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Iran's attack on Israel marks a significant shift from its usual proxy warfare

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

First, though, a question - what exactly was Iran trying to accomplish when it fired more than 300 drones and missiles toward Israel this past weekend? Seen one way, it was an escalation, a direct response to Israel's assassination of Iranian military leaders at Iran's embassy in Syria. For decades, Iran has supported proxy militias aligned against Israel, but Iran launched these weapons from its own territory and claimed full responsibility.

Seen another way, this was something more symbolic or intentionally limited. Some 99% of the weapons fired were intercepted by air defense systems, and Iran telegraphed this move days ahead of time and started it by launching slower-moving drones. So what was Iran's calculation here? We're going to put that to Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hi there. Thanks for joining us again.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you so much, Mary Louise - great to be with you.

KELLY: OK. Start with the basic question. What was the calculation? What does it look to you was the goal of this barrage?

SADJADPOUR: So I'm not a military expert, but when I do talk to military experts and I spoke to a friend at the White House, what they say is that, listen. A hundred ballistic missiles is very serious. There's nothing symbolic about that. It was meant to be quite destructive and didn't succeed because of missile defense technology, which the United States and Israel and some of our regional partners have effectively deployed. But that doesn't mean that Iran just merely meant this as a symbolic act. I think the other question, Mary Louise, is what were they trying to achieve with this?

KELLY: Yeah.

SADJADPOUR: And who was the audience? And I think there's a few different audiences. Obviously, they want to send a message to Israel that don't think that you can continue to assassinate our senior military commanders and have no cost to you. I think Iran's attack was also meant as a message for the Arab public and the Arab proxies to save face with them because over the last six, seven months, Iran has employed a lot of moral support for the Palestinians getting killed in Gaza, but they really haven't backed that up with any military might. And then finally, I think, like any dictatorship, Iran wants to be feared by its own population. And if - when their own population, the people of Iran, who are deeply discontent with their regime, see that their government is getting manhandled by the government of Israel, that could well embolden them against the regime. So I think that one of the audiences for Iran's retaliation was their own people, to send a signal to them, continue to fear us.

KELLY: So fair to say, you know, if you're trying to figure out, does Tehran think this was a successful attack over the weekend? - it sounds like it's a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, if they were trying to be very destructive, that didn't work. There were no major casualties, no major damage to infrastructure in Israel. On the other hand, if you're trying to send a message, you could argue from Tehran's point of view, maybe the message was received.

SADJADPOUR: I think it's difficult to argue that for Iran, this was a successful attack and that it seems like it's not a question of whether, but when Israel is going to retaliate. And, you know, when you look at the Iran-Israel conflict through a geographic lens, Iran obviously has huge advantages because it's 70 times the size of Israel. Its regional proxies are surrounding Israel. But if you look at this through a military and technological lens, then Israel is the Goliath and Iran is the David. Israel's significantly more powerful militarily. And Iranian leaders are not sleeping well these days.

KELLY: What should we make, Karim Sadjadpour, of this statement that Iran's team at the United Nations put out right after the strikes, saying the matter can be deemed concluded?

SADJADPOUR: I found that statement somewhat comical, the equivalent of someone entering a fight and about to throw a punch, releasing a statement saying, after this punch is strong, I deem this fight to be over. The thing about the government of Iran is it makes very bombastic statements. It's very committed to its ideology to replace Israel with Palestine and evict America from the Middle East. But at the same time, it's even more committed to staying in power. This is not a suicidal government. And historically, whenever Iran feels kind of existential angst, whether that's existential economic angst or they feel that they could, you know, trigger a military attack upon themselves by the U.S. or Israel, they tend to walk back from the edge.

KELLY: Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thanks as always.

SADJADPOUR: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.