War Games: Dangerous Escalation In The Middle East

War Games: Dangerous Escalation In The Middle East

The key to off-ramp de-escalation and lowering tensions in the region is, of course, achieving a ceasefire and an end to the horrific violence in Gaza

Conrad BarwaUpdated: Monday, April 29, 2024, 12:21 PM IST
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Representative Image | Robert Waghorn/Pixabay

The recent ratcheting up of hostilities between Iran and Israel, moving what had hitherto been a ‘’shadow war’’ conducted largely covertly or through proxies to one where both countries traded direct attacks on each other, intensified concerns about the escalation of the conflict and the potential for the eruption of a region-wide conflagration with serious global consequences. While the worst-case scenario appears to have been avoided at least for now, the balance between deterrence and the confinement to low-intensity violence has now been altered through a number of increasingly riskier actions for the future.

In what — on looking back — seems to be a significant misjudgement, the escalation in the cycle of events was launched when Israel assassinated Gen Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in a targeted high-precision strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1. This was the second killing of a senior Iranian military official since the war in Gaza began, the first being the assassination of Razi Mousavi, a regional commander of Quds force of the IRGC in Syria, in December 2023. Under pressure from the Israeli military leadership, these operations were approved at the topmost level — that of the Prime Minister — and worked under the assumption that the Iranian doctrine of “Strategic Patience” which dictated that Iran would respond in a measured and delayed manner to such lethal attacks — which included the 2020 killing of Quds force commander Qasem Soleimani — would hold. Unfortunately for Israel, this latest attack proved to be one provocation too many and led to Iran’s “Strategic Patience” finally running out, thereby marking the first step in the current escalation.

The Iranian response was an unprecedented direct attack on Israel launched from Iranian territory of over 300 missiles and drones (180 drones, 120 ballistic missiles and 30 cruise missiles). This was the second marked escalation, as it was the first time that a direct attack had been launched on Israel since Saddam Hussein’s launching of the 42 SCUD missiles in 1991. Though this attack was on a much larger scale; it was successfully tackled with no fatalities (unlike the Iraqi attack which saw the death of two Israelis as a direct result of the missile attacks and at least 11 more from incorrect use of gas masks and atropine anti-chemical/biological warfare preventive injections). Despite this escalation, there were sufficient signs that the Iranian leadership did not intend to inflict mass casualties — the attack was well telegraphed in advance to several countries whose airspace would be violated (and who in turn informed the US) and elements like the drones were extremely slow-moving, taking hours to reach their targets. Official statements that the Iranians now “considered the matter closed” indicated that no further action would be taken. To bolster its domestic as well as regional image, the regime also celebrated the result, by broadcasting footage of destruction from a fire in Chile as proof of Iranian missiles hitting their targets. Those expecting a more devastating response were no doubt disappointed, and some of the more barbed memes and internet jokes circulating in the Arab world belie any success at closing the gap between the fiery anti-Israeli rhetoric emanating from Tehran and its more subdued and cautious response on the ground.

Yet this overlooks the fact that a red line had been crossed and with it the attendant dangers of escalation. Initial IDF claims that 99% of the missiles had been intercepted were later contradicted by the Israeli daily Ma’ariv which stated that only 86% had been successfully destroyed and several ballistic missiles had landed on Nevatism air force base. The defence was also costly, depleting Israel’s supply of air defence munitions which needed to be replenished and which cost an estimated nearly $1 billion; by contrast Iran did not use its most sophisticated weaponry, and its arsenal of missiles and drones is thought to be in the region of several thousand; the cost of its attack also by contrast came to below a paltry $100 million.

Also in marked contrast was the willingness of the Israeli public to respond to the attack with a counter-strike; in a poll carried out by Hebrew University 76% opposed any such action if it undermined relations with its allies. As on the earlier occasion with Iraq’s Scud attacks in 1991, the US advised restraint to Israel mainly to preserve the then coalition of many Arab countries on the verge of retaking Iraqi-occupied Kuwait from disintegrating; at the time, too, Israel was headed by a hardline nationalist Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, who like Benjamin Netanyahu had made a career of obstinately refuting Palestinian nationalist aspirations; unlike Shamir, however, under whom Israel chose not to respond to the Iraqi attack, Netanyahu decided after several days of deliberation to finally respond with a limited aerial strike at the Isfahan airbase in Iran — an important indication of the changing contexts both in terms of the influence wielded by the US on its ally, as well the willingness to cross hitherto intact red lines. Both sides were keen to downplay the significance of the action. In Israel there were leaks that leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the governing coalition had relayed warnings from their rabbis not to jeopardise Israel by attacking Iran without America's blessing. It was an odd intervention that seemed designed to provide Netanyahu with political cover for a less than forceful retaliation. A fact that was noted by the disparaging tweet saying “dardale” in Hebrew (literally a weak kick easily blocked by the goalkeeper) being translated as “feeble” by the hardline right-wing National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Iran too was eager to minimise its official response, despite having promised a “severe response” to any Israeli counter-strike to its own attack of April 14, with two senior army commanders saying that the country’s air defences were in a state of readiness and had quickly reacted to destroy the “suspicious” airborne objects. President Ebrahim Raisi also did not bring up the latest Israeli strike in his televised speech after it took place, choosing instead to praise Iran’s attack for rallying people of various political persuasions around the flag. Yet, despite these attempts at controlling escalation, further red lines had been crossed, as Israel had demonstrated a willingness to directly attack Iran and its capacity to breach Iranian air defences. The choice of target, in that Isfahan is Iran’s largest nuclear research complex, is a reminder to Tehran that Israel can strike at Iran’s nuclear weapons programme and facilities, should it choose to so, in a manner not dissimilar to its airstrike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 which effectively destroyed Iraq’s nuclear weapons programme.

While cooler heads seemed to have pulled both sides from crossing over the brink of a full-blown war, the two foes remain bent on restoring their deterrents and the danger of ill-timed provocations and miscalculations continues to ominously hang over the region like the proverbial sword of Damocles. The sobering ever-present danger is that one country might misjudge the other’s response to a hostile act, sparking an uncontrolled vortex of escalation which this time will not stop short of open warfare. The key to off-ramp de-escalation and lowering tensions in the region is, of course, achieving a ceasefire and an end to the horrific violence in Gaza. To this end a cessation of Israeli military operations and avoiding a full-scale ground assault on Rafah where 1.4 million Palestinians have taken refuge as the last remaining haven, and which would result in a major humanitarian catastrophe, is not only essential but the only option.

Conrad Barwa is a senior research analyst at a private think-tank, and a senior research associate at the Birmingham Business School

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