Analysts said neither side wanted to escalate into a full-fledged war, which could quickly spiral into a regionwide conflagration, and by dawn, quiet had returned. But the risk of a broader war could not be ruled out.
“We may be O.K. for the next month or so, but we have a big structural problem,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy in Washington. “Iran wants to build infrastructure in Syria. Israel is dead set against that. So it’s a real witches’ brew. This is a preview of a serious long-term flashpoint.”
His worry was echoed by Ryan C. Crocker, a former United States ambassador to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries.
“There is real potential for a much bigger fight than we have seen so far, led by Israel,” Mr. Crocker said. “And will anything good come of it? Not at all.”
Iran would struggle to defend itself against a direct, multifront attack by Israel, the United States and the gulf countries.
As a Persian, Shiite-led state, it is a sectarian and ethnic minority in a predominantly Sunni Arab region. Spurned internationally since a revolutionary Islamic government seized power in 1979, it has no access to Western weapons. And Iran’s poor economy means that its regional foes have outspent it on conventional weapons.
Instead, Iran has invested where it could: in relationships with substate actors that mostly share Iran’s Shiite faith and sense of underdog status.
The prototype for that strategy was Hezbollah, which officers from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps helped create in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Supporting Hezbollah gave Iran a means to fight the Israelis near Israel’s northern border, and later gave Iran a hand in Lebanese politics. Hezbollah, which Israel and the United States have long regarded as a terrorist organization, has since grown into a regional force in its own right.
“Iran is actually not as strong as we think,” said Bassel F. Salloukh, a political-science professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. “Its economy is quite weak, it is surrounded, so it has to project power in order to protect itself, and that strategy has worked very well, so they are duplicating it elsewhere.”