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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Teetering on the Edge: Retaliatory Strikes Between Iran and Israel

Once again, tensions are rising in the Middle East, and the continuous cycle of retaliatory strikes between Iran and Israel could lead to unintended consequences and jeopardize security in the region. The Hamas terrorist attacks on October 7, 2023, marked a significant turning point in the history of terrorism and its impact on regional dynamics in the Middle East. These attacks resulted in the deaths of more than 1,300 Israelis, prompting severe retaliatory measures from Israeli forces. However, Israel’s counterterrorism efforts have faced strong criticism due to the casualties of over 33,000 Palestinians and the destruction of thousands of buildings in Gaza. The disproportionate number of civilian casualties, particularly women and children, has sparked debate regarding the legitimacy of terrorist operations in the region. The Tehran regime has promptly engaged in the conflict to pursue regional and global opportunities. 

Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen have been involved in the conflict, acting under directives from Tehran. Numerous attacks have been launched targeting Israeli and American facilities across the Middle East since the October 7th attacks, including one that resulted in the deaths of three US marines at the Towel 22 military base in Jordan on January 28, 2024. Israeli forces responded with targeted operations, including an attack on the Iranian embassy in Damascus, resulting in the deaths of seven military advisers and senior commanders on April 1, 2024. Escalations have persisted, leading to reciprocal retaliatory attacks between Israeli and Iranian authorities. Just last week, the Tehran regime launched over 300 missiles and drones aimed at Israel, with the majority being intercepted by Israeli defenses. Israel retaliated with drone strikes on April 18, 2024, but these were intercepted in Isfahan and neutralized by the nation’s air defense systems.  

While the question of whether regional countries should worry about Tehran’s actions elicits both yes and no responses, there are compelling reasons for concern. Iran’s extensive regional network allows for coordinated attacks on specific targets under Tehran’s directives. The Tehran regime’s growing influence across the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Turkiye, raises apprehension. In Yemen, the Iran-backed Houthis have taken control of territory, including the capital city, Sanaa, despite efforts by the Saudi-led coalition to stop them. The Houthis have also been involved in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians after Hamas’s October 7th attacks. The Houthis have launched multiple attacks on merchant vessels and naval ships using various weapons, including anti-ship cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, surface drones equipped with explosives, and aerial drones. Additionally, a new threat has emerged from underwater. On February 18, the U.S. Central Command reported that naval forces in the Red Sea destroyed an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) in waters controlled by the Houthis near Yemen. In response, the United States has increased cooperation with regional countries and designated the Houthis as a Specifically Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) group. 

In Syria, the Tehran regime supports Bashar al-Assad due to historical ties and ideological alignment. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Assad’s father was the only Arab leader to support Iran. The close relationship between Tehran and Damascus has led Iran to engage in the Syrian conflict actively. Iran has utilized the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to train and support Shia fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Presently, Iran stands as one of the victors in Syria, credited to its policies that have ensured the continuity of Bashar al-Assad’s leadership. Across Syria, a multitude of militia groups supported by Iran are in operation, predominantly concentrated in the Deir ez-Zor province, actively advocating for the Assad regime. 

In Lebanon, Hezbollah, backed by Iran, has carried out multiple missile and drone attacks targeting Israel. The Global Terrorism Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) Records of Incidents Database (GRID) recorded over 150 Hezbollah attacks in the first quarter of 2024. While many of these attacks resulted in no casualties, the most recent one on April 17 struck Arab al-Aramsheand, injuring 18 individuals, including 14 Israeli soldiers. In Iraq, Iran holds significant sway over the country’s politics, capitalizing on the power vacuum left by the removal of Saddam Hussein. The rise of Shia-dominated governments in the following years has further facilitated Iran’s influence in Iraqi politics. Currently, numerous militia groups backed by Iran are active in Iraq, posing a threat to American facilities with relative ease. In Turkey, Iran exerts a distinct form of influence. Previous investigations within Turkey uncovered evidence of IRGC-Quds Force activities, such as forming the Salam Tawhid Quds Force (STQF) organization and` plotting to target the US Consulate in Istanbul. However, following the Turkish government’s controversial decision to shut down the investigation, STQF members departed Turkey, evading further scrutiny. Iran’s expansionist policies are not confined to the Middle East, where the country is an important figure in Afghanistan’s politics and seeks influence in Latin America.  

