Iran and Israel at the Brink: The Inevitable Showdown Between Two Regional Superpowers

Iran and Israel at the Brink: The Inevitable Showdown Between Two Regional Superpowers

by Roman Zrazhevskiy

From the MIRA Intelligence Analysis Desk

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members carry anti-U.S. and anti-Israel placards in front of a Kheibar Shekan Ballistic missile in downtown Tehran. (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)

On April 13, 2024, the Islamic Republic of Iran launched an unprecedented attack against Israel, launching over 350 drones and missiles against the Jewish state. The two nations, regional enemies, have been waging a low-intensity conflict for over 40 years, one waged through proxies, terrorists, and spies. Israel retaliated with a strike against Iran six days later. The escalation, an inevitable byproduct of the post-October 7 Middle East, is ominous. The stakes could not be higher. A regional cold war is now on the brink of going hot and spreading into a global conflict.

Iranian demonstrators burn the Israeli and American flags in Tehran. (Image courtesy of the Independent.UK)

Table of Contents

  • 01


  • 02

    The Proxy Wars

  • 03

    The Testing Ground

  • 04

    The Nightmare Nuclear Scenario

  • 05

    October 7 and the Ongoing Aftermath

  • 06

    What’s Next


In November 1947, Iran’s monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, voted against the United Nations partition plan to create a Palestinian and Jewish state, warning that the decision could lead to generations of war. After the State of Israel declared its independence in May 1948 and survived the invasion of five Arab states, Iran and Israel forged a strategic non-Arab and pro-Western partnership in the volatile Middle East. Iran was the second Muslim state (Turkey being the first) to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

For thirty years, Iran and Israel maintained close economic, energy, political, intelligence, and military ties. El Al, Israel’s national airline, maintained regular flights between Tel Aviv and Tehran. Trade between both nations flourished, and Iran was Israel’s primary source of oil. Intelligence and military ties between both countries were strong. They played a pivotal role in the larger American-led effort to contain the Soviet Union and its support and arming of Arab states—and terror movements—in the region.

Everything changed in 1979 following the fall of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution. The pro-Western oil-rich nation was transformed into a fundamentalist terror state that followed medieval-like Sharia law. As his first order of business, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual head of the Iranian revolution and the first supreme leader of the new Islamic Republic, severed all ties with Israel. The Israeli embassy in Tehran was seized and handed to Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Ayatollah declared the Jewish state was an enemy of Islam and referred to it solely as the Little Satan. The United States was the Great Satan. Iran declared a religious war against both nations.

November 1979: Iranians demonstrate in front of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where 49 Americans were held hostage. (AP)

The Shah’s mighty American-trained and equipped military was purged in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution. The officer ranks were depleted by firing squads and imprisonment. Religious zealots took over the once professional and capable fighting force, weakening its capabilities. This glaring weakness was one of the factors that prompted Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein to launch an invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980, sparking the Iran-Iraq War. The conflict would last 8 years and cost the Islamic Republic over 500,000 dead.

Revolutions are designed to be forces of continuous political change, mostly fueled by violence, seeking new and expansive outlets. In Iran’s case, locked in a war of survival against Iraq and shunned globally, spreading the revolution beyond its borders and fighting both the United States and Israel was both a useful politically-motivated diversion for domestic consumption and a bold strategic move to engage the Great and Little Satans far from Iranian territory. The strike force of the new Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, was ordered to set up shop in Lebanon.

Lebanon, the former French mandate, was a powderkeg of internecine hatred and bloody violence. The country’s political power and wealth lay in the hands of the Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims. The Shiite Muslims–the largest ethnic group–were also the poorest and least represented. This delicate and unsustainable ethnic-based balance of power was disrupted in 1948 when over 100,000 Palestinian refugees escaped the establishment of the Jewish state. When armed Palestinian terror groups set up a base of operations in Lebanon in 1971 after being expelled from Jordan, the country’s volatile mix turned combustible. Lebanon became an armed camp and a global hub for international terror.

Lebanon’s ethnic imbalance, exacerbated by each group fielding heavily armed militias, caused the country to freefall into a religious civil war in 1975 pitting the Christians against Muslims. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite ( an ethnic group that was a Shiite offshoot), always considered Lebanon to be nothing more than a mere extension of “Greater Syria,” and he welcomed the Iranians into Lebanon to do his dirty work inside the country. IRGC emissaries established a base of operation in eastern Lebanon and were headquartered in the Beka’a Valley, primarily in the ancient town of Baalbek. The Iranians flooded Lebanon’s Shiite communities and religious institutions brought with cash, weapons, and revolutionary zeal.

In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to destroy the Palestinian terror infrastructure that had evolved into a state within a state along its northern frontier; Palestinian terrorists launched incessant rocket and mortar fire across the border into Israeli towns and villages. After two months of heavy fighting, the Israelis forced the Palestinians out. United States Marines led an international peacekeeping force, including French and Italian paratroopers, to protect the exodus of Palestinian forces from Beirut. But in September 1982, the Christian president-elect was assassinated by Syrian agents and Christian militias exacted their revenge on the Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, killing thousands of men, women, and children. The multinational force of peacekeepers was forced to return to Lebanon to protect the Palestinians and ensure that the country did not spiral into all-out destruction.

The presence of American and Israeli forces inside Lebanon pleased the Ayatollah and presented Iran and its proxies with multiple targets of opportunity.

The Proxy Wars

The IRGC—and especially its elite intelligence and special operations unit known as the Quds Force—invested cash, weapons, and religious support to Shiite militias in Lebanon for the specific purpose of attacking American and Israeli forces in the country. The Iranians were the facilitators—and inspiration—behind a new Shiite underground terrorist group called Hezbollah, the Party of God, which would do Tehran’s bidding inside Lebanon and beyond. Clerics sent from Tehran instilled the practice of suicide violence into the hearts and minds of Lebanon’s Shiites—a tactic that Iran was forced to use in its war with Iraq.

A U.S. Marine stands guard over the destroyed chancery of the American embassy, devastated by a Hezbollah suicide truck bomb on April 18, 1983—an attack that killed 63 and wounded over 100. (Francoise De Mulder/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

In November 1982, a Hezbollah suicide bomber destroyed the Israeli military headquarters in the city of Tyre. It was the first Iran-inspired and Iranian-financed suicide bombing in a new world of catastrophic terror and only the beginning of a wave of Hezbollah murder and destruction. In March 1983, a van crammed with explosives crashed into the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing scores (and the entire CIA station in the country that was in the chancery meeting for lunch). On October 23, 1983, a truck laden with explosives crashed into the U.S. Marines barracks at Beirut International Airport, killing 241 soldiers and sailors. The blast was the largest non-nuclear explosion since the Second World War. The terrorists also blew up the French peacekeeping barracks.

Hezbollah kidnapped and killed Western hostages—including the CIA Station Chief in Beirut—ultimately forcing the United States to pull its forces out of the embattled nation. But Israeli forces remained inside Lebanon. With an endless army of volunteers willing to blow themselves up, Hezbollah was determined to turn Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon into the Jewish state’s Vietnam—a bloody and no-win guerrilla conflict. Israel unilaterally withdrew its forces from all of Lebanon in May 2000 after suffering hundreds of soldiers killed in action.

Iran’s proxies struck Israel—and the United States—internationally, as well. In 1983, Hezbollah bombed the American and French embassies in Kuwait. In 1992, a Hezbollah suicide truck bomber blew up the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Two years later, a cell of Hezbollah operatives and Iranian intelligence agents blew up the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 and wounding over 300. In 1996, Hezbollah was responsible for the suicide bombing of the Khobar Towers in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, where U.S. military personnel were stationed. The blast killed 19 U.S. airmen and wounded close to 100 more.

Up until 9/11, the Iranian-financed and armed Hezbollah was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist group in the world.

The IRGC, the Quds Force, and Hezbollah provided vast financial and military support to Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement that was an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a fundamentalist group based in Syria that fielded cells throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, traditional antagonists of the Shiites, but the Iranians cared more about engaging Israel than they did in addressing the fissures in Islam. As one U.S. intelligence officer once commented, “The Iranians are always willing to fight Israel until the lasting dying Palestinian.”

