Why Has the Iran-Israel Conflict Moved to Direct Confrontation?

In the context of the Gaza conflict, Israel, guided by the “Octopus Doctrine” formulated in 2018, has dealt with the perils and challenges posed by the “Unity of Arenas”. The Israeli doctrine serves to intensify the pressures exerted on Iran, instead of engaging with a broad range of armed factions. The underlying premise of Israel’s strategy, as dictated by this Doctrine, is to compel Iran to put pressure on its proxies to cease their escalation against Israel. Concurrently, this Doctrine aims to diminish the strategic value these factions perceived by the Iranian mentality, given their role as the forward defense line of Iran’s territories.

  • Release Date – Apr 14, 2024

On April 14, 2024, Iran launched an unprecedented attack on Israel using hundreds of drones and ballistic missiles. Following decades of proxy conflict and intelligence warfare between the two countries, it was the first direct attack from Iranian territory targeting a wide range of targets inside Israel. The attack was Iran’s response to Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1 that killed eight Iranian military leaders, including Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a leader in the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

History of Iran-Israel Attacks and Intelligence Warfare

For decades, Iran and Israel have been engaged in an intelligence warfare, a modern-day Cold War involving land, sea, cyber, and proxy attacks. Israel has relied on intelligence operations against Iranian interests, its military leaders, and nuclear scientists.

For example, through a complex intelligence operation in 2018, Israel obtained tens of thousands of documents containing information about Iran’s nuclear program. And after the United States assassinated IRGC Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a targeted drone airstrike in January 2020, Tehran has accused Israel of carrying out a series of bombings, drone attacks, and similar assassinations: Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020; Iran’s nuclear facility in Qassem Soleimani 2021, IRGC Col. Hassan Sayyad Khaddaiy in Tehran in 2022, Iran’s military facility in Isfahan in 2023, and most recently, gas transmission lines between the south and north of Iran in February 2024. In addition, Israel has also been accused of dozens of electronic and cyberattacks.


On the other hand, Tel Aviv accuses Tehran of planning and carrying out attacks against Israeli interests around the world. In 2018, German authorities arrested Iranians accused of gathering information about Israeli targets in Germany. In 2021, India accused the Quds Force of being responsible for an explosion near the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi. In 2023, Israel’s then Foreign Minister Eli Cohen accused Iran of attempting to bomb the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan. Additionally, Iranian proxy groups attacked maritime vessels wholly or partially owned by Israel: an oil tanker in the Arabian Sea in 2021, an oil tanker off the coast of Oman in 2022, and a commercial ship off the west coast of India in October 2023. Finally, there have been thousands of reported cyberattacks and electronic hacking attempts, which, according to Israel, amounted to 3,380 attacks during 2023—a 43 percent increase from 2022.

The Shrinking Boundary Between Intelligence Operations and Direct Confrontation

Acknowledging that direct confrontation would be detrimental to both parties, both Iran and Israel have designed distinct patterns of intelligence operations to avoid engaging in a direct battle. Nevertheless, the two states have demonstrated that exercising their geopolitical authority across the Middle East, without engaging in at least a controlled escalation, is an exceedingly challenging matter. This is particularly true since Iran began expanding its influence through the dozens of proxies it supports and directs in the region, not to mention its attempts to strategically position itself in Syria since 2012. Israel views as a strategic threat Tehran’s efforts to: establish an advanced military infrastructure, unify a broad northern front against Israel that encompasses both Lebanon and Syria through the formation of armed entities akin to Hezbollah, and allow the provision of rapid logistical support via the military infrastructure established in Syria.

Today, the confrontation between Israel and Iran has taken a different context, evolving into an escalating trajectory that gradually tilted away from the concepts of secret wars and shadow conflicts. This escalation has raised several concerns about the possibility of turning into a direct confrontation between Iran and Israel.

The situation reached its peak with Israel’s formulation of the “Campaign Between Wars” strategy, which is based on directing preemptive strikes against Iranian assets, particularly Hezbollah in Syria. Israel has also carried out dozens of airstrikes and missile strikes against IRGC sites in Syria, including armament and manufacturing warehouses, command and control centers, and military airports used by the Revolutionary Guard. Israel was also accused of assassinating senior Iranian officers and advisors: Colonels Ehsan Karbalaipur and Morteza Saeed-Nezhad in an airstrike in 2022, and IRGC Aerospace Force Col. Daoud Jafari by a car bomb in 2023. In response, Iran has indirectly targeted Israeli interests through its proxies spread across the region while direct targeting Mossad centers in the Kurdistan region by launching missile attacks, the latest of which was in January 2024. 

Confrontation Escalated after October 7

During the ongoing conflict in Gaza, the Syrian arena, in particular, witnessed a notable escalation in Israeli-Iranian tensions. The Israeli strikes took a new turn in locations and targets. While previous Israeli strikes focused on military facilities, recent strikes have extended to residential facilities, including an attack that resulted in the death of Sadegh Omid Zadeh, a Quds Force intelligence official,  and five other military leaders in their homes in Damascus. This was followed by a raid that killed the Quds Force commander Razi Mousavi in the Sayyida Zainab vicinity of Damascus. These attacks evolved into Israel targeting a diplomatic facility, the Iranian consulate in Damascus, in order to kill IRGC commander Mohammad Reza Zahedi, who was inside.


Israel has justified its actions as a means to prevent any of Iran’s proxies from acquiring unconventional weapons that could disrupt the delicate balance, such as surface-to-air missiles or advanced anti-ship missile capabilities. Consequently, Israel was keen to keep Damascus and Aleppo airports out of service since the beginning of the war, targeting both airports twice on October 14 and 15. The expansion of the war has been Israel’s primary concern following the brutal attacks carried out by Palestinian factions in the Gaza Envelope on October 7, 2023. This concern is particularly due to accusations of Iran planning and overseeing the October 7 attacks. Israel also considers Iran a participant in the war in Gaza, accusing it of giving the green light to a set of its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria to carry out attacks against Israeli interests. Israel also fears the Iranian attempts to deploy weapons in Syria, which opens a second front in the Gaza war, or to transfer such weapons to its proxies.

It is clear that Israel, guided by its 2018 “Octopus Doctrine” in which Iran is the head and its proxies are the tentacles, has dealt with the perils and challenges posed by Hezbollah’s “Unity of Arenas” strategy of coordinating the roles between all the Iran-supported armed factions in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria. Israel’s Octopus Doctrine serves to intensify the pressures exerted on Iran instead of merely engaging with a broad range of armed factions. The underlying premise of Israel’s strategy, as dictated by this doctrine, is to compel Iran to put pressure on its proxies to cease their escalation against Israel. Concurrently, this doctrine aims to diminish the strategic value these factions offer Iran, given their role as the forward defense line of Iran’s territories.

The First Direct Confrontation

The widespread Iranian attack against Israel marked the end of the changing war paths between the two states, transitioning from intelligence warfare to overt attacks and messages beyond their borders, culminating in the open and direct confrontation on April 14. This attack represents a significant milestone in the complex relationship between Israel and Iran, and it is considered contrary to the implicit agreements that have endured for decades to not attack each other’s territories. Additionally, the attacks involved the extensive use of Iran’s missile arsenal and drone capabilities.

However, it was clear that the drone attack, slow-moving and easily defended against, was designed to keep the escalation controlled and avoid provoking an Israeli and American reaction that would lead to retaliatory campaigns. For instance, Iran took approximately two weeks from Israel’s attack on its consulate to respond, allowing time for Israeli officials to clarify their red lines through the media, which, if crossed, would necessitate military retaliation on Iranian territory. This also provided an opportunity to gauge the international stance on the Israeli attack, and time in which to exchange indirect messages with the United States regarding the scope and level of acceptable attacks. (Tehran had indeed informed the United States in advance about the limited nature of its response.)

In terms of the weapons used and their impact, the recent Iranian attack was quite similar to its bombardment targeting Iraq’s Ain al-Assad Airbase in 2020, which killed 150 U.S. troops, in response to the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike. The Iranian announcement of the end of the attack came early in its launch, even before the drones and missiles approached Israeli airspace, putting an end to speculations about any Iranian plan to launch new waves toward Israel. This enabled air defense teams to shoot down the missiles and drones and fully manage the situation.

Nevertheless, the Iranian attack carries many messages to the region and world states:

  1. Iran has reached a position that enables it to shift from a defensive doctrine to an offensive one, having showcased a broad array of its strategic arsenal’s ability to penetrate deep into and through Israeli airspace. This is a response to the change in Israeli thought from the “Campaign between Wars” to the “Octopus Doctrine,” which is based on the necessity of attacking Iran instead of depleting its capabilities in a confrontation with its proxies.
  2. Iran alerted regional states to its capacity to engage the area in an unprecedented escalation, particularly as the drones and missiles traversed the skies of three Arab countries. This prompted Jordan to address hundreds of drones and missiles that violated its airspace and to shoot them down, which Tehran marketed as a form of defense for Israel. Additionally, the passage of the Iranian drones and missiles over Iraqi territory coincided with the presence of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al-Sudani in the United States upon an invitation from U.S. President Joe Biden.
  3. Iran has sought to demonstrate its capabilities to its allies Russia and China That it is a reliable force against their common adversary, the United States. The attack also serves as a complex deterrent message to both Israel and the United States regarding Iran’s possession of seemingly unlimited offensive capabilities.
  4. The attacks occurred on the same day as the IRGA’s seizure of an Israeli cargo ship in the Arabian Sea. This is not the first such incident. However, its strategic implications are significant, especially in the context of the Houthi escalation in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea. It sends a message that any further escalation means that the Strait of Hormuz will not be safe, thereby extending the list of those affected by any Iranian escalation to a global scale.
  5. With hundreds of drones and ballistic missiles, Iran has acquired a comprehensive map of the locations of American air defense systems in the region, as well as insights into Israeli air defense tactics that were previously unknown to the Iranians. Every type of Iranian weapon used in the attack is now known to the United States and Israel.


While it is possible that Israel may take retaliatory attacks, particularly in light of the U.S.-Israeli hardline stances towards Iran, and thus seize the opportunity to strike a deeper blow against Iran’s military or nuclear arsenal, escalating the confrontation does not serve any of the three parties involved—neither Israel nor Iran nor the United States. On one hand, Israel recognizes that its recent attacks against senior Iranian officers, its intensification of military pressure on Iran in Syria, and its attack on Iranian diplomatic headquarters led to a direct Iranian response on Israel's territories. Israel will need to restore its balance of deterrence and rules of engagement, ensuring that they are not exceeded without consequences. However, Iran’s counterattack has had a positive return for the Israeli government.

  • From threat to execution, the Iranian attacks came at a time when the Israeli domestic front is sharply divided, with several demonstrations demanding that the government either resign or negotiate a deal with Hamas to release Israeli prisoners.
  • The confrontation between Iran and Israel has thrust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government back into the limelight, following American attempts to marginalize this government from the scene. This resurgence is marked by Washington’s intensified engagement with the Israeli opposition, exemplified by the warm reception of U.S. leaders during visits by Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz (March 2024) and opposition leader Yair Lapid (April 2024).
  • The escalation of tension has led to a softening of support rhetoric from European leaders towards the Israeli government, a cessation of the persistent demands to stop the war, and calls to review demands to reduce European arms sales to Israel.

In contrast, Iranian-American interests converge on containing escalation and preventing its exacerbation. Washington has provided Tehran with an opportunity to save face by executing a complex attack that included a display of a wide array of strategic weapons—that did not resulting in any casualties or significant damage to either military or civilian property. Washington’s request for Israel to coordinate with it on any retaliatory strike reveals an attempt to restrain any ill-considered actions by Israel, especially since America thinks Netanyahu’s government is trying to drag it into a broader regional engagement against Iran.

Iran Attacks: What Is Next?

Although the direct Iranian strikes constituted an unprecedented assault, they do not necessarily drive both nations to abandon intelligence or proxy warfare in favor of direct engagement due to the risks involved for both parties. However, this does not diminish the severity of the attacks as a new level of aggression in the quest to restore deterrence. This is particularly true in light of the strategic shifts in the combat doctrines of both Iran and Israel. Tehran is moving from defense to offense, while Israeli is focused on attacking Iran rather than being drained in hybrid wars with its proxies. This suggests that both states have reached a turning point where attacking each other’s territories has become a possible—but, hopefully, not a probable—scenario.


Policy Analysis Team