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What are Israeli PM Netanyahu's options after Iran's unprecedented direct attack? Explained

The suspected Israeli attack on the Iranian embassy in Syria and Tehran's subsequent retaliation have sparked global alarm over a possible all-out war in the Middle East. Israel has warned that Iran's missile and drone attacks will be met with a response and Tehran has threatened a harsher response.

Written By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Tehran Updated on: April 17, 2024 23:08 IST
Iran Israel conflict, Benjamin netanyahu
Image Source : REUTERS Iran launched a salvo of missiles and drones at Israel on Saturday.

Iran-Israel conflict: What was feared has happened - Iran finally followed up on its promise to retaliate against Israel, albeit in a limited manner, against an airstrike on its embassy in Syria that killed 12 people, including a high-profile Iranian military commander. The magnitude of Iran's direct attack on Israel for the first time in the decades of shadow war is unprecedented, involving 300 ballistic missiles and drones, that have led to a further confrontation between the two old rivals.

The suspected Israeli strike in Syria and Iran's retaliation have sharply raised the stakes of a wider conflict in the Middle East, which is now on edge for a possible retaliation from Israel. Several Western countries, who had been preparing for the Iranian attack, were quick to criticise Tehran but have been calling for restraint from both sides to prevent an escalation of tensions from the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

However, the logic of de-escalation may not pander out as hoped as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not known for effecting diplomatic measures, is expected to carry out his planned 'forceful' retaliation against Iran under pressure from hardliners in his government that will set off a major conflict between the two most powerful countries in the region. Despite a limited response, Iran's attack can still be viewed as a dramatic escalation amid attacks from Iran-backed proxies in Lebanon and Yemen.

Iran's attack on Israel and its fallout

Iran and Israel have waged a shadow war against each other for decades - this has involved cyber operations, support to proxy forces, airstrikes and targeted killings, resulting in casualties on both sides. Israel is suspected of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists and sabotaging atomic sites in the Islamic Republic, while Iran is suspected of engineering a series of bombings and gun attacks targeting Jews and Israeli interests. Since the Israel-Hamas war broke out last year, Iran-backed proxies Hezbollah and Houthis have launched separate operations aimed at ending Israel's onslaught in Gaza.

However, things took a dramatic turn when suspected Israeli warplanes bombed the Iranian embassy in Syria, killing at least 12 people. Among these were two Iranian generals and five officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force. Most importantly, the attack claimed the life of Mohammed Reza Zahedi, the Iranian commander who was directly responsible for managing relationships with foreign allies. His death is the most high-profile killing since a US drone strike killed Qassem Soleimani in 2020.

An action that can be seen as possibly rewriting the rules of engagement in Iran and Israel's long-running shadow war, Iran launched 170 bomb-carrying drones, more than 30 cruise missiles and more than 120 ballistic missiles toward Israel after years of cautious clashes. While Israel and the US claimed to shoot down 99 per cent of the projectiles, Iran called the attack a success and said it was to "deter, punish and warn the Zionist regime".

While the attack caused no damage and limited damage due to Israel's robust defences, it has increased concerns that the six-month war in Gaza is spreading. Iran said the limited attack was aimed at punishing "Israeli crimes", but that it now "deemed the matter concluded". However, Iran warned Israel and the United States of a much larger response if there is any retaliation for its mass drone and missile attack on Israeli territory. 

To make matters worse, Israel's military chief of staff Herzi Halevi had promised Iran's launch of more than 300 missiles, cruise missiles and drones at Israeli territory "will be met with a response", without giving details. As late as Wednesday, UK Foreign Minister David Cameron said Israel has decided to go for a retaliatory course of action after a war cabinet meeting, the starkest warning of an escalation in tensions.

What are Benjamin Netanyahu's options?

It is debatable whether Iran wanted to genuinely hurt Israel or to save face at home after repeatedly calling for revenge for the strike in Syria. The attack has deeply alarmed countries across the world, as a possible all-out war between Israel and Iran is likely to become a geopolitical quagmire, drawing Washington and others in. Such a war has already rung alarm bells on rising oil prices - the Middle East is the largest crude oil producer of the world.

Despite decades of war, Israel remained free from enemy attack till the 1980s when Hamas and Hezbollah entered the fray, and the attack by Iran threatened the failure of Israel's deterrence. That Iran could now directly attack the Israeli mainland is a further boost to Tehran's military capabilities that can establish it as a powerful rival which can even withstand an Israeli retaliation.

In the events leading up to the recent confrontation, Israel's robust defence capabilities suffered a major setback when Hamas-led militants entered the country and killed 1,200 people, taking over 250 hostages. Israel has since launched a devastating campaign to wipe out the Iran-backed Hamas group in Gaza and secure its hostages, resulting in thousands of casualties. Yet after six months of war, Israel has failed to defeat Hamas and release the hostages, ramping up international and domestic pressure on Netanyahu.

It is safe to say that Netanyahu's position has become more difficult than ever - he cannot avoid retaliation as it threatens to expose the failure of Israeli deterrence and also because he is likely to lose the support of his far-right partners in the coalition government. Yet if he chooses to go ahead with the war, he could unleash a torrent of chaos and horror in the Middle East, potentially turning the entire region into a battlefield and spelling disaster on the economic, political and military interests of all major powers there. If Israel fails, it could also have dire consequences for Netanyahu's political career.

Yet if history has been an indication, Netanyahu is more likely to respond to Iran's attack against Western calls for a de-escalation, as he has largely ignored international calls for a ceasefire in Gaza. However, things can be difficult for Israel as US President Joe Biden has already indicated that Washington will not support an aggressive retaliation to the Iranian attacks. There is no question that a red line has been crossed, and Israel is not known for letting those go quietly.

How can Israel attack Iran?

Israeli officials would have to consider that Iran has made it clear that they will respond to any retaliation with a much harsher response. If this happens and the Middle East sees an all-out war, Iran's partners in its 'Axis of Resistance' are likely to join the fray, resulting in the use of huge amounts of weaponry, ammunition and artillery - resulting in untold numbers of casualties.

Israel is already battling Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah at its border with Lebanon, but it has been preparing for a multi-front scenario for years now. The newly emerging conflict can provide Israel with the opportunity to go after Iran's nuclear research facilities, arguably the riskiest mode of conflict. It can also target military installations or critical infrastructure through direct airstrikes or cyber operations.

Israel is also expected to go after Iranian proxies in the Middle East, having kept its conflict against the Houthis in the Red Sea and the Hezbollah in Lebanon beneath an all-out war. It can go after other proxies in Iraq and Syria, or double down on its efforts to go after Hamas by invading Rafah, the last refuge for Palestinians in the coastal enclave.

If anyone wishes to avoid a wider war, one can only hope that Israel considers the performance of its defence systems as a military victory and heed the calls of Western leaders to avoid a regional war. It is important to mention here that both adversaries, though they have been embroiled in a shadow war for decades, have actively avoided direct war. Many in Israel are also not clamouring for a response, largely because they see Iran's attack as unsuccessful. However, Israel is sure to use its diplomatic leverage to bring in more sanctions on Iran.

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