Inspired by Hezbollah’s suicide bombing campaign against the United States and Israel, and trained to perpetrate similar acts of terror, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad adapted the tactic for their war against Israeli civilians. The first Hamas suicide bombing was in April 1994. Hundreds of more such attacks would follow. Even after Israel surrendered control of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank to Yasir Arafat’s Fatah organization as part of the Oslo Peace Accords, a relentless wave of Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombings hammered Israeli cities. Iran invested over $200 million a year in Hamas. It was Tehran’s way to engage the Jewish state in open warfare without risking any direct repercussions.

Israeli police forensic technicians stand near the body bags of victims of a Hamas suicide bombing of a bus in Jerusalem on August 19, 2003, that killed 23 and wounded over 100 in an attack that mirrored Iranian and Hezbollah tactics. (AP)

The Testing Grounds

With the world—and primarily the West—laser-focused on the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States and the Global War on Terror against al-Qaeda, Iran built Hezbollah into a formidable conventional military power. Tehran provided the Party of God with a vast arsenal of rocket launchers, artillery pieces, and even ballistic missiles. Some of the rockets were Soviet-era Katyusha rockets with limited range. Others, including Scuds and Iranian-made Khaibar-1s, Zelzals, and Fatehs, were guided ballistic missiles that could carry a warhead consisting of a half-ton of explosives.

In 2006, after a Hezbollah special operations squad crossed the border with Israel and kidnapped two mortally wounded soldiers, the Second Lebanon War erupted. Israeli forces crossed the frontier to try and locate the two abducted servicemen and to deal Hezbollah a harsh military thrashing. The Iranian-back Party of God opened a wider war. The group fired thousands of rockets and missiles at Israeli cities. Hezbollah anti-ship missiles almost destroyed an Israeli naval vessel.

Iran also supplied thousands of rockets and missiles to Hamas. Two years after Israel withdrew all civilian and military personnel from the Gaza Strip in 2005, ceding control of the area and its 2 million inhabitants to the Palestinian Authority, Hamas took control of the area in a bloody coup. They turned Gaza into an Iranian outpost and built a terror hub for attacks against Israel. Hezbollah and Iranian specialists help Hamas build hundreds of miles of tunnels underneath Gaza; weapons, including long-range rockets and missiles, were smuggled into the Strip by sea and through massive tunnels underneath the Egyptian frontier.

Iranian rockets and missiles in the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas, and the ballistic manufacturing technology passed on to the Palestinians in Gaza, changed the balance of power in the Middle East. Iran soon supplied rockets and other advanced tools of war to its Shiite proxies in Iraq and Syria during that country’s civil war. Advanced Iranian weapon missile and drone systems were also supplied to the Houthis in Yemen after that nation descended into internecine fighting following the Arab Spring. For their allies across the Middle East–from the Red Sea to the deserts of North Africa–the Iranians became a one-stop supply center for low-tech and low-cost indigenously produced missiles and suicide drones that could be used against the enemies of the Islamic Republic–primarily Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon discuss Iranian missiles and artillery rounds that were intercepted in the Red Sea before they could reach Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip on March 10, 2014. (Sebastian Scheiner/The Associated Press)

The Nightmare Nuclear Scenario

The arming, training, and funding of proxy and terrorist armies across the Middle East allowed Iran to spread its influence across the region—what Jordan’s King Abdullah II referred to as the Shiite Crescent from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. The effort also allowed Tehran to establish a strategic deterrence, protecting the country from any Israeli or American military moves against Iran’s true eye on the prize: becoming a nuclear-capable nation. Israel had destroyed Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981, and it did the same to a secret North Korean-built reactor in eastern Syria in 2007. Iran’s creation of a Proxy Iron Shield, ready to be unleashed if the country was attacked, was an insurance policy against Israel entertaining any thoughts about taking out Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.

Iranian leaders repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction–threats that were taken very seriously in Jerusalem. According to reports, the Mossad along with the CIA clandestinely disrupted–or at least delayed–Iran’s nuclear ambitions with the use of cyberweapons, such as Stuxnet, and other covert action. The Mossad, according to published accounts, also unleashed direct action teams to assassinate the scientists who led Tehran’s program. Western nations sanctioned Iran’s economy and key intelligence officials. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made stopping Iran’s march toward the bomb the focal point of his foreign policy, threatened to take unilateral military action against Iranian nuclear reactors and weapons sites. Members of Israel’s defense and intelligence establishment did not feel that Israel could do it alone, though, and the United States made it clear that it would not join in on any Israeli military move.

