PETER YOUNG: Middle East is as dangerous as ever while Iran and Israel conflict remains

A missile defense site near an international airport and air base is seen in Isfahan, Iran, Monday, April 22, 2024. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

A missile defense site near an international airport and air base is seen in Isfahan, Iran, Monday, April 22, 2024. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

HISTORIANS of the future may well wonder how the current Israel-Gaza war suddenly blew up without warning and how quickly things can change, at least in the short-term. When they research this case, they will discover how Hamas launched their unexpected and murderous attack on Israel from Gaza on October 7 last year and, as the Israelis inevitably struck back in self-defence against such atrocities, that part of the Middle East became a cauldron of hostility, fighting, death and destruction.

The horror of what happened and the extreme loss of life, mainly amongst Palestinians, has seemed all the more difficult to take in when measured against the utterances, just days before the Hamas attacks, by Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s National Security Adviser. He had remarked that the region was quieter than it had been in two decades. At that time, US negotiators were aiming to reach a deal to normalise relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and they were also working towards a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians along with expansion of the Abraham Accords.

The Israel-Gaza war has now lasted for six months. As they seek out Hamas in their bid to destroy them completely once and for all, the Israelis have, of course, been roundly condemned for their unacceptably aggressive action against civilians in Gaza. According to the Hamas-run health ministry, Israel has been responsible for the deaths of more than 34,000 people in Gaza since the start of the war. But, with no sign of a ceasefire, what is now new is Iran’s overt direct involvement in the conflict against Israel by directly attacking it. The overall situation has gone from bad to worse, but now back to bad again as conditions have fluctuated, with Iran’s direct action, ironically, turning out to be less dangerous so far than previously feared.

In an admirably perceptive piece over the weekend, Lyse Doucet, one of the BBC’s best correspondents, argues that Iran sees itself as a patient, strategic player in the complicated mix of Middle East politics. It is now basking in what it sees as its new projection of power. The BBC headline about ‘an audible sigh of relief’ seems, from all the evidence, to sum up the mood of those in the region. It indicates that there had been a notable calmness and comfort following the recent tit-for-tat actions between Israel and Iran as people realize it could all have been much worse.

It could have led almost immediately to further hostilities between these two leading mutual antagonists. But, after each side has made its position clear, there is nonetheless still a danger that this is just the opening salvo. So the question remains -- will the lull last? In this context, many people are said to support the US stance that it will not assist Israel in any plans for counter-attacks in the region.

It is now clear that Iran’s heavy strike on Israel on April 13, with some 300 explosive drones and ballistic and cruise missiles, was triggered by Israel’s April 1 attack on the Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus. Many people had earlier advised against this attack as unwise in the extreme. It resulted in the deaths of a senior Iranian military figure and eight other people. But Iran’s retaliatory attack of April 13 was the first ever direct

attack on the Jewish state; and even though most of the drones and other missiles were shot down and caused no casualties or only limited damage, an unprecedented direct attack of this sort created real fears that the region would blow up into a wider conflagration.

Israel’s own presumed retaliatory action last Friday – for which, reportedly, it has now admitted responsibility – with air strikes on Iran’s central industrial province of Isfahan that contains a nuclear facility and a major airbase that had been used on April 13 - seems to have been almost brushed aside by the Iranians. Indeed, Iran’s political and military leaders have downplayed the incident as having little consequence. But, by its April 13 action, it has demonstrated its power while Israel for its part has sent a strong signal that it has the ability to strike inside Iran.

Meanwhile, the US has said that its focus is on deescalation, and it has been emphasized by all parties that everyone in the region wants to stop a catastrophic all-out war. As Lord Cameron has said, Israel should be “smart” in devising a response and not be led into further conflict in the region.

Despite all that, these latest developments have shown the rest of the world that, although Iran works mainly through proxies – Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen as well, of course, as Hamas in Gaza – the evidence shows that it is the main player in financing and supporting terrorism in the Middle East.


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