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Israel’s Strike Was Smaller Than Expected, and So Was Iran’s Reaction

WorldMiddle EastIsrael’s Strike Was Smaller Than Expected, and So Was Iran’s Reaction

The relatively limited scope of Israel’s overnight strikes on Iran, and a subdued response from Iranian officials, may have lowered the chances of an immediate escalation in fighting between the two countries, analysts said on Friday.

While Israel is still fighting wars on two fronts, against Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the likelihood of a third front has ebbed, at least for now.

For days, there have been fears that a forceful Israeli response to Iran’s attack on southern Israel last weekend could prompt an even more aggressive riposte from Iran, potentially turning a tit-for-tat confrontation into a wider war.

Foreign leaders advised Israel to treat its successful defense against Iran’s missile barrage as a victory that required no retaliation, warning against a counterattack that might further destabilize a region already roiled by Israel’s wars with two Iranian allies, Hamas and Hezbollah, and tensions with a third, the Houthis in Yemen.

But when it finally came early on Friday, Israel’s strike appeared less damaging than expected, allowing Iranian officials and state-run news outlets to downplay its significance, at least for now.

In public, only one high-ranking Iranian official, the foreign minister, had acknowledged Israel’s role in the strike by Friday evening. The relative silence from the Iranian government and lack of acknowledgment of responsibility from Israel gave Tehran the chance to move on without feeling humiliated, analysts said.

Iranian officials said that no enemy aircraft had been detected in Iranian airspace and that the main attack — apparently on a military base in central Iran — had been initiated by small unmanned drones that were most likely launched from inside Iranian territory. The nature of the attack had precedent: Israel used similar methods in an attack on a military facility in Isfahan last year.

One western official and two Iranian officials who would discuss security issues only anonymously said that Israeli warplanes also fired missiles from outside of Iran. It was not immediately clear what type of missiles were used, where they were fired from or if they were intercepted.

By sunrise, Iranian state-run news outlets were projecting a swift return to normalcy, broadcasting footage of calm street scenes, while officials publicly dismissed the impact of the attack. Airports were also reopened after a brief overnight closure.

Analysts cautioned that any outcome was still possible.

Early Saturday, there was an air attack on a base in Iraq’s Babylon Province used by an Iranian-backed armed group, according to an arm of Iraq’s security forces. A hospital said three people were wounded. There was no claim of responsibility; the U.S. military said in a statement that it had not participated in any strikes in Iraq.

The initial Iranian reaction to the strike the day before suggested that the country’s leaders would not rush to respond, despite warning in recent days that they would react forcefully and swiftly to any Israeli strike.

“The way they present it to their own people, and the fact that the skies are open already, allows them to decide not to respond,” said Sima Shine, a former head of research for the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, and an Iran expert.

But, she added, “We have made so many evaluation mistakes that I am very hesitant to say it definitively.”

In a miscalculation that set off the current round of violence, Israel struck an Iranian Embassy compound in Syria on April 1, killing seven Iranian officials, including three senior commanders.

For years, Israel had launched similar attacks on Iranian interests in Syria, as well as in Iran, without provoking a direct response from Iran. But the scale of Israel’s attack on April 1 appeared to end Iran’s patience, with the nation’s leaders warning that it would no longer accept Israeli strikes on Iranian interests anywhere in the region. Two weeks later, Iran fired more than 300 missiles and drones at Israel, causing little damage but shocking Israelis with the scale of the attack.

Even if Iran does not respond in a similar way to Israel’s strike on Friday, it has left the world guessing about how it would respond to future attacks, Ms. Shine said.

The Syrian authorities said on Friday that Israel had again struck a site in Syria, about the same time as the attack on Iran. It was the kind of attack that Israel had made dozens of times in the past without provoking a direct Iranian reaction, but which — given Iran’s response to Israel’s April 1 strike in Syria — might now prompt a more aggressive retaliation from Tehran.

“The question is whether they will stand by their red line,” Ms. Shine said. “But what exactly is the red line? Is it only high-ranking people? Is it only embassies? Or is it every Iranian target in Syria?”

For some analysts of Iran, it is unlikely that the Iranian government seeks an all-out war, given that its main priority is to sustain its power at home amid rising domestic discontent. Across recent decades, Tehran has attempted to gradually expand its regional influence through proxies and allies, rather than risking it all in a direct confrontation with Israel.

While Iran’s recent missile strikes successfully challenged Israeli assumptions about how Iran operates, “at the end of the day, escalation is not in Iran’s interest,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a research group based in London.

“Above all, it is seeking to preserve the regime’s security and stability,” as well as strengthening its allies and gradually reducing American influence on the Middle East, Dr. Vakil said in an email. “De-escalation allows it to get back to those goals which require patience and slow gains amid regional vacuums and chaos,” she added.

Within Israel, some portrayed the country’s strike as a failure that caused little damage and suggested that Israel had, ultimately, been intimidated into carrying out only a minor retaliatory assault compared to Iran’s much more aggressive attack. In an apparent allusion to the strike on social media, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right Israeli government minister, wrote a single word, roughly translated as “Pathetic!” Before the attack, Mr. Ben-Gvir had pushed for a stronger response.

Others hailed it as a deft tactical success that gave Iran the chance to avoid retaliating without losing face, while still proving to Tehran that Israel can strike undetected at the heart of Iranian territory — and do so with much more subtlety than Iran’s own attack last weekend.

Nahum Barnea, a prominent Israeli commentator, compared Israel’s strike to the biblical story of how David, the ancient Jewish leader, attacked King Saul, another biblical figure. In the story, David chose not to kill Saul despite having the chance to do so, and instead sliced off a sliver of Saul’s robe.

“The intention was to signal to the Iranians that we can get to Iranian soil,” Mr. Barnea said in an phone interview. “Not to open a front.”

But if it seemed on Friday that moderation had won out for now, experts warned that it was only a matter of time before another serious clash occurred.

“The recent open confrontation between the two is just the beginning,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli professor who teaches Iranian studies at Reichman University in Israel. “Sooner or later, the two will directly confront each other again.”

Cassandra Vinograd, Johnatan Reiss and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting.

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