• FO stops short of naming Israel, urges all parties to demonstrate ‘utmost restraint’
• Experts say focus should now be on preventing situation from spiralling out of control

TEHRAN’S retaliatory strikes against Israel, in response to Tel Aviv’s actions against Iranian interests in Syria — especially the April 1 attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus — were less about inflicting substantial damage on Israel and more about a strategic recalibration, aimed at restoring deterrence, which would have long-lasting implications for regional security.

The strikes, which marked the first such attack since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, elicited a wide range of reactions across the world. Some critics denounced the strikes as an “unnecessary escalation” that risked further destabilising an already tense region. Others questioned the actual effectiveness of the strikes in causing significant devastation.

Meanwhile, there were voices that viewed the strikes as a victory for Iran.

Tehran’s actions were prompted by the attack on its consulate in Damascus, in which seven of its military advisers, including three senior commanders serving in Syria, were killed, marking a major escalation in Israel’s conflict with Iran.

A response from Tehran, which had in Jan 2020 carried out strikes on a US base in Iraq to avenge the killing of IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani, was always imminent. Israel and its allies knew about that and had since then been preparing to defend against the assault.

Iran too wasn’t very secretive about its plans; Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian disclosed that US and Iran’s neigbours had been notified about the attacks at least 72 hours in advance.

Senator Mushahid Hussain, who has led the Senate’s Foreign Affairs and Defence committees in the past, told Dawn: “Iran did the right thing, strictly in accordance with UN Charter Article 51 in self-defence and international law.”

The reaction from Pakistan’s Foreign Office also contained a reference to the Damascus consulate attack as the trigger for Iranian action against Israel.

“On 2 April 2024, Pakistan had pointed to the dangers of the attack on an Iranian consular office in Syria as a major escalation in an already volatile region,” it noted.

On that occasion, major world powers avoided unequivocally condemning the attack and censuring Israel for its recklessness; the UN Security Council didn’t condemn the Israeli move either after US, Britain and France opposed a condemnation statement drafted by Russia.

The FO reaction highlighted this aspect as well. “Today’s developments demonstrate the consequences of the breakdown of diplomacy. These also underline the grave implications in cases where the UN Security Council is unable to fulfill its responsibilities of maintaining international peace and security,” it said, echoing to some extent Tehran’s assertion that the imperative to retaliate could have been avoided if UNSC had condemned Israeli action.

Some also noted that the statement lacked forcefulness, as it did not explicitly name Israel.

The FO, however, avoided emphasising that Israeli aggression in Gaza was driving instability in the region, something that was pointed out in Beijing’s reaction. Pakistan said the latest episode in the Iran-Israel tensions was “the spillover of the Gaza conflict” and called for the implementation of the UN Security Council resolution demanding a ceasefire there.

“It is now critically urgent to stabilise the situation and restore peace. We call on all parties to exercise utmost restraint and move towards de-escalation,” the official statement said.

How effective were the strikes?

Pakistan’s former envoy to UN, US, and UK, Dr Maleeha Lodhi, told Dawn: “Iran’s retaliatory response was a measured one, aimed not to wreak any destruction, but to send a strong message to Tel Aviv that it had the capability to take such action.”

The orchestrated aerial assault challenged Israel’s sophisticated defence systems, which was described by the US as “unprecedented”. Utilising a combination of drones and missiles, both old and new, Iran launched over 300 projectiles, deploying many as decoys.

Amidst this barrage were inserted hypersonic missiles, some of which are said to have struck the Nevatim Airbase and an intelligence headquarters in Mount Hermon, even a though majority them were intercepted. The airbase and intelligence premises had been identified by Tehran as originating points for the Damascus attack. However, the extent of the damage to these facilities cannot be confirmed yet.

From a military point of view, this operation revealed not only the physical limitations of Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ missile defence system, but also the extent of reliance on foreign assets for Israel’s security, including US, Jordanian, and British military support, and European radar coverage.

By demonstrating its capability to strike significant Israeli military sites, this show of force would definitely help Tehran rally domestic and regional support, projecting Iran as a capable defender of Muslim interests against Israeli aggressions.

“It also sends an inspiring message to the Palestinians and Muslim masses that there’s at least one country in the Muslim World that doesn’t blink before [the] bullying of Israel,” Senator Mushahid Hussain said.

The repercussions are also political. The apparent prioritisation of Israel’s security by neighboring Arab regimes, as evidenced by their rapid deployment of defensive measures, has potential domestic political costs, particularly in countries like Jordan, where public sentiment may view this as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

Potential for escalation

The trajectory of the Iran-Israel conflict is fraught with potential for both conflict and restraint. The actions taken by Israel in the coming days, along with the effectiveness of international diplomatic interventions, will be critical in shaping the next phase of this increasingly complex geopolitical theatre.

“This episode has sparked fears of a full-blown regional war. But it is not in the interest of any country other than Israel to escalate the situation. Neither the US nor Iran want to see the region plunge into a wider conflict. That is why Washington is urging restraint on Israel and warned that it will not become part of any Israeli military action,” Dr Lodhi said.

The attention, she hoped, would now shift to diplomatic efforts to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2024

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