What does an increase in Iran-Israel tensions mean for us?


  • Focus
  • Thursday, 18 Apr 2024

Iranian army members marching during Army Day parade at a military base in northern Tehran on April 17. In the parade, President Ebrahim Raisi warned that the 'tiniest invasion' by Israel would bring a 'massive and harsh' response, as the region braces for potential Israeli retaliation after Iran's attack over the weekend. — AP

ON April 13, 2024, the world held its breath when over 300 missiles and drones made their way from Iran to Israel. Launched as retaliation to the attack on its consulate in Syria, Tehran took its first step in directly attacking its long-time enemy.

The decision to launch the missiles and drones from Iran, over 2,000 kilometres away, indicated that Tehran had purposely allowed for Israel to intercept them in good time. It had also provided ample warning to the United States, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

Indeed, the missiles were mostly destroyed. For the Islamic regime, it successfully demonstrated its ability to launch long-distance missiles and effectively responded to Israel’s attack.

However, this elaborate game of rising actions and reactions cannot easily be de-escalated.

Since the missiles’ launch, the world has been anxiously awaiting Israel’s response – will it take action? Are we on the verge of a full-scale war between the two powerhouses of the Middle East?

The US has already said it would not back an Israeli retaliation, but Western allies have also been painting Iran as an aggressor, justifying Israel to defend itself – a narrative that should no longer hold water in light of its genocide of the Palestinians.

The conflict between Israeli and Iranian proxies is not new and has indeed been increasing. Since the start of the 2023 Israel-Gaza war, Iranian proxies in the region have stepped up its activities. The Houthis in Yemen attacked Israel-linked ships in the Red Sea while from Lebanon Hezbollah launched missiles into Israel. Given these existing confrontations, a direct Iran-Israeli war is worrying but it is not surprising.

So, what can we say about this recent escalation?

Any possible escalation of the conflict will build on the existing proxy war between Iran and Israel, heating up an even more tense situation. This state of affairs will have an affect on the region, further destabilising it and will continue to place pressure on the world market.

Iran’s power move has resulted in important shifts in the region and beyond. The world will be monitoring Iran’s allies, not only Russia and China but also countries and regions that have good relations with the Islamic Republic, including Malaysia and South-East Asia.

A conflict in the Middle East may seem far away for us in Malaysia. However, the recent arrest of an Israeli national within our borders is a reminder that the conflict can reach us. Politically and economically close, the Kuala Lumpur–Tehran relationship has survived sanctions, US pressure and even Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions. The arrest of the Israeli national and the framing of Iran’s missile launch as a defence of Gaza has the potential to further strengthen ties, or at least place Malaysia more in alignment with Iran.

While Malaysia enjoys good relations with Washington, the genocide in Gaza has seen demonstrations and a rise in anti-US sentiments among the population, particularly among the Malay-Muslims. On social media, many have been praising Iran for its overt attack on Israel, even if it comes six months since the start of the war.

With close relations with the US, yet while maintaining a deeply strong support of Gaza, Hamas and the Palestine issue, the Malaysian government will come under increasing pressure for its overt support. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has come out strongly in the aftermath of Iran’s retaliation, calling for a peaceful resolution in order to safeguard the world economy. This balancing act may prove strenuous but so far the Malaysian government appears to continue to support for Palestine, and now, to an extension Iran.

Malaysia is not the only country affected by this escalation in tensions between Iran and Israel. Instability in the Persian Gulf region can quickly turn into a disruption of shipping routes, cutting supplies off between Europe and Asia. A key shipping lane, the Strait of Hormuz has seen increased military activity in recent times. Since the start of the war in Gaza, Iran has taken action against Israeli-linked ships, stepped up its naval capabilities and responded to the presence of US and British ships in these waters. Surrounding Arab Gulf nations are concerned of escalation, and exposure to possible naval confrontation.

An Israeli Saar-6 corvette warship carrying an Iron Dome anti-missile battery navigates off the shore of the Israeli city of Eilat on the Red Sea.— ReutersAn Israeli Saar-6 corvette warship carrying an Iron Dome anti-missile battery navigates off the shore of the Israeli city of Eilat on the Red Sea.— Reuters

The attack on Israel has had the unintended but no less surprising response that Iran has come to the rescue of the Gazans. This was not the primary reason for the attack, but it has brought Tehran some political mileage and has increased its international standing regarding Gaza. Whether this slows down the Israeli incursion on the strip remains to be seen, but it has shaken Israeli military leaders. They have been attacking without impunity since Oct 7, but for the first time, Israel is taking care in deciding on a response to Iran.

Since his election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced domestic opposition and decreasing popularity. The war in Gaza was part of a campaign to save his political position but with growing distaste for the war internationally and even in Israel, any retaliation towards Iran could be regarded in a similar light. The resumption of the bombing in Gaza suggests that Israel has no intention of scaling down its campaign. However, a military response to Iran will place Israel in an even more negative light.

Undoubtedly, this recent escalation has the potential to destabilise the region and place further strain on Iran’s relationship with the Arab Gulf states, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both have pursued normalisation of relations with Israel and have refrained from a strong response over Gaza. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaged in proxy conflicts in Yemen and Syria, not to mention a rivalry that has sectarian implications.

Despite efforts to improve ties, Tehran-Riyadh relations are vulnerable and Iran’s display is bound to place a strain. Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s opening project of the Kingdom is reliant on a stable region, where he hopes to attract tourism and foreign investment. Iran’s response, which has resulted in the closure of air space and fears of war, revealed how quickly a situation can deteriorate, placing pressure on the Saudi Prince’s designs.

Broadening the scope even further, Russia and China’s role in backing Iran shows the strength of the triangular relationship and also the deepening division between East and West. Moscow and Beijing have echoed calls for de-escalation but have stopped short of reprimanding Iran’s attack.

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have increased military activity in their spheres of interest, particularly toward Ukraine and Taiwan respectively. Chaos in the region serves neither but at the same time, their tacit approval is an important display of support for Iran, thereby standing up to Western support for Israel.

The mass public demonstrations against Israel and the US have exposed the double standards of Western governments. While Iran is being seen as an aggressor in Europe and the US, many are questioning the narrative. Internationally, Iran serves to gain from this, especially since the Ebrahim Raisi administration has been facing questions of legitimacy and opposition to its hardline approach and military activities abroad.

All that has passed in the last days suggest that Iran does not wish to escalate this conflict any further. But even with the best of intentions, patience is running thin in a region already under the strain of years of conflicts. Even if the current situation de-escalates, the pressures will continue to exist and even increase while the war on Gaza continues, the civil war in Syria rages and the key regional players such as Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states continue their bids for power and influence in the region.

Rowena Abdul Razak is a lecturer in Cold War History and Iran at the Queen Mary University of London. The views expressed here are solely the writer’s own.

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