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Strikes on Israel Open a Dangerous New Chapter for Old Rivals

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Iran has retaliated directly against Israel for the killings of its senior generals in Damascus, with an onslaught of more than 300 drones and missiles aimed at restoring its credibility and deterrence, officials and analysts say.

That represents a moment of great risk, with key questions still to answer, they say. Has Iran’s attack been enough to satisfy its calls for revenge? Or given the relatively paltry results — almost all the drones and missiles were intercepted by Israel and the United States — will it feel the need to strike again? And will Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, see the strong performance by his country’s air defenses, in cooperation with allies, as a sufficient response? Or will he choose to escalate further with an attack on Iran itself?

Now that Iran has attacked Israel as it promised to do, it will be hoping to avoid a broader war, the officials and analysts say, noting that the Iranians targeted only military sites in an apparent effort to avoid civilian casualties and advertised their attack well in advance.

“Iran’s government appears to have concluded that the Damascus strike was a strategic inflection point, where failure to retaliate would carry more downsides than benefits,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran director of the International Crisis Group, in an interview. “But in doing so, the shadow war it has been waging with Israel for years now threatens to turn into a very real and very damaging conflict,” one that could drag in the United States, he added.

“The Iranians have for now played their card,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House. “They made a choice to call Israel’s bluff, and they felt they needed to do so, because they see the last six months as a persistent effort to set them back across the region.”

For years Iran took blow after blow from Israel both at home and in the region: assassinations of its nuclear scientists and military commanders, explosions at its nuclear and military bases, cyber hacks, intelligence infiltrations and an embarrassing theft of nuclear documents.

But since the Hamas-led assault of Oct. 7 prompted Israel to go to war in Gaza, Israel has intensified its attacks on Iranian interests and commanders in Syria. In a series of strikes starting in December, Israel has assassinated at least 18 Iranian commanders and military personnel from the Quds Force, the elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that operates outside Iran’s borders.

Iran had been criticized internally and by some senior officers in proxy groups like Hezbollah for its cautious posture during the war in Gaza, especially in its refusal to do more to support Hamas and in its restraint of Hezbollah, its close ally in southern Lebanon, Ms. Vakil said. With the attacks on Saturday, “I think Tehran saw a need to draw this red line and make it clear to Israel that Iran does have red lines and would not continue to tolerate the slow degradation of its position,” she said.

Tehran felt it had to respond, even if its attack prompted firm American backing and widespread Western diplomatic support for Israel, taking some of the heat off Israel over its war in Gaza, at least temporarily, and again isolated Iran.

Now, Ms. Vakil said, the two sides were in a standoff in which both were prepared for escalation but knowing it would cause massive damage to themselves.

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