War avoidance is the only path for Iran and Israel - Hindustan Times
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War avoidance is the only path for Iran and Israel

Apr 15, 2024 09:50 PM IST

Both Iran and Israel consider the other an existential threat and have evolved distinctly different strategies to keep the other at bay.

Though it is too early to predict the trajectory of escalation in the Iran-Israel crisis, it is important to assess the events as they occurred and benchmark them against three strategic aspects of intent, credibility and the willingness to go to war in respect of both the belligerents.

An anti-Israel billboard with a picture of Iranian missiles is seen in a street in Tehran, Iran April 15, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.(via REUTERS)
An anti-Israel billboard with a picture of Iranian missiles is seen in a street in Tehran, Iran April 15, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.(via REUTERS)

Both Iran and Israel consider the other an existential threat and have evolved distinctly different strategies to keep the other at bay. For Israel, coercive credibility vis-à-vis Iran has been repetitively on show. The collaborative Stuxnet virus attack on Iran’s nuclear reactors in 2010, the erosion of its nuclear manpower through covert means, and the direct attacks on its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leadership outside Iranian borders are all examples of the Israeli philosophy of “it ain’t credible if it is not pre-emptive, preventive and repetitive”.

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Israel, under Benjamin Netanyahu, has been seriously tested and at times frustrated by Iran’s perfection of “proxy and hybrid war strategies”. However, Iran’s strategy of using Hezbollah and Hamas to undermine Israel’s security from multiple directions under a blanket of deniability has met with mixed success. On the one hand, the strategy has kept Israel on tenterhooks and forced it to launch direct kinetic attacks on the IRGC whenever the opportunity presented itself. On the other hand, Iran finds itself increasingly isolated in the Gulf and West Asia, which has been collectively trying to usher in some modicum of peace and prosperity amidst the ruins of Iraq, Syria and Gaza.

Iran’s strikes on Israel early Sunday can logically be classified as retaliatory after Israel bombed the Iranian embassy in Damascus two weeks ago, killing IRGC commanders who allegedly had gathered to plan a strike on Israel. The plot takes a strange twist here. Taking advantage of Israel being preoccupied with Gaza, it appears that hawks in Iran felt that an immediate retaliatory strike was important to save face. Sane voices within Iran’s strategic establishment may have concurred with the need to retaliate, but asked for time to look for an exit window that would combine rhetoric, action and the avoidance of war.

The fact that Iran kept threatening Israel with attacks forced the latter to bring its air defences and anti-ballistic missile defences to high alert. Informing the United States (US) of imminent attacks on Israel would have alerted similar US defences in the entire region. Consequently, when Iran launched its barrage of not-so-sophisticated missiles and drones, all barring a few were claimed to have been shot down before they could cause any damage. Barring some damage to a military installation on its borders, there was no loss of life reported in Israel even as crowds in Tehran rejoiced at Iran finally hitting back at its “mortal enemy”.

Considering past trends, Israel could now target Iranian assets and IRGC leaders outside Iran or launch its own version of a few retaliatory precision strikes on secluded military targets inside Iran. Beyond a “no response” policy, this would be the closest to a careful calibration of escalation under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam. Neither Iran nor Israel have the intent or the wherewithal to go to war. Although resilient and defiant, the Iranian economy and its society are extremely fragile, recovering from the triple whammy of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the crippling Iran-Iraq war, and decades of sanctions. Israel is no better off, following its miscalculated assault on Gaza, internal criticism over the hostage crisis, political instability at home, and growing international pressure to find a resolution to the Palestinian problem. In such an environment, war avoidance seems to be the only way forward unless one of the belligerents feels ordained to commit harakiri and plunge the region into war.

At the operational level, there are some questions for both the Indian Air Force and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to ponder over when it comes to dealing with such a large barrage of missiles and drones that could come across India’s northern borders without much warning. Do we have the warning systems and the air defence and anti-ballistic missile systems to cope on our own, or do we embrace a collaborative mechanism till we can go it alone? How come this barrage was ineffective in comparison to less intense attacks in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and does this add fuel to the debate on the effectiveness of precision strikes using fixed-wing aircraft versus the more cost-effective option of drones and missiles?

The stakes are high for India to do what it can to defuse tension in West Asia. The last thing it wants is a Black Swan event that slows down development and derails economic progress.

Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal and an independent strategic analyst. The views expressed are personal

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