Iran-Israel Shadow War Culminates in Recent Gaza Escalation

Israel and Iran have been engaged in a low-intensity shadow war for over a decade. This clandestine clash has passed through multiple phases. Initially, it was centered on Israel’s attempts to derail Iran’s nuclear program. In 2013, with the entry of Iran and its proxy forces into the Syrian Civil War, Israel’s goal broadened to prevent Tehran’s entrenchment in yet another country on its northern border. The Israelis seemingly expanded to striking Iranian shipping assets shortly after that. Throughout most of this period, Iran largely suffered the Israeli strikes in silence, rarely responding – and even then, largely symbolically. Beginning this year, however, the shadow war has entered a new phase. Iran’s attacks have become bolder and more overt, perhaps making the term “shadow war” a misnomer. In fact, the recent escalation between Iranian-allied Palestinian militant factions in Gaza and Israel likely occurred on Tehran’s orders.

Beginnings of the Shadow War

Beginning in 2013, reports began emerging of unattributed airstrikes targeting Iranian-proxy Hezbollah’s assets in Syria, with occasional attacks on Iranian forces and assets, as well as those of the Syrian regime.  The overwhelming majority of these strikes went unacknowledged and unanswered – with some notable exceptions. On January 28, 2015, Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles at an Israel Defense Forces convoy in the Shebaa Farms/Har Dov region, killing two soldiers and wounding several others, in response to an Israeli strike ten days prior which had killed six Hezbollah fighters – including Jihad Mughniyeh and commander Mohammad Issa –  and Islamic  Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Mohammad-Ali Allahdadi. Less than a year later, on January 4, 2016, Hezbollah attempted to avenge Israel’s killing of Samir Kuntar in Syria but failed to cause any casualties. On May 9, 2018,  IRGC fired rockets at Israeli military positions in the Golan Heights in response to a mid-April Israeli strike that killed 7 Iranians – precipitating a large-scale Israeli retaliation against Tehran’s assets in Syria (dubbed “Operation House of Cards”) which the Iranians absorbed quietly. Finally, on September 1, 2019, Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles at an Israeli military patrol to avenge Hassan Zbeeb and Yasser Daher, two of its fighters killed by Israel a week earlier in Syria. This attack once again failed to cause any Israeli casualties.

Indeed, these attacks were largely exercises in theatricality. They were meant more to assuage Resistance Axis supporters that Iran and its proxies still maintained the “initiative” and the upper hand against “the Zionist enemy” – and could still settle scores over fighters felled by Israeli hands. Beyond their usual fiery rhetoric, Hezbollah and Iran carried out these attacks with a certain measure of trepidation. In at least two of these cases – the January 2015 and September 2019 strikes – the attacks were coupled with calming messages sent to the Israelis via western intermediaries.

Unreciprocated American Concessions Embolden Iran From May 2, 2019, until October 31, 2019 – parallel to Israel’s strikes on Iranian assets in Syria – reports began emerging of attacks attributed to Israel against Iranian shipping assets. These attacks went unanswered by Iran. Yet, beginning with the February 26, 2021, limpet mine attack on the Israeli-owned HELIOS RAY, Iran signaled that it had begun adopting a more aggressive posture – which continued with subsequent attacks on Israeli shipping assets and which, in turn, was met with Israeli retaliation against Iranian ships. The Israeli-Iranian shadow war entered a new “tit-for-tat” phase – at least at sea.

Tehran’s about-face was not the result of a knee-jerk reaction to Israeli provocations. True, Israel had increased the frequency of its strikes on Iranian and Iranian-proxy assets in Syria – but that was not unprecedented and was not met with a similar Iranian response in the past. Instead, conciliatory gestures from Washington towards Iran – all of which began in February – signaled to Tehran that it could afford to behave with more impunity.

