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Tom Clonan We have reached a dangerous moment in the Middle East conflict

The security analyst says never before has strong global leadership been so badly needed and in such short supply.


THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC of Iran came into being in February 1979 after a revolution which overthrew the secular and autocratic regime of the Shah of Iran.

Over that time, Iran under the rule of the Ayatollahs has been careful to avoid a direct conflict with Israel. Instead, the Shia regime has promoted and sponsored Shia terrorist resistance groups throughout the Middle East, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

Iran has also sponsored a number of Sunni terror groups such as Hamas in Gaza. Thus far in Iran’s history, it has waged a proxy war against Israel on many fronts.

This weekend, in response to an Israeli assault on Iran’s consulate in Damascus on April 1st – in which two senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Commanders, Mohammed Reza Zahedi and Mohammed Hadi Haji Rahimi were killed – Iran has broken with 45 years of precedent and carried out a direct act of war on Israel.


Make no mistake, this is a seismic event for the Middle East and the entire world. As UN Secretary General António Gutteres has stated, the world needs to work hard now to ‘step back from the brink’ of all-out regional warfare.

The Biden administration along with the UK and many other principal allies of Israel have also called for restraint on the part of Netanyahu’s government to Iran’s explicit act of war. As I write, Netanyahu has convened a second meeting of his War Cabinet to decide on what retaliatory action to take. This is a very dangerous moment, and Netanyahu’s decisions in the coming hours and days have the potential to impact significantly on regional and world peace.

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) chief spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari – who has led Israel’s military commentary on their brutal war in Gaza – has confirmed that Netanyahu has approved IDF plans for both ‘offensive and defensive action’. Whilst President Biden appears to have succeeded in dissuading Netanyahu from ‘immediate’ retaliation on Sunday – Israel’s war cabinet has asserted their intention to respond militarily to Iran in a ‘manner and time’ of their choosing.

Potential responses

As the world holds its breath, the question is what potentially would such military action look like? The best predictor for future behaviour is past behaviour. Over the last decade, under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel has deployed the use of military force – both overt and covert — over and over again as a key ‘tool’ in its defence, security and foreign policy imperatives. It is one of Netanyahu’s signature behaviours – to engage in ‘hard-man’ tactics – in order to appeal to the Israeli hardliners who keep him in power in Tel Aviv.

In the last six months – in the aftermath of Hamas’ repulsive terror attacks on Israel on October 7th last – Netanyahu has ordered the overwhelming and indiscriminate use of force against Gaza, slaughtering over 33,000 people in the process. Both sides to the conflict in Gaza – Hamas and the IDF – have committed war crimes. Hamas continue to hold innocent Israeli civilians as hostages and human shields contrary to the Geneva Conventions, and Hamas continues to fire rockets and missiles at civilian targets in Israel.

240414-tel-aviv-april-14-2024-xinhua-this-photo-released-on-april-14-2024-shows-israeli-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahu-making-a-phone-call-with-u-s-president-joe-biden-u-s-president This photo released on April 14, 2024 shows Netanyahu making a phone call with Biden. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

But in terms of the sheer scale, Netanyahu has sanctioned the overwhelming and wholly disproportionate use of force – including deliberate starvation – against the Palestinian people that has been genocidal in nature. This does not bode well for those seeking to anticipate or predict his response to Iran in the coming days.

For further clues as to what might happen next, close attention should be paid to the manner in which Iran launched its first formal, interstate assault on Israel. In my view, the missile and drone onslaught approved by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomeini – was a deliberate carbon copy of the weekly missile and drone bombardments of Ukrainian cities by Iran’s principal military ally, Vladimir Putin. Indeed, many of the drones used by the Russian military to target Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and Zelenskyy’s power grid are manufactured and supplied by Tehran.

