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Israel versus Iran, an escalation the world can do without

NEW DELHI: India’s look-west policy may have to grasp the new emerging challenges with enthusiasm.

Iran has struck in response to the Israeli attack on its consulate in Syria. Iran is not normally known to undertake direct military strikes in the Middle East. However, this retaliatory strike against Israel without its allies marks a shift in its strategy. It is unclear whether Iran has used its proxies or not, but the fact that Israeli deterrence has failed for the second time in the last six months is important. The Iranian attacks may not end here, as these attacks give Israel a strong incentive to retaliate and restore its deterrence in the Middle East.

As widely reported, Iran has attacked multiple military sites in Israel. They used a mix of suicide drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. These attacks were launched from locations in Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Syria. Israel responded with its warplanes and activated its state-of-the-art air defense network to thwart these attacks. The US Air Force responded using its regional assets to intercept the attacks on Israel. Jordan also responded by targeting Iranian missiles and drones flying over its territory.

Apparently all 185 Kamikaze suicide drones launched by Iran have been shot down. Likewise, all 36 cruise missiles fired were downed. Only seven of the 110 ballistic missiles fired by Iran were able to penetrate the multi-layered air defense cover. The rockets that passed through hit Israel’s Nevatim air base, but there was no significant damage. In retaliation, Israel targeted a Hezbollah weapons factory in Lebanon. Since then, both sides have taken a cautious stance, waiting for one side to miscalculate and then take action.

STRATEGIC OR SYMBOLIC?
It is clear from the retaliatory strikes that Iran has mastered the art of orchestrating sub-threshold attacks. As Amal Saad, a Middle East scholar at Cardiff University, explains, the Iranian attacks were carefully calibrated to defeat Israel’s vaunted deterrent yet avoid uncontrolled escalation. In a sense, Iran’s selection of targets was not only strategic but also symbolic, and the retaliatory strikes were powerful enough to demonstrate the country’s intent and capability.
The Iranian attacks raise a number of important questions. First, why this sudden shift in Iran’s regional strategy, in the way the Iranians have attacked Israel. Breaking his proxies has always been a norm to avoid any direct confrontation. Second, what could have prompted the Iranians to undertake this rather calibrated attack on Israel? The media is buzzing with stories. And third, was it a retaliatory strike to warn Israel of its wrongdoing in Damascus, or was it an attack to reaffirm its reputation in the region and signal to all its enemies and allies its military prowess and determination? Iran’s objectives remain unclear so far.
Next, the question of why Israel attacked the Iranian consulate also raises some intriguing questions. Was it an attempt to teach Iran a lesson and end its support for its allies in Gaza? Was the Israeli attack undertaken with an ulterior motive, namely seeking retaliation, to justify the eventual attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and its leadership? Or was it just a diversionary tactic to launch the final offensive against Rafa and end the war? Experts have discussed these possibilities endlessly, but without reasonable results.

ESCALATORY SPIRAL
From a regional perspective, the question is will this war for Gaza expand vertically and horizontally into a broader war? Or would the war be contained because both sides might have strong strategic compulsion not to escalate the war? In the latest show of force, Iran may want to draw the line as they risk provoking American wrath. While it gives Israel the incentive to raise the bar, Israel would understand that these shadow wars have the potential to spiral out of control. Furthermore, the risk of miscalculation increases with each passing hour and day. Hezbollah’s April 17 attack on an IDF military reconnaissance unit in response to Israel’s killing of Hezbollah fighters is indicative of the expansive nature of this conflict.
For Israel, too, any further delay in accepting the agreement of its Western allies to join the fight would also be a good indication that the war may not spread. The US has already confirmed that it will not participate in any retaliation against Iran. The rest of the West could also follow suit. However, this should not hinder the American build-up of additional troops and platforms. This would continue to worry the Iranians and in turn increase their distrust. This would also encourage them to boost their long-standing representatives in the region.
This turn of events will certainly please Iran’s allies and partners. It creates a distraction for the West and diverts its attention from Ukraine. China would also take comfort in these attacks, in light of growing US assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. What happens next between Israel and Iran would have consequences for Ukraine and the Pacific, and any US strategy in the Middle East will have to take this into account.

ISRAEL’S DILEMMA
How does Israel retaliate without risking a broader escalation? Israel has several options for how it could respond. First, Israel might not choose to respond to Iran’s attack. This would potentially de-escalate the situation, but risks setting a new norm where Iran can test Israel’s next tolerance threshold without retaliation. If Israel did not retaliate, many countries in the region would be happy, although they might also have to wonder whether Iran would be unwilling to attack them.
Second, Israel chooses to respond with a proportionate attack. Israel has the capacity to do this, including the beheading of high-value political targets. This may be accompanied by cyber attacks. Israel could even carry out attacks on Iranian non-military targets throughout the region.
Third, Israel might want to ignore any advice from its allies and decide to strike a huge blow at Iran to restore its deterrence. For example, by attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities and simultaneously attacking military and political targets in Iran. This would represent a significant escalation of the conflict between Iran and Israel.
This is all possible in the coming days. For Israel, opening a new front with Iran risks diverting its resources from more immediate threats in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. Furthermore, Israel’s powerful military would face a major challenge in prosecuting a protracted military campaign against Iran, which is physically displaced by more than a thousand kilometers.

UNCERTAINTY AHEAD
For now, the immediate future of the conflict between Iran and Israel remains uncertain. We await Israel’s next step. Although the Israeli armed forces are modern and formidable, their ability to conduct decisive operations against Iran is uncertain. Israel would need substantial support from its allies, in terms of long-range missiles, air defense systems and aerial refueling. The Israeli War Cabinet could soon invoke their future options, the reverberations of which would be felt far beyond the Middle East.
A few aspects are important for India. First, the aim is to secure the release of seventeen crew members on board the hijacked ship, the MSC Aries. Second, India has a significant number of civilians in the Middle East who must be kept out of harm’s way if the conflict spirals out of control. Third, recurring instability along India’s west coast impacts our energy needs and coastal security. Fourth, a broader escalation would impact our foreign policy interests in engaging with the Gulf States, as well as building future trade links through the Middle East. And fifth, with the Israeli military engaged in a high-intensity war with Iran, our own military dependence on Israel may need a serious rethink. Overall, India’s look-west policy should perhaps grasp these new challenges with enthusiasm.
The danger now is that the shadow war between the two countries will reveal itself, and it may be difficult to control the brawl that ensues.
Late Thursday evening, Israel struck back at a military base in Iran. Although the micro-drone attacks appear to be rather limited and a disappointing retaliatory response, the international community is sure to increase escalation and take serious action.

Harinder Singh, a retired lieutenant general, is the former DGMI.