The first gesture came in the U.S. response to the February 4, 2021 murder of Lokman Slim, a Lebanese Shiite and prominent critic of Hezbollah. The circumstances of Slim’s murder strongly implicated the Shiite group. Yet in subsequent statements on Slim’s murder, neither Secretary of State Antony Blinken nor U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea mentioned Hezbollah’s potential involvement, or, more conspicuously, Slim’s role as a critic of the group – the very source of his prominence. This omission was most glaring from Shea, who, under the Trump administration, had made herself into such an irritant for Hezbollah by vigorously attacking the group on Lebanese media outlets that the group mobilized a sympathetic Lebanese judge to attempt to silence her. Instead, Washington called on “Lebanese officials, including the judiciary and political leaders,” to bring Slim’s killers to justice – doubtlessly knowing that Beirut’s authorities could never act against Hezbollah if indeed its members were responsible.

The message was clear: as the United States was expressing its eagerness to reenter nuclear negotiations with Iran, it was simultaneously signaling that it would ease the pressure of the previous administration on Tehran’s most important assets – its proxy and extension militias, the most important of which is Hezbollah.  In other words, Washington was sending the message that it continued to respect Iran’s regional equities.

The conciliatory messaging behind this change in tone was not likely lost on Iran. In case it was, the United States followed with further measures. The same day as Slim’s murder, the Biden administration announced the end of U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen, followed by the February 12, 2021 revocation of the terrorist designation on the Ansarullah, Tehran’s proxy in Yemen with whom the Saudis were at war. Within a week, the Biden administration had also formally offered to restart nuclear negotiations with Iran while abandoning its predecessors efforts to restore United Nations sanctions on Tehran. This unreciprocated American eagerness for reproachment continued with reports that the United States was considering halting “offensive” arms sales to Riyadh – part of the administration’s reassessment of the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and building off of a prior temporary suspension of F-35 sales to the United Arab Emirates, and munitions to Riyadh.

These moves understandably emboldened Iran. The United States was signaling a sharp departure from the Trump administration’s aggressive disposition towards Tehran, which had placed a heavier premium on Iranian regional destabilization. Iran’s bolder attacks and retaliations to Israeli provocations continued. After the Iranian container ship SHAHR-E KORD (IMO: 9270684) was hit by an explosive object about 50 miles off the coast of Israel on March 10, 2021, Iran blamed Israel, and on March 25, 2021, an Israeli-owned cargo ship, the LORI (IMO: 9631125), was struck by a missile in the Persian Gulf. Israel blamed the IRGC and retaliated against the Iranian ‘spy ship’ cargo vessel SAVIZ (IMO: 9167252) on April 6, 2021. One week later, Iran struck back, targeting the Israeli-owned vehicles carrier HYPERION RAY (IMO: 9690559) with a missile or an unmanned drone off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

Washington, however, continued with its conciliatory signals towards Iran. In early Aprilthe United States declared it was willing to “lift sanctions [on Iran] that are inconsistent with the JCPOA.” Washington continued with this conciliatory stance later that month, departing from its “sequencing” of steps to be taken by each side to return to the JCPOA, and providing Iran with examples of categories of sanctions it was willing to lift – including lifting sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank. America’s unreciprocated flexibility continued into the first week of May, with the U.S. signaling its readiness to lift many sanctions off of Tehran, but the latter stressing it was still demanding more. Iran’s or its proxies’ destabilizing activities – including attacks on Israeli shipping – would no longer be met with a punitive American response, kinetic or otherwise.

Iran’s sense of its palpable change in fortunes was reflected in its more aggressive actions, which were coterminous with this revised American posture and in the behavior of certain U.S. allies. In late April, reports emerged that Saudi Arabia – one of Iran’s chief regional adversaries – had entered into rapprochement talks with Iran and was even considering normalizing ties with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Tehran’s change in fortunes was also signaled by the tone and content of the speeches of Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of its most important proxy – Hezbollah. In the waning days of the Trump presidency, Nasrallah’s expressed his wariness – doubtlessly shared by his Iranian superiors – of the departing American president’s intentions. Shortly after the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, Nasrallah stated, “[Trump’s] actions may become more unpredictable. I don’t know what he’ll do, but anything is possible…and the Resistance Axis will be wary.” Nasrallah once again expressed his concern during a December 27, 2020 interview, and in his January 3, 2021 and January 8, 2021 speeches. “May God continue to help us over the course of the next two weeks until [Trump] is out of office,” he stressed.

