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Iran’s Retaliation Likely to Be Limited, but Errors Could Lead to War, Experts Say

WorldMiddle EastIran’s Retaliation Likely to Be Limited, but Errors Could Lead to War, Experts Say


Israeli forces were on high alert on Friday in anticipation of a retaliatory strike by Iran or its proxies, which analysts and officials warned could spur an Israeli reaction and potentially provoke a broader conflict in the region.

Iran is expected to launch an attack as soon as this weekend in retaliation for an April 1 airstrike, in which warplanes struck an Iranian Embassy building in Damascus, killing three generals and other commanders, U.S. and Iranian officials said on Friday.

Military analysts said neither Israel nor Iran appeared interested in provoking a full-blown war that could draw in the United States, but that a miscalculation about either side’s red lines could result in an escalation in hostilities.

An Iranian response was inevitable given the high profile of one of the generals killed in Syria, Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a top commander in Iran’s Quds Force, the analysts said.

“For every wise player, there comes a moment when the cost benefit calculation shifts and all strategies are reset,” said Mahdi Mohammadi, the chief adviser to Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the speaker of Iran’s Parliament. “For Iran that moment was the attack in Damascus.”

Israel expects Iran to strike in a way that allows it to save face, but is measured enough to not arouse an even fiercer counter-strike, analysts say. The Iranians “don’t want a total war,” said Amos Gilead, a retired Israeli general. “So they might attack targets that would enable them to declare that they’ve achieved a great victory.”

Iran and Israel do not maintain any direct, formal channels of communication, making the chances for each side to misread the other’s intentions far greater, said Danny Citrinowicz, a former Israeli military intelligence officer.

American intelligence analysts and officials think Iran will strike multiple targets inside Israel within the next few days, said three U.S. officials who requested anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

Where those strikes are aimed, from where they will be launched, who might carry them out and the damage they are expected to inflict remain secret to all but the highest levels of the Iranian government and military.

But Iran’s answer to those questions will determine the size and scope of Israel’s response, said Mr. Citrinowicz, a fellow at the Tel-Aviv based Institute for National Security Studies.

The country’s leaders likely hope to use their strike to restore some semblance of deterrence following the killing of General Zahedi in Syria, he said. (Israel has not publicly taken responsibility for that attack, but several Israeli officials confirmed the country’s involvement to The New York Times.)

Such an Iranian response, Mr. Citrinowicz said, could mean an attack from Iranian territory rather than through its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

Israel has warned that an attack launched from inside Iran on targets inside Israel would be considered an escalation that required a reaction.

Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman, said on Thursday such an attack would be “clear evidence of Iran’s intentions to escalate the Middle East and stop hiding behind the proxies.”

Last week, in anticipation of an Iranian strike, the Israeli military announced that additional reserve units had been called up to reinforce Israel’s air defense system and that combat soldiers expecting leave had been ordered to remain deployed.

Should Iran launch an attack from its own soil, said Mr. Citrinowicz, Israel’s air defenses would detect drones or cruise missiles long before they reached their targets, giving Israeli forces a chance to destroy them.

A more daunting scenario, he said, would be surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, which would arrive in a matter of minutes. Israel has developed some defenses — such as the Arrow system — to intercept longer-range missiles.

“If we manage to intercept most of what’s incoming, that would be excellent — it would moderate our need to respond offensively,” Mr. Citrinowicz said.

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting.



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