The remains of a rocket booster after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, near Arad, Israel, on April 14, 2024.

The remains of a rocket booster after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, near Arad, Israel, on April 14, 2024.
| Photo Credit: Reuters

Iran launched a wave of drone and missile attack on Israel on Sunday night in retaliation against the April 1 air strike on the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus in which a senior IRGC commander was killed. Israel claimed that 99% of Iranian drones and missiles were intercepted mid air. The U.S., which helped the Israeli air defence, lauded the ‘remarkable Israeli defence’ and reiterated America’s “ironclad’ security commitments to Israel. Iran says the matter is concluded for now, but vowed to strike back with greater force if Israel retaliates. While the situation remains highly volatile, there are at least three takeaways from the biggest crisis that’s unfolding in West Asia since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Follow LIVE updates from Iran-Israel tensions on April 14, 2024

Biden’s policy

One, U.S. President Joe Biden’s policy of containing the West Asian crisis doesn’t seem to be working. Since the October 7, 2023 Hamas attack in Israel, Mr. Biden had adopted a policy of offering carte blanche support to Israel’s military operations in the region, while at the same time trying, diplomatically, to prevent Israel’s actions leading to a regional war. Israel showered fire and fury on Gaza, levelling buildings across the strip, displacing over 90% of Gaza’s 2.3 million population and killing at least 33,000 Palestinians, a vast majority of them women and children. But Israel’s military operation did not limit to Gaza. It carried out air strikes in Syria and Lebanon, mainly targeting Iran and its proxies. Iran lost a number of senior commanders in Israeli attacks in Syria, including Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the IRGC commander who was killed in the Damascus consulate bombing.

The U.S. kept supplying weapons to Israel throughout this conflict, and started a military campaign against Yemen’s Houthis, who targeted vessels in the Red Sea “in solidarity” with the Palestinians. Mr. Biden was trying to douse regional fires without disrupting his support for Israel. Six months after the October 7 attack, Israel’s Gaza war remains unfinished, while the conflict has already gone regional with Iran’s attack on Israel.

Netanyahu’s choice

Two, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in a spot. He built his career promising security to Israel. Yet, the largest attack in Israel’s history, on October 7, unfolded on his watch. He went to Gaza promising to dismantle Hamas. After six months of war, Hamas is far from being dismantled and it’s still keeping some 130 hostages who were captured on October 7. There is a genocide case against Israel in the International Criminal Court, and there is growing domestic pressure on the government to cut a deal with Hamas and get at least some hostages freed. And now, Mr. Netanyahu has to deal with the Iran attack as well.

Many say Mr. Netanyahu could use the Iran attack as an opportunity to do what he always wanted — hit Iran hard, drawing the U.S. into war, and regain regional and international legitimacy. Israel can again play victim. But his country has already been at war in Gaza for over six months. An open war with Iran would also mean a full-scale war with Hezbollah on the northern border where some 60,000 Israelis have already been displaced from the Upper Galili region. The question Mr. Netanyahu faces is whether the Israeli state and society is ready for a prolonged war with the country’s most powerful enemy in the region. U.S. President Biden is already pushing for a diplomatic off ramp to avoid a regional war. If Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t retaliate after Iranian missiles attacked Israeli soil, he would lose credibility further and Iran would walk away with a victory. If he retaliates, it could open a cycle of attacks. He has to make a tough choice.

Iran’s message

Three, Iran has sent out a clear message that it is ready for escalation. When Qassem Soleimani was killed in Iraq in January 2020 by the U.S., Iran launched a missile attack against U.S. bases in Iraq, after giving enough time to the Americans to prepare for the attack. When Gen. Sayyed Reza Mousavi was killed in December in Syria, Iran attacked a building in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, which it claimed was operated by Mossad. But this time, Iran chose a big attack, with 300 drones and dozens of cruise and ballistic missiles, that originated from its soil and targeted Israel proper. Even by Israeli accounts, some Iranian missiles hit the Ramon Air Base in Negev.

This is the first time Iran launched a direct attack on Israel. And this is the first time any nation state in the region launched an attack on Israel since the 1991 Gulf War. Iran’s one objective could be a demonstration of its capabilities. But the Iranians must also be knowing that they crossed a red line when they launched a direct attack on Israel. They knew that Israel was likely to retaliate. And if Israel directly hits Iran, it can’t just walk away from the conflict. So, by launching the midnight attack on Israel, the Iranians are telling their rivals that they are ready to escalate the shadow war into an open conflict.


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