The shadow war continued. And then Barack Obama was elected president.

Although Israeli, American, and international pressure was successful in stymieing Iran’s efforts and bankrupting the Islamic Republic, the Obama administration threw it a lifeline. White House and State Department officials commenced secret negotiations with Iran to ease economic sanctions in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear aspirations. The bilateral talks between the United States and Iran set off alarm bells throughout the capitals of the Middle East–especially in Jerusalem.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits Iran’s nuclear fuel manufacturing plant. (AFP)

Israel was not alone in expressing its opposition to the Obama-led diplomatic moves. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf states feared that the United States, politically and militarily exhausted by the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was looking to rewrite the regional paradigm. They feared a new Middle East when the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran was the dominant power in the region.

In July 2015, the P5+1 nations (China, Russia, United States, France, and Great Britain plus Germany) signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, with Tehran, which placed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Neither Israel nor the Sunni Arab states believed that Iran would abide by the principles of JCPOA, as the Iran nuclear deal was called. Attempts by the Obama administration to work with Iran rather than isolate it was a sign that the United States was changing course, even while openly engaged in an international coalition to battle ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The feeling inside the Arab world was that the United States was about to abandon its long-standing Sunni allies. The 2020 Abraham Accords–the diplomatic ties solidified between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan–came as a direct result of the new post-Obama Middle East as a way for Arab nations to align themselves with Israel, a regional superpower that was determined–and capable–of containing Iran.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was not part of the Abraham Accords. But Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shares Israel’s view that Iran—and not Israel or the Palestinian issue—was the greatest threat to Middle Eastern stability. Saudi Arabia was fighting a war against the Houthis in Yemen and knew that like-minded nations had to band together to stop Tehran. A peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia would have been a historic game-changer. Diplomatic relations, military cooperation, and overt economic ties between Israel and the caretakers of Mecca and Medina would end the religious component of the Arab-Israeli conflict, enabling other Arab and Muslim countries around the world—such as Algeria, Kuwait, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia—to forge ties with Jerusalem. The worked-on peace arrangement would have marginalized Iran’s claim that the fight against Israel was a holy war. It would have neutered Iran’s proxies.

October 7 and the Ongoing Aftermath

The Secret talks between the Israelis and Saudis grew more serious during the Biden administration and a breakthrough seemed likely in the fall of 2023. While the dots have not been connected showing a correlation between Iranian fears of an Israeli-Saudi peace accord and the October 7 Hamas attack against Israel, the timing is suspicious and suspect. Hamas blueprinted its invasion plans for years. The decision to strike came at a point that served Iranian—not Palestinian—interests.

Israel Air Force fighter bombers hit Hamas targets in Gaza following the October 7 attack. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Hamas commanders, fearing that Israeli intelligence would learn of their plot, compartmentalized knowledge of the attack to only five men inside Gaza. It is believed that the Hamas hierarchy was certain that once it embarked on its grand plan executed on October 7, Iran would join the fight and unleash an endlessly destructive barrage of drones and missiles against Israel’s cities. Iranian missiles remained in their silos. But on October 8, Hezbollah’s special operations unit, the Radwan Force, initiated a low-intensity missile war against Israel. Using fortified positions inside the villages of southern Lebanon opposite the Israeli border, Hezbollah missile and drone teams launched hundreds of warheads against military and civilian targets on the other side of the frontier. The Israeli government ordered the inhabitants of the towns and cities in the north within Hezbollah rocket range to evacuate, forcing over 100,000 people to become refugees inside their own country. Soon, pro-Iranian militias in Syria and Iraq also launched drones and missiles at Israel. The threat of Iran and its proxies opening a new front against Israel was the sole reason behind the rushed deployment of the U.S.S. Gerald Ford aircraft carrier strike to the Mediterranean in the aftermath of the October 7 attack.

