The limits of confrontation

Walid M. Abdelnasser
Tuesday 7 May 2024

Walid M Abdelnasser discusses the extent to which Israel’s conflict with Iran is likely to manifest itself


Recent direct military confrontations between Iran and Israel, which took place in April 2024, generated scepticism regarding their possible continuity and negative repercussions on the situation in the Middle East. That situation has already been strained by the war in Gaza. Iranian-Israeli confrontations have also raised serious concerns regarding how the potential escalation between the two countries could lead to a wider regional war. It would be difficult to bring such a war to an end or control its path, scope and momentum in the near future, whether through regional players, or even the intervention of international actors coming from outside.

That is why some observations concerning the limits that such confrontations are not expected to go beyond might be in order. These limits are determined by each of the two countries assessing its strategic interests åand security considerations, whether direct or indirect. One could add to those factors thåe keenness of both countries not to undermine a minimum level of regional stability needed to avoid a full-fledged explosion of the region, which could, in turn, lead to a threat to international peace and security, forcing global powers to intervene. In the case of such an intervention, the extra-regional powers could seek to impose certain scenarios on the countries of the region, potentially damaging what both countries perceive as their vital interests, or even potentially undermining the stability and sustainability of governments in both countries.

A reading of the perception in both Iran and Israel of the limits of confrontation between them leads us to a number of significant observations.

First, we need to realise that, despite the state of declared boycott and enmity that looks absolute and extreme, we have witnessed in the past examples of overlap, and not necessarily similarity, in the interests of both countries regarding certain regional and international developments that took place over the past four and a half decades, namely since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in February 1979. Among these examples are the famous “Iran gate” as well as the “Tower Commission” report. Both countries showed in the past that their behaviour towards each other could be pragmatic in the management of interactions between them, despite the “ideological” and therefore strategic and political enmity.

Secondly, political leaders in both Iran and Israel are fully aware that if the confrontation between the two countries goes beyond existing limits, this could lead to catastrophic consequences on more than one level. At the strategic and military level, any qualitative transformation in the confrontation between both countries could exhaust their military capabilities. Moreover, at the economic level, any escalation in the confrontation between them would place huge burdens on their national economies. In addition, such escalation could potentially act as a push factor to existing foreign investments in both countries as well as limit, to one degree or another, the influx of new foreign investments.

Thirdly, if the Iranian-Israeli confrontation goes beyond the limits observed until the confrontations of April 2024, this could lead to regional implications for both countries, that would also follow the exhaustion of their military and economic capabilities in possible future confrontations between them. In this context, both countries would have concerns as the exhaustion of their capabilities could negatively affect their regional weight and would, therefore, limit their regional role, which is not only important but in fact major, albeit to varying degrees, in formulating the new rules of the game in the Middle East, whether in the present or the future. This would entail a loss for Iran and Israel, as both countries, together with Turkey, have increasingly over the past four decades played a greater role in drawing the geostrategic map of the region, despite the three of them being the non-Arab minority among the Arab majority of Middle East countries.

Fourthly, one might expect both Iran and Israel to be keen to prevent global powers, even if they are allies or close friends, from intervening, as this intervention could provide a pretext for those global powers not only to enforce an end to the Iranian-Israeli confrontation but possibly also to enforce positions on both countries or either of them regarding other problems or conflicts in the region, which could run contrary to the current stands of those countries towards those problems or conflicts. As an example, the international intervention could attempt to push Israel towards agreeing to a just and comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or at least to the core of that conflict, namely the Palestinian problem. This could be contrary to the perception held by the Israeli establishment of the limits of the so-called concessions Israel could make to reach a final settlement.

Fifthly, there could potentially be internal repercussions for any possible future escalation in Iranian-Israeli confrontations. What is meant here is the relationship between these confrontations and their escalation on the one hand and the domestic legitimacy of the political leadership in each country on the other. One has to acknowledge that the confrontation between Iran and Israel, since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in February 1979, has comprised a component of the domestic political legitimacy of successive governments to date. However, if the escalation in Iranian-Israeli confrontation exceeds its limits, it could have a negative impact on the overall domestic legitimacy and popularity of each of them, if such escalation damages priorities among citizens of both countries such as the overall state of the economy of the country and how it reflects on the standard of living of citizens and the quality of life in society.

The considerations touched on in the aforementioned observations might not be all that prevents the governments in Iran and Israel from escalating confrontations between the two countries. However, they definitely constitute some of the more important considerations that affect the perception by each government of the limits of future interactions between the two countries and its future developments in terms of the national, the regional and the international context.


The writer is a commentator.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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