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How Iran attacks exposed Israel's weakness

The weekend strikes showed that Israel needed others to defend it and is not free to choose how to strike back
A missile is launched during a military exercise in Isfahan, Iran, on 28 October 2023 (Reuters)

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.

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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.

Jordanians chant slogans during a demonstration near the Embassy of Israel in Amman on March 28, 2024,
Jordanians chant slogans during a demonstration near the Embassy of Israel in Amman on 28 March 2024 (AFP)

The decision to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the toppling of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, the attempted toppling of Bashar al-Assad - all these foreign policy disasters are now topped by a fifth - the decision to back Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

It is, of course, slow to realise the scale of the misjudgement it made in backing Israel to the hilt after 7 October attack by Hamas. But it also took time to realise the scale of the blunder it made in invading Iraq. 

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has testified to Congress that the US had no evidence that Israel had committed genocide in Gaza was eerily reminiscent of Colin Powell’s UN speech in which he said he had evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Powell’s speech in 2003 was a seminal moment in the US’s loss of international credibility. It has been sinking faster each year since.

Powell later regretted what he said. Austin is destined in hindsight to do the same.

A hell hole

Israel has now led its backers into a hell hole in which there is no peace or even prospect of one, no defeat of Hamas, no prospect of a post-war government, dwindling deterrence to all the other armed groups in the region, and the prospect of a low-level regional war on all of Israel’s frontiers simultaneously.

Possibly the most stupid thing Israeli security sources did on Sunday was to crow publicly about the cooperation they got from the Jordanian air force which helped them shoot down the drones and the cruise missiles.

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Israeli sources boasted that missiles headed for Jerusalem were intercepted on the Jordanian side of the Jordan Valley and others were intercepted near the Syrian border. 

The message Israel wanted to put out was that despite appearances, Israel has allies in the region who are prepared to defend it.

But this is a foolish game to play if Israel wants to preserve a critically weak Jordanian monarchy, fighting a tidal flow of public opinion wanting to storm the border.

Jordan may have been two-faced in the past and King Hussein did pass intelligence to his fellow cigar-smoking friend, the late former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

But this is the first time I can remember that the Jordanian army, which still bears its original name from the time of the liberation from the Ottoman Empire as the "Arab Army", actually joined in combat to protect Israel’s borders.

This is a huge mistake. 

While the population of Jordan, both Palestinians and the East Bankers, cheered those missiles onto their targets, the Jordanian army shot them down on Israel’s behalf. 

Israel only has relations with Arab leaders who defy their people’s will and impose their corrupt governance on them. Jordan’s action on Saturday may give short-term succour to Israel, but in the long term it spells trouble on Israel’s longest border.

Israel may be celebrating the fact they have real allies, but by doing so they are fatally undermining their friends’ legitimacy.

Iran has made its point and Israel is weaker as a result. 

This is the first time it was attacked directly by Iran who, like Hamas, gave it the impression it was not interested in war. It is also the first time that Israel was told by Biden not to strike back. After such an attack the visuals look bad: Israel needs others to defend it and is not free to choose how to strike back.

The attack leaves its protector the US casting around for policy options.

All, at the moment, look bad. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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