Hezbollah guerrillas strike a militant pose and show off their capabilities following a training exercise in southern Lebanon in May 2023. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez / For The Times)

The Hezbollah fire was incessant but contained, even though Israeli casualties—military and civilian—in the north mounted. But because Israel was fighting a war in Gaza, it did not want to on two fronts. Israel retaliated to every missile launch with pinpoint and select air strikes with a special effort to target senior Hezbollah and Iranian personnel in Lebanon and Syria. When the IRGC headquarters in Damascus was destroyed on April 1, allegedly by Israel, the senior Iranian commanders killed inside the building were all directly involved in running the low-intensity campaign against Israel. By going after top Hezbollah commanders—especially the IRGC top echelon outside of Iran—Israel was sending a message that it was going to escalate its target inventory to include Iranian assets.

The April 1 bombing of the IRGC headquarters embarrassed Iran. The attack illustrated that Israeli intelligence was able to track Tehran’s most secretive and well-guarded personnel. Hard-liners in Tehran demanded action–the country’s deterrence and image were at stake. Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei could not allow Israel to act with impunity.

On the night of April 13, Iran launched over 350 drones and missiles at Israel. The swarm attack was designed to overwhelm Israeli air defenses and allow cruise and ballistic missiles to hit Israeli civilian and military targets once the capacities of Israeli air defense systems had been spent. But an international coalition of Western and Arab nations was determined to thwart Iran. American, British, and Jordanian aircraft intercepted some of what Iran had launched; the Israel Air Force and air defense batteries took care of the rest. Only 1% of what Iran had fired into the sky hit a target in Israel. The damage was negligible.

Israeli Iron Dome batteries intercept incoming Iranian drones and missiles on the night of April 13-14, 2024. (CNN)

The world braced itself for a massive Israeli response. Behind-the-scenes diplomacy by the United States and the European powers convinced Israel to show restraint, fearing that a ballistic missile back-and-forth between the two nations would escalate beyond the ability to contain it. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not let the Iranian attack go unpunished. The Israelis attacked an Iranian air base near Isfahan on April 19. Both the Israelis and Iranians have been reluctant to disclose more about what was hit, indicating that the target might have been damaged more than the Iranians want to admit.

The IRGC displays missiles and attack drones in downtown Tehran in February 2023. (West Asia News Agency)

What’s Next?

A full-scale war between Iran and Israel is difficult to fathom and harder to rationalize. The two nations do not have any territorial disputes that could be settled by force. On the contrary, they are separated by three countries; there are over 950 miles between Jerusalem and Tehran. Iran’s population is 90 million. Israel’s is less than 10. The Iranian armed forces are primitive when compared to the Israel Defense Forces. Iranian armor and aircraft are obsolete by many Western standards. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the Islamic Iranian Air Force possesses only a handful of strike aircraft and antiquated American-made aircraft that were part of the Shah’s air force, including the F-5 Tigers that first flew in 1959. Soviet-era and Russian combat aircraft—Sukhoi 24s and MiG-29—are part of a squadron with suspect operational capabilities. Iran’s armed forces never recovered from the Khomeini purges and the devastation of the Iraq-Iran War.

Instead, the Islamic Republic has relied on an indigenous ballistic missile and drone program to project its power throughout the region inexpensively. Enforcers in the Axis of Resistance are an insurance policy designed to intimidate any foe—in the Middle East or far beyond—that a military confrontation with Iran will inexplicably come with a terror front of suicide bombings and assassinations.

An IAF (Israel Air Force) F-35 Lightning II, known as the Adir, maneuvers through the treacherous Middle Eastern skies. (Image courtesy of the IDF)

The State of Israel is a regional superpower that projects its deterrence and offensive capabilities through a multiplatform state-of-the-art air component that is the most battle-experienced in the world. The Israel Air Force is American-supplied and consists of hundreds of the latest F-16 and F-15 variants, built to Israeli standards and operational needs, and 39 F-35 Lightning II stealth multirole combat aircraft, known as the Adir (Hebrew for “Awesome”) with another 36 on order. The IAF fields modified Boeing 707 tankers for long-range options. Israel’s air defense systems—Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow—are considered the most advanced in the world. Israel’s April 19 response, and its ability to hit a target deep inside Iran, is an indication that Tehran does not want a war it knows it cannot win. That realization was reinforced by the international coalition of Western and Arab forces that rushed to stop the Iranian attack.

But the world is holding its breath while both Israel and Iran contemplate their next move. The stability of one of the world’s most volatile regions hangs in the balance