Escalation in the Middle East The Excelsior 23 Apr 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


Escalation in the Middle East The Excelsior 23 Apr 2024

          Israel had vowed to strike back at Iran for the missile and drone strikes on its soil. It did so last week. It claimed to have targeted the Isfahan province which has an airbase as also Iran’s nuclear plants. When questioned on reports of its retaliation, Israel officially refused to comment. A US spokesperson stated that Israel had announced its intent to hit back at Iran but ‘we did not endorse the response.’ CNN reported that Israel had informed the US that its retaliation would be limited in scope.

Tel Aviv could not avoid responding to the Iranian drone and missile attack. Its populace would consider the current government weak and Netanyahu already faces calls for resignation. Israel has always projected itself as far more powerful than others in the region. It believes if it does not retaliate it would impact its relative power.

At the same time, it was not seeking to create a scenario where Iran would be embarrassed and compelled to respond with greater firepower coordinating its attack with that of its proxies, overpowering the air defence capabilities of Israel and the US. For Iran and subsequently for Israel it was posturing and satisfying its populace. It also had to take care to avoid targeting Iran’s nuclear plants as Tehran had threatened a similar and more powerful response.

As per the Washington Times, an unnamed Israeli source stated that the strike on Iran was also to convey a message that Israel was capable of striking deep within. Reports mention that the strike targeted an Iranian airbase, a tit for tat for the Iranian strike. There were also unconfirmed reports that the US requested Iran to accept a face-saving aerial assault by Israel on its territory. Inputs from within Iran mention that an S 200 anti-missile battery was hit while the S 300 missile defence systems were shifted to safer locations well prior to the strike.

Post the Israeli strike, Iran claimed there was no damage while three Israeli drones were destroyed in flight. As per Tehran Times, ‘General Mihandoost, the Army’s senior representative in Isfahan, said the relatively loud sound of explosion that was heard in eastern parts of Isfahan was the result of shots fired at suspicious objects by air defence units. He said there have been no damages or specific incidents.’ No loss of life was reported.

Iran also claimed that the drones were not launched from Israel but from within Iran, indicating it was a MOSSAD operation, not an IDF (Israeli Defence Force) one. This implies that Israel employed drones and not missiles, authenticating the face-saving theory. The truth of what was launched, intended targets and destruction caused is unlikely to emerge anytime soon.

Israel is aware that the US is committed to its defence. President Biden had recently mentioned, ‘As I told Prime Minister Netanyahu, our commitment to Israel’s security against threats from Iran and its proxies is ironclad. Let me say it again, ironclad.’ This implies that Israel can exploit this guarantee of security, aware that no matter what it does, Washington would be compelled to be alongside. Hence, it ignored all demands for ‘avoiding escalation,’ while the US could only watch.

 Time would determine if the game of one upmanship ends here, however nations are preparing for the worst. Australia was amongst the first to warn its citizens in Israel to leave the country. Its Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade statement read, ‘There’s a high threat of military reprisals and terrorist attacks against Israel and Israeli interests across the region. The security situation could deteriorate quickly. We urge Australians in Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories to depart if it’s safe to do so.’

The US warned its embassy personnel not to move out of central areas and cities in Israel after the Israeli strike unless essential. Others nations could follow suit. Multiple countries have called for de-escalation and lowering of tensions between both sides.

In this battle of bravado between Iran and Israel it is the Palestinians who continue to face the brunt. Israel’s assaults continue on Gaza without much publicity, the same being hogged by the battle of missiles and drones between the two. Aid for Gaza has slowed while Israel prepares for an assault on Rafah. Simultaneously, while defending the two-state solution involving Israel and Palestine, the US vetoed a UNSC resolution granting permanent UN membership for Palestine. It was the only nation in the UNSC to reject the proposal. This drew global condemnation. 

Israel also targeted military sites in Syria. Its objectives were early warning radar stations and air bases. This implies that Israel is now opening the road for a deeper strike into Syria in the coming days. It is likely to await any reaction from Iran or its proxies before it pushes forward.

This game of superiority and display of bravado has possibly ended with Israel’s action. It satisfied its public, in a similar manner as Iran, while causing no casualties. In a first sign of thaw, Iran has reopened its flights from Tehran as also its airspace to civilian aircraft. The world can now go back concentrating on relief for Gaza and stopping Israel’s assault on Rafah, adding to the ongoing humanitarian crisis.  

Netanyahu and the Iranian leadership have saved face amongst their own populace. Both have conveyed to the other they possess capabilities to target deep within as also their determination not to be cowed down. No civilian casualties have helped ease tensions. Iranian proxies would now be given a free hand to hit Israel, compelling Israel and its allies to respond to them with full gusto.  

For the first time both Iran and Israel have targeted each other directly. Thus far it was Israel versus Iranian proxies. This is possibly the new normal which would increase in tempo as time goes on. Iran will definitely review its nuclear policy. It cannot be subservient to Israel’s nuclear threat adding to insecurity in the region. The Middle East will henceforth remain on edge. If Iran becomes nuclear, others would desire too. Whether the current stalemate is just a strategic pause in the game of dominating the region or enduring will only be known with time.