Middle East heat

Published April 9, 2024

A SENSE of foreboding prevails over the Middle East, as regional states in particular, and the international community overall, await Iran’s response to Israel’s attack on its diplomatic facilities in Damascus last week. Amongst the victims were several members of the Iranian military, including two generals associated with the Sepah-i-Pasdaran, and the strike was seen as a stark provocation by Israel to draw Iran into a direct conflict, also possibly pulling in the US. While there has been plenty of rhetoric from all sides, both Iran and the US have so far managed the crisis carefully, though the danger is far from over. A military aide to the Iranian supreme leader has said that no Israeli diplomatic facilities remain safe anymore, while Israel’s defence minister has boasted that his country can “deal with Iran”. For Tehran’s rulers, the dilemma is considerable. If the Iranians react too strongly, Israel can call its Western allies — primarily the US — for help by playing the victim card and ensuring a regional conflagration. If Iran fails to react, it will be seen as weak domestically, unable to defend its interests abroad, and Israel will be emboldened. Therefore, the ayatollah and his generals will have to navigate between both of these unappealing options.

The shadow war between Israel and Iran in Syria has been going on for over a decade, dating back to the Syrian civil war. Israel has reportedly carried out hundreds of air strikes in Syria, hitting Iranian and Hezbollah targets, as well as civilian infrastructure. But the strike on the Iranian embassy’s consular section may mark a turning point, as the temperature in the region — in the aftermath of the Oct 7 events — has reached boiling point. The key to preventing further escalation in this scenario lies with the West, particularly the US. America must communicate to Israel that further provocations, particularly targeting sovereign states, will be unacceptable. The UN Security Council should send a similar message to Israel and its backers. Observers have been saying since the beginning of the war on Gaza that a regional conflict is very much a possibility. Indeed, such a slow-boil conflict is already underway in the Levant, the Red Sea, and the Gulf. If Israel is allowed to continue its provocative behaviour, then the ‘next big one’ might be closer than we think.

Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2024

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