World has woken to new ‘Middle East paradigm’ following Iran-Israel attacks: Experts

Experts say Iran’s massive missile and drone barrage against Israel marks a “significant escalation” in the already simmering Israel-Iran war and will likely heighten regional tensions.

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Iran’s mass retaliatory drone and missile attack against Israel has seen the world wake up to a “new paradigm in the Middle East” and will likely heighten already soaring regional tensions amidst the Gaza war, experts have told Al Arabiya English.

Iran launched a salvo of missiles and drones at Israel overnight in retaliation for a suspected Israeli airstrike on Iran’s embassy compound in Damascus on April 1 that killed seven members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including two senior commanders. It marked the first time a direct military assault had been launched by Tehran on Israel.

In a statement to Al Arabiya English, the Israeli Foreign Ministry confirmed that in a “severe and unprecedented attack,” Iran had launched hundreds of missiles and UAVs at Israel but confirmed almost all had been intercepted by the Iron Dome system above Jerusalem and through the help of the United States and allies.

‘Regional knock-on effects’

Analysts and experts on the Middle East have said the attack will have knock-on effects across the region, with Raphael S. Cohen, a senior political scientist at RAND Corporation, telling Al Arabiya English that Iran’s massive missile and drone barrage against Israel marks a “significant escalation in the already simmering Israel-Iran war and will likely heighten regional tensions” amidst Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip, which has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7, according to the Gaza health ministry.

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Iran had billed the mass drone and missile attack as “Operation Honest Promise,” with Mohammad Bagheri, the Iranian armed forces’ chief of staff later telling state TV that the operation was successfully completed from last night to this morning and “achieved all its objectives.”

However, experts called into question the effectiveness of the operation.

“On one level, there was an element of theater to Iran’s strike,” explained Cohen. “The strike was telegraphed for weeks ahead of time, giving Israel (and the US) plenty of time to prepare. It was conducted at night when many civilians would be at home. The attack itself – particularly the use of drones – was relatively slow-moving, given Israel and its allies, in some cases, hours to intercept them in flight. All this points to the idea that on one level, the Iranians seemingly wanted to make a big show, but at the same time to minimize the actual damage.”

At the same time, though, Cohen said there is no escaping the broader fact Iran chose – for the first time – the significance of directly striking Israel with hundreds of drones and rockets.

“Iran could have chosen a more proportional response and attacked an Israel diplomatic facility or another Israeli target outside of Israel proper,” he said. “It did not.”

“Israel already sees itself as being at war with Iran, given the latter’s support for Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and other proxies that have attacked Israel. This attack is going to harden those views.”

Cohen said the direct attack on Israel will also heighten Israel’s fears about the Iranian nuclear program.

“There already was reporting this week that Iran is right up on the edge of a nuclear weapon,” he said. “Given that Iran has demonstrated that it will attack Israel proper with conventional weapons, Israelis will be even more concerned by Iranian nuclear proliferation.”

“Unsurprisingly, then, there are already members of (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu’s coalition calling for a response. And if that happens, this can escalate in various ways – more missile, drone and airstrikes, or move into the maritime domain.”

‘A new paradigm in the Middle East’

Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank, told Al Arabiya English that the world has “woken up to a new paradigm in the Middle East.”

“The warnings of a regional war have proven to come true,” explained Vakil. “Iran called Israel’s bluff and chose to directly attack Israel with about 300 drone, cruise and ballistic missiles into the Golan and Negev, moving their conflict from a shadow war into a very direct and open one.”

Vakil said Israel, having calculated that Iran was on the defensive, did not expect Tehran to respond to the embassy attack.

“Since October 7, Israel has killed 18 IRGC commanders and Iran needed to draw a red line and stop Israeli attempts at degrading the axis of resistance,” explained Vakil, referring to Iran’s network of allied militant groups in the region. “Iran’s attack was careful to avoid damage and loss of life but certainly risks escalation and changes the terms of Iranian Israeli engagement.”

“Interestingly, while the attack was taking place, Iran also announced the end of the operation. Iran has tried to reinstate deterrence, showcased its defense capabilities, but it’s uncertain if it can avoid an Israeli counterattack on Iran directly.”

Vakil said the onus now is “100 percent on Israel and its leaders to make the next move.”

“Since Oct 7, they have been not only engaging in the war in Gaza but have been incrementally trying to degrade the axis of resistance and reestablish deterrence against Iran and the broader network.”

“For Israel to declare victory in this war, it needs to also reassert control over its borders. The attack has also given Israel a chance to rehabilitate itself after international isolation and condemnation stemming from Gaza. Either the Israeli government see this as a victory for their own defense capabilities, and they can build on the Western support they have obtained, or they will counterattack, hitting Iran directly.”

