The conflict, from Nebuchadnezzar to Netanyahu

Several historical, religious and geopolitical factors have sharpened the Jewish-Persian conflict, which can impact India’s ‘act west’ policy if it flares up

April 25, 2024 12:16 am | Updated 08:25 am IST

The remains of a missile that landed near the Dead Sea

The remains of a missile that landed near the Dead Sea | Photo Credit: AFP

The ghost of Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar (642-562 BC) would have probably gleefully approved of the recent first-ever direct projectile exchanges between Iran and Israel. After all, he sowed the seeds of this historic animosity in 586 BC by destroying the first Jewish temple, sacking the Jewish kingdom of Judea and taking its citizens in captivity to Babylonia. Jewish scripture Jeremiah described Nebuchadnezzar as the “Destroyer of Nations”.

A long enmity

While much water has flown down the Nile during the tumultuous regional history, the Jew-Persia enmity has survived 26 centuries; barring last century’s Pahlavi era in Iran when the two non-Arab, pro-American states had a tactical alliance. But the advent of the Islamic Republic in 1979 restored the historic “normalcy”, and the Mullahs in Tehran have been unswerving in denouncing Israel as “smaller Satan” and vowing its destruction. To this end, Iran has pursued weapons of mass destruction capacity, including drones, missiles and nuclear weapons. Leaders of Israel, the region’s only putative nuclear weapon state, consider Iran an “existential threat” and have vowed to never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

Editorial | Step back: On Iran-Israel tensions 

Till this month, the two confined their ill-concealed hostility to shadow boxing. Iran has backed non-state proxies such as Hezbollah, the Houthis and Hamas which have become a pernicious threat to Israel’s security while providing Tehran the fig leaf of deniability. Israel too has waged a determined campaign against them. It has also been engaged in undeclared air and missile operations against Iranian and Hezbollah presence in Syria and has tried to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme. A precarious strategic dynamic had come into place – until an unacknowledged airstrike on April 1, suspected by Israel, on the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus, killing seven Iranians, including two generals. Iran retaliated on April 13 with over 300 drones and missiles on the Israeli targets, Israel claimed that 99% of the Iranian projectiles were shot down. In an unacknowledged tit-for-tat five days later, Israel hit the Isfahan airbase in central Iran with drones and a missile. This first direct confrontation between the two long-sworn enemies appeared designed by each to declare victory to their respective domestic audience. However, they have set a “new normal”, with dangerous portents.

Several historical, religious and geopolitical factors have sharpened Israel-Iran hostility. Four centuries of crusades widened this divide. Unlike Europe where Jews were often persecuted, small Jewish communities (“Mizrahi”) lived amicably among Arabs from Morocco to Iran, albeit with ghetto-based existence often confining them to trades such as money-lending and jewellery-making. The Zionist movement since 1897 urged the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and the Balfour Declaration provided it a quasi-formal commitment. As a larger number of occidental Jews (“Sephardim”) migrated to Palestine under a British mandate, terrorism by Jewish gangs such as Stern and Irgun sought to push out the local Arabs. The Nazi holocaust of Jews during World War Two accelerated the exodus of the Sephardim to Palestine.

In 1947, the United Nations adopted a resolution to partition Palestine. While the state of Israel was created, for various reasons, the intended Arab state of Palestine and the neutral city of Jerusalem could not be formed. In 1967, Israel defeated Arab armies and occupied Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza which have largely been under its control since. Worldwide demand for a “two-state solution” has been gaining momentum. While Arab states have largely paid lip service to the “Palestine Cause”, Iran has been more vocal and strident. It created the anti-Israel “axis of resistance” comprising Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis, sustaining them with weapons and money. It has created an elite Quds (Jerusalem) Force to support them. Much of its military preparedness and nuclear programme has been Israel-centric.

Although Islam initially regarded Jews as “People of the Book”, their perceived duplicity later cast them in a negative hue. An epic Muslim victory over a Jewish army at Khayber near Madinah in 628 AD, set a new hostile historic benchmark. Even today, the Arab anti-Israeli demonstrators can often be seen chanting in Arabic “Khaybar Khaybar yā Yahūd, jaish Muammad sauf ya‘ūd” (”Khaybar, Khaybar O Jews, Muhammad’s army shall return”). Last year, Iran unveiled “Khaybar” a 2,000-km range missile capable of hitting Israel. Most Iranians are Shia and Iran has sought to foster loyalties among Shias of Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and even South Asia.

The plans by Iran and Israel

At a geo-political level, Iran also seeks to appeal to the global one billion-strong Muslim Ummah by playing up the emotive Palestine Cause. Tehran seeks to create a cleavage between Muslims in the street, who are pro-Palestine, and moderate Arab regimes seeking a non-disruptive political solution to the problem. The moderate Arab regimes resent Tehran’s one-upmanship and aggressiveness of its non-state proxies. Since 2020, the United States has tried to create an anti-Iran “Abraham Accord” alliance comprising some moderate Arab states and Israel. Some observers believe that the Hamas attack of October 7 was meant to disrupt the regional heavy-weight Saudi Arabia joining this alliance.

With that short backdrop, we can now analyse the strategic motives of Iran and Israel in the current conflict. Iran believes that it needs more time as it is still short of a nuclear weapon capability. To buy more time, Tehran wishes to bleed Israel into wars of attrition with its proxies while avoiding a frontal conflict. Israel, on the other hand, a much smaller country with a small standing army, aims to wage short swift wars leveraging the state-of-art U.S. armaments designed to maintain regional superiority. Barring the West Bank (which it considers the Judea), Jerusalem (site of the Jewish temple) and the Golan Heights overlooking Syria, it professes no territorial ambitions. Israel vacated Gaza in 2005 to avoid human costs and is currently waging a no-holds-barred war against Hamas to avenge the October 7 monstrosity.

Arab and Muslim regimes feel uncomfortable with the horrible death and devastation in Gaza during the seven-month-long Israeli invasion. They also fear being sucked into a war in which Iran, unable to inflict pain on the two Satans, could turn to their regional cahoots. They also fear that the resultant regional instability would disrupt oil production, their economic mainstay. While flaunting their strategic autonomy, they know their vulnerabilities and are clutching at various straws in the wind. The Saudi Foreign Minister’s dash to Islamabad on April 15 was likely to have been prompted by the need to enlist Pakistan for the Kingdom’s security. Similar motivations seem to be at work with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi wrapping up his three-day state visit to Pakistan on April 24.

Potential impact on India

Watch | 7 ways India is impacted by Iran-Israel strikes

An open conflict between Israel and Iran would impact Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s energetic “act west” policy. Apart from an expected oil price surge, it would create insecurity for over nine million Indian expatriates in West Asia remitting around $40 billion annually. It would also dent the prospects for carefully laid down multilateral architecture such as I2U2 (India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the U.S.) and the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor.

Last, but not least, with a large Muslim community and the third-highest Shia population after Iran and Pakistan, such a conflict may have domestic ramifications for India. All reasons enough for India to intensify its prayers that a direct Iran-Israel conflict is avoided and Nebuchadnezzar and Khaybar remain confined to history books.

Mahesh Sachdev is a former Indian Ambassador and a West Asia expert

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