Iran, Israel, And West Asia Are On The Brink Again – Analysis

On Saturday evening, Iran launched hundreds of drones and missiles towards Israel in response to the Israeli attack on its consulate in Damascus, Syria. Tehran validated its military action by invoking Article 51 of the UN Charter, which underscores a right to ‘individual or collective self-defence’.

Israel, along with help from the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), and France, amongst potential others, reportedly took down 97 percent of all projectiles fired towards its territories. The same accuracy was also previously aired by Israel in taking down a number of rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas in 2022, showcasing the possession of a robust and successful air defence apparatus against such threats.

The Israeli war cabinet has said that the event is not over yet, but they have taken a step back from any immediate retaliation for the moment. Messaging from both the US and the Iranians was heavily bent towards de-escalation. “The matter can be deemed concluded,” Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations said. US President Joe Biden, going into what is expected to be a very difficult election campaign, does not want a West Asia (Middle East) on fire to make an already tenuous situation domestically even worse. As per reports, Biden has told Israel that the US will not partake in a direct military confrontation with Iran. “You got a win. Take the win,” Biden is further reported to have told his Israeli counterpart Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Iranians as well have in effect tried to communicate that they do not have any intention to escalate this any further, but with their usual bluster attached, for good measure and domestic consumption.

The Israeli view

Even as the situation in the region seems to be settled for now, the long-term prospects are grimmer than before. For Israel, the fact that it has for now decided not to retaliate, owing in a significant part to US pressure, is hardly the end of the story. Israel has already suffered a major blow to its idea of unchallenged securitisation on 7 October at the hands of Hamas. Not gaining a strategic and tactical upper hand in this exchange with Tehran, and in effect, handing the Iranians a level of equity in this conflict, is something Israelis never believed would be an acceptable outcome. As of now, this is exactly where things stand.

Israel’s very being is built on the imperative to secure its geography and serve as the only sanctuary for the Jewish people. While Israel has said that it will respond at a time and manner of its own choosing, it can be said with a good degree of confidence that it will have options to strike Iranian interests within Iran, having done so before. This is even though Israel seemingly refrained from initiating such attacks in the time before 7 October.

Troubles for Netanyahu may only escalate. He has tried for much of the past six months to not be seen as a weakened head of state, despite domestic pressures and protests challenging his leadership. Now, he may face strong headwinds from his own coalition, which constitutes a powerful far-right component. National Security Minister Ben-Gvir called for a “crushing attack” against Iran while others called for restraint. Along with Iran, Netanyahu also has the challenge to manage his own government’s family feuds. Aside from this, there is also the ongoing crisis of Hamas holding Israeli hostages. As these attacks and counterattacks unfolded, Hamas has reportedly refused the latest iteration of a deal being stitched together by Qatar, Egypt, and the US which would see an exchange between the hostages and Palestinians currently in Israeli prisons. This means that Israeli hostages continue to be under Hamas captivity. While some believe that the Israel–Iran confrontation has put the Gaza issue on the backburner, for Netanyahu, the crisis along with the hostages will remain a core concern driving the decisions he makes going forward.

The Iranian position

After the attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus and the killing of Brigadier General Mohammed Reza Zahedi, a senior commander in the country’s all-powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), options for Tehran were unambiguous. The first was to threaten Israel, and not escalate. But this would have been a hard sell to the IRGC, even for Ayatollah Khamenei, to whom the force reports to directly. A similar situation also came up in 2020, when the US assassinated famed IRGC military leader General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. Then as well, the Iranians had launched missiles-led retaliation, but against US targets.

The Iranians have maintained an emboldened position since the war in Gaza began. Tehran has stood resolutely behind Hamas and emboldened its proxy designs across the region such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, an expanded legacy of Soleimani’s tenure as head of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force. However, a conventional conflict to restore ‘credibility and deterrence’, seems to make sense only partially. While launching a strike against Israel bolsters the Iranian regime domestically, it also pushes its narrative regionally as the only state willing to take on Israel over Gaza and for the Palestinians. While this may not impact other Arab governments in the region and their strategic posturing, it may, even if subliminally, impact the psyche of the Arab public.

As far as deterrence goes, the planned strike remains perplexing. Iran’s main deterrence was its proxy groups and the battles they fought across the region, specifically in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq. Groups known to be aligned with Iranian tutelage, often irrespective of their ideological divides—for example, Hamas is Sunni—have been more effective disrupters than conventional military tactics—an outcome of such disruption was the Saudi–Iran détente. These give Iran plausible deniability, as seen recently with the Houthis attacks in the Red Sea where Iran was accused of supporting them in training and weapons, which Tehran swiftly denied. Switching to a conventional war with Israel would undo much of this blueprint.

Conclusion

The fact that Iran has reportedly said that it informed its ‘friends and neighbours’ in the region 72 hours prior to launching the attack probably means that the US, Israel, and others, also had a good hint of what was coming and when. The US has shown unwavering support for Israel on Gaza, at what could be a great political cost for Biden himself later this year, and not escalating into a full-fledged conflict now may be a return of favour Washington demanded and not requested. The remainder of the months of 2024 may be very grim for security in the Middle East. While many pointed out that resolving the Israel–Palestine crisis was always going to be a main demand for regional peace, the ever-looming shadow of Israel–Iran hostility may be an equal task, if not more.

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