The View From India | Israel, Iran back off from a regional war, for now

Updated - April 23, 2024 12:13 pm IST

Published - April 22, 2024 12:14 pm IST

The remains of a rocket booster that, according to Israeli authorities critically injured a 7-year-old girl, after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, near Arad, Israel, April 14, 2024.

The remains of a rocket booster that, according to Israeli authorities critically injured a 7-year-old girl, after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, near Arad, Israel, April 14, 2024.

(These article is part of the View From India newsletter curated by The Hindu’s foreign affairs experts. To get the newsletter in your inbox every Monday, subscribe here.)

On April 19, five days after Iran launched an unprecedented missile and drone attack on Israel, Tel Aviv struck a base in the central Iranian province of Isfahan, unnamed American and Israeli officials told the U.S. media. Iran’s April 14 attack, involving over 300 drones, cruise and ballistic missiles, was a retaliation against an attack on its embassy complex on April 1 in which seven IRGC officers, including two senior Generals, were killed. Israeli leadership had vowed to respond to the Iranian attack, despite growing calls from its allies in the West for restraint. On April 19, Iranian state media reported explosions in Isfahan but ruled out any foreign attack. Israel did not publicly acknowledge that it carried out attack inside Iran. Its government remained tight-lipped while the only public response was from Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right Minister, who left a one-word post on X, calling the attack ‘feeble’. U.S. officials spoke to the media only anonymously. In a public comment, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. was not involved in any retaliatory strike without confirming or dismissing reports that Israel carried out a strike inside Iran.

Compared to the massive barrage of the Iranian strike, Israel’s reported attack was largely symbolic. And by not claiming the attack, Israel offered an off-ramp to Iran. When Iranian officials dismissed reports an Israeli attack inside its territory, they actually took the de-escalation path. Both sides do not want a full-blown war, at least for now. The Biden administration reportedly worked behind the scene to avoid a regional war. According to the U.S. media, Israel carried out the April 1 bombing of Iran’s embassy complex in Damascus without prior consultation with the U.S. Immediately after Iran’s attack, Biden officials told the media that the President informed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. would not join any Israeli retaliatory attack on Iran. Mr. Biden’s argument was that Israeli, American, British, French and Jordanian defence systems and aircraft had intercepted “99%” of Iranian projectiles. Mr. Biden asked Mr. Netanyahu “to take the win” and do not escalate the crisis into a regional war, which is not in America’s interest. This practically limited Mr. Netanyahu’s options. The challenge before him was to retaliate without escalation. And that’s what he did with the symbolic strike with a path towards de-escalation.

But it doesn’t mean that the pre-April 1 status quo in the Iran-Israel shadow war can continue. In fact, the message from Tehran, when it launched a direct attack on Israel, was that it wanted to alter the status quo which allowed Israel to attack Iranian interests in Syria and Lebanon cost-free. Iran wanted to make it costly for Israel. Mr. Netanyahu, probably under American pressure or due to other strategic challenges he is facing today, backed off from hitting Iran hard. But does that mean that he would stop targeting Iranian interests in Syria? Rolling back Iran’s influence in its immediate neighbourhood has been a security priority for Israeli governments. If Israel continues to attack IRGC commanders in Syria, can Iran ignore them, especially after it launched such a heavy attack on Israel over the killing of IRGC officers? So the fault lines remain intact in the shadow war, even though both sides have backed off from the brink, for now.

Big win for Muizzu

Maldives’ ruling People’s National Congress (PNC) has secured a big win in the parliamentary elections on Sunday, giving President Mohamed Muizzu, who came to power last year on an anti-India campaign plank, significant control over the legislature. The leader, who wanted Indian military out of the island nation, has pledged to elevate strategic ties with China. Six political parties and several independent groups had fielded some 368 candidates for the 93 seats in Parliament or the People’s Majlis. The PNC, according to local media, was headed for a “super majority” in Parliament, with a likely win in nearly 60 out of the 93 seats, my colleague Meera Srinivasan reports. The Maldivian Parliament was earlier controlled by the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). The results appear to have strengthened the President’s hands.

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