War between Iran and Israel?

Manal Lotfy in London , Tuesday 16 Apr 2024

Tehran’s response to a possible Israeli attack could lead to unpredictable consequences and reshape the entire region, writes Manal Lotfy

War between Iran and Israel


Engrossed in discussions with his national security team, US President Joe Biden appeared visibly concerned.

Approximately 72 hours before the Iranian retaliation attack on Israel, Tehran had informed several regional powers of its intention to launch a calculated and limited strike on Israel in response to the earlier Israeli attack on the Iranian Consulate in Damascus.

Recognising that the Iranian military action was a significant geopolitical shift rather than being just a military response, Biden sat there, possibly feeling helpless. Under immense pressure from Israel, he attempted to dissuade Tehran from carrying out military action.

“Don’t do it,” he warned the Iranians.

However, the Iranian leadership proceeded with the retaliatory drone and missile attack on Israel.

Later that evening, Biden took part in a video conference with other G7 leaders to discuss the Iranian strike on Israel. The meeting lasted no more than an hour, and a statement was issued condemning Tehran’s attack on Israel, accusing Iran of escalating tensions in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, Biden conveyed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington considered the matter closed and saying that the US would not support an Israeli offensive against Iran or participate in any such action initiated by Tel Aviv.

There’s no denying that Iran’s strike on Israel crossed a significant line. Tehran is well aware that Israel’s allies, led by the US, will not stand idly by. Despite previous Israeli direct and indirect involvement in operations against Iranian interests inside and outside Iran, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had refrained from authorising attacks inside Israel, mindful of their potential repercussions.

The operations that Israel had been involved in included the 2008 assassination of Lebanese Hizbullah Field Commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, the killing of Majid Shahriari, a prominent nuclear engineer in Tehran in 2010, the assassination of Masoud Alimohammadi, a quantum field theorist in 2010, the killing of Darioush Rezaeinejad, an Iranian electrical engineer reportedly associated with Iran’s nuclear programme in 2011 in Tehran, the 2020 assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, dubbed “the brain of the Iranian nuclear programme,” and the assassination of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Sayad Khodayee in 2022.

Iranian sources familiar with the thinking of the Iranian leadership told Al-Ahram Weekly this week that Iran had had no choice but to respond to the Israeli attack on the consulate in Damascus, which had led to the deaths of 12 people, including seven members of the IRGC.

Among them was General Mohamed Reza Zahedi, the highest-ranking Iranian military official to be killed since the assassination of the commander of the Al-Quds Force of the IRGC Qassem Suleimani in a CIA operation in Iraq in 2020.

“Israel behaves like Godzilla in the jungle, acting with brute force, disregarding legal obligations, shielded by complicity, silence, and double standards from the West. It demonstrates a lack of respect for legal norms and international agreements, evidenced by its bombings of sovereign states like Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, and often targeting Iran’s interests to distract from its failures in Gaza,” said an Iranian diplomat who previously worked in the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is close to decision-making circles in Tehran.

“Consider how the world would react if Iran were to bomb an Israeli consulate, causing the loss of 12 lives. Or if Russia were to bomb an American consulate, causing the loss of 12 lives,” he said.

He argued that contrary to Western accusations against Tehran of stoking tension in the Middle East, what Tehran is trying to do is emphasise the importance of respecting legal obligations and recognising international rules of engagement.

He said that during the past two weeks, Tehran has reiterated Article 51 of the UN Charter, which grants it the right to defend itself against an attack by another country. Article 51 states that “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

Tehran has cited Article 51 of the Charter in its justification of its missile and drone strikes against Israel. It also did so when it summoned the ambassadors of Britain, France, and Germany to protest against their criticisms of the Iranian strikes.

“The question we posed was: do we live in a law-based order or not? It appears that the West, with its blind support for Israel, has failed to answer this fundamental question consistently. There seems to be one rule for them and another for us. The rest of the world is expected to endure the insult and threat to their interests in silence,” the diplomat said.

