The View From India | The message from Tehran

April 15, 2024 04:33 pm | Updated 08:41 pm IST

An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel April 14, 2024.

An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel April 14, 2024.

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It’s an open secret that Israel has carried out several attacks, covert and overt, targeting Iranian assets and senior officials in West Asia over the last several years. A number of Iranian nuclear scientists were killed, including Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, known as the father of Iran’s nuclear programme, who was assassinated in the outskirts of Tehran in November 2020. Iran has also reported several subversive activities at its nuclear facilities in recent years. And Iran has targeted Israel-linked ships in the Gulf and the Arabian Sea and Israeli diplomats in different parts of the world, including New Delhi.

This shadow war escalated after the October 7 Hamas attack in Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed. Israel launched an all-out attack on Gaza, in which over 33,000 Palestinians have been killed so far, and carried out dozens of strikes inside Syria and Lebanon aimed at fighting Iranian influence in both countries. On December 25, an Israeli strike killed Sayyed Reza Mousavi, a senior adviser of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Israel has also killed several Hezbollah commanders in strikes in Lebanon. Iran’s response to these attacks have largely been muted, or it was Hezbollah that upped the ante on the Israeli border. After Reza Mousavi was killed, Iran launched missile strikes at Erbil targeting a building which it claimed was used by Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency. But the attack was largely symbolic. And Iran was cautious not to directly target Israel or Israeli personnel.

Emergency and security personnel extinguish a fire at the site of strikes which hit a building annexed to the Iranian embassy in Syria’s capital Damascus, on April 1, 2024.

Emergency and security personnel extinguish a fire at the site of strikes which hit a building annexed to the Iranian embassy in Syria’s capital Damascus, on April 1, 2024.

But Iran’s strategic thinking seemed to have changed after Israel’s April 1 attack on its embassy compound in Damascus in which at least seven IRGC officers, including Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, were killed. The attack was a twin blow for Iran. One, many in Iran saw it as a breach of its sovereignty as the embassy premises were hit by Israeli fire; two, Gen. Zahedi, who was in charge of the IRGC’s operations in Syria and Lebanon, two critical theatres for Iran’s regional influence, was the senior most Iranian officer who got killed since the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the charismatic IRGC commander who was killed by the U.S. in January 2020. When Gen. Soleimani was killed, Iran had launched a missile attack at a U.S. base in Iraq. After Gen. Zahedi’s killing on the embassy premises, an Iranian response was expected.

But the question many faced was what could be the Iranian response. Israel had already warned that any retaliation that originated from Iran would be met with a strong Israeli response. Many experts thought that Iran would target an Israeli diplomatic mission elsewhere, in proportion with Israel’s attack on its mission in Damascus or it would launch an attack on Israeli troops in occupied territories — either in Gaza or Syria’s Golan Heights. Iran also has the resources to launch an attack from Syria and Lebanon, which would have given it space to argue that the attack did not originate from Iran and offer an off-ramp to Israel to avoid a regional war. But Iran proved them all wrong.

This time it did not rely on its proxies. It did not seek room for deniability. It launched a massive, direct attack that originated from Iranian soil and targeted Israeli territory. Israel claimed that 99% of Iranian missiles and drones were intercepted. The U.S. applauded Israel’s remarkable defence systems. But still the fact of the matter stays that Iran launched a direct attack on Israel. Israel has one of the world’s best missile defence covers. And Israeli, American, French, British and Jordanian defence systems and jets were shooting down Iranian drones and missiles. Still, Iranian ballistic missiles managed to penetrate this multi-layered defence cover and hit an Israeli air base. 

Why did Iran choose to launch a direct attack on Israel instead of using its proxies, which it always did? Possibly, Iran is sending two messages to the Israelis. One, it possesses the capabilities to carry out precision strikes in Israel even from 1,500 km afar. It targeted a military base on Sunday and it could target critical infrastructure in the event of an all-out war. Two, the era of strategic patience is over. If Israel keeps attacking Iranian assets and officers in Syria and elsewhere, Iran would directly attack Israel, even at the risk of an all-out war.

This is a risky game. The Iranian attack could trigger a massive response from Israel, a country whose strategic doctrine is rooted in existential anxiety. And if Israel responds, Iran cannot ignore it, after changing the strategic course with Sunday’s attack. Iran wants to set new rules of engagement between the two countries in the region. A new strategic equilibrium. But if Iran’s risky bet leads to a major Israeli response instead of boosting its deterrence, it will have to retaliate again, which is a recipe for war. West Asia will remain on edge in the coming hours and days.

India’s response

After the Iranian attack, India stated that it’s “seriously concerned at the escalation of hostilities, which threatens the peace and security in the region”. India also called for “immediate de-escalation, exercise of restraint, stepping back from violence and return to the path of diplomacy,” but stopped short of condemning the Iranian action. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also held talks with both his Iranian and Israeli counterparts, and repeated India’s position. India’s refusal to condemn the Iranian attack seemed to have upset the Israelis. Daniel Carmon, Israel’s former Israeli ambassador to India, posted on X, as a reply to Mr. Jaishankar that the “weak, balanced MEA statement” was “disappointing”. “I expected India to publicly condemn the attack,as did so many other friends/partners of Israel around the world,” he wrote. India, however, had maintained the same balanced approach when the Iranian embassy building in Damascus came under attack on April 1. India then said it was “distressed at the escalating tensions in West Asia and their potential to fuel further violence and instability”, without condemning Israel.

The Top Five

1. IRGC | Guardians of the revolution

Iran’s elite military wing, which has helped the Islamic Republic spread its influence across West Asia through a network of militias, is at the centre of an unfolding regional crisis after Tehran launched a massive drone and missile attack on Israel on Sunday, writes Stanly Johny.

2. In poll season, the perils of scorching bilateral ties

Election campaign rallies and media conferences are not the places to be making vociferous statements on sensitive foreign policy issues, writes Suhasini Haidar.

3. Katchatheevu demands thinking outside the box

It would be unwise to attempt to create a Berlin Wall in the Palk Strait; instead, the Palk Bay must be thought of as the common heritage of India and Sri Lanka, writes V. Suryanarayan.

4. Different approaches to AI regulation

Amid the global movement towards regulating AI systems, India’s response would be crucial, with the nation currently catering to one of the largest consumer bases and labour forces for technology companies, writes G S Bajpai.

5. Péter Magyar | The Orbán challenger

The former government insider is organising mass rallies in Hungary challenging Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ‘power factory’, writes Saumya Kalia.

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