Next Story

Israel and Iran's risky gambit

Escalation between the two rivals has shifted the shadow conflict to direct confrontation

By Hammad Sarfraz |
facebook whatsup linkded
PUBLISHED April 21, 2024

After decades of simmering hostilities between Israel and Iran, the recent escalation has thrust the theatre of conflict into stark reality, leaving the world on tenterhooks. Tensions in the region reached boiling point on April 1 when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, ordered a strike on a building within the Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus, resulting in the deaths of seven Iranian officers, including two generals.

This action crossed the Tehran regime’s redline, triggering its first direct retaliatory strike against Israel that marked a significant turning point in the shadow conflict between the two adversaries. The expansive drone and missile assault launched by Iran on April 13, which came after a 72 hour notice to countries in the neighbourhood, may have been thwarted by Israel, but at a very high cost of over $1 billion through its sophisticated defence system.

Three days later, on April 19, following several intense meetings of Israel’s war cabinet, the Netanyahu government responded by launching an attack on a military air base near the city of Isfahan in central Iran. The reactions in Iran and Israel were subdued, with analysts interpreting this as a sign that both sides were attempting to lower the temperature. On the ground in Iran, initial assessments of the Israeli strike suggested limited damage, reflecting a restrained response. While both parties may be attempting to avoid provoking further escalation, experts caution that the region remains on the brink of a broader conflict.

According to Ashok Swain, a Professor of Peace and Conflict at Uppsala University, Netanyahu has long entertained the idea of regionalising the conflict. The Sweden-based academic warned that any expansion of the war beyond Gaza serves to divert attention from the Palestinian enclave, which has faced relentless assaults from Israeli forces since the onset of the conflict more than six months ago. Swain said that this strategy helps the right-wing Israeli leader create a distraction on the world stage. He described Israel’s recent response as an attempt by Netanyahu to save face. “While both Israel and Iran are attempting to avoid further escalation of the conflict, the situation remains highly volatile,” he cautioned.

In her recent article for Haaretz, a left-leaning publication, Barbara Slavin, a fellow at the Stimson Center, wrote: “Iran’s decision to strike directly against Israel was a long time coming, following years of Israeli assassinations of Iranian military and nuclear officials and attacks on facilities in Iran. It was nevertheless surprising because the world had grown accustomed to an Iranian failure to respond directly against Israel and presumed that this would be the case again.”

“The regime (in Tehran) had to respond, not just because a ‘diplomatic’ facility was hit but because Iran has allowed Israel to get away with multiple assassinations and other attacks going back to 2010,” Slavin told the Express Tribune. “This was a cumulative revenge and effort to stave off more of the same,” the author of ‘Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation’, explained.

Israel and Netanyahu’s isolation

With the months-long bombardment of the Gaza Strip and a record number of civilian casualties, a toll that rivals that of Darfur, which the US labelled as genocide, an increasing number of countries, including former staunch supporters of Tel Aviv, have begun to criticise it for the atrocities committed by its forces in the Palestinian enclave. Over 34,000 people, half of them women and children, have been killed in the indiscriminate Israeli bombings, and the strip faces severe shortages of basic supplies, including medical and food. Relief organisations have issued multiple warnings about the potential mass starvation of millions. This mounting crisis has placed considerable pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu to broker a ceasefire. However, the Israeli leader has shown no signs of relenting. In fact, the April 1 attack on Iran’s diplomatic mission was widely viewed by experts as an attempt to provoke the regime in Tehran to authorise a massive retaliatory strike, potentially forcing Israel’s opponents to tone down their criticisms.

“Netanyahu has been actively seeking to broaden the scope of the conflict beyond Gaza over the past six months, aiming to directly or indirectly involve Iran. It is well known that Israel has been targeting Iranian assets for some time now, with the latest strike hitting Iran’s diplomatic mission in Damascus. There’s little question that Israel is the aggressor in this scenario,” explained Professor Swain. According to the Sweden-based academic, the Iranian response to the Israeli attack on its diplomatic mission in Syria provided visible cause for Western countries to stand behind Israel. “Western countries have always been behind Israel,” he noted. “Through this attack on Iran, Netanyahu may have been able to end some degree of 'surface-level' isolation. However, Tehran’s calculated response has minimised those chances.”

