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The Implications of the Iranian Attack on Israel; By Subramanyam Sridharan

Image courtesy: The Boston Globe

Article 14/ 2024

The mass of over 300 assorted projectiles such as drones, ballistic and cruise missiles, that streaked across Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan for five hours on the intervening night of April 13 and 14 as part of Operation Honest Promise, largely never even reached the Israeli airspace as they were all shot down by Israel and its allies much before that. Even the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Jordan joined the hunt. Many ballistic missiles lacked range. Most of the projectiles overflew Iraq but some overflew Saudi Arabia and Syria. The rest of the projectiles, especially Iran-supplied ballistic and cruise missiles came from the Houthis and overflew Saudi Arabia. All the missiles converged through the Jordan funnel on Israel.

But for what appears to be some superficial damage to Israel’s Nevatim Airbase, the Iranian strike has been underwhelming despite its brave claim of having ‘achieved its objectives’, which remain unclear. In a letter to the UN Security Council, Iran stated, “Should the Israeli regime make another mistake, Iran’s response will be considerably more severe”. Simultaneously, it offered the olive branch saying that Iran now “deemed the matter concluded”. The Iranian Armed Forces Chief Mohammad Bagheri said, “There is no intention to continue this operation”. Later, the Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian also repeated the same lines to his British counterpart. Talking to Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, he said that Iran had no intention of further escalating the situation. He also claimed later that the US had been informed that the attack would be limited and in self-defence, a claim that seemed to make a virtue out of necessity.

Israel was not caught by surprise because stealth is not even possible in this theatre where sophisticated long-range warning sensors are abundant. Besides, Iran might have alerted KSA and Jordan just before launch lest they mistook these as an attack on them. In fact, Iran claims to have given a 72-hours’ notice to its ‘friends and neighbours in the region’ about the impending attack. This reminds one of the c. 1998 Tomahawk cruise missile attack by the US on Osama-bin-Laden’s camps in Afghanistan when Pakistan was alerted just ahead of time by the US which the Pakistani ISI promptly passed on to Osama to enable him escape. A similar signalling might also have played a part here. Besides, Israel would also have been prepared for a counterattack from Iran.

The ineffectiveness of the attack followed by the waving of the white flag by Iran are by no means a guarantee that the situation would not escalate in the months ahead. Israel has never walked away from not responding to any attack on it. Israel has promised to build a regional coalition and exact revenge at a time of its choice. Even as Iran said, ‘it was over’ while Israel said, “it wasn’t”, the US has unambiguously said that it did not support an Israeli retaliatory strike. A ‘seriously concerned’ India called both the parties for ‘immediate de-escalation’. China expressed ‘deep concern’ and called on ‘influential countries to play a role’. This was a reference to the US to restrain Israel. The G7 strongly condemned the Iranian action while Turkey asked Iran ‘to avoid further escalation’.

Iran says it was provoked by the Israeli attack on its embassy in Damascus which killed two Generals and five other members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) whose Al-Quds Force is handling all activities against Israel through various terrorist organizations such as the Hezbollah, the Hamas, the Houthis, and the militia-outfits in Syria and  Iraq such as the Iraq-based umbrella-terror body Popular Mobilization Front (PMF).  The various arrangements between Iran and these terror outfits are complex for several reasons, primarily because the Iranians are Shi’as who are ideologically detested by the Sunnis. Hamas is an extremist Sunni group whose theoretical underpinnings come from the fundamentalist Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. The underlying thread that unites all these organizations is their hatred for Israel and its supporter, the US. This is the so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’ that engulfs West Asia and the Levant.

These complex relationships are very typical of this region which is wracked by over two thousand years of extreme religious animosity and internecine wars.  To illustrate, while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long been a supporter of the Palestine cause and has so far not established diplomatic relationship with Israel, it had been very wary of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) or the Hamas or its underlying fountainhead, the Muslim Brotherhood. The PLO supported the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, which angered Saudi Arabia leading to the expulsion of expatriate Palestinians from the Kingdom. Likewise, thousands of Yemenis were expelled from the Kingdom for Yemen’s support for Saddam Hussein too and at other times too subsequently.

