Strategy, revenge and hidden diplomacy: war, despite everything, is still an art

(To Claudio Verzola)

"The Israeli attack will not go unanswered. Iran's revenge is inevitable and Tehran will decide how and when to carry out the retaliatory operation", declared the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Mohammad Bagheri, to IRNA (Islamic Republic News Agency), in the aftermath of the Israeli action in Damascus, on 1 April.

And revenge has arrived, punctual and expected. Israeli defenses, supported by the US, UK and Jordan, did their job by preventing Iranian drones and missiles from reaching their intended targets. While in Tehran, cheering crowds took to the streets waving Iranian and Palestinian flags after Iran's Revolutionary Guards confirmed that an attack had been launched against Israel in retaliation for the April 1 raid on its consulate in Damascus.

This is what has been learned from the agencies regarding the Israeli-Iranian affair, it seems like a sequence of events with its own logic: two states, Israel and Iran, enemies of each other, are competing for influence in the area, involving the neighbors in the clash but not only.

However, reading carefully between the lines of the story of April 1st, the raid on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, details emerge that would confirm the presence of another actor, the USA, which in my opinion could have played a truly important mediation role in the matter. .

You will remember that just a few hours after the Israeli attack, the US declared: "We were not informed of the attack". A clear message, but aimed at whom? Certainly not to the allies in the area, but much more probably to the countries that are antagonistic or potentially antagonistic to Israel, with which the USA has long sought dialogue aimed at promoting a certain stability in the area.

- Agreements of Abraham are proof of this, as are the numerous positions taken aimed at obtaining a ceasefire in the areas occupied by the Israeli army.

But what if the recipients of the message had not only been the Arab countries but also some levels of Iranian diplomacy?

I have reflected on this thesis in recent days; in fact, it would not be the first time in history that high-level diplomatic negotiations take place through the so-called backchannels.

What are "backchannels"?

The term "backchannels", when applied to the context of international diplomacy and communications, refers to informal and unofficial communication channels that are used to conduct negotiations and exchanges of information outside of official diplomatic channels. These confidential channels are often used to explore possibilities for compromise, resolve conflicts or manage sensitive relations between states, discreetly and without public or media attention.

I backchannels they are particularly useful in delicate situations where official negotiations may be impractical or counterproductive. They allow us to explore common ground in order to identify possible areas of agreement or compromise without the pressure of diplomatic formalities.

Prevent conflicts and offer a way to de-escalate tense situations or resolve crises in a controlled and confidential manner. Repair relationships and assist in restoring or building diplomatic relations that may have been damaged or severed.

Throughout history, there have been famous examples of the use of this kind of diplomacy:

  • The Cuban Missile Crisis (1962): during the Cuban Missile Crisis, backchannels between US National Security Advisor Robert Kennedy and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin were crucial in negotiating the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba and Americans from Turkey, avoiding a potential nuclear disaster.
  • The normalization of US-China relations (1970)I backchannels between Henry Kissinger and his Chinese counterparts were essential in preparing Richard Nixon's historic visit to China, which marked the beginning of the normalization of relations between the two countries after decades of isolation.

In the history of US-Iran relations we find traces of numerous events resolved through backchannels, that they testify to the ability of the two states to keep a dialogue open even in situations where formally any interlocution appears impossible.

For example, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, is perhaps the most significant example of success achieved through backchannels. Before the negotiations became public and involved other world powers, the US and Iran used these unofficial channels to explore the possibility of an agreement.

Or the pre-negotiations that took place through discussions backchannel through intermediaries such as Oman, where the US and Iran were able to establish the basis of trust and the preliminary contours of the agreement, thus facilitating subsequent formal dialogues.

We have seen other cases that confirm the dialogue with Iran by observing some events such as that of 2016 where Iran released four American prisoners in exchange for pardoning seven Iranians held in the US. This exchange was the direct result of negotiations backchannel, which allowed official diplomatic obstacles to be overcome. It's still also in 2016, the case of the ten American sailors detained by Iran after an accidental entry into Iranian waters was resolved effectively through communications backchannel, who benefited from the goodwill built during the JCPOA negotiations.

The USA and Iran, not only through intermediaries such as Oman, but also in multilateral contexts, have used backchannels which made it possible to facilitate dialogues on sensitive issues and prepare the ground for official meetings, reducing tensions in a controlled and discreet way like in Vienna in 2021 where negotiations for the return to the JCPOA, although formally open, were intensely supported by a series of interactions backchannel which helped to clarify positions and modulate the expectations of the parties.

Returning to the present and analyzing the events I would return to the US declaration after Damascus. "We didn't know..." could suggest an implication, "if we had known..." we would have tried to prevent it, or we would have warned you.

If the recipient of the message was in Tehran, it would confirm the US willingness to play a role in the area, a role potentially undermined by some initiatives of the Netanyahu government, towards which the US immediately took action, through formal declarations and the sending of humanitarian aid in Gaza, but the activities would not be limited to this.

My thesis is that mediation also led to tonight's attack, an attack that - as already noted by this newspaper - has some strangeness in the execution modes, first of all the lack of the surprise factor.

