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Iran and Israel dragged their shadow war out of the dark, and it's much more dangerous now

Jake Epstein   

Iran and Israel dragged their shadow war out of the dark, and it's much more dangerous now
  • Iran and Israel have fought a deadly shadow war for decades.
  • The two enemies have relied on proxy forces, assassinations, and strikes abroad to hit each other.

A decades-long shadow war between Iran and Israel has been thrust into broad daylight.

For years, the two bitter foes have relied on strikes in other countries, covert assassinations, and proxy forces to trade blows as part of a simmering — but deadly — conflict. Iran's unprecedented attack on Israel last weekend has notably changed the dynamics of this conflict, and it's now more dangerous.

A senior US defense official told reporters on Sunday that "it was the first-ever direct attack on Israel from Iranian soil," calling the barrage "reckless" and warning that it "risks dragging the region into broader conflict."

The fierce animosity between Iran and Israel can be traced back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which ushered in a theocratic regime in Tehran that has long opposed Israel's existence and has vowed to ultimately destroy the state.

Iran over the years has supported, funded, and armed proxy forces across the Middle East, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and has relied on them to attack Israeli interests. This has essentially allowed Tehran to strike at Israel indirectly.

Israel, on the other hand, has carried out airstrikes against Iranian assets abroad, including in Iraq and Syria, in an attempt to limit Tehran's ability to funnel lethal weaponry across the Middle East to its proxy forces, especially those close to Israel's borders.

Jonathan Lord, formerly a political military analyst at the Pentagon, told Business Insider Israel has found limited tactical success in this space, "so over time, those strikes have become more public and less covert, and certainly, we've sort of seen that grow and grow."

Israel has also tried to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, believing it to be an existential threat. It has assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists and launched cyberattacks on Tehran's facilities. The shadowy conflict has seen tit-for-tat exchanges at sea, too, including the recent Iranian seizure of an Israel-linked cargo ship in the Straight of Hormuz.

Amid persistent tensions, the two enemies managed to avoid a direct military confrontation with each other, but that is no longer the case.

An 'escalation' in the shadow war

On April 1, an Israeli airstrike on an Iranian diplomatic facility in Damascus, Syria, killed several military officials, including two generals in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, responsible for supporting Iran's proxy network, the so-called "Axis of Resistance."

The brazen strike marked a significant moment in the shadow war between Israel and Iran, distinguishing itself from past Israeli actions in Syria because it targeted an Iranian government-affiliated site and high-ranking individuals. Tehran vowed to retaliate, and nearly two weeks later, it did.

Iran and its proxies launched more than 300 one-way attack drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles at Israel — in a large and unprecedented attack. Nearly all of the Iranian munitions were shot down by Israel and partner forces in the region, including the US.

"Clearly, firing these missiles and drones from Iranian territory directly at Israel is an escalation" in the conflict, retired Gen. Joseph Votel, who oversaw US military operations in the Middle East as the commander of US Central Command, told BI.

One country attacking the other's homeland, he added, had generally been off the radar.

"That has been shattered, and that has been changed here," Votel said, noting that what normally tends to play out behind the scenes has now been brought "much more into the open."

Israel has promised its own retaliation for the Iranian attack and appears to be calculating its next move, despite some of its Western partners calling for the country to show restraint. Any Israeli military response to the attack risks an all-out confrontation with Iran and could plunge the region into even more violence.

"We're on the edge of the cliff and we have to move away from it," the European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, told Spanish radio station Onda Cero this week, stressing that "we have to step on the brakes and reverse gear."

Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, the IRGC commander, suggested that regardless of whether Israel attacks Iran or its assets abroad, Tehran will retaliate directly like it did last weekend, rather than rely on its proxies, as it has historically done. But it remains to be seen whether such remarks would actually translate into action.

Going forward, the long-standing shadow war has very much been exposed. Neither party is concerned anymore about hiding attribution for its actions, Lord said, but rather, everything is now aimed more at establishing deterrence and limiting the activities of the other party.

"There was nothing shadow about what we saw over the weekend," Lord said. What used to be kept in the shadows, he said, was no longer the case after it became so overt "and the list of usual suspects that could be involved were reduced down to two: Iran and Israel."

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