The implications of Iranian action

Last weekend, Iran launched more than 300 ballistic and cruise missiles and drones against targets in Israel. What are the implications of the assault?

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Operation True Promise involved sending many ballistic and cruise missiles directly from Iran, with others from Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. The US and other allies came to Israel’s support, shooting down most of these incoming weapons, while making it clear they would not back any offensive missions against Iran. The allies claim to have shot down 99% of the projectiles and celebrated a defensive victory. They report no deaths and minimal damage. The West says this has demonstrated that the defensive systems are very effective – and that Israel will be protected by allies against such attacks.

Iran, however, sees it differently. It claims to have damaged the Israeli F-35 base at Nevatim, which was used to fly the raid on Iran’s consulate in Damascus that started this round of trouble. It also says it hit an intelligence facility in Israel. Iranians took to the streets to rejoice at the launch of weapons against Israel.

There are some claims that a limited use of very fast missiles was effective. In 2023, Iran announced to the world that it had developed two types of hypersonic missiles capable of great speed. The West thought the claims were exaggerated, doubted some of the claims about their ability to manoeuvre, and pointed out that existing ballistic missiles can also be very fast.

Iran’s main aim was to try to deter Israel from taking more actions against its proxies. The fact that Iran gave prior warning of the attack and used many slower-travelling drones implies that their aim was not to inflict maximum damage on Israel.

The Iranian threat

Iran regards the recent bombardment as repayment for the Israeli attack on their consulate in Damascus – and the deaths of seven important figures. Iran now says that if Israel attacks again following the Iranian assault, Israel should expect a reply in seconds, not the twelve-day delay before the response to Israel’s attack on the embassy. This is playing on the claim it made about the Fattah missile system, that it could hit Tel Aviv in 400 seconds from launch in Iran. It is 1,000 miles from Tehran to Tel Aviv by air, implying a flying speed of 15,000 miles an hour or Mach 20, the kind of speed they claim for their hypersonic weapons.

The West, under US leadership, is keen to reassure Iran that there is no wish for a wider regional war. Diplomatic efforts are underway to dial down any further response by Israel to Iran’s latest actions, while strengthening anti-missile defences on a collaborative basis.

The US and European Union (EU) are considering sanctions packages. President Biden spent time and effort trying to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran in his early months in office, favouring a return to the nuclear agreement approach to Iranian relations. Iran would not accept terms satisfactory to the West, leading to a further marked deterioration in the relationship and now to the point where US forces are shooting down Iranian attack weapons in a stressed Middle East.

Iran, meanwhile, has helped build terrorist groups and militias in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, creating an arc of enemies of Israel. These groups look to Iran for training, support, and weapons supply. The Houthis in Yemen are currently firing on neutral shipping and encouraging piracy. Hezbollah in Lebanon has weaponry it could unleash on Israel. Iran backs Hamas in Gaza.

The possible western response

Treasury Secretary Yellen has said the US is planning new sanctions against Iran. Speaking of Iran’s “malign and destabilising activity,” she probably has in mind sanctions against industrial goods related to weapons production and the weapons themselves. It is unlikely the US would want to increase sanctions against Iranian oil, with the oil price going higher than the President would like as he and the Fed battle inflation. The EU has stated it too is now working on a further package of sanctions that may seek to disrupt the flow of weapons from Iran to proxies in the Middle East and to interfere more with Iran’s weapons manufacture.

Israel has requested its allies place more sanctions on Iran and has asked that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard become a proscribed organisation in more countries. This is a sign that Israel is looking at options to respond to Iran that fall short of a major Israeli attack on targets in Iran. The aim seems to be to target sanctions to do maximum damage to Iran’s military capabilities without damaging wider world trade flows. Such an outcome would be the least harmful for the world economy and markets. Our base case assumes no escalation of the current Middle Eastern conflicts into a wider regional war.

There remains the possibility that Israel goes it alone again and retaliates hard against Iran.

There remains the possibility that Israel goes it alone again and retaliates hard against Iran to satisfy the forces in the Israeli governing coalition that believe in making a strong reply to Iranian actions. While the Iranian attack on Israel persuaded allies to back Israel by providing real assistance to the defences, the allies have been equally clear that their support cannot extend to fighting a war against Iran alongside Israel. This should be sufficient to allow a more moderate response.

There is the possibility that Iran allows or facilitates its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere to unleash a stronger set of attacks on Israel. This would likely keep the allies closer to Israel, with more defensive support being marshalled against the proxies. The West is already offering a naval response to the attacks of the Houthis on shipping in the Red Sea.

The number and sophistication of Iranian hypersonic missiles need to be watched, as does any link to Russia, which has developed new superfast missiles.

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The implications of Iranian action

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