Iran blasts complicate the West Asia scenario - Hindustan Times

Iran blasts complicate the West Asia scenario

Jan 08, 2024 06:33 PM IST

Israel is bent on pursuing a military solution. While Israel can militarily defeat Hamas, will it prevent the rise of a more extreme variant?

The twin blasts near the tomb of Qasem Soleimani in Kirman in southern Iran on January 3 killed 89 and wounded more than 290 persons. The dastardly terror attack came against the background of increasing tensions in West Asia. Israeli strikes killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) general Sayyed Razi Mousavi in Syria on December 25 and deputy Hamas leader Saleh-al-Arouri in Lebanon on January 2. A series of attacks by the Houthis have disrupted shipping through the Red Sea. The Houthis claim their attacks are in retaliation against the ongoing Israeli action in Gaza. There has been a drone attack on MV Chem Pluto, an oil tanker headed to New Mangalore Port, 217 nautical miles off India’s western coast. These incidents are spread across a wide region from Lebanon and Syria in the north to the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea in the south. While the hostage release remains an unfinished agenda, the Hamas-Israel war has dragged on for more than three months. This carries the risk of escalating into a bigger conflagration drawing in major powers. The United States (US) secretary of state Antony Blinken is back in West Asia in search of an elusive peace.

Iran Blasts: People gather at the scene of explosions during a ceremony held to mark the death of late Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, in Kerman.(Reuters) PREMIUM
Iran Blasts: People gather at the scene of explosions during a ceremony held to mark the death of late Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, in Kerman.(Reuters)

The Iranian president promised to retaliate against the perpetrators of the terror attack. Major General Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of IRGC, said: “We will find you wherever you are.” The terror attack came on the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Soleimani by a US drone strike. The US State Department spokesman said that the US had no role in the attack, and they had no indication that Israel was behind it. Since then, Islamic State has claimed responsibility. This has reduced the immediate threat of confrontation between Iran and the US.

The increasing frequency of Houthi attacks on ships passing through Bab el Mandab near the Yemen coast has brought a US-led multinational naval task force to the region. The attacks have led large shipping companies to divert their ships to the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. America has warned that any further attacks will lead to US retaliatory action against the Houthis. Will the threat of a US strike deter the Houthis? Yemen is already devastated by war and offers few targets for the formidable firepower the US can bring to bear. The US is unlikely to risk a ground operation with the loss of American lives in an election year.

The fear of a Hamas-like attack by Hezbollah has led to the displacement of a large Israeli population from Israel’s northern borders with Lebanon. The group has a much more formidable arsenal of missiles than Hamas. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrullah has threatened retaliation against the killing of the Hamas deputy leader in Lebanon. This was followed by firing a barrage of 62 rockets by Hezbollah at an Israeli observation post along Lebanon’s border on January 6. How far will it go in supporting Hamas? It is sympathetic to Hamas, but the Lebanese public may not like to get dragged into a war with Israel. Hezbollah has a larger stake in Lebanon’s polity than fighting for Hamas. Nasrullah has earlier made clear that the war that erupted on October 7 was a Palestinian affair. He also conveyed that his group is prepared to fight, but will not take offensive action.

The US has blocked calls for a ceasefire in the United Nations Security Council. It supports Israel’s right to wage war against Hamas. President Joe Biden has twice authorised arms deliveries to Israel bypassing the US Congress. At the outset, he called for a two-State solution and advised Israel against going into Gaza. Speaking at a recent fundraiser, President Biden described Israeli Prime Minister (PM) Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition as “the most conservative government in Israel’s history…(that) does not want a two-State solution”. He added, “I think he has to change”. Which part of the US president’s message is PM Netanyahu listening to?

Israel is bent on pursuing a military solution. While Israel can militarily defeat Hamas, will it prevent the rise of a more extreme variant? The US and Israeli visions of “the day after” also differ. The US is keen on a role for the Palestinian Authority (PA) in governing Gaza once the fighting stops. The PA has made clear that it does not want to return to Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks. They want a role as part of a political solution. Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant stated that Israel would retain control of security, a multi-national force would do the policing, and the territory run by the Palestinians would have no links to Hamas. Reconstruction will be presumably paid for by Arab and international donors. This essentially means a technocratic dispensation, which falls short of a two-State solution. Nor does it envisage a role for the PA. Are there any takers for such an idea?

So far, the key players have exercised restraint. Oil prices have remained steady because the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement is holding. The attack on shipping in the Red Sea will pale into insignificance if the tension spreads to the Hormuz Strait through which 20% of the world’s crude oil supply passes.

What is the way forward?

The process of hostage release in exchange for Palestinian prisoners should be completed along with a ceasefire. A policy based on military deterrence and expanding Israel’s frontiers is no answer to asymmetric threats. A permanent peace depends upon reconciling Israel’s security needs, the Palestinian demand for an independent State, and reintegrating Iran into the international mainstream.

Are these impossible goals?

The international community including the US accepted the nuclear deal with Iran in the past and continues to be wedded to a two-State solution. The alternative is a drift towards a wider war.

DP Srivastava was India’s ambassador to Iran. The views expressed are personal

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