Israel and Iran: bringing grey zone warfare out of the shadows?

Sarah Kuszynski is a graduate of Durham University, with an interest in global security, technology and Middle Eastern affairs. She is also passionate about the promotion of free speech on campuses. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Israel and Iran, once tentative allies, have now been major regional rivals for well over three decades. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, Iran’s anti-Zionism has ballooned, with the regime viewing Israel as core to preventing Iran’s ascendancy in the region. Contemporaneously, Israel views Iran as posing an existential and ideological challenge. As former Prime Minister Netanyahu saidIn the middle east there is no threat that is more serious, more dangerous…[and] more pressing than Iran”. Despite deeply engrained distrust, direct military confrontation between the two nations has been surprisingly absent, with the majority of hostilities taking place through what has been variously labelled as grey zone, shadow and hybrid war. Whatever your preferred term, crucially Israel’s and Iran’s tactics fall short of provoking conventional all-out war. Hence, ‘grey zone’ wars “seldom start with a declaration of war and never end with the surrender of a sword” but rather comprise of covert action, cyberattacks and the deployment of proxy forces. Yet, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, maritime attacks and funding of international terrorism is inevitably escalating tensions. Is this more likely to cause the confrontation to ‘come out of the shadows’ or merely further entrench grey zone tactics?

The seminal military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, argued in On War that war always involves the use of aggressive force but it is also an ever-evolving, interactive and uncertain phenomena. Iran-Israel confrontations have taken Clausewitz’s observations of war’s contingent nature one step further, and have become defined by ambiguity “about the ultimate objectives, the participants, whether international treaties and norms have been violated, and the role that military forces should play in response”. Iran disproportionately directs such strategies at Israel, as demonstrated by the fact that 80 per cent of threats against the Jewish state emanate from the Islamic Republic. Israel’s national security thus rests on its ability to counter Iranian aggression – in all its hybrid forms.

Historically, Iran’s inclination towards grey zone strategies stemmed from the brutal and drawn out eight-year Iran-Iraq War from 1980–88. The war’s extensive cost in terms of lives and resultant economic strife, goes part way to explaining Tehran’s unwillingness to instigate conventional warfare. Iran’s core capabilities for damaging Israel therefore primarily consist of an agile navy suitable for disrupting exports; missiles and drones for precision strikes; and a plethora of foreign proxies.

Israel has borne the brunt of attacks from Iran’s powerful Shia proxies, mostly recently Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Through these proxies Iran has been trying to open a new front on Israel’s border; as Iran itself does not share a border with Israel, thereby complicating the delivery of any hypothetical direct attack. Hostilities have also centred around Iranian shipments to proxy forces and increasingly visible maritime attacks. For example, a blast struck the Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray, a cargo ship, in the Gulf of Oman and more recently an Iranian drone attack on a tanker in the Arabian Sea killed two crew members, including a British national. Yet, even this did not seem to constituent a red-line for direct conflict. Conversely, the Iranian military blamed Israel and the US for an explosion on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Saviz cargo ship. These incidents, despite their publicity, are highly reflective of grey zone warfare: triangulating the use of unconventional, irregular operations with conventional aggression. This enables Israel and Iran to have one eye on risk management, whilst denying the other justification for outright action.

Of further concern for Israeli national security is Iran’s nuclear ambitions. A nuclear Iran would be more aggressive outside its traditional sphere of influence in the Persian Gulf, provoking further conflict between Israel and Hamas, Hezbollah or Syria. In addition, a nuclear Iran would also severely limit both Israeli and U.S. military and political manoeuvrability in the region. Therefore, a multipolar nuclear Middle East greatly increases the risks for miscommunication, miscalculation and escalation.

In response to Iran’s accelerating nuclear program and uranium enrichment there has been a series of attacks on Iranian officials, most notably the Iranian nuclear chief, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020. Adding to this volatile cocktail are the covert operations such as on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, in an effort to significantly delay Iranian efforts to enrich uranium. Such incidents occurred at a critical time for the fraught negotiations to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal. A deal that many in the Israeli government staunchly oppose, seeing the agreement as wholly ineffectual at halting Iran’s nuclear program and terrorist activities. Hence, the attack on Natanz typifies grey zone warfare, but it is also a George F. Kennan style statement of political warfare to display the constancy of Israeli security concerns apropos the United States’ variable JCPOA policy.

However, even with these hostilities, it is still unlikely that Iran will attempt retaliation against Israel that strays out of the ‘grey zone’. Chiefly, as the cost of a direct military strike would be high – potentially leading to a wider regional war. In addition, further escalating attacks would be an open contravention of the Biden administration’s focus on prevention and preparation, which seeks to discourage an Israeli military strike. It is still important to note Iran’s options for launching an attack against Israel remain unlikely only as long as Israel possesses a qualitative military edge (QME) and Israeli forces are successful in countering Iranian proxies, state-backed forces and cyber operations. Ergo, it is vital that Israel’s allies continue to bolster Israeli capabilities and support the primary democracy in the Middle East in order to constrain Iran’s military options.

In conclusion, Iran’s foreign proxies and persistent nuclear ambitions risk further destabilisation in the Middle East. Yet, Israel’s superior capabilities make initiating direct military conflict an unadvisable and improbable strategy for Tehran. Tensions, however, do remain high. A different set of Iranian leaders with less hostile views of Israel could diminish the Iranian threat, but given the presidency of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, and his continued sabre rattling, it seems that for the foreseeable future Israel and Iran will remain locked in a shadow war that neither side wants to escalate into a direct, full-scale combat.

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