Slavin, in her article for Haaretz, wrote: “Iran might have been better advised to let Netanyahu continue to dig a bigger hole for himself rather than changing the subject and making Israel the perceived victim.” When asked if the regime in Tehran, through its retaliatory strike, had inadvertently helped Netanyahu, who faces intense criticism at home and abroad, Slavin responded: “Yes, unfortunately, Iran has prolonged Netanyahu’s political life. Alas, hardliners boost hardliners. The same thing happened when Bibi's last tenure coincided with that of former Iranian leader Ahmadinejad.”

While Netanyahu may have succeeded in rallying renewed support for Israel, experts believe his strike against Iran has brought to the forefront a conflict between the two nations that has historically been waged through proxies, assassinations, and strikes against each other's interests – often in third countries.

Describing the escalation between the two nations as a game changer for the region, Storer H. Rowley, a former Middle East Correspondent and national editor for the Chicago Tribune, emphasised: “Israel was never isolated. It always had ‘ironclad’ support from Washington, it still does. Its allies may be angry, but they have always supported Israel.” Rowley highlighted widespread discontent with the Israeli government’s actions: “An overwhelming number of Israelis want this current government to be gone. And much of the world wants this government gone, but I think there’s a distinction between the Israeli government in power now and those allies who have shown and continue to show global support for Israel in this regional conflict, and I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. On a personal level, I don’t think Bibi has bought himself more time, not significantly more time,” he explained.

Shortly after Iran retaliated against the strike on its diplomatic mission, US President Biden imposed new sanctions on the country, demonstrating his administration's unwavering support for Israel. In a statement, Biden said the sanctions targeted “leaders and entities connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s Defence Ministry, and the Iranian government’s missile and drone program that enabled” the April 13 attack on Israel.

Days before the April 13 retaliatory strike by Iran, the mood in Washington was shifting, and for the first time, senior politicians appeared to be criticising Israel for its actions. In a speech last month, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called for fresh elections in Israel, strongly criticising Netanyahu as an obstacle to peace. Schumer, a longtime supporter of Israel and the highest-ranking US Jewish elected official, told the Senate that Netanyahu ‘no longer fits the needs of Israel’. Such criticism, experts believe, was only anticipated to resurface in Washington when Israel escalates its actions in Gaza to a new level of atrocities. However, Slavin remarked, “For the moment, Israel has US and Western support on the matter of self-defence. That support does not extend to its conduct in Gaza.” Concurring with Slavin, Rowley added that while the recent escalation may have diverted some attention away from Gaza, the international community will remain focused on delivering aid to the people and ensuring the ceasefire is implemented.

According to Slavin, both the US and Europe have tried to persuade Israel to exercise restraint or retaliate in a very limited manner, while imposing new sanctions on Iranian personnel and oil exports. “The argument that was made is that Israel should not spoil a moment in which it is seen as a victim and Iran as an aggressor. If it does escalate, Israel will become even more isolated than it already is because of its actions in Gaza,” she concluded.

Unwavering support

Shortly after the October 7 attack that resulted in several US citizens being held hostage by Hamas, Biden became the first leader to offer military support to Israel. Additionally, his administration has poured billions to bolster Israel's military capabilities. And despite concerns over human rights abuses in Gaza, US lawmakers are now pushing for the approval of $14 billion in assistance to Israel.

Talat Wizarat, former chairperson of the Department of International Relations at the University of Karachi, dismissed the Biden administration’s call for de-escalation between Israel and Iran, ceasefire in Gaza as mere lip service. “The US has bankrolled this genocide against the Palestinians. It has been supplying weapons that have been used to strike Iranian targets, maul and kill innocent women and children in Gaza. I don't see Washington as a sincere broker of peace anywhere.”

