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15 April 2024

The Iran attack changes everything

Lines have been crossed and the new state of affairs no longer has the same handrails.

By Bruno Maçães

For the first time since 1991, when Saddam Hussein launched a barrage of Scud missiles towards Tel Aviv and Haifa, another state has directly attacked Israel. Hussein’s attack decades ago is worth noting because it highlights how much has changed between then and 13 April, when Iran attacked Israel with more than 300 drones, cruise and ballistic missiles. Some of the latter were able to pierce Israel’s air defences but with only minor damage recorded.

There are some similarities between 1991 and 2024. Just as it did three decades ago, the United States today wants Israel to refrain from a military response or, as Joe Biden put it in his initial phone call with Benjamin Netanyahu, to “take the win” offered by robust international support and an air defence system able to intercept 99 per cent of Iranian launches. But the differences are profound: in 1991, Washington promised to destroy the missile launchers in Iraq. Today Biden fears a new war in the Middle East like nothing else: energy prices would skyrocket and no one believes the American public has much patience for repeated misadventures like the kind that have caused so much pain in the recent past.

Biden was clear: the US would not support any response that could take us all closer to a war. Whether Netanyahu and his ministers will oblige is difficult to predict. Netanyahu has been silent so far. There are reports of a divided war cabinet. Benny Gantz, a Netanyahu rival who has become increasingly close to American officials, is poised to replace him.

The Iranian attack, however, changes everything. Whereas it had previously relied on proxies to carry out attacks on its behalf, Tehran has acted with the kind of boldness that will profoundly hurt Israel’s own sense of security. This levelling of their respective positions may well be unacceptable to the Israeli authorities. I remain convinced that there will be a response and Israeli officials have even promised, off the record, that such a response will be “unprecedented”.

Some will argue that Iran had no choice: the Israeli attack on the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus on 1 April had itself crossed a line, striking the equivalent of Iranian sovereign territory. The Iranian regime knew its credibility was on the line. Future Israeli actions had to be deterred not so much through punitive strikes, whose consequences Iran fears, but by ratcheting up regional tensions and forcing the Americans to intervene. Which they did.

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There should be no illusions that, after an alarming night, we are now back to the status quo ante. The new situation no longer contains the same handrails. And in the background, as the ultimate source of the current security crisis, the war in Gaza continues, with the same horrors as before, and with little hope of a resolution.

Throughout my meetings in Israel two weeks ago, including with the former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon, one concern was evident: that the war in Gaza had reached an impasse and that the current, deeply unpopular Israeli government may be desperately looking for a way to prevent its own ruinous political defeat. Netanyahu seems to have seen the attack against the Iranian embassy as a way to expand the war, placing it in a more favourable position. Draw in Iran and the swelling American criticism of Israel’s actions will fall silent. So far that has worked. 

There are reports that Biden is now afraid the Israeli government may be trying to drag the US into a larger regional war. After all, neither Netanyahu nor his ministers regard Palestinians as Israel’s largest threat. The main threat lies in Tehran, so they may well be tempted to try to address it while the “ironclad” American support stemming from 7 October is still available, and practically unconditional. Iran responded to the Damascus strike with a “calibrated” attack, large in its symbolic force but so obviously choreographed and so forewarned that the material impact could be contained. Perhaps the Israeli government expected something even more brazen from an Iran it regards as blinded by theocratic hatred.

Benjamin Netanyahu may think that a regional war will be necessary sooner or later, and he may want to be the man conducting it. Alternatively, the growing regional tensions may give him new leverage. He might be tempted to tell Biden that he can keep tensions with Iran under control provided the American president supports him in his planned offensive against Rafah, the city where more than a million refugees from the destroyed cities of Gaza await their fate. In the meantime, the war continues and tensions grow.

[See also: Israel can prevent a regional war]

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