Jawad Iqbal Jawad Iqbal

It’s not over yet between Israel and Iran

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Credit: Getty Images)

Is that it? This is the immediate and understandable reaction in some quarters to the news that Israel has carried out a series of limited air strikes against Iran. Explosions were reported in the sky over the cities of Isfahan and Tabriz. Details are still sketchy but US officials were quick to brief that Israel was behind the attacks. The Israelis have made no public comment: it is official policy never to confirm or deny such military action. The Iranian government, which had promised a ‘massive and harsh response’ to ‘even the tiniest invasion’ was quick to play down the scale of the attack, indicating there was no ‘immediate’ plan for retaliation.

Israel has carried out a strike, but it is small enough for the Iranians to brush it off. The consensus view is that this allows both sides to save face and avoid further escalation. It is tempting as an analysis of events, but somewhat premature.

Firstly, it is still not clear whether this is Israel’s full response to Iran’s direct attack on its territory last Saturday, or merely the beginning of a series of Israel reprisals. So far, the Israeli government has played its cards close to its chest, reserving the right to do what serves its national interests, and remaining resolute in ignoring widespread international pressure, not least from Washington, to hold back from attacking Iran directly.

Second, Israel’s targeting of the central city of Isfahan is something that Tehran will not take lightly (whatever the regime says publicly). The city is of huge strategic importance, and hosts key facilities for the Iranian nuclear programme, as well as other weapons factories and a major airbase. Israel’s drone strikes show it can attack deep into Iran, and at will. This message will not be lost on the already jittery Tehran regime, which is nervous about internal security. It may suit their purposes for the moment to play down Israel’s incursion but behind the scenes there will be fury and embarrassment. What further consequences might flow are hard to predict.

This latest attack marks a new and dangerous phase in the seven-month long Gaza war. Iran and Israel are now confronting each other openly in a way that breaks the established rules in the Middle East, under which conflict between these two bitter enemies takes place through proxies. It brings with it new and unpredictable dangers that one wrong move by either side could lead to catastrophic consequences. Take last Saturday’s attack by Iran when it fired more than 300 missiles and drones at Israel – this was claimed to be in response to an Israeli strike at an Iranian consular building in Syria on 1 April. Firing missiles directly into Israel was a first for Iran: a brazen challenge to Israel because was the first strike on Israeli territory by an enemy state in more than thirty years.

The Israeli response is another worrying first in its own way: Israel often carries out targeted assassinations on Iranian targets but always under the cover of official deniability, crucially allowing all sides to step back from the brink and prevent things from getting out of hand. This time is different: the Israelis are determined to send a clear and unambiguous message to Iran about their capacity to strike the Tehran regime at its heart.

There are mini wars breaking out everywhere across the Middle East. Thousands of people have been displaced on Israel’s border with Lebanon, where exchanges of fire with Hezbollah are now routine. Neighbouring countries, including Iraq, Syria and Jordan, have suffered collateral damage of one kind or other. The frontline of this war is becoming increasingly hard to pin down.

It is a given that a broader conflict would be a disaster for the region and the world, yet no one quite appears able to stop the major protagonists from edging ever closer to one. The Middle East is cursed by far too many leaders who are not thinking too clearly. This makes them irrational and dangerous. Breathing a huge sigh of relief that Israel’s strike on Iran is not as bad as might have been feared is both naive and complacent. The Middle East is on fire.

Written by
Jawad Iqbal

Jawad Iqbal is a broadcaster and ex-television news executive. Jawad is a former Visiting Senior Fellow in the Institute of Global Affairs at the LSE

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