Iran’s attack was not just a symbolic attack. The inclusion of over 100 ballistic missiles — some believed to be hypersonic missiles – was a serious attempt to overwhelm Israel’s air defence and anti-missile systems to inflict serious harm and mass casualties. Worryingly, despite the support of UK, US, French and Jordanian air and naval assets – a number of projectiles appear to have penetrated Israel’s defensive shield, with damage reported at the Israeli Nevatim air force base in the Negev desert. It is clear that Israel benefited from US Centcom’s coordination of their wider missile defence.

Intel gathering

Iran’s attack – which they claim was a limited retaliatory action – will have provided the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with vital intelligence on Israel’s missile defence capacity and response times when attacked from many directions and territories including Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran itself.

Tactically, Iran’s salvo of over three hundred missiles and drones appears to have been a ‘warning shot’ – a signal that the regime in Tehran can reach targets throughout Israel and that missiles can be launched simultaneously from many territories and fronts.

Israel will be painfully aware that Hezbollah alone is believed to possess up to 150,000 such missiles and drones. At just $20,000 each, Iran is hinting that it can ‘swarm’ Israel’s air defences with its ‘Shahed’ drones in order to facilitate wave upon wave of ballistic missile attacks should Netanyahu continue to target Iran and its proxy forces. In the aftermath of Saturday’s attacks, the Iranian Supreme National Council has stated that ‘If Zionist regime persists in its evil actions against Iran, by any means and extent, it will face a response at least tenfold greater and of similar nature’.

Tehran is, in my view, clearly signalling that it is ready, willing and capable of launching the type of recurring missile assault on Israel that is proving increasingly problematic for Zelenskyy’s defence of Ukraine. Iran – and Putin – know, that an escalation of the war in the Middle East will draw on the same strategic stocks of missiles and ammunition types necessary for the successful defence of Ukraine.

It is against this existential threat that Netanyahu – along with his hawkish Defence Minister Yoav Gallant – will decide their next steps. Ex Defence Minister Benny Gantz – a member of the war cabinet — is reported to be advocating a ‘swift’ and ‘clear’ response.

This is worrying. Based on Netanyahu’s modus operandi to date, my guess is that any Israeli retaliation will be very heavy handed with the intention to send a clear message to anyone in the Middle East that any attack on Israel will be answered by an overwhelming and unambiguous response. In my view, if Netanyahu greenlights a retaliatory action – it will consist of a mass missile assault on targets throughout Iran and Lebanon.

I believe in such a scenario, Israel would also raise the stakes by incorporating a rolling wave of air strikes carried out by the Israeli Air Force to accompany missile strikes. Given that Iran does not possess air and missile defences capable of containing such attacks, infrastructural damage and loss of life would likely be high.

Significant escalation

If such events were to unfold, it would lead to what the G7 leaders have referred to as ‘uncontrollable regional escalation’ with potentially catastrophic outcomes for the Iranian and Israeli people – and neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Syria.

Attacks on Hezbollah – which have already included air strikes on Dhayra and Naqoura in the last 24 hours – will also endanger the lives of Irish peacekeepers deployed to Lebanon with UNIFIL.

The current stand-off between Israel and Iran is an exceptionally precipitous and dangerous moment. It will require great leadership to de-escalate the situation. That regional leadership consists of a depressing cast of religious autocrats, terrorists and likely war criminals from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Sheikh Nasrallah to Netanyahu.

On the wider world stage, Russia and China will watch with interest as Israel and her allies expend trillions of dollars destroying human life and creating catastrophic environmental damage – in a conflict that is as pointless as it is unwinnable for all involved. If such a conflict undermines the defence of Ukraine, it will represent a win-win for Putin and for China’s designs on Taiwan. None of this will be helped in the event of a Trump presidency. Never before in this century have so many relied on the leadership of so few. And sadly, the quality of leadership and diplomacy on the regional and world stage has rarely been poorer.

Dr Tom Clonan is a retired Army Officer and former Lecturer at TU Dublin. He is currently an Independent Senator on the Trinity College Dublin Panel, Seanad Éireann.