However, beginning with his February 16, 2021 and March 31, 2021 speeches – shortly after the Biden administration began softening its stance on Iran –  Hezbollah’s Secretary-General began sounding cautiously optimistic. He cited U.S. tensions with Israel over Iran and its about-face on Saudi Arabia as evidence that American pressure on Tehran had begun to ease. Nasrallah sounded even more optimistic – even boastful – during his  May 7, 2021 speech commemorating “Quds Day” – claiming the “threat of war” against Iran had receded because the United States was withdrawing from the region, making conciliatory gestures towards Tehran to reenter the nuclear deal, and was too distracted by other global priorities like Russia and China. He also highlighted Saudi rapprochement with Iran and Syria, and Israeli wariness of American intentions on the nuclear deal, as proof that the Resistance Axis’ fortunes rose. The picture Nasrallah painted was of a unified and ascendant Resistance Axis confronting a pro-American regional bloc that was in disarray, working at cross-ends with itself and the United States while being abandoned by its American patron. To stress the weakness of America’s allies vis-à-vis the ascendant Resistance Axis, Nasrallah noted in his Quds Day 2021 speech that Saudi Arabia was “no longer in a position to make demands that Syria disengage from Iran” as a precondition to normalizing ties, as it had attempted to do in the past.

Iran Retaliates for Natanz in Gaza

As Washington was proceeding with this new conciliatory dynamic with Tehran, Israel chose a different approach – escalating its shadow war against Iran. On April 11, a power blackout hit Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment site – where Tehran had restarted enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges, in violation of its JCPOA obligations – as the result of a deliberately planned explosion. Media leaks quickly hinted to Israeli responsibility, despite Jerusalem’s official silence on the matter, and Iran soon vowed revenge against the Jewish State “at the appropriate time.” Israeli defense officials began voicing their concern that these media leaks would force Iran to respond, leading to a security escalation. Indeed, it would seem Iran began responding shortly thereafter. According to an interview, Iranian Parliament Speaker’s Special Aide for International Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian gave to Mehr News Agency on May 3, several security incidents that occurred in Israel and the West Bank in the intervening weeks were “part of the response that the Resistance should have carried out against the Zionists.” Amir-Abdollahian was not exaggerating Iran’s capabilities to operate within Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. For years, Iran and its proxiesparticularly Hezbollah – have worked on developing networks within these territories to collect intelligence and carry out attacks. It would seem the escalation from Gaza was another part of that Iranian-led response.

Conventional wisdom holds that Palestinian militant factions in the Gaza Strip escalated against Israel in response to a housing dispute between Jews and Arabs in Sheikh Jarrah and clashes on the Temple Mount that saw Israeli security forces enter Al-Aqsa Mosque to quell rioters. Yet, this seems implausible for several reasons.

First, whatever position one takes on this specific Sheikh Jarrah housing dispute, the reality is that this was far from a unique or unprecedented incident in Jerusalem. The same applies to clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians atop the Temple Mount compound. During clashes in November 2014, Israeli police reportedly threw stun grenades into Al-Aqsa Mosque to quell Palestinian protesters and make way for Israeli ones. In September 2015, Israeli police reportedly caused damage to Al-Aqsa Mosque with stun grenades during clashes with Palestinian rioters who had taken up positions inside the religious sanctuary. Yet, while Hamas has in the past called on Palestinians in the West Bank and within Israel to riot over these Israeli actions, at no point did the group or other Palestinian armed factions in the Gaza Strip fire rockets into Jerusalem – an act of war.

When Hamas carried out its threat to fire rockets at Jerusalem on May 10, 2021, it knew the result would be a serious conflagration or war. Nasrallah, whose group Hezbollah maintained general coordination and contact with Hamas and other Palestinian factions during the recent flare-up, said on May 25, 2021, that “when the Gaza Resistance decided to attack Jerusalem, it knew it would enter a war.”

