Iran attacks Israel, risking a full-blown regional war 

Direct drone and missile strikes cross a rubicon

For months there has been speculation about the war in Gaza escalating into a regional conflagration. Now Israelis are enduring a terrifying night as they wonder if the moment of truth has come. Late on April 13th Iran launched scores of attack drones at Israel, and then missiles too. The barrage is part of its retaliation for an Israeli air strike that killed seven people including a top Iranian general, at the country’s embassy compound in Damascus on April 1st.  Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that “the malicious Zionist regime will be punished”.

Earlier in the day Iranian forces boarded a ship in the Strait of Hormuz that they said had links with Israel. Missile strikes and the drone wave are, however, a far bigger escalation. After decades of hostility and talk of war it is the first time that Iran has attacked Israel directly from its own territory. While Israel can almost certainly deal with the immediate threat the huge question is how it might retaliate, and the odds of that dragging the region and America into all-out war.

Israeli war cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv
photograph: anadolu via getty images

At the time of writing, missiles were being intercepted over Israeli territory. According to Israeli sources, over 100 drones had also been launched. They are probably Shaheds, a cheap model that can carry around 50 kg of explosives. With a maximum speed of less than 200 kilometres an hour, they take hours to travel from Iran to Israel. Some appear to have been intercepted, others are still in the air. Iran may also have asked its proxies, such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, to fire their missiles in order to magnify the scale of the attack. In signs of mounting panic and fear across the region, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, closed their airspace. Kuwait Airways diverted flights.

Israel’s first priority is to intercept as many of the drones and missiles as possible. It has had days to prepare. The country has a multi-layered missile-defence system and has deployed its entire air force to intercept the attack, with dozens of aircraft now in the air. Neighbouring Jordan vowed to shoot down any drones that cross its borders and seems to have done so already. America stands ready to assist, with Israel stating that it was cooperating with us forces in order to intercept any attack. There were reports that British aircraft were active, too. In the worst case Iran and its proxies may seek to overwhelm Israel’s air defences – “they want to keep the Israelis guessing,” says an American military source. Nonetheless the odds of them succeeding in this goal are low.

As a result the preliminary assessment is that damage will be limited. Hospitals have already been at a high level of alert since the Hamas attack on October 7th, and most schools are on break due to the upcoming Passover holiday. Those still open have been ordered to close, but public buildings were not told to shut. Israeli communities in the Golan Heights have, however, been ordered to take shelter. Sirens and explosions could be heard in Jerusalem.

Even if the attack does not cause significant casualties or physical damage, the implications are profound. After the Damascus strike, Israeli security officials believed that Iran would not retaliate with its own forces, in keeping with long-held policy. That assessment now seems to have been mistaken.

The optimistic case is Iran is clumsily attempting a “calibrated” response that satisfies its pride and supporters. It took two weeks of deliberation to decide how to react after the embassy strike. It felt compelled to do something: after months of Israeli attacks on its forces in Syria and Lebanon, the targeting of senior Iranians in a diplomatic building seemed an unacceptable escalation. Some officials were nervous about a direct attack on Israel. But hardliners wanted to hit directly rather than acting through proxies. Following the launch of the drones, Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations invoked its right of self defence and said that the matter “can be deemed concluded”.

Yet because a direct Iranian attack on Israel crosses a new line, Israel will probably be forced to retaliate: any normalisation of direct strikes by Iran is intolerable to the Israeli public and leadership. Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, made a televised statement before the drones were launched. “I have set a clear principle: Those who harm us, we harm them,” he said. Israel has already informed the Americans and governments in the region that its response is inevitable. Its military options include launching drones at Iran, and long-range airstrikes on Iran, possibly on military bases or nuclear installations. It is less likely that Israel would launch missiles from its submarines, which are reserved for the most serious confrontations.

Mr Netanyahu and president Joe Biden have been at odds for months over Israel’s conduct in Gaza, where it is mired in a six-month war against Hamas. Nonetheless Mr Biden warned Iran not to test his commitment to Israel. “We are devoted to the defence of Israel,” he said on April 12th. America has deployed its own air force, and sea-based missile-defence systems, which can help shoot down any projectiles launched at Israel.

Whether Mr Biden is prepared to support Israeli retaliation is a different matter. Already tensions have been pushing up energy prices in an election year. The price of Brent crude has risen over $90 and could rise further following the Iranian boarding of the cargo ship, the msc Aries, as it transited the Strait of Hormuz, which is a more vital conduit for energy flows than the Red Sea passage that the Iran-backed Houthis have partially closed. Still, Mr Biden is under attack from Republicans for being too soft. Following the attacks Mike Johnson, the House speaker, criticised “appeasement of Iran”.

The prospect of a full-blown war involving America, Iran and Israel is terrifying. The most expedient outcome, for everyone involved, is that the Iranian barrage is shot down or causes little damage. Israel could avoid casualties, and the need for a large-scale response. Iran could claim it sent a strong message without inviting major attacks on its own soil. And America could avoid being drawn further into a foreign war. Yet in a region that is now on fire, that scenario is far from guaranteed. ■

Excerpts: The Economist

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