Il surprise factor it has always been a crucial element in numerous war events, which has often determined the outcome of battles and military campaigns thanks to its ability to catch the opponent unprepared, maximize the psychological effect of the actions undertaken and temporarily exploit the chaos in the enemy ranks .

The surprise factor allows the attacker to disorientate the opponent. A surprise attack can disorganize his operations, cause confusion and prevent a coordinated response, thus giving a decisive tactical advantage. Furthermore, the surprising use of force can have a strong psychological impact, demoralizing the opponent and tilting the moral scales in favor of the attacker, causing euphoria among his own ranks.

In history there are many cases in which the surprise factor has played a decisive role. In Battle of Manzikert (1071) the Seljuks used surprise against the Byzantine Empire, attacking with a cavalry force that the Byzantines were not expecting. This effective use of the surprise factor not only led to a landslide victory but also changed the course of history in Anatolia. In 1941 there were two war events that benefited from the surprise factor: the attack on Pearl Harbor and Operation Barbarossa., and again the Israeli raid on Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976, another emblematic example of a military operation that exploited thesurprise element to free hostages held by pro-Palestinian terrorists. The success of the operation was largely due to the speed and secrecy with which it was carried out.

Well, it is clear that for Iran the military response should have had a double meaning, the first a question of honor, for internal use, the second a message from deterrence aimed not only but above all at Israel.

And hence the unusual quantity of rockets launched for propaganda use, many rockets, old, many of which were punctually intercepted by the air defense, a flexing of muscles to the internal public opinion which is impressed more by the quantity than by the quality. The second message was conducted with only 7 hypersonic missiles all directed and hit the Israeli air base from which the F35s of the attack on Damascus departed.

And therefore as stated by Mohammad Bagheri, obtain revenge whose effects were to be spent internally to maintain control of Iranian public opinion and appease the more radical internal fringes, seriously hit by Israel with the action of the Consulate in Damascus, and at the at the same time warn Israel.

From this consideration, the renunciation of using the surprise factor, in an action probably concerted with US diplomacy using backchannels. If this were the case, it would explain Iran's statements to the UN - “the matter can be considered closed like this” - who appealed to Israel not to react to its direct attack by drones and missiles, defined as justified and an obligatory response to the raid against the consulate in Damascus.

Further confirmation it would come from Biden's words to Netanyahu during this morning's phone call where the US president essentially invited Israel to don't react, warning Israel not to take actions that she would be forced to carry on alone.

Certainly the "war" event observed and analyzed by everyone has some technically interesting facets for the future, for all parties involved. The declarations made to the UN and the uniqueness of the action make me believe it more plausible that the symbolic demonstration, even if conducted with an unprecedented number of weapon systems, was dictated more by image issues, an opportunity exploited also to demonstrate to Israel that the Iranian response capacity has probably been underestimated.

It seems clear that in the absence of alignment between the United States and Israel on the management of policies in the area, it becomes difficult if not impossible to ensure stability in the entire region, despite the considerable efforts made by the US administration.

Traditionally, support for Israel has been strong among both Democrats and Republicans in the United States. However, recent dynamics have seen growing polarization: while Republican support remains robust and almost uniform, a growing diversity of opinions is observed in the Democratic Party, with a more left-wing fringe openly criticizing some Israeli policies, especially regarding the Palestinian issue and to human rights.

If it is true that Israel is an outpost of democracy in a context that is anything but democratic, it is equally true that Benjamin Netanyahu's government is carrying out reforms such as the judicial ones which have aroused considerable internal opposition and stances also taken at an international level with statements voiced by politicians, diplomats and international observers, including the United States, expressing concerns about the potential implications on democratic norms.

Two opposing visions of the world and justice are at stake: the Western one, in which justice is based on principles of fairness and proportionality, and that of the "law of retaliation", based on the direct and proportional reciprocity of punishment, where sanctions aim to replicate the offense committed, triggering perpetual cycles of vendetta.

To assert the superiority of Western Enlightenment thought means to broaden the range of possibilities and, through cognitive dominance and the search for channels of interlocution, also those of prevailing.

I backchannels they represent exactly this type of attitude, aimed at resolving crises in a controlled and confidential way. 

We need to improve the ability to effectively use knowledge and cognitive skills to plan, make decisions and solve problems in complex and often pressured situations. 

I'm talking about cognitive domain crucial in military operations, since involves the use of critical thinking, judgment, situational perception and decision making to manage dynamic and potentially dangerous situations. Excelling in this field not only supports the effective conduct of operations but is essential for adapting to the evolution of the modern battlefield, characterized by uncertainty, rapid changes and the need to integrate advanced technologies. 

Armed forces (which excel in the cognitive domain) are better equipped to deal with asymmetric threats, cyber attacks, and hybrid warfare, thus demonstrating the growing interdependence between cognitive and technological capabilities in the modern operational theater, which it cannot be interpreted with the rules of past wars and with simplistic solutions like those offered by the “law of retaliation”.

Photo: X / IRNA