Yet such the decision to go to war with Israel – during which the Israel Defense Forces would damage and destroy a rocket arsenal, military infrastructure, tunnel network, and other capabilities funded or provided by Iran or its other proxies, namely Hezbollah – could not have proceeded without instructions from Tehran, or at least an Iranian greenlight. The circumstances surrounding the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war serve as a demonstrative comparison. Two versions of events exist about the authorization of Hezbollah’s cross-border raid on July 12, 2006, which sparked the war.

The commonly accepted version is that Iran authorized the raid or delegated authority to Nasrallah to carry it out after consulting with his patrons in Tehran. Conversely, evidence suggests that Iran did not order or permit Nasrallah to launch a major operation against Israel on July 12, 2006. That day’s attack on Israel was supposed to be relatively minor, yet another in a long series of provocations that the Iranian proxy had carried out against the Israelis since October 2000. As a result of the group’s independent miscalculation, however, its Iranian-supplied arsenal of mid-and long-range rockets were prematurely exposed to Israeli bombardment and destruction rather than held in reserve for a time when Tehran deemed it critical to use them against the Israelis. In the wake of the war, the Iranian National Security Council circulated an internal document indicating Iranian officialdom’s deep displeasure with Hezbollah for Iran’s military investment in Lebanon merely for the sake of kidnapping two soldiers – suggesting that Hezbollah’s relative restraint against Israel since the end of that war owes, at least in part, to prior Iranian constraints on its military actions.

Whichever version of events one accepts, both bear out that Hezbollah’s military activities are circumscribed by Iranian decision-making. Tehran is not likely to grant leeway to lesser proxies like Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) that it denies to its star proxy Hezbollah. Indeed, Iran has established a capability through its proxies in Gaza to keep the coastal strip as an active front, on some level, with Israel. Beginning on March 30, 2018, Palestinians began protesting en masse on Gaza’s border with Israel, in the so-called “Marches of Return.” Yet, it seems like these protests – many of which turned violent – were not entirely spontaneous. A Shin Bet report dated May 14, 2018 revealed that Iran had provided funding to Hamas to encourage these protests.

Finally, despite Hamas and PIJ’s claims that they had launched their “Sword of Jerusalem” battle to defend Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa, their statements belied this fact. A day prior to the ceasefire entering effect, Hamas spokesman Musa Abu Marzouk told Al-Mayadeen that “the ceasefire is connected to the Gaza Strip, and is not connected to the areas of confrontation in the West Bank and [inside Israel].” As further proof that Hamas and PIJ were motivated by something other than concern for Al-Aqsa, the day after the ceasefire, the group remained silent as clashes resumed between Israeli police and Palestinians atop the Temple Mount – failing to act on their alleged new “equation” whereby any violation of the sanctity of Al-Aqsa by Israeli security forces would be met with an armed response by the Gaza-based “resistance.” Instead, Hamas has returned to calling for “Days of Rage” to protest Israeli actions.

Conclusion – Beyond Revenge: Iran’s Strategic Gains

Whether or not Iran triggered the most recent round of hostilities between Gaza militant factions and Israel, Tehran benefited far beyond venting its rage at Israel over the latter’s attack on Natanz.

First, the “Resistance Axis” – led by Iran – scored an impressive psychological victory over the Israelis. They succeeded in firing massive barrages of rockets at Israel up until the last moments of the conflict, bringing a large swathe of the country to a virtual standstill, even as the IDF brought the full weight of its new victory doctrine to bear, carrying out its most aggressive bombardment campaign ever against the Gaza Strip. This outcome is bound to have a detrimental impact on Israeli deterrence vis-à-vis not only Hamas and PIJ, but the broader Resistance Axis as well.

