Fears are growing that the Middle East is on the verge of a new phase of tension and military escalation after a drone attack on an Iranian military facility in the city of Isfahan.
The attack, which US officials believe Israel was behind, could start a new round of attacks and counterattacks between Iran and Israel and reignite the “shadow war” that is taking place through proxies in the region.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did little to ease fears of possible rounds of violence in the region when he met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week.
Netanyahu stressed that confronting Iran would be his main priority. The US Secretary of State focused on Washington’s fears of a new Israeli law that would weaken the independence of the judicial institution.
An Israeli strike on an Iranian military facility would be the first under Netanyahu since he returned to office last month to lead the most right-wing government in Israeli history.
Despite differences between Netanyahu and the Biden administration, US President Joe Biden would be reluctant to expose the rift or allow public tension in the relationship when the preliminary stages of the US presidential elections have begun.
Speaking alongside Netanyahu, Blinken did not hide the US administration’s concern over a proposed law by Israel’s new right-wing government that would reduce the independence of the judiciary.
“Throughout the relationship between our countries, what we come back to time and again is that it is rooted both in shared interests and in shared values,” Blinken said.
“That includes our support for core democratic principles and institutions, including respect for human rights, the equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, the rule of law, a free press, a robust civil society – and the vibrancy of Israel’s civil society has been on full display of late.”
The Netanyahu right-wing coalition is pushing through a series of laws that would increase government control over the judiciary.
The new law set out by Justice Minister Yariv Levin gives politicians broad powers over the country’s judiciary. It would allow a simple majority in parliament to override High Court decisions and give the government control over the appointment of judges.
Israel’s right-wing parties have long insisted on an overhaul of the judiciary, claiming that the High Court has become an instrument to push a largely left-wing agenda. The new draft law has sparked outrage in Israel and fears that it will give the executive branch wide powers at the expense of the judicial institution.
Since the government began attempts to pass it in parliament, Israel has witnessed weekly demonstrations against it.
“The commitment of people in both our countries to make their voices heard, to defend their rights, is one of the unique strengths of our democracies,” Blinken said in his remarks in Israel this week.
Implying a difference between the Biden administration and Netanyahu’s government, Blinken said that the US and Israel have strengthened their democracies by “holding ourselves to the mutual standards we have established; and by speaking frankly and respectfully, as friends do, when we agree and when we do not.”
Netanyahu stressed that Israel and the US “share common values [and are] two strong democracies.” But his focus was mainly on Iran, emphasising that the world has seen the true face of the Iranian regime.
“They’ve seen the barbarism of this regime against its own people,” Netanyahu said, referring to the mass protests that have engulfed Iran since last September. “They have seen how it exports aggression beyond its border and beyond the Middle East, and I think there is a common consensus that this regime must not acquire nuclear weapons.”
“Our policy, and my policy, is to do everything within Israel’s power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them,” Netanyahu said.
His warning came a day after a bomb-carrying drone targeted an Iranian defence factory in the central city of Isfahan on Sunday. Iranian state media released footage showing a flash in the sky and emergency vehicles at the scene. But the extent of damage could not be independently established.
The Iranian Defence Ministry did not offer details regarding who was behind the attack, but a statement described three drones being launched at the facility, with two of them successfully shot down. A third apparently made it through to strike the building, causing “minor damage” to its roof and wounding no one, it said.
The ministry called the site a “workshop,” without elaborating. Isfahan, some 350 km (215 miles) south of Tehran, is home to a large air base and the Natanz Nuclear Fuel Research and Production Centre.
Israel rarely acknowledges operations carried out by the country’s secret military units or Mossad intelligence agency. Nonetheless, Netanyahu has long considered Iran to be the biggest threat his nation faces.
In 2021, Tehran accused Israel of sabotaging the Natanz Centre. There have been several explosions and fires around military, nuclear, and industrial sites in Iran in recent years in addition to the assassination of nuclear scientists working in the Iranian nuclear programme in complex operations.
The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported that Israel was responsible for the drone strike, citing US officials and people familiar with the operation.
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters it appeared that Israel was involved. Several other US officials declined to comment, beyond saying that Washington had played no role.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in talks with his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani criticised the “cowardly attack” when asked if it would affect the country’s nuclear programme.
“Such moves can’t impact our nuclear scientists’ will and intentions to achieve peaceful nuclear energy,” Abdollahian said. Qatar’s foreign minister said he had passed a message from the US to Iran related to its nuclear programme, without offering the specifics.
Any breakthrough in the Iranian nuclear talks now seems a long way off.
In a major shift in the European position, EU leaders are exploring ways to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) a terrorist organisation. It is not known whether the European discussions on this issue aim to force Tehran to stop supplying Russia with drones, or whether the EU has generally hardened its stance towards Tehran.
European sources said that the step of declaring the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organisation was now supported by France and Germany, adding that discussions were underway about the legal aspects of the step among the 27 member states.
“Yes, some member states are supporting this proposal,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said in an interview with the UK Financial Times.
Iran has warned that it will respond forcefully to any European decision that considers the IRGC a terrorist organisation. It hinted that it would include European armies on Iran’s list of terrorist organisations.
The potential escalation on both sides would be the beginning of the end of the stalled talks on the nuclear deal, which could open the door to escalation in the Middle East and beyond.
Both the Netanyahu government in Israel and President Ebrahim Raisi in Iran are facing major economic problems, sharp political polarisation, and rejection by large segments of Israeli and Iranian society, which means that the two governments may see regional escalation as a way to relieve internal pressures.
European officials have not closed the door to the resumption and success of the nuclear negotiations. However, the recent attack on the military facility in Isfahan, the dissatisfaction of European countries with the suppression of the demonstrations in Iran, and the Iranian military support for Russia in its war against Ukraine mean that the clouds are gathering for a perfect storm.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly