Playing with Fire: Patterns of Iranian-Israeli Military Confrontation


In April, the Middle East almost saw a war the likes of which the region has not seen in a long time. Unprecedented escalation brought Iran and Israel to the brink. It was only a mix of U.S. pressure, Iran signaling its attack beforehand, and Israel restraining itself that avoided worse. Yet, instead of diplomacy shifting into higher gear in search of more structural ways to prevent future conflict, complacency followed a near miss. It is not warranted. So, next time it might be different.

There are four most likely patterns of military confrontation between Iran and Israel, which are closely interwoven. In our view, this makes escalation from one pattern to another rapid and unpredictable. The region continues to face the risk of high-intensity conflict as a result. In response, the United States, major European powers, and regional powers should urgently work with Iran and Israel to develop clear red lines, the transgression of which has international consequences, as well as establish protocols that enable swift de-escalation in case of major incidents.

Mutual threat perceptions are at the root of the recent exchange of direct fire. Israel viewed Iran as having facilitated the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, even though Tehran does not seem to have been directly involved in either the planning or execution of the attack (and in fact seems to have been as surprised as almost everyone else). Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza activated Iran’s “axis of resistance” bit by bit from Yemen to Lebanon. The result has been that Israeli political and military elites perceive Iran as having initiated a multifront war while remaining on the sidelines itself. However, Israel’s effort to raise the cost of conflict by targeting senior Iranian commanders triggered fears in Tehran of an eventual direct attack on the homeland. Therefore, a counterstrike became inevitable.

Anticipating — and mitigating — future versions of Iranian-Israeli confrontation requires analyzing their respective military strategies, identifying the main patterns of military confrontation that may occur, and understanding their regional consequences. The next six months are crucial to putting structural measures in place that can reduce the risk of conflict escalation, such as agreeing clear red lines, establishing hotlines via intermediaries, or even demilitarizing particular areas.



The Weight of History

Iran’s military strategy in the Levant is based on the concept of “forward defense,” which entails engaging adversaries beyond its own territory to prevent threats from reaching its borders. A key pillar of this strategy is a network of Iran-linked armed groups across the region, known as the “axis of resistance.” This includes Hizballah in Lebanon, various Shiite militias in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Iran-sponsored militias in Syria, as well as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This network serves to deter direct attacks on Iran, but also enables Tehran to exert influence across the region through asymmetric coercive threats with a degree of plausible deniability.

The concept of forward defense originates in Iran’s historical experiences of insecurity, notably the Iran-Iraq War (1980 to 1988), with the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) reinforcing fears in Tehran of encirclement and attack. Decades of sanctions furthermore weakened Iran’s conventional military capabilities so that a focus on asymmetric responses became both unavoidable and cost-effective.

In turn, Israeli military strategy aims to prevent the emergence and consolidation of hostile military capabilities close to its borders by establishing escalation dominance. After failing to contain Hizballah’s entrenchment on its northern front, Israel is determined to avoid a repeat on its border with Syria after 2011. It is for this reason that its “campaign between the wars” targets Iran-linked military infrastructure, arms shipments, and, lately, key senior military staff in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq through preemptive strikes and covert operations. The aim is to disrupt the build-up of enemy capabilities before they pose a serious threat.

Delving deeper, Israeli strategy is rooted in part in the “Iron Wall” concept, as articulated by the right-wing Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the 1920s, which emphasized the need for rock-solid defense of the Jewish state against hostile neighbors. The direct threat from neighboring countries in the first decades of Israel’s existence (the 1948 War of Independence, the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War), as well as the lingering threat of non-state actors due to Israeli policies of occupation and annexation (the Palestinian Liberation Organization until 1993, Hizballah, and Hamas), entrenched an aggressive “defense” posture. During the 2006 war in Lebanon, the “Iron Wall” concept gave rise to the “Dahiya Doctrine” that brings disproportionate force to bear on civilians and civilian infrastructure associated with the enemy in response to any attacks to increase deterrence. The various Israeli punitive expeditions in Gaza (“mowing the lawn”) and its current scorched-earth tactics are also examples.

Viewed in this context, the April 2024 escalation between Iran and Israel was a clash between a deeply rooted desire to keep conflict away from Iran’s borders due to its vulnerability resulting from geography and conventional weakness, and a deeply rooted survival reflex to hit back hard(er) at everything that threatens Israel. With this in mind, what could future patterns of Iranian-Israeli military confrontation look like?

Four Patterns

Iranian-Israeli military confrontation in the Middle East has ranged between limited, low-level conflict and a brief spell of high-intensity regional war. Most possible patterns have arguably already occurred, although some only for a limited period of time. This facilitates the analytical task of outlining patterns of confrontation, but it remains difficult to assess how they may evolve from one into another. We take up each task in turn.

A first pattern of future Iranian-Israeli military confrontation is “limited indirect conflict,” which predates Oct. 7. It is an indirect but sustained confrontation between the two countries in which Iran tries to expand its military position in Syria while Israel seeks to contain it. Iran’s immediate objective is to establish a Hizballah-style front aimed at the Golan heights. More generally, it intends to strengthen its military and socio-political position in Syria. It justifies its activities with a mix of practical, religious, and ideological reasons, including support for its ally President Bashar al Assad, the defense of Shiite holy sites in Syria, and resisting Israeli occupation.

To accomplish this objective, Iran works through armed groups linked to it, such as the Afghan and Pakistani Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun brigades, Iraqi Shiite armed groups, and Lebanese Hizballah, at times re-hatting members of such groups as official Syrian security forces to forestall Israeli attack. The T4 military airport in eastern Homs, the Damascus International Airport, and the town of Al-Bukamal on the Syrian/Iraqi border serve as logistical hubs in this strategy.

Israel consistently seeks to degrade Iran-linked military infrastructure such as supply dumps, training areas, and staging facilities. It also intercepts arms convoys. The main method is its countless airstrikes, which have generally been tolerated by Russian air defenses based in Hmeimim in Latakia. Syrian air defenses have been largely powerless against Israeli air superiority. Yet, before Oct. 7, Israeli strikes did not generally target senior Iranian officers directly. Iran, in turn, refrained from retaliation against Israeli strikes, or did so in Iraq against well-defended U.S. bases by means of Iran-linked armed groups, generally without the intention to kill U.S. service personnel.

A second pattern of Iranian-Israeli confrontation can be called “shifting red lines.” It was active between Oct. 8, 2023 and April 1, 2024 and might be revived. The pattern is in essence a more intense version of the limited indirect conflict pattern of confrontation and sees both sides jockeying for advantage by testing and pushing red lines that existed previously. For example, cross-border strikes between Israel and Hizballah multiplied quickly following Oct. 7, with each side reaching deeper and upgrading targets in the course of time. Strikes expanded to 20 to 30 kilometers beyond the border instead of the habitual couple of kilometers. This pattern also featured Houthi attacks on Red Sea maritime shipping and the port of Eilat (later joined by Iraqi armed groups), which aimed to impose economic costs on Israel while also globalizing the conflict. Meanwhile, Syria and Iraq became intensified sites of tit-for-tat attacks with rocket and drone launches by Iran-linked militias against U.S. bases. In response, Israel started targeting senior officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds force. Iran did not initially reciprocate, but simply absorbed the damage to its reputation and outlays.

The Israeli strike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus on April 1 initiated a third pattern of Iranian-Israeli military confrontation: “limited war,” or short-duration, high-intensity direct conflict. As Israeli forces hit Iranian soil, it touched on Tehran’s historical memory of such strikes, which set off a restrained but aggressive and large-scale response. A mix of early signaling, U.S. restraint and pressure, as well as limited actual damage cut this episode short and prevented a shift to a potential fourth and final pattern of Iranian-Israeli military confrontation, namely “total war” — i.e., a sustained and high-intensity direct conflict across the region that also involves the United States. By themselves, Iran and Israel cannot sustain a long-term direct confrontation. Tel Aviv and Tehran are separated by around a thousand miles, after all. As a consequence, any shift from brief to extended high-intensity conflict depends on U.S. involvement, with the exception of a direct Israeli attack on Hizballah that would immediately trigger a limited war pattern of confrontation and could escalate into a total war pattern if Iran starts hitting Israel directly to protect Hizballah.

These four patterns of Iranian-Israeli military confrontation can shapeshift easily. Most obviously, one of the parties can take action that intends to bring transformation about, as Israel’s strike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus might have sought to do. Conversely, Iran’s missile and drone attack likely intended to scale the conflict back. Critical events that arise out of an unexpected combination of individual elements can have the same escalatory effect. For instance, the attack of the “Islamic Resistance in Iraq” on the U.S. base Tower 22 in Jordan accidently killed U.S. servicemembers due to an unexpected air defense failure. It could have escalated. Shifts between military interaction patterns might also be triggered by black swan events (i.e. improbable, rare, and hard-to-predict, but highly impactful events). Imagine an Israeli settler extremist blowing up the Al-Aqsa Mosque or an Iran-linked armed group hitting an Israeli urban area with high civilian casualties.

The recent fluidity between these four patterns of military confrontation indicates that it is more and more difficult for Iran and Israel to execute grand strategies, i.e., to pursue their national objectives in international politics in a dedicated manner and on a long-term basis through a portfolio of national resources. This is because foreign policy and diplomacy no longer guide the battlefield but have become part of it. In other words, diplomatic restraints on rapid escalation have been lowered since Oct. 7 and this continues to be the case today.

Zooming out, the past eight months have seen an evolution of Iranian-Israeli military confrontation from low-key tit-for-tat strikes in a limited area (Syria-Lebanon-Iraq) and on a limited set of targets, towards a larger volume of strikes on a wider range of targets, including high-value ones.

Regional Players and Tremors

As both Iran and Israel have created different partnerships in the Middle East over the past two decades, patterns of military confrontation between them have consequences beyond their boundaries. Israel has, for example, built strong ties with Azerbaijan since the 1990s that are based on oil and arms sales, as well as a shared perception of Iran as security threat. Israel also maintains friendly relations with the part of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that has been run by the Kurdistan Democratic Party since the mid-to-late 2000s, even to the point that Iran regularly accuses the party of hosting a Mossad presence. The recent visit to Tehran by the Kurdistan region’s president, Nechirvan Barzani, may have diminished the value of this relation somewhat, however, since it resulted from growing pressure on Erbil from Iran-linked parties that rule in Baghdad. Finally, Tel Aviv signed the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020. These are said to include some intelligence cooperation and certainly do include military procurement. However, Houthi strikes against Saudi Arabia in 2019 and the United Arab Emirates in 2022 forced Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to tread more carefully, slowing down the evolution of their security relationship with Israel. In the background, the United States maintains good relations with most Arab states of the Persian Gulf and with Jordan.

In turn, Iran operates mostly through the axis of resistance, a decentralized network of armed groups that also act as political parties and/or social movements in most cases and that have different degrees of autonomy in relation to Tehran, as well as variable capabilities. This network is highly capable of fighting asymmetrically and is fairly well coordinated — as illustrated by Iran’s “unity of the fronts” strategy during the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. Yet, the axis is less suited for conventional warfare and vulnerable to aerial attacks.

As such, Israel’s regional alignment is with capable state and state-like actors whose territories would only be involved in an Iranian-Israeli conflict either by conscious decision of their rulers or because Iran would view them as covertly supporting Israel. In contrast, Iran’s regional alignment consists of a network of sub-state actors that could involve the governments of the countries on whose territory they operate in a direct Iranian-Israeli conflict without their consent. The most prominent case is Lebanon, which Israel has long made responsible for Hizballah’s actions as a whole. Matching the respective regional alignments with the patterns of Iranian-Israeli military confrontation discussed above suggests two things. First, Iran has less control over the risk of escalation than Israel does. Second, some countries in the region — especially Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq — are likely to suffer greater collateral damage from an Iranian-Israeli confrontation than others. This would in turn further deepen already existing differences in wealth and national development prospects across the region.


Events since Oct. 7 have created new patterns of Iranian-Israeli military confrontation, which has made it easier for conflict between these countries to escalate. Confrontation patterns of limited war and total war threaten regional conflagration. Iran’s sub-state regional alignments also represent a greater risk of unpredictable escalation than Israel’s more state-based partnerships.

For now, the specter of region-wide, high-intensity direct conflict is held in check by the approaching U.S. presidential election, Washington’s desired focus on China, distance, and Iran’s domestic focus on the looming leadership transition. However, this transition is also empowering hardliners in Iran who will wish to avoid looking weak. Both the beleaguered Israeli government and Iranian hardliners could in fact be interested in future escalation. Israel might, for example, hope that President Joe Biden’s unconditional support against Hamas can be leveraged against Iran via Hizballah. If Donald Trump wins the election, there is no telling what risk of amplification or dampening might occur in early 2025. In other words, there is no room for complacency if regional conflict is to be avoided.

Essentially, the United States, as well as major European and regional powers, have about six months — before the next U.S. administration takes office — to work with Iran and Israel, if necessary via track 1.5 mediation, to establish a clear set of red lines as well as protocols that structurally reduce the risk of regional conflict escalation. Such measures could include the establishment of fast hotlines via trusted intermediaries like Oman or Qatar, or even the establishment of demilitarized zones in southern Lebanon, northern Israel, and western Syria.



Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit and leads Clingendael’s Middle East program. His research focuses on the political economy of conflict and political crises in the region. He recently published Armed Organizations and Political Elites in Civil Wars: Pathways to Power in Syria and Iraq (Routledge, 2024).

Dr. Hamidreza Azizi is a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. He is also a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs in Doha and an associate researcher at Clingendael. Azizi holds a Ph.D. in regional studies from the University of Tehran. He was an assistant professor of regional studies at Shahid Beheshti University (2016 to 2020) and a guest lecturer in the Department of Regional Studies at the University of Tehran (2016 to 2018). 

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald