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Iran and Israel Avoid Open War, For Now (Analysis)

Iran and Israel Avoid Open War, For Now (Analysis)

BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) — The extent of Israel's military response to Iran's first direct strike remains unclear. Israeli authorities have yet to publicly claim responsibility for Friday night's bombings in parts of Iran. Tehran described the attacks as “small drones” shot down by its air defense systems.

Iran may downplay the significant but limited Israeli offensive, but it appears secondary to the larger forces at play. It is clear that both Iran and Israel are ready to end the most dangerous escalation between two regional superpowers to date.

This month's dizzying escalation, which began with an Israeli airstrike on Iran's embassy in Damascus and was followed by a largely repulsed Iranian attack of more than 300 air strikes against Israel, led to a rapid retreat. After Friday morning's strike in Iran, a regional intelligence source told CNN's Nick Robertson that Iran was not expected to respond further and that direct state-by-state strikes had ended.

The latest outbreak highlights what is at stake, but also exposes the limits of direct conflict between Iran and Israel.

By attacking the Iranian embassy in Syria on April 1, killing a senior Iranian general who served as a key intermediary between Tehran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel risked provoking a response from a powerful Shiite militant group on its northern border. As part of Iran's retaliatory attack on Israel, its weapons went over at least two neighboring countries that host US bases.

What happens between Iran and Israel is rarely between Iran and Israel. The region is deeply intertwined. This increases the risks of military action, but also serves as a safeguard against a potential outbreak.

Israel attacks Iran

People go about their daily lives in Isfahan, Iran following news of Friday's attacks. Credit: Anatolu/Getty Images

So when U.S. officials said late last week that Washington would not participate in an Israeli response to an Iranian attack on Israel, it immediately took the wind out of the sails of a potential escalation.

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US forces shot down more than 70 Iranian weapons en route to Israel. By bolstering Israel's defenses, the United States has clearly done its part in protecting its staunch ally.

But participating in Friday's attack would have been a step too far for the United States, plunging a region of American-allied nations into the unknown.

Tehran's regional considerations may also factor into the restriction. His developing friendship with key US allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is a central part of Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi's foreign policy. Diplomatic ties between former arch-enemies Tehran and Riyadh were restored last year thanks to talks in which China acted as a mediator and worked to maintain normalization agreements. A regional upheaval could compromise those key relationships.

These dangers may be overlooked by the more belligerent factions of Iran and Israel, where more extreme elements may be eager for an eventual confrontation. Israel's far-right National Defense Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said the attack was “weak” on Friday. Last week, he urged Israel's war cabinet to “go crazy,” Israeli media reported, which was irritated by signs of Israel's modest military response.

In Iran, analysts speculate that the downing of Iranian weapons in and around Israel's airspace has tipped the balance of power in favor of its adversary, ultimately giving Tehran's hardliners more power to ignore international pressure and advance the country's much-feared nuclear arsenal. project.

Escalation of hostilities this month will undoubtedly fuel internal tensions as the two bitter enemies resume their long shadow war. Iran's non-state allies will continue to fight Israel and the US in various parts of the Middle East, and have vowed to continue fighting until Israel's disastrous war in Gaza continues. These wars, which include Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, will become more complex the longer they last.

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Meanwhile, the parties to these conflicts will continue to test the limits of unwritten rules of engagement, hoping to assert their authority and expose their arsenals to avoid a full downward spiral toward war.

There is a lot to read between the lines in this latest outbreak. But it is clear that both sides of the territorial war have decided that there is too much to lose in open war.

— CNN's Mustafa Salem contributed to this report.