Gilbert Achcar: The coming Israeli attack on Iran (Plus: ‘Tehran found itself backed into a corner by the attack on its consulate’)

First published in Arabic at Al-Quds al-Arabi. Translation from Gilbert Achcar's blog.

There is little doubt that Israel will respond to Iran’s launch of three hundred and twenty drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles on its territory with a major attack on Iran, and this for several reasons. The first is that the Zionist state escalated its attack on the “Islamic Republic” deliberately, by bombing the Iranian consulate adjacent to the Iranian embassy in Damascus. The whole world rightly saw in that attack a dangerous escalation of the low-intensity war that Israel has been waging against Iran for a few years, especially since the latter began expanding its own military network on Syrian territory in the context of the war that broke out there more than ten years ago. Israel undoubtedly realizes that it cannot continue its attacks on Iranian targets, and even less so escalate them, without Tehran being forced to respond.

The fact is that the leader of the “axis of resistance”, as Iran likes to describe itself, has been greatly embarrassed in recent years by its inability to translate its repeated threats into actions commensurate with its words. The most dangerous blow that it suffered before the attack on its consulate was the assassination by U.S. forces of the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Qasem Soleimani, at the very beginning of 2020 near Baghdad airport. The Iranian response was lacklustre: it consisted in launching twelve missiles at American forces at the Ain al-Asad Air Base in the Iraqi Anbar Governorate, after giving a warning of the attack so that no U.S. soldier was injured (the only injuries were traumatic brain concussions). Donald Trump was thus able to dispense with a response, as it was clear that the assassination of Soleimani was more serious than the Iranian reaction, which was clearly the outcome that Tehran expected.

Everything indicates that Iran’s intention in its recent attack on the Zionist state was similar: that is, to save face by responding, but keeping the response’s effectiveness limited so that it does not lead to a counter-response. Thus, Iran launched 170 drones and 30 cruise missiles from its territory, that is, from a distance of 1,500 kilometres, knowing that it will take a few hours for these missiles to cross that distance, so that Israel can prepare for their arrival in order to shoot down a large number of them even before they enter its airspace, especially since it enjoys the help of allies, led by the United States. Tehran even says that it informed Washington of the timing of the attack, while Washington denies this, its sources claiming that it learned of the attack’s timing in advance thanks to intelligence (it is not clear whether U.S. or Israeli intelligence).

Whatever the case, the result is that none of those missiles exploded on the territory of the Zionist state. What is worse still is that, of the 120 ballistic missiles launched by Tehran, only four did hit the Zionist state! Thus, Israel was able to take pride in shooting down “99%” of what Iran launched against it. If it is true that dampening the effect of its attack to some extent was Iran’s intention, the degree of the failure certainly exceeded what Tehran expected, such that the deterrent effect of its attack was eventually very limited, and in fact counterproductive by encouraging Israel to go ahead in escalating the confrontation. By striking the Zionist state’s territory, Iran thus fell into a trap set by Israel by allowing the latter to launch an open counterattack on Iranian soil. Had Tehran contented itself with a proportional response to the attack on its consulate, by attacking an Israeli embassy in Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates, for example, its response would have looked legitimate and would not have entitled Israel to escalate in the eyes of the world.

It is no secret to anyone that Israel has been planning for years a strike inside Iranian territory aimed at destroying the nuclear facilities of its arch enemy. This strike has become very urgent in Israeli’s reckoning, as Tehran has greatly intensified its uranium enrichment since Trump repudiated in 2018 the nuclear agreement concluded with Iran by his predecessor Barack Obama in 2015. It is estimated today that Tehran now possesses sufficient enriched uranium with the technological capabilities to make at least three nuclear bombs within a few days. This puts Israel in a state of high alert, as the loss of its regional monopoly on nuclear weapons would constitute a great strategic loss. Worse still, it would stir its fears of annihilation as a small-sized country facing enemies calling for its destruction, and whose ideology is based on intensive exploitation of the memory of the Nazi genocide of the European Jews. This strengthens the hypothesis that the attack on the consulate was a deliberate provocation that was part of an escalation aimed at creating an opportunity for the Zionist state to strike inside Iranian territory—at Iran’s nuclear potential in particular.

The U.S. position remains in the balance, as Israel is unable to risk a full confrontation with its Iranian enemy without the guarantee of protection provided by its U.S. godfather. Israel has the capability to strike in the depth of Iran using its F-35 “stealth” aircraft, evading radar detection. It has close to 40 of these planes, which can travel fully loaded more than 2,200 kilometres, and a longer distance after dropping their load midway in their flight. However, they would likely need aerial refuelling on their way back from a strike inside Iran. This requires the assistance of the United States, or the permission to use the airspace of one of the Zionist state’s Arab allies geographically located between it and Iran, since the refuelling process cannot escape monitoring.

U.S. cover remains necessary for Israel in any case, however, and it may seem unavailable after Washington repeatedly warned against an Israeli escalation that could spark a war in the whole Middle East. The U.S. fear is certainly not out of concern for peace, but rather primarily a fear of seeing a closure of the Strait of Hormuz and a hike in oil prices leading to a new crisis in the global economy. For this same reason, Washington is unwilling to escalate sanctions on Iran to the point of imposing a full ban on its oil exports. But, on the other hand, Washington shares Israel’s concern about the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and successive administrations in the White House have repeated that this matter is, in their view, a red line that would require their intervention.

