When, on the night of 13-14 April 2024, Iran retaliated against an Israeli air strike at its Diplomatic Compound in Damascus that killed several senior Iranian officials two weeks earlier, it was a text-book example of an act of deterrence in modern warfighting. It's purpose seemed to be to discourage the adversary from any further escalatory belligerency implying heavier reprisal. The Iranian action was predictable, proportionate and precise. It was a demonstration of capability without collateral damage, a contactless kinetic retaliatory attack on an opponent's territory, permissible under international law and practice. It sought to close one chapter of battle exchange, also clearly signaling that a hostile reaction would most assuredly invite the infliction of an unacceptable level of damage.

In other words, at least in Iranian messaging, it was attempted to convey that should Israel follow up with a counterattack on Iran, which in Iranian interpretation would be a second attack on Iranian "territory" (that on the Damascus Diplomatic Compound being first), Tehran would inflict punitive action on Israel, for which it has already demonstrated the capacity. Iran appeared to exemplify a cool-headed rational war-time response of 'limited warfighting' within the deterrence paradigm that was designed to stabilize the military equilibrium. These are the theoretical underpinnings of the Iranian military operations that occurred that night.

Iran went about it with a sense of calm that was on the verge of unnerving the enemy. It began by declaring the Israeli deadly bombing of the Consulate, considered Iranian territory under diplomatic norms, as a blatant "act of war". Iran invoked the right to 'self-defense' under Article 51 of the UN Charter, which permits such action "until the Security Council (had) taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security". Since the Security Council took no such action, and seemed unlikely to do so, Iran pressed on with what it called "Operation True Promise" in retaliation. It was measured, and seemed to follow military rules of engagement to a T.

That such action on the part of Iran would await the end of Ramadan was a rational conclusion, given the Iranian leadership's religious proclivities. At Ramadan's end, Iran gave a 72-hour notice to Israel and its allies including the United States that a proportionate retaliation was forthcoming. Iran offered the adversaries sufficient warning time to prepare for adequate defenses including getting civilians out of the way, also indicating that the targets would be military. The attack followed. It was basically an armada of projectiles, delivered in basically three discernible waves, yet comprising a single 'strike package' of separate components launched in a calibrated fashion.

First came a swarm of probably 170 to 185 SHAHED-136 drones. These tend to be about 11 feet long, weighing 440 pounds. They are meant to carry out one-way attacks with a small payload of explosives, relatively accurate, long range, and importantly inexpensive, compared to missiles to shoot them down. They were noisy and slow-moving, almost suicidal, each leaving sufficient signature as to be easily acquired as targets and destroyed. That is also what happened. The defensive maneuvers on the part of Israel and its allies enabled the attackers' 'Command and Control system' to ascertain where the defending radars sensors were emplaced. The shooting of the drones, and their destruction lit up the Israeli night- skies, which combined with the wailing nationwide siren, created a huge psychological impact on the enemy.

Then came a barrage of far speedier cruise missiles, with resultant activation of the firing nodes of the defense mechanism. This included the unleashing of the Patriot and Arrow Missiles, and the 'David's Slings', at the same time exposing their specific deployment sites. The Iranians were also noting tactical battle details such as detection and response timings of the defenders. It also became evident that the numerous decoys emanating from invading platforms actually succeeded in algorithmally overwhelming the so-called impregnable 'iron dome' umbrella, as some of the best protected targets received hits (a lesson that would not be lost to the Chinese and Russians, against whom similar umbrellas have also been placed elsewhere) . Most of the invading drones and missiles were, however, taken out, as indeed they were expected to be, for their purpose was perhaps to draw enemy fire with costly munitions. For instance, weapons to interdict the on-coming attack vehicles were hugely expensive, rendering the mathematics of the cost equation almost unsustainable for the defenders.

On the heels of the cruise missiles flew ballistic missiles. Iran has, as is understood, nine deadly missiles capable of hitting Israel. At writing, the available information is that Iran may have used mostly KHEIBAR SHEKAN, a third generation Islamic Revolutionary Guard Aerospace manufacture, unveiled in 2022.This type operates on solid fuel, and has a range of 1400 kilometers. Its maneuverability is very high compared to others of its ilk, enabling it to pass through missile shields, as was the case on several occasions, as we shall see.