As hundreds of Iranian drones and missiles flew across the Middle East this week, a defensive line consisting of radars, jet fighters, warships, and air-defence batteries from Israel, the US, and a half dozen other countries in the region was activated in anticipation of the long-feared attack from Iran. Media reports suggest that Washington formed that fragile Middle Eastern alliance to counter the attack against Israel. These efforts, spearheaded by Washington, were years in the making but had not been put to the test until Tehran launched a barrage of missiles and drones against Israel.

When asked about the extent to which the US could be drawn into the conflict, Rowley stated: “Israel is America’s staunch ally in the Middle East. If it is attacked, the US will definitely be pulled into the conflict – there is no doubt that America will not remain on the sidelines.”

The developments this month, especially the back-and-forth attacks between the two regional adversaries, may also mute the debate within the US about attaching conditions to support for Israel. Experts suggest that Netanyahu may not have completely miscalculated the strike on the Iranian diplomatic mission. Although the retaliation did not achieve the desired outcome of portraying Israel as the victim, it certainly has muted some of its critics, at least for the time being.

A conflict with layers

According to media reports, a significant number of countries in the region, including some Gulf states, may have provided intelligence support to Israel to thwart the April 13 attack by Iran. While the US may have cajoled a fragile coalition to support Israel, experts warn that the conflict could escalate if such alliances become more apparent against Tehran. Wizarat highlighted that the already volatile situation between Sunnis and Shi'ites stands to be further exploited across the region if the escalation continues.

“In addition to being a conflict in the region, we can expect this to further deepen the sectarian divide in the wider Muslim world,” she warned. “The support of a number of Sunni states for Israel against its main adversary, a Shiite state, can trigger a wider and deeper conflict.”

“We are sleepwalking into a very catastrophic conflict that has several layers,” Wizarat cautioned further. She pointed out that the conflict with Iran has the potential to destabilise Pakistan’s neighbourhood. “Decades ago, during the invasion of Afghanistan by the US, certain choices were made. We are still haunted by those choices.”

In the event that the Israel-Iran conflict escalates into an all-out war, she said, Pakistan would have to be careful with its options. Taking a pot-shot at President Biden, she said: “The US leader suffers from some form of cognitive decline. I’m not sure if he understands the severity of this situation. It is a very combustible situation that can lead to catastrophic outcomes, not just for the Middle East but the entire world.”

If Biden couldn't prevent Israel from launching an attack against Iran’s diplomatic mission, she argued, he certainly had the authority to assist Israel in managing the consequences. Further escalation, Wizarat pointed, may hinge on both sides feeling able to claim victory – Iran through claims about the success of its April 13 strike and Israel on the basis of its defensive prowess. “But the US leader, who appears increasingly disoriented, could have taken steps to prevent the attack in the first place by Israel on an Iranian diplomatic mission, which, by the way, is a violation of international law.”

In addition to criticising the US president for failing to restrain Israel, Wizarat said Biden has done very little to halt the ongoing atrocities in the Gaza Strip. Referring to the 1982 call between former US president Ronald Reagan and then Israeli leader Menachem Begin, she said: “In the past, US presidents have been able to rein in Israel.” Appalled by the burgeoning casualty lists in west Beirut at the time, Reagan telephoned Begin to ‘express his outrage’ at the killing of civilians and threatened that he would call home his mediator, Philip C. Habib. The Israeli military campaign halted shortly after that.

In the past, several US presidents have cautioned against Israel launching an attack on Tehran. According to Wizarat, President Biden lacks the same level of rapport with Netanyahu, who informed the US administration of the strike on Iran’s diplomatic mission just hours before its execution. “Israel’s actions caught Biden and his administration off guard,” said Wizarat.

“Nevertheless, Washington still maintains significant influence over its closest ally, only if it decides to use that influence for the greater good of humanity,” she concluded.