The shifting red lines in West Asia

Iran and Israel keep crossing regional lines to target each other. The latest escalation is another dangerous episode in a continuum stretching almost half a century
The shifting red lines in West Asia
Express Illustration- Sourav Roy

As soon as Hamas executed its attack last October 7, it was inevitable that Israel would strike back in strength without any remorse. It was equally evident that the action by Hamas, acting as a proxy of Iran, would at some stage lead to another round of possible hostilities between Iran and Israel.

Alongside the war in Gaza, Iran activated Israel’s northern borders by employing its assets through proxies in Syria and Lebanon. A series of air strikes in retaliation were conducted by Israel against various Iranian assets, culminating in the April 1 strike that flattened an Iranian consulate in Damascus. Of the twelve people killed were seven personnel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); among them were at least two senior IRGC commanders. Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei promised retribution, which apparently is in progress against Israel but has met with questionable success.

Before assessing what this latest round of hostilities really means in terms of potential escalation beyond the already on-fire Middle East, it’s good to make a brief recall. Israel and Iran enjoyed the best of relations before 1979, when the Iranian Revolution took place—considered one of the earth-shaking geopolitical events of the second half of the 20th century. Iran, as the centre of Islam’s Shia ideology, entered into confrontation with Saudi Arabia, the core of Sunni ideology. The Saudis were close to Iran’s new nemesis, the US, for a variety of reasons. Hence, despite the purported leadership of the Islamic world that Saudi Arabia aspired to, it could never get itself to fully oppose the closest US ally, Israel. A tacit live and let live attitude prevailed.

Iran, itself a flag bearer of the Islamic world, found its lot was enhanced by strongly supporting the Palestinian cause and projecting itself as a strong adversary of Israel. It has never dithered from this policy over the last 45 years.

Besides ideological differences with much of the Sunni Arab world, Iran has trudged a lonely path of opposition to Israel—an opposition that is vehement in many ways. One of the ways Iran chose to play its strategic course for domination of the Islamic world was by remaining a strong player in militarily opposing Israel, something that the combined strength of the Arabs had not succeeded in ever achieving.

Not enjoying a common land border with Israel, Iran adopted two approaches to remain a potent threat to the Israeli military’s potential and perceived domination. The first was the employment of surrogate forces, often referred to as proxies, in the Levant. This essentially meant that Lebanon and Syria were to be fully pliant in providing space for deployment of forces, assets and positions.

Attacks by proxy forces on Israel’s northern border have been a longstanding phenomenon. In 2006, a full conventional war was fought to a stalemate by Hezbollah, the Shia surrogate in Lebanon and Syria. Hamas played the same role in Gaza. Further, the Houthi rebels, who have fought against an Arab military alliance, were supported by Iran to extend the proxy reach far south. In the current situation in 2024, the Houthis have virtually prevented the movement of oil tankers to Israel and other places through the Red Sea.

The second and far more deadly part of the Iranian strategy goes back to the early 1990s, when it decided to acquire missile technology from Russia, North Korea and China. Over time, it developed a dangerous arsenal of missiles to include the Kheibar, with a range of 2,000 km, and the Haj Qasem, which has a range of 1,400 km. It has also achieved hypersonic capability and its armed drones have been extensively employed in Ukraine. Missiles and now armed drones have become the cutting edge of Iranian deterrence. This, combined with the proxy forces, IRGC presence and the constant supply of missiles and rockets that Iran has maintained to Hamas and Hezbollah, have been the focus of Israeli pushback all these years.

Despite all its attention on Hamas in Gaza and the hostage situation there, Israel has continuously targeted Hezbollah across the northern border as well as the IRGC presence in Syria. The intent has been to prevent these forces from consolidating themselves in the Levant , from where it will be well nigh impossible to evict or neutralise them. Israel remains apprehensive of being hemmed in from the north and from Gaza in the south, and is essentially attempting a quasi-holding action in the north through violent actions that it resorted to in recent weeks. Perhaps a few red lines were crossed.

What triggers fears regionally and internationally is the fact that Iran also has a nuclear programme, a fairly active one that is only partially under control. An overkill response by Israel either against nuclear facilities or directly against strategic targets could result in escalation, which may spiral completely out of control.

What is clear is that Iran could not have sat out the Israeli strike of April 1 without response. In 2020, in response to Qasem Soleimani’s killing by the US, it had adopted symbolic attacks on US assets in a military operation code-named Operation Martyr Soleimani. The IRGC launched over 12 ballistic missiles at the al-Asad airbase in Western Iraq; they were more symbolic than strategic. This time, it has already responded with over 300 weapons, most of which have been shot down by Israel’s air defence systems. There has been conjecture that the US, in assisting Israel, may enter the conflict by firing some of its arsenal at Iran.

It is highly unlikely that this war will escalate. No one can rationally afford to do that—all sides are taking their chances, testing red lines everywhere. Crossing a red line could have repercussions that can be ignored only at the cost of their own peril. This is simply because none of these wars are winnable, neither the proxy nor the direct ones. They remain situations for scheming, manoeuvring, testing will and a long wait for a moment that someone may discern as one of intense advantage. That wait can go on forever, without an outcome. So the Iran-Israel standoff will likely continue at different levels of intensity for fairly long. The current situation is likely to dilute not too long hereafter.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps.

Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir

(Views are personal)

(atahasnain@gmail.com)

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