Middle East on precipice but world has no appetite for another war - Hindustan Times
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Middle East on precipice but world has no appetite for another war

Apr 17, 2024 07:51 PM IST

India is concerned about stability in the region due to potential repercussions on diaspora remittances and energy prices.

It has been just four days since Shia Iran launched 120 ballistic missiles, 30 cruise missiles and 185 kamikaze drones towards Israel in retaliation to the April 1 Damascus missile attack on Iranian Consulate Annex in which a senior Quds Force Commander Mohammed Reza Zahedi was killed. Apart from statements of retaliation to the foiled Iranian strike from Israeli generals and political leadership, the world particularly the West has gone largely silent on the escalatory event as no one has any appetite for a conventional war erupting between eternal rivals Iran and Israel.

An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel.(Reuters)
An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel.(Reuters)

It is not that Israel is going to take the missile attack lying down or that Shia Iran will stop needling Tel Aviv and the West Asia region at large. But the chances of a full-fledged escalation look most unlikely as Iran has called it quits after the April 13 attack and Israel knows that the US and other Western powers will not be ready to defend the Jewish nation the second time if the Netanyahu government has plans to drag the world into a global conflict. Fact is that a large number of Iranian missiles did not reach Israel due to the defence put up by the US and allied forces using fighter aircraft and ballistic missile defence systems like Patriot, Arrow, Iron Dome and David’s Sling. The transparent battle theatre over Iran also ensured that the US and allied forces had at least three days advance notice to prepare for the missile strike. Given the limited Iranian missile and drone capabilities, the US and allied powers had a plan to neutralize the retaliation from Tehran. But there is more to this than meets the eye.

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Just as Israel’s disproportionate response in Gaza after the October 7 massacre by the Iran-backed Hamas terrorist group was to satiate the lust for retribution of the domestic audience in the Jewish nation, the Iranian retaliation was also designed to pacify the Shia Islamists within the Shia Republic which is already facing internal strife against the Mullahs in the country.

Since the days of the Persian empire, Iran has exalted view of its position within the Middle East vis-à-vis the Arab Sunni states. Iran sees itself as the leader of Shia Islam with Israel as its sworn enemy and has used multiple proxies to hit at Israel from all sides and ended up destabilizing the entire region. The Iranian leadership does not listen to anyone in the West or the Sunni powers with only China and Russia having a credible say in Tehran due to its support to the Shia Republic after it was declared a pariah by the West. Today, Iran is using Shia Houthi rebels to target Israel as well as global commercial shipping in the Suez Canal and Gulf of Aden. It is using its closest proxy, Shia Hezbollah, to control Lebanon and target Israel from the north. It is using Sunni Hamas to hit Israel from Gaza and Kaitab Hezbollah to hit Tel Aviv from Iraq. These unilateral actions from Mullahs in Iran have ensured that energy prices have touched USD 90 dollars a barrel, fertilizer costs have increased, and commercial shipping insurance has increased, leading to an all-round hike in the cost of global trade and commerce.

Israel has also not kept quiet after its famed intelligence services delivered a dud on October 7. It has targeted Hamas, Hezbollah and IRGC leadership through pin-pointed strikes in Lebanon, Gaza and Syria. In the coming days, Israel will conduct asymmetric strikes among Iranian proxies and may target Iran directly to deliver a message of deterrence. Israel cannot afford Iran to be sanguine after the April 13 missile strike and will hit Tehran hard for over-the-top missile response. So where is everything headed?

The Middle Eastern region will continue to remain unstable in the coming years and the possibility of a larger escalation cannot be ruled out given the fight to death between Israel and Iran. There will be attacks through Iranian proxies on Israeli interests, just as Netanyahu will respond with precision strikes on Tehran’s interest in the region. The Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan will look for ironclad security guarantees from the US to ensure that the conflagration does not reach their countries. One must remember that Iran used Houthis to target the UAE in January 2022 after the Israeli President paid a visit to Dubai.

The Shia regime of Iran will not change its behaviour as it is driven by radical Shia ideology and uses it to quell domestic dissidence. It will continue to use terror proxies and Quds force to remind the world of its existence and its nuisance without any concern for regional peace. It will also ensure that Israel does not get recognition from other Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and will use events like October 7 to scuttle any rapprochement.

The US and the West are already embroiled in the Ukraine war and with the US and UK headed towards elections, there is no Western interest in opening another front against Iran. For India, the primary concern is that the region remains stable as any untoward incident will have a fall-out on diaspora remittances, energy and fertilizer prices. All in all, the Middle East security situation is in a mess and the region is sitting on a powder keg ready to explode on any trigger. If Hamas is forced to release Israeli hostages and Houthis are told not to target commercial shipping, then there is a chance for peace. But this is just a pipe dream.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Author of Indian Mujahideen: The Enemy Within (2011, Hachette) and Himalayan Face-off: Chinese Assertion and Indian Riposte (2014, Hachette). Awarded K Subrahmanyam Prize for Strategic Studies in 2015 by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) and the 2011 Ben Gurion Prize by Israel.

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