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The Strategic Implications of the Israel-Iran Standoff

Now Israel cannot conclude the conflict on its own terms either with Hamas, or with Hezbollah on her northern border and will have to seek accommodation with other players, such as Iran and China, for its own sake.
2024 Iranian strikes in Israel. Photo: Wikipedia

With the benefit of hindsight, one can now conclude that the October 7 attack by Hamas was planned in such a manner that it could lead to a strategic defeat of Israel. The much-telegraphed and advertised Iranian Shahed drone cum three-pronged missile attack on Israel confirms such a conclusion.

Conventional wisdom has, of course, given its verdict that the attack was a failure as almost 98% of the incoming drones were intercepted and shot down. However, the conventional wisdom is that it could be a part of the spin. The other side of the story, if some reports are to be contextualised, is that these attacks were most advertised and it seems, if some reports are to be believed, an advance warning too was given. Thus, Iran wanted the United States-led alliance and Israel to discover the drones once launched, (they must have been in the air for hours), and allowed them to be shot down.

Why? Let us consider the alternative scenario: Perhaps the drones and the missile attack were to achieve measured political objectives in the arena of dictating deterrence. The first would have been to suggest a response, also warranted and backed by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which states that the member country has the right to defend itself against an unprovoked direct attack against its territory; something Israel did by destroying the Iranian Consulate in Lebanon.

The second would perhaps be to show the sophistication of its tactical acumen. With the Shahed drones in the air, Iran forced the United States and Israel to reveal their missile shield and radar positions and also exacted an enormous economic cost, in terms of millions of dollars, by inviting the missile shield to activate itself and expend on the drones.

Iran, at the same time, also showed that it had the capability to hit the most heavily defended airspace at will by actually hitting the Israeli airbase with her missiles. This sent a message that Iran could exact enormous economic costs if this escalated as well as had the necessary missile forces to hit targets at will if it came to that.

The Iranian action ushered in a new regional dimension in the conflict with a possible greater strategic depth for Iran and a strategic setback for the United States of a scale which was not on the horizon after Operation Desert Storm. This is also a confirmation that the strategic balance in the Middle East is shifting towards the invisible allies of Iran, namely the Middle Kingdom and Russia. The shift was signaled earlier with a détente between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran, a process that was brokered by China.

The interesting issue here is neither of them – Iran, United States, China or Russia – wants a conflagration to escalate beyond where it is, itself an admission by the United States of acknowledgment of the strategic shift. Let us see what has happened in the region since October 7 in terms of fundamentally questioning the basic paradigm of Israel and its security doctrine. Every traditional security doctrine tenet of Israel has been brutally questioned after the October 7 attack by Hamas.

As several studies indicate, the Israeli doctrine for security rests on some foundational principles, namely deterrence, intelligence gathering and an ability to a swift counter strike. It also rests on the premise that the existence of the state of Israel is counter-guaranteed by the United States. The deterrence that Israel established in the region has been based on that ironclad guarantee.

The Iranian strike has certainly dented the deterrence established by Israel. That deterrence rested on the premise that any possible threat would result in such a riposte that the threat itself would never materialise from any perceived aggressor. The second foundational pillar of Israel security framework rested on the premise that Shin Bet along with the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations would never lower their guard and thus allow a swift preemptive measure or a counter strike in case a threat was perceived.

Now it can be said that the formidable intelligence agencies of Israel have been found wanting as they could not predict the impending action by Hamas and later misread the situation both with Hamas and then with the Iranian-backed entities in Lebanon and other regions. The third foundational pillar of the Israel security framework rested on the premise that the IDF would secure a quick and decisive battlefield victory in case a conflict arises.

This ability of the IDF stands effectively questioned as the conflict in Gaza with its widening orbit has now stretched all the way to Iran and the decisive victory in a swift strike eludes the State of Israel.

Why the setbacks? The IDF misread the perils of urban warfare and did not imbibe learnings from its earlier setback in Lebanon against the formidable Hezbollah. As a result, the IDF has had to deploy far greater forces and call up the reservists in its brutal onslaught in Gaza. Israel also now faces a potential situation of a multi-front war with Hezbollah in the north with its formidable forces. Its forces are also ensnared in the urban warfare in Gaza, thus stretching the IDF resources to their limits. As a result, the settlements that ringed Gaza as well as on Lebanese border cannot now be given the security shield and thus cannot be populated.

This urban warfare has resulted in wanton destruction of innocent human life in Gaza and in the West Bank and has exposed the state of Israel as a brutal and cruel entity. The killings of innocent civilians, children, women and men on an unprecedented scale, has turned the global public opinion against the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, including even in the United States. It has foregrounded the issue of the State of Palestine far more fundamentally than ever before as the only solution to a lasting peace in the region. This conflict has also exposed the limitations of the United States’ ability to ‘manage’ the conflict and has stretched the resources of the United States to her limits from Ukraine all the way to the Strait of Hormuz.

The issue of strategic defeat needs some elaboration. Ever since the founding of the Zionist state in Palestine, Israel has refused to live in peace with the Palestinian people and has opposed the creation of the State of Palestine, the so-called two-state solution. After the Camp David Accord, a very uneasy peace was established in the region which allowed Israel to consolidate its illegal hold over both the West Bank and the Gaza strip. That prolonged peace also put the issue of the creation of the State of Palestine on a back burner. Further, it allowed Israel’s intelligence agencies to attempt a division in the Palestinian Liberation Organization and thus was born Hamas. The fact that Hamas would one day virtually sideline the Palestinian Liberation Organization and run the Gaza strip, take to militancy, and create a situation where Israel would become reactive to the narrative being enacted on ground was a situation that was perhaps not fully anticipated by Israel.

The state of Israel also failed to adequately comprehend the changed nature of the global alliances and the waning of the authority of her principal allies, the United States and the United Kingdom. This reality is reflected in the fact that post the drone-missile strike, the China-Russia-Iran axis has forced the United States to declare that it would not be a party to any action on account of Israel against Iran as well as Israel’s own declaration that at the moment the state of Israel will not undertake any retaliatory action against Iran.

In addition to this, if reports emanating from the gulf countries are to be believed, then there is a great deal of reluctance on part of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait to allow the United States to use its military bases in their countries for any action against Iran. Thus, the configuration of forces as well as mistakes by Israel and the United States has allowed Iran to dictate its own deterrence in the region with Iran as the fulcrum of that deterrence.

This, in effect, is a strategic defeat for Israel as it cannot conclude the conflict on its own terms either with Hamas, or with Hezbollah on her northern border and will have to seek accommodation with other players, such as Iran and China, for its own sake.

Ajay Vishwas Dandekar teaches at the department of history at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence.

(The views expressed in the article are personal.)

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