Iran-Israel tussle: first phase over?

Iran while conducting the strikes made it clear that its response was in retaliation to the Israeli bombing

Kamran Yousaf April 22, 2024
The writer is a senior foreign affairs correspondent at The Express Tribune


On Friday morning, news broke around the world about reported strikes by Israel on Iran. US officials announced that Israel had launched missile strikes, targeting Isfahan, a city where multiple Iranian military bases and nuclear installations are located. Israel, however, kept mum. Tehran, meanwhile, downplayed the incident. It said it intercepted suspicious objects in its air space. The Iranian Foreign Minister later described those objects as “children’s toys”, mocking Israel. Tehran said everything was normal, no damage was done. Nuclear installations were also safe, a claim endorsed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The reported Israeli attack was in response to the barrage of drones, ballistic and cruise missiles Iran fired into Israel earlier. Israel claimed most of the missiles and drones were intercepted before even entering its air space, with the help of the US, the UK and France. Tel Aviv had to deploy all of its three-tier air defence shields to ward off the Iranian strikes. Yet, at least 9 Iranian missiles penetrated the highly sophisticated defence system and hit two military bases in Israel. The Iranian strikes damaged one C-130 transport plane and what Israel claimed was an unused storage facility and a runway. Publically, Israel declared it a great success in intercepting the Iranian missiles but privately there have been concerns that the much-hyped air defence system was not air tight. Secondly, Iranian strikes pushed Israel to expose those technologies that it kept secret. On the other hand, Iran’s drones and missiles were not something that Israel or other countries were not aware of. Defence and strategic experts believe that most of the Iranian missiles and drones might have been intercepted but the fact that Israel had to expose its entire air defence system suggested that its adversaries now have a better idea about the Israel arsenal. In the future, Iran or any other adversaries would be better prepared to hit inside the Jewish state.

Iran while conducting the strikes made it clear that its response was in retaliation to the Israeli bombing of its consulate in Damascus. The April 1 attack killed 7 Iranian commanders, including a senior leader of Quds force. Israel has been for the last three decades carrying out target assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and senior commanders of the revolutionary guards. Iran, up until now, only responded through its proxies in the region. It never launched a direct attack from its soil. The April 1 incident, however, crossed all red lines and Iran viewed that strike as a direct attack on its soil. But Iran, perhaps, was aware of the implications of its retaliatory strikes and had already notified the US through common friends. Even before the missiles hit Israel, the Iranian envoy at the UN issued a statement saying his country would no longer engage in further escalations provided there was no further response from Israel.

Following Iran’s strikes, the US and other western allies had pushed Israel to take the “win” and avoid further action. There were divisions within the Israeli war cabinet. Hardliners wanted to punish Iran while others felt that it would trigger a wider conflict. Iran already made it clear that any further action by Israel would invoke a massive response. The world was one step away from a major conflict. But Israel had to satisfy its domestic audience while also knowing that without the US support nothing could happen. Therefore, a middle ground was found. Israel conducted calculated but symbolic strikes in a manner that Iran could easily downplay. That is exactly what happened. A few days ago, the world was on the cusp of a potential wider regional war. Events of the past 48 hours suggest that the first phase of the Iran-Israel tension is over, though their longstanding hostility will continue.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd, 2024.

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