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Worries grow about Iran-Israel hostilities spiraling into a wider regional conflict

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Iran's unprecedented missile attack on Israel in April thrust the Islamic Republic into the Israel-Hamas war. Both Tehran and Tel Aviv have since signaled reluctance to escalate. But NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that worries about spiraling into a wider regional conflict have only increased.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Iran's direct attack on Israel, rather than using a proxy militia, has people recalculating where the conflict may be headed. On May 1, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, weighed in, emphasizing that, quote, "Palestine must be returned to its true owners." He also called out the U.S. for sending in law enforcement to arrest student demonstrators who he said were simply voicing their disagreement with Israel's conduct of the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALI KHAMENEI: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: This showed the world, Khamenei said, that the U.S. is Israel's partner in crime. Sanam Vakil, director of the Mid East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank in London, says many were relieved to see that after Iran's attack and a calibrated Israeli response, both sides have returned to their corners, at least for now. The question is, will direct attacks by Iran become the norm? Or will things return to the so-called shadow war that has been Tehran's policy until now? Vakil says Iran's massive barrage may have been an effort to stop Israel's ongoing degradation of Iran's capabilities in Lebanon and Syria, most dramatically with the April 1 strike against its diplomatic mission in the Syrian capital that killed two Iranian generals.

SANAM VAKIL: Iran is slowly hemorrhaging its positions and people. And then with the attack on its Damascus diplomatic facilities, this was sort of the straw that broke their back and required Iran to change its terms of engagement and also make Israel, perhaps in the future, think twice about future attacks against Iran.

KENYON: Vakil also says the attacks revealed a clear mismatch in the capabilities of Israel versus Iran. She says Iran's large-scale attack was shot down by Israel, albeit with a major assist from U.S., British and French forces, while Israel's strike at a military target not far from important Iranian nuclear facilities sent a sharp warning to Tehran about possible consequences should such attacks continue.

Professor Daniel Byman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the shooting down of almost all the Iranian missiles and drones targeting Israel should not be underestimated. Had more gotten through, he says, the political dynamic would have been very different. Byman says it makes sense to read the limited nature of the Iranian and Israel strikes as signs both countries want to avoid a bigger conflict. But he cautions that political dynamics in both countries are unpredictable enough that, should another attack occur, worries about escalation are bound to resurface.

DANIEL BYMAN: But that, to me, is almost a likely escalation question, right? I mean, I can imagine a month from now that happening and everyone like me saying, OK, what are we go to see, right? Is this just business as usual again or not?

KENYON: Byman also believes Israel will in the future be much more willing to strike in the name of national security, even in situations where it only has partial intelligence, for instance, about the nature and size of the threat. He imagines a scenario in which an Iranian military commander is traveling somewhere, and Israel is debating whether to attack.

BYMAN: The answer in the past might be, well, you know, it's probably bad, but I'm not sure it's worth any of the effort. And now, I think it's more likely to say, take the strike. And that can lead to a lot of miscalculation.

KENYON: Chatham House analyst Sanam Vakil adds that Israel may have another calculation coming up - whether to take on the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon in the coming weeks or months. Should that happen, she wonders whether or how Iran or its proxies might respond to that development. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. 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.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.