On the other hand, many in the Middle East hold the belief that Iran will avoid escalating the conflict and keep it at the level that serves its domestic and global goals. They believe that Iran is a manufactured and exaggerated threat, intentionally magnified by Western powers to justify arms sales. This perception is fueled by the substantial investments made by the Gulf States in Western weaponry. There is a prevailing notion that Iran’s preference lies in instilling fear without escalating to full-scale warfare. Therefore, its recent attack on Israel is interpreted more as a message than a genuine intent to cause casualties. This strategic approach is seen as a means for Iran to enhance its domestic image and assert its regional influence, showcasing its capabilities to both its citizens and neighboring states. An examination of the frequency of attacks carried out by Iran-backed militia groups reveals a trend towards intimidation rather than targeting fatalities. For instance, Hezbollah, Kataib-i Hezbollah, and Islamic Resistance in Iraq—groups known for their terrorist activities and backed by Iran—collectively conducted 358 attacks in 2023 that killed only 16 people. This figure significantly contrasts with the higher casualty rates associated with Salafi-jihadist terrorist groups. 

Tehran’s strategic maneuvers not only serve its domestic political agenda but also tarnish the image of Islam and jeopardize regional security. Islam faced unprecedented accusations of terrorism starting in the 1980s, marking a significant departure from its historical perception. This shift in perception resulted from two major factors: first, the emergence of state-sponsored terrorism following the 1979 revolution in Iran, where the newly established regime exported its revolutionary ideals, often through militant means. Second, the unintended consequences of the Afghan War, during which Mujahideen fighters were supported by various actors, including the West, to combat the Soviet Union. However, after the war, some of these fighters evolved into Salafi-jihadist groups, contributing to the rise of terrorism associated with Islam.  

Discussions concerning Islam and terrorism today are multifaceted and influenced by a range of factors. These include economic and political grievances, the exploitation of Islam by corrupt local governments to mask their misdeeds, the oppression of Muslims in conflict zones, insufficient access to education, and the spread of a militant interpretation of Salafism among local Muslim factions engaged in resistance against governmental authorities. Of particular concern is Iran’s association with jihadist terrorist groups, which has led to a negative perception of Sunni Islam. Iran’s support for groups opposing the United States has inadvertently aided organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda. Strong evidence indicates that Iran has hosted high-ranking Al Qaeda leaders within its borders. Iran maintains strong connections with Palestinian groups across the Middle East, including Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, providing both ideological and logistical support. Some voices in the Western world have suggested Iran’s involvement in Hamas’s October 7th attacks. 

The United States has consistently provided robust support to Israel in its confrontations with Hamas. This support stems from shared strategic interests, historical alliances, and common values. However, Israel’s responses to Hamas, particularly in instances where civilian casualties occur, have generated significant concern within the United States. These concerns have manifested in protests, reflecting a diversity of opinions regarding handling the conflict and protecting civilian lives. In response to the ongoing situation, the United States is closely monitoring developments, especially concerning retaliatory actions in the region. Efforts are being made to encourage Israel to adopt measures aimed at de-escalating tensions. 

To wrap up, Iran’s involvement in the conflict between Israel and Palestine has yielded anticipated outcomes for the country. The Tehran regime has successfully shifted the focus of its populace from domestic economic challenges to regional security issues, portraying itself as a hero in the eyes of its citizens. Additionally, Iran has garnered sympathy from the Islamic world, particularly among those concerned about civilian casualties in Gaza, while simultaneously tarnishing the image of Sunni Islam and reinforcing associations with terrorism. Furthermore, Iran has gained support from Palestinians, aligning itself with their cause. However, it is important to recognize that Iran’s objectives extend beyond direct military confrontation with Israel; rather, the aim is to secure political gains both domestically and regionally. Nevertheless, Iran’s actions carry significant risks, potentially leading to unintended consequences such as further destabilization in the region and an escalation toward broader conflicts. 

author avatar
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.
Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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