Of bombs and bluffs

Summary: Iran’s massive missile attack on Israel did little damage which was unsurprising given the advance warning Tehran provided; all sides can claim a measure of victory. But as the Gaza war edges ever closer to a regional conflict the question is what comes next ?

Lord Cameron described the knocking down of the more than three hundred drone, cruise and ballistic missile strikes on Israel over the week- end as a “double defeat” for Iran. In saluting what he called the bravery of Israel and the support it received from the US and “our limited role” the foreign secretary denounced the Iranians for a “dangerous act in a dangerous world.”

The first defeat, according to David Cameron, was that the attack almost completely failed and the second that the world could now see “(Iran’s) true nature as the malign influence in the region.” Regarding the latter, others might point to Israel as another malign influence in the region. As to the former, Lord Cameron neglected to mention that as the first drones were launched, Tehran broadcast the fact giving the Israelis and their allies as well as supportive Arab states, among them Jordan and Saudi Arabia, plenty of time to prepare and co-ordinate what proved a meticulously effective response. There was minimal damage and one casualty, an 8 year old girl seriously wounded by shrapnel.

Our regular contributor Kristian Ulrichsen noted in a social media post:

My view is that publicising a strike that would take hours to unfold effectively guaranteed that it would be intercepted, hence my belief (which could of course be wrong) that the Iranian leadership felt they had to be seen to be doing something but in a carefully messaged way.

Andreas Krieg, another of our regular podcast guests concurred:

#Iran and #Israel have been engaged in a shadow war for years in which there were clear red lines. Israel has crossed these red lines several times in recent months, most notably last week in Damascus. Iran had to react. Iran did so in moderation, hoping that this would bring the episode to an end.

Whilst Western analysts may proclaim this as something of a win for an embattled Benjamin Netanyahu, Lord Cameron’s “double defeat” for Iran seems a trifle overegged. A more realistic view, one that both Ulrichsen and Krieg hint at, is how adroitly the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei handled the dangerous, and some might (fairly) argue, reckless Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on 1 April. Khamenei needed to respond as much if not more to shore up his domestic base than to send a message to Israel and the ‘Great Satan’ aka America.

On 1 April 2024, an Israeli airstrike destroyed the Iranian consulate annex building adjacent to the Iranian embassy in Damascus, Syria, killing 16 people, including a senior Quds Force commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, and seven other IRGC officers.
On 1 April 2024, an Israeli airstrike destroyed the Iranian consulate annex building adjacent to the Iranian embassy in Damascus, Syria, killing 16 people, including a senior Quds Force commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and seven other IRGC officers.

Hard on the heels of the foreign secretary’s victory declaration came his call for restraint. Lord Cameron while confirming that Israel does have a right to respond to the unprecedented missile barrage, pointedly added “we do not support a retaliatory strike. There are times where we have to be smart as well as tough, where we have to use head as well as heart.”

In that he was echoing an earlier and even more pointed declaration from President Biden. In a phone call with Netanyahu the president reportedly told the Israeli PM to “take the win” and warned that if Israel attacked Iran directly, the US would not join in.

For their part the Iranians announced at the UN that “the matter can be deemed concluded” unless of course the Israelis carried out an attack on Iran itself.  In which case “should the Israeli regime make another mistake, Iran’s response will be considerably more severe.” That, as far as Iran is concerned, has left the ball squarely in Israel’s court.

Anshel Pfeffer writing in Haaretz noted that securing the backing of Arab states against Iran’s missile offensive was indeed a significant achievement, one he called an “inflection point.” He argued that “it is now up to Israel to calibrate its inevitable response and coordinate it with the Biden administration, to avoid a regional conflagration and minimise fallout for those neighbours that are now de facto allies.”

Pfeffer added:

Ultimately, in order to allow (the Arab states) to gradually cooperate more openly with Israel in the future and to withstand the criticism within their own countries for the lack of “solidarity” with the Palestinians, Israel’s strategy has to be a swift end to the war in Gaza, as part of a wider agreement to release the hostages and implement UN Resolution 1701 in the north, pushing Hezbollah away from the border.

An opportunity then and one that Netanyahu should grasp says Pfeffer. However even in the unlikely event 1701 – the 2007 call for a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollahwas implemented the bigger reality, of course, is that Netanyahu does not want an end to the war. Nor can he easily ignore the demands from his extremist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to hit Iran fast and hard. Putting it in gangland-speak the minister said “the boss must go nuts.” Ben-Gvir and his fellow extremist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich – Israel, he said, must respond “not with slogans but with action”- are all that is holding Netanyahu’s coalition together.

Benjamin Netanyahu is as adroit as Ayatollah Khamenei in playing high stakes games. For Khamenei the risk was that a ballistic missile got through and did significant damage with multiple and perhaps massive casualties. It didn’t happen so the gamble would appear to have paid off. At least thus far. Netanyahu will have to decide to make a call. Is Biden bluffing when he says he will not have Israel’s back if it conducts a major military action against Iran? Or is Ben-Gvir the bluffer implying he will bring the Netanyahu government down if a hard hit is not swiftly carried out? No doubt, as he has so often done in the past, Netanyahu will try and hold off Smotrich and Ben-Gvir with a promise of action to come mixed with harsh actions against Palestinian civilians and Hamas such as last week’s killing of the three sons and four grandchildren of Hamas’ political leader Ismail Haniyeh (see our newsletter of 12 April.)

But as this game is played out in Washington, London, Tel Aviv and Tehran the bombs continue to fall in Gaza and settler attacks continue in the West Bank; humanitarian aid is withheld at the border as Gazans face starvation and disease. The US, Britain, Israel and Tehran can all claim a measure of victory. As ever it is the Palestinians who pay the price.

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