The West should have exerted maximum pressure on Israel - GulfToday

The West should have exerted maximum pressure on Israel

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


A bus, motorcycles, and other vehicles move across a pedestrian intersection along a street in Tehran on April 14, 2024. Agence France-Presse

Ignoring rising tensions spooking Israelis, the US, and regional players fearing Tehran’s retaliation for Israel’s bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Iran opted for unprecedented military action.   This was the first time a state struck Israel since 1991 when Baghdad launched Scud missiles during the US-led war to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Despite serious international and regional pressure to show restraint, Iran launched 330 slow-moving cruise missiles and armed drones at Israel.

Ninety-nine per cent were intercepted by Britain, France, and Jordan before reaching Israeli airspace and by Israel before striking targets.  One girl was wounded, and little damage was done at an Israeli air base. Once it was reported that this was the case, The New York Times reported Israel called off retaliation. Tehan counted the raid as a success because it sent a message to Israel that it cannot target Iranian military personnel with impunity while Israel and its allies regarded the coordinated defence against the attack as a victory. This made this event a win-win exercise for both sides.

Iran announced this attack was a one-off but warned that if Israel struck Iran, it would respond with greater force.  This could be lose-lose for both if Israel retaliates. While US President Joe Biden praised the Israeli military for defending the country against the Iranian strikes, he also said the US would not take part in an Israeli retaliatory attack on Iran.  Biden also said he would consult with the Group of Seven largely Western world leaders on how to reply diplomatically to Iran’s attack. Despite his pledge to honour the “ironclad” US support for Israel, his refusal to join Israel in an attack on Iran could signal a shift away from Biden’s total backing for Israel during its deadly and devastating war on Gaza.

Nevertheless, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu may regard Tehran’s barrage as a chance to hit Iran hard, risking regional conflagration.  He has been waiting for just such an opportunity for more than 20 years and has not responded positively to US, European and regional pressures to end his war on Gaza and limit cross-border exchanges with Hizbollah in Lebanon.  Yesterday, Netanyahu stepped up bombing of Gaza and Hizbollah while considering what to do about Iran.

Regional commentators hoped that Iran would confine its punishment of Israel for the April 1st bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus to Saturday’s seizure by Iranian Revolutionary Guards of an Israeli-owned ship near the Strait of Hormuz. By hijacking the Portugal-flagged container vessel Aries, Iran not only retaliated against Israel by expropriating the private property of an influential Israeli but also acquired hostages among the 25 crew, making it difficult for Israel to bomb the ship. But this operation was a distraction and deception. It was all too clearly only the first part of Iran’s retaliation for the April 1st Damascus operation, which killed  seven senior Guards officers and for Israeli strikes which killed 11 other officers in Syria since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7th.

US intelligence officers cited by Reuters argued that Iran had decided on a “controlled” response: sending a message without precipitating regional war involving Washington. Politico also reported this to be the case.  It remains to be seen if Netanyahu considers the missile and drone raid to be “controlled” and a “message.”

Iran’s blitz could be a major politico-military miscalculation. Iran is seen as the aggressor rather than a victim of repeated Israeli attacks on officers and troops in Syria. Iran’s strikes refocused global attention on Israel’s efforts to defend itself rather than Israel’s offensive operations in Gaza and escalatory air strikes on Syria and Lebanon.   Israel could use the distraction caused Iran’s attack, to mount its long-promised offensive in Rafah in southern Gaza where 1.5 million Palestinians have sought refuge. Or, Israel could stage a planned major assault on Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Tehran said that if the UN Security Council had condemned the Israeli bombing of the Iranian consulate or secured a ceasefire in Gaza, Iran would not have launched its missile barrage.  Neither happened.  Tehran believed that failure to respond to Israel’s strike on the consulate would show weakness and undermine the credibility of the deterrence capabilities provided by Iran’s arsenal of long- and medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles and attack drones.

Instead, global powers urged Tehran to refrain from striking Israel. Assaulting diplomatic missions has, for centuries, been banned by civilised nations.  The 1961 Vienna convention states, “Diplomatic missions shall be inviolable.”  While this refers specifically to immune from interference by host countries, it can be inferred that inviolability extends to attacks by outsiders.

The Israeli strike on the Iranian mission was a deliberate escalation and expansion of the calibrated shadow war being waged by Iran’s allies — Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis — against Israel to push for a ceasefire in Gaza.  Instead of calling a halt, the US asked France, Germany, Australia, Turkey, and Britain to urge Iran not to escalate. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also appealed to non-Western Chinese counterpart Wang Yi to intervene. US regional envoy Brett McGurk also asked the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iraq to speak with Iran with the aim of staving off an attack.

If the West had exerted maximum pressure on Israel for a ceasefire and suggested sanctions for failure to comply with the latest UN resolutions mandating a truce, escalation and   expansion of the Gaza war could have been avoided.  Instead, Biden stuck with arming Israel and providing Israel with total politico-diplomatic support. The executive director of Washington’s Quincy institute ‘s think tank Trita Parsi told Al-Jazeera, “This completely deprives [Israel]  of any incentives to de-escalate.  Parsi said, Biden’s embrace of Netanyahu “helped shape Israel’s strategy that knew no limits, that did not care about international law — because [the Israelis] had come to understand that Biden will support them no matter what.”

However, the Israel-Iran tit-fir-tat also shows that Israel could miscalculate if it carries out a punitive raid on Iran as this would risk regional war which the Arabs, the US, its Western allies, Russia, and China oppose.  As the saying goes, “The ball is in Israel’s court.”

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