West Asia on the edge

Relations between Iran and Israel have been strained for decades, primarily due to geopolitical, ideological, and religious differences. Historically, Iran and Israel enjoyed relatively good relations prior to the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

West Asia on the edge


Relations between Iran and Israel have been strained for decades, primarily due to geopolitical, ideological, and religious differences. Historically, Iran and Israel enjoyed relatively good relations prior to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Under the rule of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the two countries had close military and economic ties. However, the Iranian Revolution in 1979 led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The new regime’s antiWestern and anti-Israeli rhetoric marked a significant shift in Iran’s foreign policy. Since the revolution, Iran has been a vocal opponent of Israel, often referring to it as the “Zionist regime” and calling for its destruction. Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have made statements denying the legitimacy of Israel and expressing support for resistance movements like Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis.

Iran has provided political, financial, and military support to various groups, particularly Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthis in Syria. This support includes funding, weapons, and training. Israel has expressed deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme, fearing that a nuclear-armed Iran could pose an existential threat. This has led to tensions between the two countries, with Israel advocating for a tough stance against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran and Israel have also been involved in proxy conflicts across the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Lebanon. Israel has conducted airstrikes in Syria targeting Iranian military assets and Hezbollah convoys, while Iran has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and provided assistance to Hezbollah. Overall, the relationship between Iran and Israel remains highly adversarial, with little sign of significant improvement in the near future.


It is well known that Israel had carried out several attacks, covert and overt, targeting Iranian assets and senior officials in West Asia over the last several years. A number of Iranian nuclear scientists were killed, including Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, known as the father of Iran’s nuclear programme, who was assassinated in the outskirts of Tehran in November 2020. Iran has also reported several subversive activities at its nuclear facilities in recent years. It also retaliated by targeting Israel-linked ships in the Gulf and the Arabian Sea and Israeli diplomats in different parts of the world, including India. The worst that happened was on 7 October 2023.

Hamas a staunch Palestinian militant group launched coordinated armed incursions from the Gaza Strip into the Gaza envelope of southern Israel, the first invasion of Israeli territory since the 1948 Arab-Israel War. The attackers killed 1,139 people: 695 Israeli civilians (including 36 children), 71 foreign nationals, and 373 members of the security forces. About 250 Israeli civilians and soldiers were taken as hostages to the Gaza Strip, including 30 children, with the stated goal to force Israel to exchange them for imprisoned Palestinians, including women and children. Reports of rape and sexual assault also emerged. Israel launched an all-out attack on Gaza, in which over 34,000 Palestinians have been killed so far, and carried out dozens of strikes inside Syria and Lebanon aimed at fighting Iranian influence in both countries.

On December 25, an Israeli strike killed Sayyed Reza Mousavi, a senior adviser of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Israel has also killed several Hezbollah commanders in strikes in Lebanon. Iran’s response to these attacks have largely been muted, or it was Hezbollah that upped the ante on the Israeli border. Iran was cautious not to directly target Israel or Israeli personnel. However, Iran’s strategic thinking seemed to have changed after Israel’s April 1 attack on its embassy compound in Damascus in which at least seven Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers, including Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, were killed. The attack was a twin blow for Iran.

One, many in Iran saw it as a breach of its sovereignty as the embassy premises were hit by Israeli fire; two, Gen. Zahedi, who was in charge of the IRGC’s operations in Syria and Lebanon, two critical theatres for Iran’s regional influence, was the senior most Iranian officer who got killed. Iran was obviously upset losing its senior Generals and violation of international law of attacking Iran’s embassy in Lebanon and humiliation from the local population. Many experts thought that Iran would target an Israeli diplomatic mission elsewhere, in proportion with Israel’s attack on its mission in Damascus or it would launch an attack on Israeli troops in occupied territories — either in Gaza or Syria’s Golan Heights. This time Iran did not rely on its proxies resultantly, on April 14 it launched a massive, direct attack that originated from Iranian soil and targeted Israeli territory with 170 missiles, 120 drones and 30 ballistic missiles.

