Middle East

A Turning Point In Iran’s Hostility Toward Israel

Israel is now officially and ominously at war with Iran, its arch-enemy in the Middle East.

After yesterday’s much anticipated and telegraphed Iranian drone and missile attack targeting Israel, the first by Iran from its own territory, the simmering and occasionally explosive shadow war between these warring nations has degenerated into a far more serious and dangerous conflict, with all its unknown implications.

For the first time since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which resulted in the downfall of the pro-Western Pahlavi monarchy and the creation of a hostile Islamic fundamentalist regime opposed to Israel’s very existence, Iran attacked Israel directly rather than relying on one of its regional proxies in the so-called Axis of Resistance. Nonetheless, Iranian allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen joined the onslaught.

The Middle East on the edge

By any yardstick, this was a significant turning point in the annals of Israel’s bitter armed struggle with Iran, whose budding nuclear program has raised fears in Israel. From now on, Israel will have to think twice before attacking Iranian assets in the Middle East. Iran is likely to respond in kind now that the ice has been broken.

Iran completed its aerial assault in the early hours of April 14 as its United Nations delegation announced there would be no further escalation. “Iran’s military action was in response to the Zionist regime’s aggression against our diplomatic premises in Damascus,” the Iranians said on X. “The matter can be deemed concluded.”

Iran launched its unprecedented attack a little more than six months after Hamas, an Iranian proxy, attacked Israel, killing roughly 1,200 civilians and foreigners, and Israel declared war on Hamas and other armed groups in the Gaza Strip.

Iran followed through with its threat to retaliate nearly two weeks after Israeli aircraft demolished the consular building at Iran’s embassy in Damascus, killing two generals and five officers of the Quds Force, the strike force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps which has planned and coordinated Iranian proxy attacks on Israel.

Several days ago, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threatened Israel, saying that it had violated Iranian sovereignty by having attacked its embassy complex in Syria. “The evil regime made a mistake and it … will be punished,” he said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said he had notified Iran’s neighbors of its intentions 72 hours in advance. “We informed our friends and neighbors in the region that Iran’s response against Israel was certain, legitimate, and irrevocable,” he told a press conference.

Israel and the U.S. fully expected the Iranian strike, prompting the commander of the United States Central Command, General Michael Erik Kurilla, to visit Israel just days before it unfolded.

On April 12, U.S. President Joe Biden predicted it would occur “sooner rather than later.”

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, in a statement broadcast on state television, reported it had launched “dozens of drones and missiles” toward Israel “in reaction to the Zionist regime’s crimes.” Later, it issued a second communique calling on the United States to stay out and warning Israel not to respond.

Iran took a calculated risk by attacking Israel in so brazen a fashion. If Iran had caused the deaths of a considerable number of Israelis, or had inflicted immense property damage, Israel would have responded in kind.

Israel has yet to react militarily, but several days ago, Foreign Minister Israel Katz posted a warning on X that Israel would “attack in Iran” if Iran launched a reprisal from its soil. In the meantime, Israel is biding its time, saying it will exact a price at the right moment.

The Israeli cabinet after Iran’s strikes

The commander of Iran’s armed forces, General Mohammad Bagheri, has advised Israel to move on. “Our response will be much larger than tonight’s military action if Israel retaliates against Iran,” he said, adding that Iran would target U.S. bases in the Middle East if it supports an Israeli reprisal.

Mohammad Bagheri

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was just as adamant. “If the Zionist regime (Israel) or its supporters demonstrate reckless behavior, they will receive a decisive and much stronger response,” he said.

Shortly after the Iranian strikes, Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I told him that Israel demonstrated a remarkable capacity to defend against and defeat even unprecedented attacks — sending a clear message to its foes that they cannot effectively threaten the security of Israel,” he said.

Biden reiterated his “ironclad commitment” to Israel’s security but urged him to refrain from launching a retaliatory attack on Iran. This reminded observers of the intense pressure the United States exerted on Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. After Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wanted to hit back, but President George Bush stopped him in the interests of preserving the international coalition ranged against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Strictly from its perspective, Iran had no alternative but to strike back. In the past few months, Israel has assassinated 18 members of the Quds Force in Syria, Iran’s closest Arab ally. And in the last two decades, Israel has assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists, sabotaged Iran’s nuclear facilities, conducted cyber warfare against Iran, struck Iranian arms shipments from Syria to Lebanon, and bombed an Iranian drone factory.

Iran started its retaliatory campaign on April 13 by seizing the MSC Aries — a container ship registered in Portugal but owned by the Israeli businessman Eyal Offer — as it passed through the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf.

A day before, Hezbollah, Iran’s most important surrogate, fired 40 rockets into northern Israel.

Disregarding a dire warning from the United States to stand down, Iran launched at least 170 drones and 150 ballistic and cruise missiles at Israel within the span of a few hours. Israel claims that 99 percent of these projectiles were shot down, a testament to its impressive missile defence system.

Israel intercepts Iranian missiles over the Dome of the Rock in East Jeusalem

A few missiles got through, hitting an Israeli military base on Mount Hermon and slightly damaging the Nevatim air base in the Negev Desert, where advanced F-35 stealth fighter jets are based. Falling missile debris seriously injured a girl in a Bedouin village.

Israeli F-35s at the Nevatim air base

The Israeli Air Force and Israel’s air defence systems, consisting of the Iron Dome, the Arrow and David’s Sling, played a key role in downing the barrage unleashed by Iran

In keeping with Biden’s pledge to defend Israel, American forces shot down dozens of Iranian drones in southern Syria, near the Jordanian border. Jordan, the second Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, intercepted scores of Iranian drones passing through its air space and heading toward Israel.

British and French jets participated in this mission as well.

Israel correctly described Iran’s unprecedented aerial barrage as a “major escalation.” It was indeed a sharp break with the past inasmuch as Iran struck Israel directly. Yet Iran’s reprisal was relatively limited and calibrated. It was designed to save face, inflict pain and turn the tables on Israel, but not to trigger a regional war, which would doubtless be costly to both sides.

This was not the first time that Iran and Israel have squared off militarily. In May 2018, in the wake of the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, the Quds Force in Syria launched approximately 20 Grad and Fajr-5 rockets at Israeli positions on the Golan Heights. Four of the rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome and the rest landed in open fields. In response, the Israeli Air Force destroyed almost all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria, including intelligence sites and munition storage warehouses, and killed 23 people.

Interestingly enough, the latest flareup in the region took place about 48 hours after a high court in Argentina ruled that Iran masterminded the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. The court also stated that Iran was behind the 1992 bombing of Israel’s embassy in Argentina’s capital, a blast that claimed the lives of 22 Israelis and Argentinians.

Israel and Iran can both claim victory in the wake of yesterday’s incident. Israel successfully foiled the Iranian attack. But by attacking Israel, Iran burnished its credentials in the Muslim and Arab worlds.