It is therefore possible to doubt the sincerity of Joe Biden’s calls for restraint, knowing that he went beyond his predecessor Trump in supporting the Zionist state to the point of full participation in the genocidal war that it has waged and is still waging against Gaza. Biden called for patience and de-escalation while confirming on the other hand that the United States, even if it won’t participate in an Israeli strike inside Iranian territory, will remain committed to protecting its regional ally, which is exactly what the latter needs in order to carry out its attack. Israel realizes that the U.S. administration cannot take the risk of participating in an attack whose outcome is uncertain, and whose failure could reflect on it and cause the defeat of Joe Biden in the presidential elections next fall. The conclusion from all the above is that strategic logic incites Tehran to speed up its acquisition of nuclear weapons and make it known once done, as it is the most effective means of deterrence that it can acquire.

 ‘Tehran found itself backed into a corner by the attack on its consulate’

First published in French at L'Humanité. Translation from Gilbert Achcar's blog.

Franco-Lebanese researcher Gilbert Achcar, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, reviews the Israeli attack on April 1st against the consulate in Damascus and analyses the response of the Islamic Republic. He also examines the effects of this renewed tension on the ongoing negotiations to end the war in Gaza.

What was Israel seeking by striking the Iranian consulate in Damascus?

The Israeli attack continued the long series of strikes against Iranian objectives in Syria that started some ten years ago, when Iran began to establish itself in that country seizing the opportunity created by the civil war that followed the 2011 popular uprising. However, the Israeli authorities could not ignore that the destruction of the consulate, adjacent to the Iranian embassy, constituted a major escalation, even beyond the identity of the victims that included a high-ranking member of the Islamic revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the ideological armed wing of the Iranian regime, and seven other officers.

It therefore seems to me that this was a deliberate provocation aimed at prompting an Iranian response and setting in motion a spiral that could lead to large-scale action against Iran. There are two main reasons for this, one of which is “trivial” and the other strategic. The trivial reason is that the military headlong rush is in the interest of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose retention of power is conditioned by the state of war, as everyone knows. It is also in the interest of the entire Israeli government, which is facing growing antipathy in Western public opinion. However, a confrontation with Iran, which has a very negative image, is likely to restore Western solidarity with Israel. This also applies to the Biden administration, which has recently suffered from the deterioration of its Israeli ally’s image.

As for the strategic reason, it is obvious: since Donald Trump repudiated in 2018 the nuclear agreement concluded in 2015 with Iran, the latter has considerably accelerated its uranium enrichment activity to the point that it is now estimated that it would take Tehran only a few days to produce at least three nuclear bombs. If we add Iran’s remote strike capability, which we saw demonstrated last Saturday, it is easy to understand Israel’s fear of losing its regional monopoly on nuclear weapons, and therefore its dissuasive capacity. To be sure, Israel has a considerable number of nuclear warheads, but its territory is much smaller than that of Iran. It is therefore to be feared that the attack on the consulate was designed as the first salvo of a military escalation leading to an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear potential.

What can we read in the Iranian response?

We can read a great embarrassment. Tehran found itself backed into a corner by the attack on its consulate. Its deterrent “credibility” has been considerably eroded over the years by repeated promises of revenge that were never kept, at least to a significant level, as after the assassination in Iraq, ordered by Trump in January 2020, of the head of the IRGC Al-Quds force, Qasem Soleimani. There has also been the lack of direct intervention against Israel’s war in Gaza, contrary to Hamas’s urgings. Iran was content to involve its Lebanese and Yemeni allies, within a clear self-limitation in the case of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Tehran therefore had to act this time so as not to completely lose face. At the same time, Iranian leaders are aware of the aim of the Israeli provocation and fear that an attack on their soil might happen before they have achieved a balance of terror by acquiring nuclear weapons. This is why they opted for a seemingly massive attack, which they knew would not have much impact. To launch an attack on a state equipped with the best air defence in the world, and aided by powerful allies, primarily the United States, by means of drones and cruise missiles from 1,500 kilometres away, for a journey lasting several hours, is to expect that very little will reach destination. Only a few ballistic missiles were able to slip through the Israeli protection net.

Iranian sources were quick to declare the matter closed as far as Iran is concerned. This is very naïve indeed. Had they attacked an Israeli diplomatic representation in the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain, for example, no one could have seriously blamed them. But by launching hundreds of devices directly on Israeli territory, they walked into the trap, thus legitimizing a direct Israeli attack on their own territory. It is not very difficult to understand that they have demonstrated at the same time the threat they represent for Israel, thus strengthening the Israeli argument for a pre-emptive destruction of their own potential, and their strategic weakness in the face of an opponent much better equipped than them. In my opinion, this is an error which could prove to be as monumental as that which Hamas committed by launching the operation of October 7, 2023.

What are the consequences for the war in Gaza and the negotiations?

The negotiations were already deadlocked before all this. Now, the prospects of an agreement have become very slim, especially since Western pressure on Israel will very likely decrease in intensity, and since uncertainty hovers over the fate of the hostages. Israel has already destroyed most of Gaza, transforming it into a firing range and field for occasional intervention of its armed forces. There remains Rafah, which Israel is preparing to invade after having displaced the civilian population. This requires much less effort than the offensive carried out until last January. Furthermore, the confrontation with Iran does not require additional ground mobilization, except in the north to ward off a possible Hezbollah offensive. As for the Israeli potential for remote strike, it remains intact since the Biden administration sees to it that it is kept at high level through continuous deliveries of weapons, in addition to its direct contribution to the Israeli war drive.