After Iran’s drone attack on Israel, the world must act: this is a crisis that threatens us all
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After Iran’s drone attack on Israel, the world must act: this is a crisis that threatens us all

Netanyahu wanted a wider conflict, and Tehran has walked into his trap. The major powers must immediately head this off

The missiles and drones that rained destruction on Israel in the early hours of Sunday morning have given Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, what he’s always craved – a mandate and justification for openly attacking Iran, a country he has long viewed as Israel’s archenemy and possible nemesis. The pressing question, which may be answered within hours, is what form Israel’s promised “significant response” will take – and whether Iran, in turn, will strike back again.

It is incumbent on the US, Britain and other friends and allies of Israel to inform Netanyahu in plain terms that continued military, diplomatic and political support is conditional on a legitimate and proportionate Israeli riposte. It would be preferable if Israel did not hit back at all. Iran failed in its apparent aim of inflicting serious harm. Israel says 99% of its missiles and drones were destroyed. Thankfully, casualties have been light. Tehran now says, a little hopefully, that the episode is “concluded” – but vows to fight back if attacked.

Netanyahu’s wisest course would be to hold up the attacks to the world as supposed incontrovertible proof of his hawkish view: that Iran is a malign, dangerous rogue state that flouts international law and imperils Israel, and Arab and western states too. Instead of blindly lashing out – for example, at Iran’s nuclear facilities – he should argue that the Islamic republic’s hardline leadership and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have shown their true colours – and deserve collective, international punitive action.

On past form, it is unrealistic to expect Netanyahu to turn the other cheek. Tehran’s action has presented him with a unique opportunity to switch global attention away from his government’s appalling depredations in Gaza and his failure to defeat Hamas. He may say that the war against Hamas has been transformed into an existential war against its puppet masters in Tehran – and that people of goodwill, at home and abroad, must rally round his leadership to ensure a necessary victory.

The fact that Netanyahu and his inner war cabinet appear to have deliberately and recklessly provoked this showdown should not be forgotten as the crisis unfolds. Israel’s prime minister has been at the forefront of a decades-long shadow war of assassination and attrition against Iran. The covert, unacknowledged killing of its nuclear scientists and leaders of its regional proxy militias has become almost routine. But the target list has expanded since the 7 October atrocities.

In December, for example, Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a senior Iranian general, was killed in Damascus. Iran’s reaction, then as in the past, was relatively limited and indirect. But the 1 April bombing of an annexe of its embassy in the Syrian capital, which killed several senior commanders, radically changed this dynamic. Iran blamed Israel (which as usual has not admitted responsibility) for a direct, blatant assault on is sovereign territory. Israel, Khamenei said, had crossed a red line.

It’s hard not to agree. The war had come out of the shadows – and this was Netanyahu’s doing. He must have known how furious would be the reaction in Tehran. Tellingly, he did not inform his US ally in advance, probably because the Biden administration would have tried to veto the operation. The Damascus embassy attack looks like a premeditated escalation designed to fortify Netanyahu’s domestic political position, silence criticism from the blind-sided Americans and deflect international pressure to halt arms supplies to Israel.

And it has worked. Overnight, the criticism in Washington of the Gaza debacle has dried up. In Britain, too, calls on the government to insist on an effective Gaza ceasefire and limit support for Israel’s coalition will now probably be drowned out. Instead, the UK is already involved militarily, in the air over Syria and Iraq, and could be drawn further in. More than that, the Damascus attack succeeded in flushing out Iran. No longer could Tehran’s leaders hide behind proxy forces such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Netanyahu had, in effect, called them out, as though in a duel. They plainly felt they had no choice but to respond in kind.

That belief was, and is, mistaken. Like Netanyahu, Khamenei and Iran’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, had choices. It would have been smarter by far if Iran, faced with the embassy outrage, had taken its grievances to the UN and the international court in The Hague, and raised the issue through friends in the G20 and the Brics grouping. Iran could have threatened retaliation and then held back. In this way it could have won sympathy in the global south and from anti-western allies such as China and Russia.

Instead, Khamenei – a foolish reactionary with almost zero personal experience of the outside world – walked straight into the trap Netanyahu had set. Iran, in the eyes of most of the international community, has made itself an outlaw. And Iran’s people must await Israel’s response. Depending how bad that is, the deeply unpopular Islamic regime could face an upsurge in internal instability, even a popular uprising.

This unprecedented, direct confrontation between Israel and Iran, building for years, has placed the US president, Joe Biden, in an all but impossible position. Biden came to office in 2021 hoping to revive the landmark US-European 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Donald Trump idiotically scrapped. Now his policy lies in tatters. Biden finds himself on the brink of an escalating armed conflict with Iran, fighting alongside an Israeli government whose actions in Gaza he has belatedly but vehemently deplored, and which may cost him dear in November’s US election.

Biden cannot abandon Israel, even though he may believe Netanyahu has played him again (as he thinks was the case at the start of the war with Hamas). Yet he cannot plausibly ask American voters, long since out of patience with costly foreign entanglements, to support another Middle East war. Trump, Netanyahu’s buddy, must scarcely credit his luck.

All of this – Netanyahu’s cynical machinations, Tehran’s violent miscalculations, Biden’s stark dilemma – points in only one direction: the need for urgent, concerted international action to halt further fighting and prevent a Middle East-wide escalation sucking in Syria, Lebanon, and the Gulf and Red Sea regions. Of the parties to this conflict, no one country or leader is in the right. In fact all, to varying degrees, are in the wrong. All require saving from themselves. The alternative is more bloodshed, more endless, pointless, spreading misery.

The UN security council is due to meet in emergency session today. Instead of the usual wrangling, its permanent members, especially China and Russia, will need to work constructively together to defuse a crisis that threatens us all. Together they have the clout and the leverage to do it. They must use it – or suffer the dreadful, unknowable consequences.

  • Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator

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