The new Middle East has few upsides but plenty of potential downsides

Credit: AP

If I could sum up in a pithy, headline-catching phrase where we are today in the crisis engulfing the most consequential region in global affairs, it would be this: 'Welcome to the new Middle East where there are few upsides but plenty of potential downsides for all of us'.

Let me expand.

I’m writing this at the end of what has been, by any diplomatic or strategic measure, the most seismic week in modern Middle Eastern history.

I think you would have to look back to the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel was attacked by neighbouring Arab countries.

Instead Israel ended up conquering and annexing the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and of course, Jerusalem.

The Middle East hasn’t been the same since, and it won’t be the same since the events of the last seven days

Israel, according to American, Israeli and Iranian sources, “was responsible” for a series of limited but targeted attacks on Iranian soil in Isfahan - a central Iranian city of enormous cultural and historical heritage which is also the site of Iranian air force and nuclear bases - as well as attacks on Tabriz in the northeast of the country.

Although to be clear, the Israeli strikes did not target Iran’s nuclear sites in Isfahan or elsewhere. The attacks were on military targets around Isfahan and Tabriz.

So why did this happen?

Following Israel’s airstrike on an Iranian military position next to its consulate in Damascus on April 1, Iran said it would make a retaliatory strike against Israel.

The question was what form it would take. The answer came last Saturday, on April 13. But this was no ordinary response.

The Islamic Republic of Iran launched hundreds of drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles at Israel.

The secrecy surrounding Iran's nuclear reactors has always been strict, but ITV News' Rageh Omaar was able to visit one of the compounds in 2015

As Jonathan Conricus, the former spokesman of the Israeli Defence Forces in the aftermath of the October 7 massacres, told me: “These are the first days of a new Middle East”.

No regional sovereign country had launched such a direct, overt and huge attack on Israel from its own territory.

Israel, along with its UK, US and Jordanian allies, managed to shoot down a staggering 99% of the Iranian missiles and drones.

Iran said it launched the attack in retaliation to Israel’s strike on its facility in Damascus. Iran said at the time that, in its view, this was the end of the affair.

It got attacked, it responded in a way that didn't cause much damage to Israel.

Case closed according to Tehran. But Israel was never going to let this pass without a response.

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The question was always going to be how - and now we have our answer. This is a carefully calibrated response.

Israel wanted to be seen to be responding - but in a way that did not make Iran feel compelled to engage in another round of dangerous and uncontrollable tit-for-tat strikes.

However - and here is the key point - Israel wanted to deliver a specific message.

Most reports say that the Israeli strikes on Iran were conducted by long-range missiles from Israeli warplanes outside of Iranian airspace.

But there are a number of credible reports and sources that say some of the projectiles fired by Israel were launched from inside Iran - especially small, short-range drones.

This is entirely credible.

Israel has launched far more devastating attacks on some of the most senior Iranian officials from inside Iran using its own network of Iranian agents and allies.

All of them were drawn from Iranian opposition groups vehemently opposed to the Islamic government and who are prepared to work with Israeli intelligence.

The most traumatic such attack came in 2021 with the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s most senior nuclear scientist - and arguably one of the most protected officials within Iran.

And yet, in a landmark assassination in modern military history, Israel used a driverless car mounted with a high velocity rifle, controlled by artificial intelligence to assassinate him.

He is not the only such killing to be conducted on Iranian soil by Israeli agents. Numerous other Iranian scientists were killed by gunmen on motorcycles in the capital Tehran.

So what is the message that this Israel attack was intended to send to Iran?

It is, in my analysis, this.

Israel has launched this relatively small strike and we also want to draw a line under this. But we want Iran to know that whilst we can strike down 99% of the missiles and drones you attacked us with, we are able to strike your targets from inside Iran.

And that is an altogether different calculation for Tehran to ponder and also for Israel to miscalculate out of hubris.

One thing is also clear.

No amount of international pressure is going to deter the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from carrying out action that his right wing Jewish nationalist allies in his cabinet want of him.

If he doesn’t, his coalition will fall.

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