There is no love lost between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Al-Saud ruling family of Saudi Arabia as it was Ibn Saud who deposed the Hashemite King of the Hejaz region (containing the Muslim holy places of Makkah and Madinah) and absorbed them within his Kingdom and later assumed the title, ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ thereby implying the assumed role of the Caliph of the Ummah. Since c. 2015, KSA and the Houthis have been at war though a ceasefire of sorts prevails since c. 2022.  Within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) itself, which largely works on the Saudi Emirati consensual opposition towards Iran, Qatar with its friendship with Iran and suspicion towards other West Asian monarchies, sits incongruently.

GCC, under Qatari leadership, has released a statement which calls for ‘reducing the escalation immediately to maintain the security and stability of the region, and the need for all parties to make joint efforts and take the approach of diplomacy’. It then went on to describe the situation in Gaza, thereby totally avoiding the Iran-Israel developments. It advocated a two-state solution which Iran and its terror outfits blandly dismiss. Even while being critical of Israel, KSA is on course to establishing diplomatic relationship with Israel. In spite of the thaw in relationship with Iran, brokered in c. 2023 by China, KSA would not forget the c. 2019 attack by Iran on its crown-jewel, the Aramco Oil Facilities. Qatar, for its part, hosts leaders of terrorist outfits whom the other GCC members, especially KSA, detest. It therefore becomes necessary for us to peel the various layers while analysing events in West Asia.

The reports speak of Saudi Arabia and Jordan not only allowing their air space to be used by the American and British Air Forces to shoot down the Iranian projectiles, but also themselves participating actively with their own ground-based air defence systems, supplied by the US.  The US and British air assets took off from bases in KSA and Jordan to intercept the Iranian projectiles. The Jordanian Air Force pilots took a direct part in the aerial combat. The Jordanian Cabinet later issued a statement saying that it did so to protect “the nation, its citizens, and its airspace and territory”. KSA has been relying on the US-supplied Patriot and THAAD missile defence systems. KSA also operates Boeing E-3 Airborne Early Warning (AEW) systems.  Jordan also has the Patriot (PAC-III) systems. Qatar, a major non-NATO ally of the US, has the largest USAF base in West Asia at Al Udeid. This airbase houses several elint (electronic intelligence) and comint (communication intelligence) aircraft. The GCC nations along with the US and Israel operate the Middle East Air Defence (MEAD) network.  The Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant was entirely right therefore when he said, “Together with the US and other partners, we managed to prevent all but minimal damage in Israeli territory, a most impressive achievement by the IDF”.

Reports talk of nearly half the missiles terminating even before reaching the Israeli borders thereby indicating a lack of range. The Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) used by Iran seems to be the liquid-propelled ‘Emad’.  With a Circular Error Probable (CEP) of 500 metres after a short journey of less than 2000 Kms, its accuracy is extremely poor. Public information is lacking as to how and where these projectiles were shot down. But this attack would have given Israel and its allies invaluable insights into Iranian missiles and their vulnerabilities so that future attacks can be even better handled. As GPS signals are said to have been jammed successfully by Israel, a detailed analysis of missile behaviour can reveal whether they used Glonass and BeiDou and how well the onboard navigation systems performed.

Some reports claim that the missile defence has costed Israel alone USD 1.3 B. Iran would also have incurred heavy costs. Iran had fired 30 Paveh cruise missiles, 180 Shahed drones, and 120 Emad MRBMs. Each ‘Emad’ MRBM, which is like Agni-II except in performance, would cost about USD 4 M each, while a Shahed drone costs at least USD 40K and a Paveh costs approximately USD 250,000. So, Iran would also have spent at least half-a-billion dollars. For a country in great economic woes, this should be a burden especially if retaliatory strikes cause more damage.

For its part, Israel is unlikely to expand the envelope by attacking Iran immediately for three reasons. One, its immediate aim is only Gaza. Two, this ineffective, though massive, attack does not call for an immediate action which could potentially spiral out of control and bleed Israel unnecessarily. Three, the US is categorical that it does not want Israel to retaliate now. Simultaneously, while there is a great deal of sympathy among West Asian states for the Palestinian suffering, it would not stop the emerging re-alignments including closer relationship with Israel. After the euphoria of arranging the Iran-KSA handshake, China is steadily and inevitably realizing the limits of its diplomatic heft.

(Mr.Subramanyam Sridharan is a Distinguished Member of C3S. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of C3S.)

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