OPINIONS

Mon 15 Apr 2024 5:21 pm - Jerusalem Time

How Iran attacks exposed Israel's weakness

David Hearst

The weekend strikes showed that Israel needed others to defend it and is not free to choose how to strike back

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew exactly what he was doing when he ordered the attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus two weeks ago, killing Iran’s top soldier Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, among other Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders.

This attack went well beyond the existing tactics of limiting the arms flow to Hezbollah, the Lebanese movement, or pushing back Iranian-backed groups from its northern border.

This was an attempt to eliminate the Iranian leadership in Syria.

After six months, the war in Gaza is going badly. Israeli ground forces are facing stubborn Palestinian resistance which shows no sign of surrendering or fleeing, amid the biblical scale of destruction and the real suffering of its people. 

If anything, the mood among Hamas fighters has hardened. They feel they have survived the worst and have nothing to lose. The people of Gaza have not turned against them and the occupation of Rafah, they claim, would make no difference to them. They pour scorn on Israel counting Hamas' strength in battalions. After such an onslaught, they have a limitless supply of recruits and weapons.

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Multiple messages

As Israel's offensive in Gaza stalls, opposition to Netanyahu’s leadership is mounting and there is real pressure to strike a deal that would start returning the hostages alive. 

The differences with his chief backer, US President Joe Biden, are now out in the open and he is rapidly losing world opinion. Israel, under Netanyahu's stewardship, has become a pariah state.

Once again, Israel needed to play the victim, to sustain the myth that it is fighting for its existence. What better time for Netanyahu, the gambler, to throw the dice and attack an Iranian consulate, knowing full well what that meant?

The US also knew what Netanyahu was doing, which was to try to drag America into an attack on Iran for at least the third time in 14 years. That is why the US told the Iranians directly they had nothing to do with the strike and only knew about it when the planes were in the air.

Iran bided its time. It saw what happened in the Security Council, when a statement drafted by Russia condemning the consulate attack was vetoed by the US, the UK and France. It then said it would not strike Israel if there was a ceasefire in Gaza. This, too, was ignored. Then every western country told Iran not to strike Israel. Biden had one word of advice for Iran: "Don't".

When it came, the strike was carefully choreographed to deliver a number of messages to the US, Israel and the Arab region. 

Tehran wanted to establish a precedent that it could hit Israel directly without triggering a full-scale war. It wanted to tell Israel that it could hit it. It wanted to tell the US that Iran was a power in the Gulf that was here to stay and which controlled the Strait of Hormuz. It wanted to tell every Arab regime that kowtows to Israel that the same could happen to them.

Only a handful of rockets got through to their target, but every message they sent got delivered. The attack was thus a strategic success and a setback to the reputation of Israel as the chief bully boy on the block.

The delivery of these multiple messages started with the seizure by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of a Portuguese-flagged container ship the MSC Aries which, according to the state news agency (IRNA), is managed by a company whose chairman is the Israeli-born billionaire Eyal Ofer.

It then launched swarms of cheap drones at Israel and told everyone they had eight hours to prepare. It cost Israel more than $1bn to activate its air defence systems, Brigadier General Reem Aminoach told Ynet news.

The message to the US is forceful: Iran is ready to attack Israel with ballistic missiles and defy the West, including a direct warning to Biden

That is likely to be the smaller part of the bill.

At least four countries are known to have helped Israel shoot down the drones - the US, UK, France and Jordan. A fifth is most likely to have been Saudi Arabia as it was on the flightpath from southern Iraq to Israel and the sixth could well have been Egypt.

This was a major defensive aerial effort which, as some Ukrainians bitterly noted on Sunday, the same countries are choosing not to provide them. It could certainly not be done regularly.

In return, Iran used up 170 cheap drones, while 25 of the 30 cruise missiles were shot down by Israel. They were the decoy. The weapons were the ballistic missiles and a small number of those got through Israel’s defences and hit the Nevatim airbase in southern Israel.

Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari said those missiles caused light structural damage. We will never know, but the message was delivered to Israel that Iran has the capacity to strike it and hit their targets from a distance, without having to use Hezbollah, Ansar Allah of Yemen or its allies in Iraq. 

The weapons used were a free sample of its real firepower. After the strike, Iran warned the US that if Israel were to reply in kind, their bases just across the water in the Gulf and throughout Iraq would become targets, as they were after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force in 2020.

The message to the US is equally forceful: Iran is ready to attack Israel with ballistic missiles and defy the West, including a direct warning to Biden. They could do the same against any US ally in the Gulf region. Iran does not want a war, but it is capable of responding. 

So, if it does not want a war, the message to the US is that it has to restrain its wilful, adolescent child, Israel, the child that has been pampered by its parent for so long, it thinks it can do to the region whatever it wants.

Foreign policy blunders

Netanyahu is now in a dilemma. He could choose to satisfy the extreme right and deliver a crushing counterattack on Iran, but he would not have America’s help doing so. And if that did not materialise, he might find the airspace between Tel Aviv and Tehran slightly more difficult to navigate. 

If Netanyahu attacks Iran, his shaky relationship with the US will go from bad to worse. He will also launch a major attack with real opposition from the defence and security establishment, which stopped him doing a similar thing in 2010.

If he does nothing, he looks even weaker than he does already and cedes ground to Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition and fellow member of the war cabinet who talked on Sunday of a diplomatic offensive against Tehran, exactly the same formula Arab states used each time they had received a crushing military defeat from Israel.

The US is similarly finding that for the fifth time in three decades a major plank of foreign policy is crumbling in its hands.

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How Iran attacks exposed Israel's weakness

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