Out of the Shadows: How Israel and Iran Benefit from Escalation

29 Apr, 2024    ·   5876

Dr. Muneer Ahmed & Siddharth Anil Nair break down the domestic and international dividends that Tel Aviv and Tehran are able to accrue  

While the spectre of inter-state conflict has loomed large over West Asia these past few months, it appears now to be at a defining moment. The international crisis—spanning three continents—triggered by Israel’s invasion of Gaza in response to Hamas’ attacks, has finally brought the protracted Israel-Iran conflict out of the shadows.

In April this year, following an Israeli strike on Iran’s consulate in Syria, Iran and Israel overtly traded missiles and drones for the first time in their 45-year rivalry. Iran’s never-seen-before barrage was followed by a much smaller, targeted volley by Israel. This escalation sets a dangerous precedent, with new rules of engagement that challenge Tel Aviv and Tehran’s long-held strategic redlines. Such an exchange might thus occur again. Significantly, however, the escalation also affords leadership in both countries a certain amount of political breathing space at home and abroad.

Domestic Distraction

Iranian and Israeli moves and counter-moves have helped leadership in Tel Aviv and Tehran to distract their publics from ongoing social and economic pressures. Their actions have also redirected popular discontentment away from domestic grievances and towards a foreign enemy.

Israel has seen widespread grievances against the Benjamin Netanyahu government over issues of high-level corruption, social repression, and legislative overreach. Israeli citizens massed on the streets are also protesting the government’s failures during and after 7 October. This includes the failure to thwart the attack, handling of the hostage crisis, and the prosecution of the war in Gaza. Protests calling for fresh elections and the ouster of Prime Minister Netanyahu have also stepped up.

Meanwhile, there is growing Iranian disenchantment with the Ebrahim Raisi government over modesty laws, high unemployment, cultural repression, etc. Iranian citizens have continued nation-wide protests over these issues, to their own peril. The poor voter turnout at the recent Iranian legislative elections showcases this frustration. Along with socio-economic issues, Tehran’s strategic patience on attacks against its top military leaders and assets has also contributed to public disaffection towards the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) attack on Israel and the Israel Defence Forces’ (IDF) response help to diffuse and distract from some of these domestic political pressures. These direct attacks are useful to rationalise the war effort and demonstrate the “existential threat” that Israel faces. They must also help allay Netanyahu’s fears, given that he faces legal prosecution whenever the war ends. The Iranian strike, thus, is the fuel needed to keep the blitz of Gaza going.

Similarly, for Tehran, these military manoeuvres are a useful way to distract the Iranian public from their mounting domestic discontent. It also further galvanises Iranian sentiment for the Palestinian cause and creates support for Iran’s campaign to this end. Finally, these recent actions could also have assuaged President Raisi’s worries: by generating much-needed credibility for his leadership, rationalising defence spending, and legitimising the ‘axis of resistance’.

International Traction

Through their military escalation, Israel and Iran have been able to score international points as well. It has helped Tel Aviv and Tehran recall support from partners and allies.

The IRGC attack has created four significant windows of opportunity that serve Israel’s interests. One, it has allowed its partners, like the US and those in the EU, who were facing serious domestic backlash for their support of Tel Aviv’s indiscriminate military campaign in Gaza, to reaffirm support to Tel Aviv. It addresses to some degree the negative public opinion that has constrained Western decision-making on support to Israel. Two, Israel’s western partners are able to legitimately band together to defend Israel through the invocation of a common enemy. It generates credible grounds for the presence of US, UK, and French forces—who have been involved in protecting international sea lanes—in the broader region. Three, it has motivated these partners, like the US and Germany, to continue to send tabled or stalled military aid packages that include much-needed replenishment for the IDF’s air defence and artillery systems.

Iran’s partners, in West Asia and North Africa (WANA) and others like China and Russia, meanwhile already had pending disagreements with Tehran over its nuclear programme, its adventurism with the ‘axis of resistance’, and Western pressure on WANA countries to normalise relations with Israel. Iran’s missile strikes, including in South Asia, and Houthi actions in the Red Sea, created political complications and constrained partners in the Arab world and beyond to overtly offer support to Iran. Recent events—including Tehran’s demonstration of its strategic capabilities and the opportunity to vex Israel—have generated three specific developments that benefit Iranian foreign policy.

One, it has provided the justification required to draw these partners out of their fence-sitting. Israel’s attack attunes public support for Iran. Public frustration across WANA countries adds a layer of pressure on their governments for greater support to Iran, at least diplomatically. Two, it helps Tehran frustrate progress on the Arab-Israel normalisation process and initiatives within newly formed multilateral groupings like the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC) and India-Israel-US-UAE (I2U2). Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are aware that peace with Iran is critical for progress on these projects. Finally, Tehran gains defence advantages. Russia has apparently sped up the process of transferring air-superiority fighters, among other equipment, to Tehran while also deploying additional forces to the Golan Heights.


Tehran claims to have successfully deterred Israel and Tel Aviv hasn’t yet claimed responsibility for the attack on Iran. A precedent for escalation has nonetheless been established. The calculated and limited nature of the attacks and quick de-escalation makes another such exchange possible. The gains such escalation appear to have offered to Israel and Iran by way of domestic and international advantages mean that such exchanges could have greater longevity.


Dr. Muneer Ahmed is Senior Researcher with IPCS’ Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS). Siddharth Anil Nair is Researcher with IPCS’ South East Asia Research Programme (SEARP).