Israel claimed that 99 per cent of Iranian missiles, drones and ballistic missiles were intercepted. Israel has one of the world’s best missile defence covers – Iron Domes. Additionally, besides Israel, American, British, French and Jordanian defence systems and jets were shooting down Iranian drones and missiles. Still, Iranian ballistic missiles managed to penetrate this multi-layered defence cover and hit an Israeli air base with minor damage. Surprisingly, Iran chose to launch a direct attack on Israel instead of using its proxies, which it did in the past. Perhaps, Iran wanted to send two messages to the Israelis. One, it possesses the capabilities to carry out precision strikes in Israel even from 1,500-1800 km afar and prove it could target critical infrastructure in the event of an all-out war. Two, the era of strategic patience is over.

The Irani population celebrated this attack with the firecrackers and jubilations in the streets. Almost all the western countries especially the US, UK, France and EU condemned the missile and drone attacks of Iran on Israel except a few Muslim countries – Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. However all countries pleaded with Israel not to retaliate for avoiding further escalation. If a full blown war erupts between Iran and Israel which is unlikely Saudi Arabia and UAE may also join hands with Iran – Russia and China may also support Iran indirectly which may lead to a nuclear war.

However, Israel appears determined to exact a measure of revenge against Iran, ignoring pleas by world leaders for de-escalation. The Iranian attack “will be met with response”, said Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Harzi Haveli. The US and UK urged Israel to show restraint arguing the failure of Iran’s drones and missile barrage to inflict much damage was itself a “massive victory”. Just days after launching a massive aerial attack on Israel, Iran told the U.N. Security Council that Israel must be compelled to stop any further military adventurism against our interests.

“In case of any use of force by the Israeli regime and violating our sovereignty, the Islamic Republic of Iran will not hesitate a bit to assert its inherent rights to give a decisive and proper response to it to make the regime regret its actions,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said. It is high time to stop the dangerous cycle of retaliations in the Middle East. The UN Secretary General condemned any act of retaliation and appealed to the international community to work together to prevent any further development that could lead to devastating consequences for the entire region and beyond. Most defence analysts correctly assessed that Israel would retaliate militarily. The question on everyone’s mind was the magnitude of the response. The Biden administration lobbied to minimise the strike to reduce further tit-for-tat attacks. If Israel’s attack was sufficiently limited, Iran may not respond, having dealt what it deems to be sufficient damage. After the Iranian attack, India stated that it’s “seriously concerned at the escalation of hostilities, which threatens the peace and security in the region”.

India also called for “immediate de-escalation, exercise of restraint, stepping back from violence and return to the path of diplomacy,” but stopped short of condemning the Iranian action. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also held talks with both his Iranian and Israeli counterparts, and repeated India’s position. India’s refusal to condemn the Iranian attack seemed to have upset the Israelis. But strikes were carried out on Iran on 19 April. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. was not involved in any retaliatory strike without confirming or dismissing reports that Israel carried out a strike inside Iran. Immediately after Iran’s attack, Biden officials told the media that the President informed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. would not join any Israeli retaliatory attack on Iran.

On the one hand the IRGC claims that its air defences defended off the attack, which seems unlikely given Iranian capabilities but suggests that Iran will not respond. Iran has shown that attacks on diplomatic facilities – even those in Syria – will not be tolerated. On the other Israel has shown that its air and missile defences, when coordinated with the United States and regional partners, are extremely capable and that it will respond to Iranian attacks on Israeli territory fiercely. The question now is how the United States and others can unwind these dynamics for a more stable, peaceful security environment. Missile defence plays a critical role, but technology won’t save Israel from having to answer hard questions over its security strategy. Cease-fire must be declared and Israeli hostages must be returned for Middle East stability and for avoidance of a nuclear war.

(The writer is a retired Senior Professor of International Trade.)