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The new age of global threats

For decades, the West enjoyed the fruits of the post-Cold War “peace dividend”. This era is now definitively over.

By New Statesman

In the Middle East, all is changed – changed utterly. Iran’s “Operation True Promise”, launched on 13 April, represented the first direct attack on Israel by another state since Iraq’s missile strikes in 1991 during the first Gulf War. The decades-long shadow war between Tehran and Tel Aviv – conducted via proxies and espionage and assassination– has burst into the open. The consequences for the region, and the world, could be severe.

Iran’s attack was prompted by Israel’s bombing of its diplomatic compound in Damascus on 1 April, which killed two senior members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. “We would take very strong action,” said the Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, when pressed on how the UK would have responded to such an act.

But Iran’s retaliation was more than a token reprisal. As Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, writes on page 24, “there is no reason to suppose that Iran did not intend it to cause significant harm to Israel”. The regime launched more than 300 drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. That 99 per cent were intercepted is because of Israel’s Iron Dome defence system and a formidable show of international support: the US, the UK, France and Jordan all helped destroy missiles and drones.

For Israel, this was both a military and diplomatic triumph. In the aftermath of the 7 October terrorist attack, the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, there was overwhelming international solidarity with the country. But in recent months, as the death toll from the war in Gaza has grown – more than 33,000 people have been killed, according to the Hamas-run health ministry – support has wavered. On 26 March, the UN Security Council voted for the first time in favour of an immediate ceasefire after the US opted to abstain. The killing of seven aid workers in Gaza on 1 April, which Israel described as a “grave mistake”, saw Western scepticism reach new heights.

Mr Cameron warned that UK support for Israel was “not unconditional”. Conservative MPs and peers, including Alicia Kearns, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, called for British arms sales to the country to be suspended – an option Mr Cameron refused to rule out. In Washington DC, more than 30 Democratic members of the House of Representatives implored the US to do the same. But since Iran’s strike this debate has been indefinitely suspended: Israel has come under direct attack, and the US and UK have been active military partners.

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In view of Israel’s success, Joe Biden has urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “take the win”. Yet an armed Israeli response appears inevitable. As Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s international editor, writes on page 20, “Deep in Israel’s DNA, since independence in 1948, is a determination not to turn the other cheek to its enemies.”

The risk is that both sides become trapped in a pattern of escalation that culminates in what analysts have long feared: an all-out war between Israel and Iran. This is not a conflict that the world can watch passively. Israel is an undeclared nuclear weapons state; Iran has never been closer to enriching weapons-grade uranium. “The Middle East is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” declared Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, the week before the 7 October massacre. Now, the region has rarely appeared more combustible.

In the Middle East as elsewhere, we have entered a new age of geopolitical danger. A revanchist Russia is waging relentless war in Ukraine. An expansionist China, now equipped with the world’s biggest navy, is threatening Taiwan. An increasingly isolationist US may elect Donald Trump as president this November.

For decades, the West enjoyed the fruits of the “peace dividend”: the decrease in defence spending that followed the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. This era is now definitively over.

European states, including the UK, must prepare for a future in which they spend closer to 3 per cent of GDP on defence than 2 per cent. Plans to reduce the British army from 82,000 to 72,500, its smallest level since the Napoleonic era, appear increasingly reckless.

A new age of interlocking threats demands a new posture. Rather than merely hoping for the best, as the West has for too long, it must prepare for the worst.

[See also: Sold down the river]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran