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What Iran hoped to achieve with its retaliatory strikes on Israel


The secretary general of the United Nations says Iran's overnight attack on Israel amounts to a serious escalation of conflict in the Middle East. Allies, including the U.S., helped Israel's military fend off most of the drones and missiles that Tehran called retaliation for Israel's deadly attack on an Iranian embassy compound in Damascus earlier this month. The International Crisis Group is a non-governmental organization with a mission to prevent and resolve conflict. The director of its Iran project is Ali Vaez, and he joins us now. Good morning.

ALI VAEZ: It's great to be with you, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So what do you think was Iran's calculus in launching this attack?

VAEZ: Look, I think the Iranians could not afford not to respond to Israeli attack on their consulate in Damascus on April 1. There was a tremendous amount of bottom-up pressure from the regime's core constituency in Tehran that their policy of strategic patience was not working, and Israel had pushed the envelope too far. Iran also needed to save face in front of its regional partners and proxies in the region, and therefore I think they were compelled to respond. But they wanted to respond in a way that it wouldn't trigger a broader conflict or suck the U.S. in. And that's why they telegraphed way in advance about their attack, and they tried to calibrate it in a way that it would be spectacular, but not fatal.

RASCOE: Well, talk to me about that, because it sounds like what you're saying - they were trying to make this assault more proportional, that they didn't make it a surprise attack, they, you know, telegraphed what would happened. Can you talk to me about what they did here in kind of pulling some of their punches?

VAEZ: Look, they certainly passed a psychological barrier by targeting Israel for the first time since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, directly and from their own soil. But given the geographic distance, there was, of course, a high possibility that the drones and missiles would get shot down. And given that Israel was prepared and the U.S. had come to its defense, and other allies in the region also helped, I think the Iranians calculated probably that a huge part of their missiles and drones would be shot down. But I think they were hoping that some of it would get through to the military installations that they were targeting and would result some damage and deaths, but they were hoping that they would be able to limit the extent of damage so that it doesn't escalate any further. But I think in the process, in fact, Iran has actually demonstrated the limits of its deterrence.

RASCOE: Your associates warned that a shadow war between Iran and Israel was in danger of spinning out of control. Does this attack make that prospect more likely today?

VAEZ: Certainly. And it depends on how Israel responds. If Israel indeed comes to the conclusion that it's now even with Iran, and would draw a line under this round of tit for tat, then the risks, at least in the immediate future, are not that that concerning. But if Israel responds and targets Iran on its own soil, in order to make sure that a precedent is not set, that targeting Israel and its soil is fair game, then we might be in a very dangerous situation and unchartered waters, really. Because then Iran would feel compelled to respond. And this time it might not pull back any punches, and it might actually bring in regional allies that it didn't deploy this time around, like the Lebanese Hezbollah. And of course, Israel is a much stronger conventional military power. It has the support of the United States. But fighting on multiple fronts against multiple enemies with different capacities is going to be extremely dangerous. And it could be really catastrophic for the entire region.

RASCOE: Ali Vaez is the Iran project director for the International Crisis Group. Thank you so much for joining us.

VAEZ: Great, pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.