Regional, international help

Vakil said the US, UK, and other regional states made sure 99 per cent of drones and missiles were thwarted overnight.

“This international and regional coalition is significant and keep the diplomatic track open,” he said. “Now the international community should make every effort to call this contest a draw.”

“Biden is convening G7 to push diplomacy above all. Without a major effort, the Gaza conflict is certainly going to spread to Lebanon and Iran. This is an election year, and a regional war is the worst possible outcome for the US president if not the region more broadly.”

Vakil said that for the international community, the focus needs to pivot back to the devastating humanitarian crisis in Gaza – and not on the Iran-Israel escalations.

“For the past 10 days, Gaza has not been discussed at all, and the need to return to obtaining a ceasefire, hostage release and attending to the humanitarian catastrophe etc. should be the key focus to draw down regional tensions.”

‘A big step into more danger’

Bronwen Maddox, director at Chatham House, also told Al Arabiya English that the Iranian attacks on Israeli soil was a “big step into more danger.”

“Iran has for the first time tried to attack Israel directly,” he said, adding: “Iran has been causing all kinds of destabilization in the region, supporting Hamas who carried out the October 7 attacks, supporting Hezbollah in the north and supporting the Houthis who are attacking the Red Sea from one side.”

“It is causing all kinds of trouble and enjoying the strain on Israel’s international reputation that has followed the conflict in Gaza.”

“Israel had attacked Iran’s embassy in Syria which is treated under international law as a piece of your own soil and so Iran is saying Israel attacked its soil. The question is what Israel does now.”

“Israel doesn’t respond military, and I very much hope that is the case because then you really do have an escalation, then we may be in a position where countries can put more pressure on Israel, and something is done about the humanitarian crisis there. One of the big winners from this is (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, because it takes attention away from the real trouble that Ukraine is in this year.”

Maddox said the UK – as well as the US – has clearly showed support for Israel, adding that his “concern is that British military presence in this does escalate things and begins to remove the option of responding in other ways, such as sanctions.”

“Israel could and should have thought more carefully after October 7 where this military action was going because it has fallen into the trap that Hamas wanted of taking such extensive action, causing so many civilian deaths, that it is losing the world’s support.”

Iran had repeatedly threatened to strike Israel in retaliation for a deadly April 1 airstrike on its Damascus consulate, and Washington had warned repeatedly in recent days that the reprisals were imminent.

“Iran launched UAVs from its territory towards the territory of the state of Israel,” military spokesman Daniel Hagari said in a televised statement after the Iran attack.

“We are working in close cooperation with the United States and our partners in the region in order to act against the launches and intercept them,” Rear Admiral Hagari said.

US President Joe Biden vowed Washington’s “ironclad” support for Israel after an urgent meeting with his top security officials on the spiraling crisis.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Sunday also condemned Iran’s “reckless” action and pledged his government would “continue to stand up for Israel’s security,” adding that “the fallout for regional stability would be hard to overstate” had Iran’s attack on Israel been successful.

The UK had sent additional aircraft and RAF fighter jets to the region in anticipation of Iran’s attack on Israel overnight.

Netanyahu vowed on Sunday his country would achieve victory after the military said it shot down almost all the more than 300 drones and missiles launched by Iran.

“We intercepted, we repelled, together we shall win,” Netanyahu posted on X.

Israel urges ‘united action against Iran’

In their statement to Al Arabiya English, the Israeli Foreign Ministry urged the world to “unite against Iran.”

“The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), in cooperation with international forces, managed to intercept and stop most of the launches,” it said. “Iran continues to destabilize and endanger the stability of the region … Iran makes declarations and acts to destroy the State of Israel. No country in the world would tolerate repeated threats to its existence.”

It added: “The US and other allies stand with Israel. The international community must act now to stop Iran and prevent it from continuing its terror operations, which endanger Israel and the region. This dangerous regime which endangers the world cannot be allowed to pursue nuclear weapons.”

Countries across the Middle East and wider world reacted to the attack on Sunday by urging restraint.

Saudi Arabia called on all parties to exercise the “utmost levels” of restraint and spare the region and its people the dangers of wars.

The United Arab Emirates called for the exercise of the utmost restraint to avoid dangerous repercussions in the Middle East, the foreign ministry said in a statement on Sunday.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Sunday Israel has shown that it was strong and could defend itself by repelling an Iranian attack overnight together with strong allies.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also called to prevent a further escalation in the Middle East conflict.

“Iran’s actions threaten the entire region and the world, just as Russia’s actions threaten a larger conflict, and the obvious collaboration between the two regimes in spreading terror must face a resolute and united response from the world,” he wrote in a post on X.

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