From an Iranian perspective, if there was ever an opportune moment to directly respond with an attack on Israel, this was it.

Bombing diplomatic premises constitutes a clear violation of international law, and Tehran is well within its legal rights to respond according to the UN Charter, Iranian officials argued.

However, this was not the sole or even the primary rationale behind the Iranian calculations. Other considerations stem from precise regional assessments.

It was untenable for Iran to endure the Israeli blow in silence, particularly as its allies, such as the Lebanese group Hizbullah, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, are bearing heavy costs in response to the Israeli aggression on Gaza.

Since the Israeli offensive started more than six months ago, Hizbullah has suffered significant losses, with hundreds of its fighters killed or wounded. Many Houthi fighters in Yemen and Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq have also lost their lives or been injured.

Failing to respond to the targeting of the Iranian Consulate in Damascus would have posed a significant risk to Tehran’s credibility among its allies. The Iranian leadership concluded that Tehran could not afford to appear hesitant in striking back.

The attack marks one of the rare occasions on which Iran perceives that the repercussions of refraining from a military response to an Israeli attack outweigh those of retaliating. Such assessments typically involve intricate calculations by the national security team of the office of the supreme leader comprised of long-standing advisers who have worked with Khamenei for decades.

Another consideration was Iran’s internal politics. The regime’s failure to retaliate against the Israeli attack would have portrayed weakness, a scenario undesirable for Khamenei, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and the IRGC leadership.

There has also been a notable groundswell of popular sentiment in Iran urging a response to the Israeli attack on the consulate. Iran was also mindful of the backing it has received from numerous nations in the Global South, which have empathised with its right to self-defence.

By framing its retaliatory drone and missile attack on Israel as a limited, one-time strike, but also saying that it will respond if Tel Aviv violates Iranian sovereignty, Tehran has placed the West in a dilemma.

Tel Aviv’s allies, particularly the US, are keen to avoid escalating the tensions in the Middle East. They are exerting pressure on Israel to refrain from retaliation, recognising the significant risks involved in any response. Tehran has issued warnings of widespread retaliation in response to any new Israeli attack.

However, as has become evident over the past six months, the West’s capacity to exert pressure on the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is limited. Netanyahu is grappling with a crisis that will define his legacy and political future, leading him to prioritise internal political considerations over anything else.

Tehran faces a predicament as predicting Netanyahu’s actions becomes increasingly challenging. The Israeli prime minister’s behaviour lacks the rationality supposed to be associated with responsible political actors.

Due to his failure to prevent the 7 October attack on Israel and his inability to achieve any of the goals set out in the war on Gaza, Netanyahu has adopted a “mad man” approach, signalling that his actions are not only unpredictable but also unhinged.

The strategy mirrors the tactics employed by former US president Donald Trump, who threatened to withdraw from NATO and halt US funding to compel other member states to increase their contributions to its budget.

Trump’s success tempted Netanyahu to adopt a similar approach, particularly as his options have become increasingly limited.

On Sunday, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant conveyed to his US counterpart Lloyd Austin that “Israel has no choice but to respond” to the Iranian attack, as reported by the Axios News site.

Israeli officials refrained from divulging any details regarding the threatened attack, including its scope or timing, leaving the world and the Middle East region in a state of anxious anticipation.

If Israel strikes deep inside Iranian territory targeting military or nuclear sites, Iran will retaliate promptly and inside Israel, Tehran has indicated.

This suggests that after decades of shadow wars and covert conflicts, the regional conflict between Iran and Israel is transitioning into a direct military confrontation for the first time since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

This shift will undoubtedly have significant repercussions on regional alignments and arrangements.

In the days ahead, the wisdom behind Iran’s decision to retaliate inside Israel will be tested. The Iranian regime has consistently steered clear of direct military confrontations with Israel, and by extension, with its supporter the US.

This caution stems from a deep understanding, drawn from the experiences of other nations in the region, of the inherent dangers associated with such confrontations.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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