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24 April 2024

Iran’s new doctrine has changed everything

In the days following Tehran’s missile and drone attack on Israel, flights out of Tel Aviv were booked solid.

By Lyse Doucet

What exactly does imminent mean? Today? Tomorrow? The warning from unnamed US officials on Wednesday 10 April about an Iranian attack on Israel seemed to tear a page from the same playbook used before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Tell the world publicly what you’re seeing in your secret US intelligence. Hope that might just stop it. It didn’t change Vladimir Putin’s mind, but no harm trying it again. With this echo of history ringing in my ears, I delay my Thursday flight from Tel Aviv to London.

On Sunday 14 April, in the dead of night, Iran unleashes what it sees as its “carefully calibrated” move. Israel announces that only 1 per cent of 350 drones and missiles hit their mark. “Take it as a win,” its allies declare. For Israel, 1 per cent is too much.

Managing expectations

On 17 April, David Cameron hurries to Jerusalem on an overnight flight and bumps into Germany’s top diplomat, Annalena Baerbock, in the sumptuous King David Hotel. In a burst of bonhomie, they take tea together with Israel’s president Isaac Herzog. But the mood stiffens in talks with the prime minister and foreign minister. The mantra of “don’t escalate” has shifted to, in Cameron’s words, “hope they do so in a way that does as little to escalate this as possible”.

Taking to the skies

The next day, flights out of Tel Aviv are booked solid, to celebrate Passover and to escape “the situation”. The best Israeli analysts are saying their leaders won’t send the country into bomb shelters during the venerable Jewish festival of Passover. Everyone seems to agree that Israel’s retaliation – “in the way and at the time that suits us” – will happen after the holiday. With our return to the UK long overdue, the only seats we can find are on an airline we’ve never heard of before – Bluebird Airways. But its 1pm flight isn’t departing until 8pm; we will miss our Cyprus connection. A flicker of hope for Montenegro quickly disappears. Later, a clerk from El Al airlines spies me in the airport and excitedly tells me that she has found two seats to London.

We land in the evening, only to wake in the middle of the night to the news that Israel has attacked Iran.

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The eternal ayatollah

The strike comes on the birthday of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. I’ve lost track of how many times the death of this silver-bearded hard-line cleric has been predicted. Yet, at 85, he is still the ultimate source of authority in the Islamic Republic, the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He receives an unexpected birthday gift from Israel. “Nothing happened,” state television presenters reassure the public, after reports of “explosions” electrify the internet. Iranian officials dismiss a few drone strikes, mocking the devices as “more like toys”. Israel doesn’t even say it did it. This gives the supreme leader an off-ramp in the escalation. No need to invoke Iran’s new security doctrine: hit back, hard, immediately. The “strategic patience” it long prided itself on ran out on 1 April, when Israel attacked Iran’s diplomatic compound in Damascus. Iran’s “new equation” means fighting back directly, no longer only via its “axis of resistance” stretching from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to the Houthis of Yemen, through militias in Iraq and Syria, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

But reports emerge that a missile struck an air defence system protecting a nuclear facility deep inside Iran. Israel has left its calling card – it can strike, at will.

On the edge of war

I keep remembering the days of June 1989, my first trip to Iran. The gates were flung open to allow journalists to enter, without a visa, by midday on 6 June, the day Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was being laid to rest. We made it, with minutes to spare. The human tide surging through the streets of Tehran was so frenzied the ayatollah’s body slipped from its coffin and was briefly carried away by the crowd. Khamenei was unexpectedly selected as his successor, seen by some then as a mullah who wanted to repair ties with the West and rebuild Iran after its long, devastating war with Iraq. Decades on, his speeches are now soaked in venom against the West, especially the US, and Israel, “the usurper Zionist regime”. He is revered by his supporters, but reviled by his opponents, including the brave schoolgirls who smashed his official photograph during the protests that swept Iran nearly two years ago.

That uprising shook the Islamic Republic, but didn’t break it. This month’s escalation brought it close to the edge of a catastrophic war. But sworn enemies have stepped back from the brink. For now.

[See also: Why I was banned from Germany]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger