Flood and further weakened by Hezbollah’s operations in the north and Iran’s True Promise. These events have deeply impacted the Israeli psyche, challenging the foundational sense of security that underpins the Zionist vision of a “secure Jewish state” established on the lands of Palestine.

Against this backdrop, the conventional rules of engagement that have long governed regional interactions are being re-evaluated. Iran’s bold moves – despite US and Israeli warnings – signal a recalibration of power dynamics, indicating a potentially transformative period in West Asian geopolitics. 

The Israeli response, both present and future, must now consider the possibility of a united front from the Axis of Resistance if it chooses to escalate further. This adds a layer of complexity to any military planning against Iran, likely prompting Israel to revert to its characteristic approach of covert operations. These may involve sabotage or targeted assassinations attributed to local agents rather than direct military strikes.

Meanwhile, the US, amid its own internal political issues and upcoming elections in November, is likely to play a dual role. It will monitor its ally’s actions closely while trying to moderate the regional tensions to prevent any significant escalation that could destabilize its broader strategic interests.

A point of no return 

Today, it is Iran – not the US, not Israel, and certainly not the Isfahan attack – which has restabilized the regional balance, even temporarily, pending the crystallization of the new rules of engagement.

Tel Aviv’s counterstrike tried hard to mitigate the possibility of any further Iranian retaliation – especially as Tehran’s next move would likely come without warning, involve Iran’s superior missiles, and potentially the mobilization of Iranian allies toward Israel’s borders.

The Axis of Resistance was happy to allow their Iranian ally to take center stage on 13 April and exact revenge for Israel’s miscalculated 1 April bombing of Iran’s diplomatic mission in Damascus. Any further bold moves from Tel Aviv would ensure that the Axis would activate on every front to swarm Israel.

So, for the moment, Tel Aviv does not dare to compromise Iran’s security directly, instead turning their impotent rage toward vulnerable Rafah, where over a million Palestinian civilians are stranded without food, shelter, and water.

The Hebrew media is already spinning for all its worth, promoting Tel Aviv’s “gains” from demonstrating restraint against Iran – whether from last week’s UN Security Council veto of a Palestinian state or the new $26 billion aid package the US Congress just approved for Israel, or obtaining White House support for the occupation army’s Rafah invasion. 

Dr Hussein al-Musawi, the spokesman for the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba, tells The Cradle that Israel has, in effect, received a blank check for bad behavior from Washington:

“It is not surprising that the US supports and defends Israel, regardless of its violation of international norms, and this undoubtedly embarrasses the Iraqi government, which seeks to take a clear position on the US military presence in Iraq.”

For these and many other reasons, Israeli leaders are now acutely aware that any overtly aggressive action will not go unnoticed in the current geopolitical climate. The region is embroiled in what could be described as a ‘mini-international-regional war,’ characterized by intermittent flare-ups and periods of relative calm. 

True Promise, much like Al-Aqsa Flood before it, is poised to be recorded in history as a pivotal, perhaps even terminal, moment for the brief history of the Israeli occupation state, which now finds itself more isolated than ever and facing an increasingly uncertain future.

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