As a corollary victory for Iran and the Resistance Axis, Israel’s public image was tarnished globally because of the most recent round of fighting. Nasrallah and the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) stressed that this most recent battle “revived Israel’s ugly face – as the monstrous killer of children. And we must always remind the world that Israel is an apartheid regime.” As Nasrallah’s deputy Naim Qassem noted, “this global image of Palestinian victimhood is a more effective means of achieving victory and results than military intervention.” In tandem, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif advised an extraordinary session of the Organization of Islamic States (OIC) to declare Israel’s actions in Gaza a “genocide” and the country an “apartheid regime.” He suggested the OIC’s countries then build upon that characterization to wage an “institutionalized” international legal and political campaign against the “Zionist apartheid regime.”

Iran also benefited from tensions that the recent conflict sparked between Jews and Arabs inside Israel. This came at a particularly inconvenient time for the Israelis, just as Arab Israeli political leaders – particularly Mansour Abbas and his Raam party – were trying to push their community toward increased integration within Israeli society. Such a move would have contributed, in the long-term, to strengthening Israel by increasing its internal cohesion and finally beginning to heal the decades-long rifts between its two primary ethnic groups. Now, however, the mutual violence between Jew and Arab may take years to repair. Prior to this round of violence, Mansour Abbas’ election campaign to integrate Arab Israelis into mainstream Israeli society earned him significant support among the country’s Arab constituency. However, If recent post-conflict polling is any indication, Abbas has suffered a significant loss of Arab Israeli support for his continued desire for partnership with the country’s Jews, placing him in a disadvantageous position to advance reconciliation.

Additionally, this recent round of fighting will hinder broader Arab-Israeli normalization that begun under the Abraham Accords. The prospect of increased ties between Israel and the Arab states – with its attendant scientific, economic, and military cooperation – posed a serious threat to Iran’s drive for regional hegemony. Whether by design or accident, by inking the Abraham Accords, former President Trump had laid the groundwork for an Arab-Israeli “anti-resistance axis” – centered on Gulf-Israeli cooperation – to counter the Iranian-led Resistance Axis. However, the most recent conflict re-centered the Palestinian cause in Arab consciousness and aroused anew anti-Israel sentiments in the Arab street. This placed Arab countries that had already normalized with the Israelis, like the UAE, in an awkward position and led others, like Kuwait, to double down on rejecting peace with Israel.

A final beneficial outcome for Iran may be restoring ties between the Gaza-based Resistance Axis factions and Syria’s Assad regime. Last December, Nasrallah revealed that the Assad regime had continued to allow weapons to be transferred from its arsenal to Palestinian militant groups, despite the rupture of relations after the onset of the Syrian Civil War. This was confirmed recently by PIJ Secretary-General Ziad al-Nakhala, who said that the anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) fired by his group at Israeli vehicles near the Gaza Strip were obtained from Syria, having been transferred from Latakia port to Gaza. He also noted that Syria had facilitated many of the group’s fighting and rocket-launching cadres.

During this recent round of fighting, Assad expressed overt support for Palestinian armed factions fighting the Israelis and hosted several of their representatives in Damascus. In response, Hamas’ Osama Hamdan told pro-Hezbollah Al-Mayadeen he did not find Assad’s support “strange or surprising; whomever salutes us, we will reciprocate with a better gesture.” Since then, Naim Qassem and Hassan Nasrallah have expressed their belief in the imminent restoration of ties between Hamas and Syria. More broadly, according to a June 1, 2021 report in pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar, the last conflagration led Hamas to unequivocally decide on further integration into the Resistance Axis. This would include “tightening its ties not only with other Palestinian factions, but also strengthening relations with Iran and other Resistance Axis forces, particularly Hezbollah, and launching political contacts with other [Resistance] Axis factions from Damascus, to Yemen, and Iraq.” The group’s goal, according to the report, is to build a “strategic alliance with the Resistance Axis, to make [Hamas’] power similar to Hezbollah’s, as a preparatory step to entering the joint liberation battle against [Israel] in the coming years.” Restoring Hamas’ ties with Syria would be the first step to establishing this broader strategic alliance, a move which, according to Al-Akhbar, is supported by 3/4th of Hamas’ consultative council.