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Iran’s attack has ended Israel’s isolation

As the world waits to see whether hostilities escalate, the unfolding disaster in Palestine moves off the front pages

The events of the past week - a direct attack on Israeli soil by Iran last weekend, followed by a reported Israeli drone strike on Isfahan in Iran - mark a sea change in the pattern of hostilities that have defined relations between the two countries in recent decades. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, following the 1979 revolution that overthrew the old order in that country, Iran has been implacably opposed to Israel and to its western supporters, notably the United States. However, until the most recent attacks, both sides played out their conflict vicariously.

In the case of Iran, this was done through its support for the Islamic Resistance Movement in Palestine, better known as Hamas, and for Hizbullah, on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon; in the case of Israel, through a series of attacks designed to undermine Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability. Despite its denials, it is widely believed that for several years Israel has targeted Iran’s nuclear programme which it regards as an existential threat, employing a range of stratagems from drone strikes and cyberattacks to theft of secrets and the assassination of key scientists.

In addition, Israel sought to disrupt the flow of Iranian weapons to Hizbullah by intercepting weapons shipments in transit or targeting facilities where weapons were stored. Israel also conducted attacks on Syria to restrict the expansion of Iranian influence there. However, following the Hamas-led attacks in southern Israel on October 7th, there has been a change in Israeli strategy which has seen the direct targeting of key figures in Iran’s military establishment. Between December of last year and March of this year, nearly a dozen senior figures in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps have been assassinated. This wave of attacks culminated in the airstrike in Damascus on April 1st which killed Mohammad Reza Zahedi and six other senior military commanders - and which triggered last weekend’s assault on Israel by Iran.

The bombing of the Iranian consulate was treated by Iran as a direct attack on Iranian soil, thus justifying its response last weekend. However, the Iranian attack may also be seen as a response to accusations of passivity following previous Israeli attacks, while also showing the weakness of Arab regimes in the region that were unwilling to confront Israel directly.


The Iranian attacks also suggest a shift in Iranian strategy from one based largely on support for proxy groups in the region, which gave Iran the ability to project its power without becoming directly involved in regional conflicts. From this perspective, the attacks reflect the increasingly entrenched position of hardliners in the regime in Tehran. As recently as March of this year, parliamentary elections in Iran resulted in tightened conservative control and an increasingly hardline influence in political life, even as the elections were marked by record low turnout.

Israel is not the only country in the region that is alarmed by Iran’s expanded role in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and its allies point to the role played by Iran in conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and, of course, Israel/Palestine through local proxy actors. The extent of Iranian control over these proxies is often exaggerated. While Iran exercises significant influence over Hizbullah in Lebanon and an array of militias in Iraq, its sway over the Houthi movement in Yemen and both Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine is more limited.

Claims such as that expressed by the British foreign minister, David Cameron, that “Iran is responsible for Hamas in Gaza, they are responsible for what is happening in Yemen, they are responsible for Hizbullah in Lebanon”, both inflate the level of power that Iran enjoys over its “proxies” and serve to enhance its prestige in some quarters of popular opinion in the region.

Nonetheless, it remains the reality that Iran has enjoyed a position of significant power in the Middle East, not least since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein, which had engaged in an eight-year war with Iran, and inaugurated a new political order which has seen actors friendly to Iran coming to power. Indeed, the veteran US diplomat, Richard Haass, commented earlier this week that the Iraq War so imbalanced the region in Iran’s favour that “we… continue to pay a real price for the strategic blunder that was the Iraq War”.

It is clear that the Iranian attack on Israel is popular among swathes of the population of the Middle East who decry Arab regimes that talk tough when it comes to Palestine and, more specifically, the current situation in Gaza, but do very little in response. Indeed, the revelation that Jordan intercepted Iranian drones targeting Israeli territory has aroused anger at home and in the region more broadly.

However, Iran’s actions have also been viewed more negatively by some. Firstly, despite being represented as something of a warning shot, rather than a full-scale attack, the near total failure of Iranian missiles and drones to inflict any real damage, save seriously injuring a seven-year old Arab Bedouin girl, suggests that Iran’s military capabilities may be overstated. Certainly, Iran is not in a position to compete militarily with Israel or its most important ally, the US, and the relatively low-key initial Iranian response to the most recent Israeli attack suggests - at the time of writing - a concern to de-escalate the situation.

Perhaps more significantly, some see the Iranian attack as poorly timed. Just as international pressure on the Israeli government and Binyamin Netanyahu, in particular, was assuming almost unanimous proportions - with staunch allies such as the United Kingdom, Germany and even the United States assuming positions increasingly critical of Israel’s conduct in Gaza - the assault on Israel has brought its long-standing allies out in support once more. Indeed, US and UK forces worked directly with Israel to deal with the Iranian attack.

Nor is there any indication that Arab regimes are willing to sacrifice their relationship with the US in order to support the Iranian stance. It has been reported that both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provided vital intelligence regarding Iran’s plans to attack Israel. Unlike Jordan, Iraq’s security forces did not shoot down Iranian drones, but neither did they prevent the US from doing so on Iraqi soil. Meanwhile, as the world’s attention shifts to concern at what form Iranian-Israeli hostilities will next take, the disaster that continues to unfold in Palestine moves off the front pages.

Dr Vincent Durac lectures in Middle East politics in the UCD school of politics and international relations