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On Iran and Israel: they need to step back from the brink of open warfare

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It is troubling that what started with Israel’s attack on Iran’s consular building in Syria on 1 April may not end with Tehran’s Operation True Promise. The bombing in Damascus, which killed at least two top Iranian generals, resulted in the first-ever direct strikes launched against Israel from Iranian territory. For the Islamic regime, unpopular at home, crossing the Rubicon would have been very hard, if not impossible, to avoid. As British foreign secretary, David Cameron, admitted, the UK would “take very strong action” if a hostile power had flattened one of its consulates.

This is a defining moment in the Middle East. The world does not know what’s been unleashed here. But it is unlikely to be anything good. That is why it is right for world leaders to urge Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to show restraint. The wise choice for Mr Netanyahu would be, in US president Joe Biden’s words, to “take the win” of having seen off the strikes and not respond militarily. Israel’s prime minister could then turn his attention to the on-and-off talks with Hamas to free Israeli hostages and seek an end to the fighting in Gaza. Trading military restraint for international support might appeal to Mr Netanyahu’s opportunism.

Despite Iran sending over 300 drones and missiles from its soil, Israel survived the deadly assault – mercifully – with barely a scratch. This was largely because of Iran’s defective missiles, its ample warning, Israel’s effective missile shield and the help provided by an international military coalition, led by the US, Britain, France and several Arab states. The operation exposed Israel’s dependency on partners Mr Netanyahu has done his best to snub in recent months.

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If Israel chooses to strike back, this coalition risks disappearing quicker than the bloom off a desert rose. Arab states, without Israeli movement on peace with the Palestinians, will be reluctant to sign up for counterstrikes. Crucially the US has made clear it will not help or take part. Tit-for-tat escalation risks making war too routine because it treats direct attacks on a nation’s soil casually, and as an instrument of policy rather than a last resort in the face of existential threats.

The Israeli-Iranian rivalry has emerged in the last two decades as a defining feature of the regional landscape. Iran armed militant groups that could hurt Israel without getting its hands dirty. Israel exacted its revenge while denying involvement with a campaign of covert assassinations, cyber-attacks and drone strikes. However, since Hamas’s horrific attack of 7 October in Israel, their clandestine and proxy wars have burst out into the open.

The trap that Israel’s leadership must avoid is thinking that war with Iran is inevitable; and fighting later rather than sooner will be far more costly, if possible at all. Tehran has already said that it is willing to escalate if Israel does retaliate. Israel could then strike back again. The danger is that each side misjudges the other and war becomes unavoidable.

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Israel is an undeclared nuclear weapons state. Iran is no longer bound by a nuclear deal after Donald Trump recklessly withdrew from it. The failure to make a new deal since has meant Iran is pretty close to having enough weapons-grade uranium for nuclear weapons. Israel’s attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility in 1981 was widely criticised at the time as illegal and condemned by the security council – without a US veto – for responding to a less than immediate danger. Targeting Iranian nuclear sites in reaction to Iran’s strike would be an irresponsible escalation. Making war to keep the peace is generally not a good strategy. Iran and Israel’s deathly rivalry has an ideological edge that usually clouds good judgment. The two nations need to be pulled apart before their conflagration consumes the wider region.

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