World View: A pantomime crisis, not a real war

An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles toward Israel.

The grand old Ayatollah

He had three hundred missiles.

He launched them all at Israel

but none of them was fissile.

And when they were all shot down,

much to his surprise,

Biden said to Khamenei

 I deeply sympathise.

(To the tune of ‘The grand old Duke of York’)

I am not sure about that last line. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s ‘Supreme Leader’, is embarrassed and humiliated by the complete failure of his drone and missile attack on Israel, but does United States President Joe Biden have the empathy to feel sorry for his old adversary in his time of trouble?

Maybe he does, because it was almost certainly Biden’s people, working through back channels, who persuaded the Iranians that this was a safe way of retaliating for Israel’s unprovoked attack on the Iranian embassy in Damascus two weeks ago.

Just fire a few drones at Israel, one or two will get through, Iran’s honour will be satisfied, and we can all avoid the big war we don’t want. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanhayu does want a bigger war, of course. He let Hamas carry out a horrific attack on Israel, he’s now trapped in a ‘forever war’ with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the horrendous civilian casualties Israel is inflicting on the Palestinians are alienating US public opinion, and the pressure from Biden for a ceasefire is getting hard to resist.

Netanyahu would lose power almost instantly if he accepted a ceasefire, because his hard-right coalition government would collapse. The obvious way for him to escape from this dilemma was to make the war bigger by dragging Iran in.

Then the United States would feel obliged to save Israel from the evil Iranians, and all that ugly stuff in Gaza would just fade into the background.

That was the purpose of Israel’s unprovoked missile attack on the Iranian embassy in Syria on April 1, which killed seven officers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard including two generals (plus six Syrian civilians).

Israel had never attacked an Iranian embassy before, because embassies are regarded as sovereign territory of the country that owns them. 

The Iranians would treat an attack on their embassy as an attack on Iran itself, and who needs a war with Iran? Well, Binyamin Netanyahu does, actually.

The Israelis knew that Iran’s leaders would feel obliged to respond with a precisely similar attack from Iranian territory on Israeli territory — no substitutes, no proxies — because of the rigorously precise moral accountancy of Twelver (Shia) Islamic jurisprudence. Interpreting that law is what the ayatollahs do for a living, so you can be sure they will respond the right way.

Neither the United States nor Iran wants that bigger war Netanyahu was aiming at, so between them they cobbled together an (unwritten) plan to avoid it.

Iran would launch its counter-attack and satisfy its honour, but superior American and Israeli technology would keep the number of Israeli casualties low enough that Washington could stop Netanyahu from further retaliation.

You doubt this analysis? Too clever by half? Consider this: just as the Iranian counter-strike was launched, Iran’s mission to the United Nations released the following statement: “Iran’s military action was in response to the Zionist regime’s aggression against our diplomatic premises in Damascus. The matter can be deemed concluded.

“However, should the Israeli regime make another mistake, Iran’s response will be considerably more severe. It is a conflict between Iran and the rogue Israeli regime, from which the U.S. MUST STAY AWAY!”

With Washington’s tacit cooperation, that outcome has been achieved. There will be no bigger war – at least, not for now – although Netanyahu still has some cards to play. Well done, everybody.  But there is one unforseen consequence of this elaborate charade. Iran now looks like a paper tiger, at least to the general public at home and elsewhere.

Military professionals would not necessarily agree. Drones are particularly vulnerable to interception (as Ukraine was demonstrating every day before the US Congress cut off its arms supplies), and Israel’s David’s Sling and Arrow systems are very efficient at stopping ballistic missiles. Besides, Iran was probably not trying very hard.

Nevertheless, just one seven-year-old girl injured (and she’s not even Jewish) for a 300-weapon attack is a surprisingly low hit rate, and the Iranians may feel the need to restore the credibility of their weapons by a successful operation somewhere else (but not Israel) in the near future.

The main cost of this operation is that it lets Netanyahu claim a great success and divert public attention from the appalling situation in the Gaza Strip.

Even the artificial famine now devastating the territory will be ignored for a while. However, a real war between the United States and Iran would have been far worse. Sufficient unto the day...

  • Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled The Shortest History of War.

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