Israel-Gaza briefing: World nervously watches what Iran does next – BBC.com

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Israel-Gaza briefing: World nervously watches what Iran does next – BBC.com

  • By Lyse Doucet
  • Chief International Correspondent

In the wars of wars in this grave crisis in Gaza, the most explosive of all is the burning official enmity between Israel and Iran.

It is now at its most perilous point.

And this region, and many capitals beyond, are watching and waiting with bated breath to see what Iran does next.

It was Tehran’s decision after the airstrike on its diplomatic compound in the heart of the Syrian capital, Damascus, on April 1 that killed top commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Israel never admits to having carried out such attacks, but everyone knows that it is responsible.

Legend, Spectators inspect the car in which three sons of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh were allegedly killed in an Israeli airstrike

And since the Israel-Gaza war broke out six months ago, Israel has intensified its attacks on Iran, not only destroying weapons supplies and infrastructure in Syria, but assassinating top IRGC commanders and of Hezbollah.

“We will make them regret this crime and others like it, by the will of God,” warned Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

His wish sparked an immediate response from Israelis in an escalating war of words. The two regional powers have been at loggerheads since the 1979 Iranian revolution made hostility towards the “Zionist regime” a central tenet of its doctrine. For many years, Israel has carried out targeted assassinations, mounted cyber operations and sounded the alarm about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions as well as its support for militias, including Hamas, that threaten to destroy Israel.

“If Iran attacks from its territory, Israel will respond and attack in Iran,” Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a message on more modern for countries without diplomatic relations. .

Then the United States – Israel’s staunchest ally and Iran’s most powerful adversary – intervened, warning Iran that it could also face the wrath of the most powerful military. powerful in the world. “We will help defend Israel and Iran will not succeed,” proclaimed US President Joe Biden, suggesting that US intelligence services were planning an attack “as soon as possible”.

Legend, Israeli army troops stand around their tanks in an area along the border with the Gaza Strip.

“The US could try to force Iran to recalculate and reconsider its options now,” said Dr Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

US media, citing unnamed US sources, have raised possible maximalist scenarios involving a major Iranian attack on Israeli targets, with a wave of drones and missiles, including ballistic missiles.

“The United States may be using this message to heighten anticipation, so if Iran cannot do that, it will show weakness,” says Dr. Vakil, in a nod to the troubling uncertainty of moment.

Iran, which has long prided itself on playing a long game, responding to any provocation with “strategic patience,” now finds itself faced with a choice of all choices. Each option carries many risks.

Its aging supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, must greenlight a counterattack that will appease the militant IRGC commanders who shape Iran’s foreign policy. It must also preserve Iran’s perceived prestige as the lynchpin of the “Axis of Resistance” of its armed allies and proxies; they have been emboldened and strengthened by their limited but still deadly attacks in this Gaza war.

But this choice must also be carefully calibrated to avoid triggering a dangerous spiral of escalation. If it draws formidable Israeli and American combat power into this vortex, it could have catastrophic consequences for the Islamic Republic.

Legend, Palestinians celebrate Eid al-Fitr prayers near the ruins of al-Farouk mosque in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip

The 84-year-old supreme leader took office in 1989, a year after the Iran-Iraq war which cost 200,000 Iranian lives. It always casts a long dark shadow.

“Avoiding war is essential to its legacy,” underlines Iranian analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj. “Whatever reprisals against Israel may take place will be aimed at avoiding a full-scale war.”

But this moment is uncharted territory.

Precise missile strikes earlier this month destroyed the consulate annex next to the Iranian embassy and killed several IRGC officers, including Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, its top general in the region within of the Quds Force, the elite clandestine branch responsible for foreign operations.

And this happened on Iran’s diplomatic territory, which Iran considers its own soil.

Legend, Palestinians celebrate Eid al-Fitr prayers near the ruins of al-Farouk mosque in Rafah

For many years, Israel has waged what it calls the “war between wars”: strikes against arms shipments, facilities and routes in Syria allegedly used by Iranian agents and their allies, including their most valuable and powerful proxy, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia. . But in recent months it has upped the ante, exploiting opportunities for targeted killings during the supercharged tensions of the Gaza war.

Iran’s response so far has mainly been to retaliate through its proxies. The shadow wars range from hostilities along Israel’s northern border with southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold, to Iran-affiliated militias in Iraq and Syria striking U.S. targets, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels now attacking shipping lanes in the Red Sea.

In January, after an alleged Israeli airstrike in Syria killed IRGC military advisers, Iran responded directly. But he chose what were considered “soft targets” less likely to provoke major retaliation: ballistic missiles fired into northern Iraq against what was described as a base of Israel’s spy agency. Mossad; and missile and drone launches against Baloch separatists operating across its border with neighboring Pakistan in another show of force to show its willingness to act. Both events sparked outrage and, in Pakistan’s case, a retaliatory airstrike from a traditional ally, but tensions quickly eased.

Legend, A woman cries at the grave of a loved one at the start of the Eid al-Fitr holiday at a cemetery in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip.

Amid the current crisis, minds in both Iran and Israel are focused not only on this risky game, but also on the more fundamental question of deterrence. Both sides want to send the clearest signal to the other that such large strikes would be costly and are best avoided in the future.

For Iran, under domestic pressure from unprecedented protests led by women against restrictions on freedom and financial difficulties, preserving the Islamic Republic is paramount. But he also wants to safeguard his growing influence in the region and the vast political and military network he has built over several decades.

Its options range from direct raids on military targets in Israel, to more distant operations against its embassies and interests somewhere in the world, to retaliation through its proxies. An article in the well-known Amwaj media outlet cited the occupied Golan Heights in northern Israel – land seized from Syria in the 1967 war – as a “primary target” and a less risky choice.

Legend, Palestinians carry their belongings as people fleeing conflict leave their homes in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza.

Israeli expert Raz Zimmt, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security in Tel Aviv, believes that Iran will act forcefully. “The patience of the Iranians is running out in the face of the setbacks attributed to Israel,” he posted on X.

Iran seized a commercial ship with connections to Israel early Saturday morning, but Zimmt said Tehran was unlikely to see that as an “appropriate response,” adding: “It might give it more time to reconsider his next course of action.”

But there is no agreement among Iran observers on what steps Iran will ultimately take. And there is also a risk that what Iran sees as a cautious and calculated act will be seen as, or end up as, an incendiary miscalculation.

“It seems that Iran prefers to respond directly,” Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group told the BBC. “I don’t think Iran wants to sacrifice Hezbollah or bring it into the fray. This is the tip of its spear, and Iran wants to preserve it.”

There is also the option of biding your time, at least for a while, to strike when you least expect it rather than in the eye of the storm.

“Iran is expected to respond, but doing nothing could be an option,” says Dr Vakil of Chatham House. “There is a choice on the table where Iran does not participate in what could be an Israeli provocation.”

Legend, Children sitting on a swing celebrate the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr in the central Gaza Strip.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under immense political pressure at home, has long advocated military action against Israel’s archenemy, and is known to have been pulled back from the brink at least an occasion.

Behind the scenes, there has been an intense wave of urgent messages between the United States and Iran, conveyed through third parties, including several Arab states, to avoid an all-out war that no one wants. Iran sees this in itself as helping to restore its image as a regional heavyweight that matters.

In this waiting period, airlines stopped flights, embassies closed their doors or warned their citizens to leave Israel. The United States has deployed its warships to strategic positions to strengthen its protection from American and Israeli troops, and it has strengthened its air defense to protect its forces deployed in Iraq and Syria.

Israel and the countries in this region are on high alert for something that could happen somewhere.

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