Despite the so-called impenetrability of the protective cover shrouding Nevatim Air Base, five of the seven Iranian warheads directed against it were on target. Also hit was Ramon base, which was used to support the Israeli strike against the Damascus consulate. A third installation, which was very severely damaged by the Iranians was a communications facility used to collect data on the target in Damascus. This installation is situated on the Golan Heights which is annexed territory and not legally a part of Israel. It is said that the Iranians simply put it out of commission. So, Iran scored hits on all the three installations that were linked to the attack on the Iranian target in Syria. Indeed, the success of 'Operation True Promise' lay not in the casualties inflicted, but in the lack of them, while achieving the goal. Iran wanted to put the message across that any Israeli target was hittable.

Earlier in this essay, I have said the Iranian attack was but a single 'Strike Package'. Of this, this time round, warning was given well in advance, because Iran wanted minimal collateral damage, and there was indeed very little of that. Yet the Strike Package was able to penetrate supposedly impregnable defenses. Not only that. The attack was inexpensive in a financial sense, while the defence was unacceptably costly. Also, throughout the operation, not a single Iranian life was at risk.

Should it be required, Iran made evident the fact that it had the capability to launch multiple such 'strike packages' any night and day. Iran also has deadlier hypersonic projectiles that can fly at least five times faster than the speed of sound, on a complex trajectory, which makes them very hard to intercept. Precision of warheads is usually measured in terms of 'Circular Error Probability 'or CEP (If 50% of an ordnance falls within, say 500 yards of the target, the CEP of the weapon is said to be 500 yards). These hypersonic weapons have very low CEPs, which means they are very precise, and hence can avoid collateral damage. These were kept out of the current 'strike package', but may be included in the future. As was obvious, the aerial defence of Israel this time was largely conducted with not only US -provided weaponry, but also with American strategic guidance. If the US is taken out of the equation, Israel would most certainly lose a conventional war against Iran.

There lies the rub. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs the war against Iran existentially, for himself and for the right-wing extremists that control Israeli politics of the day. The battle in Gaza against the Hamas is proving unwinnable for them. Domestically public anger against the regime is rising in Israel, and should the government fall, Mr Netanyahu can find himself not only out of office, but in prison on corruption charges. A wider regional war such as the one with Iran could prevent that. But it is obvious Israel cannot fight it alone against Iran. Hence Tel Aviv wishes to draw the US into the conflict, tempting Washington with the prospects of eliminating Iranian nuclear facilities, despite palpable waning of US interest in widening the conflict. (the rhetoric notwithstanding).

Rationally, Iran would not opt for nuclear weapons, even if it is technologically possible, because, among other things it would invite direct US ire. Also, it appears Israel can be conventionally defeated by existing Iranian capabilities. In any case the use of a nuclear device on Palestinian or Israeli soil by any Middle Eastern actor is not credible for, if nothing else, social, cultural, spiritual and and religious reasons. However, this is not the same for conventional weapons, both strategic and tactical. These can be effectively used as weapons of force against Israel.

But Israel possesses nuclear arm. There is always the danger that even without US support, pushed against the wall, Mr Netanyahu could use such a weapon. Israeli extremists have been known to cite from the Bible when convenient for their purpose. In the Biblical parable, the chained Samson uses his strength to destroy the enemy and all its structures, even if it meant his own destruction. This is the Samson option. Could Mr Netanyahu paint himself into such a corner that he would be confronted with such a horrific Hobson's choice? We can only hope it does not come to that. But it is time for the world to be wary!

(Postscript: Early morning of Friday 19 April, Israel reportedly conducted retaliatory strikes on a number of targets, including close the cities of Isfahan and Tabriz. While the scope of the attack is still being debated, the damage was minimal enough for Iran to declare that it would not respond. So, even though the two States, Israel and Iran, are now directly involved in a military conflict, this was an interesting model whereby, so far, escalation appears containable with neither protagonist showing any interest in 'escalation domination'. All in all, this is an interesting example of a modern contactless military exchange using kinetic capabilities, yet with limited or no casualties, appearing to create fresh laws of battle engagement!)

Ambassador Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury (Retd.) PhD, President, Cosmos Foundation and Former Foreign Advisor (Minister for Foreign Affairs) Bangladesh Caretaker Government (2007-2009)

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