Iran’s drone attack on Israel: World leader reactions show fault lines in the new Cold War

14 April 2024

The Iranian flag is hung prior to a meeting between Secretary-General António Guterres and Hassan Rouhani, then President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Source: UN Photo/Cia Pak, 18 September 2017.

The unthinkable has happened. Iran’s attack on Israel on the 14th of April, consisting of over 300 drones and missiles, marks an important moment in 21st century international relations. While it is not the beginning of World War III, it is a crucial moment in the Second Cold War. It is the first instance of a regional power taking step towards the risk of interstate war with another in decades. But while an unprecedented escalation, it is not the long-feared Armageddon of a third world war and at most is likely a highpoint in what future historians will write about when they turn to the new Cold War, which has been unfolding since the end of US unipolarity. In this new Cold War exists on one side the US and its NATO and non-NATO allies (what we may term the status quo side); on the other are revisionist countries that have grievances against the US and its regional allies. These include states such as China, Russia, and Iran. In-between is a vast number of countries, with lesser capabilities, whose positions opportunistically alternate depending on the views of their current governments (Argentina, as seen from its BRICS U-turn, being one such example) or what each side has to offer at any given time.

In many ways, the events of today are a proxy for world opinion, and the immediate responses to the Iranian attack tell us who is which side.

Some context

Although the two countries have been in a state of enmity since 1979, they had always avoided direct attacks on one another. Iran has always made use of proxy forces, while Israel has attacked Iranian assets regionally. As with most Middle Eastern implosions, tensions are complex and layered, but often point to sectoral differences and the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Iranian government has strong ties to Hamas, whose attack on Israel on 7 October 2023 has led to the ongoing Israeli actions in the Gaza strip in which tens of thousands have died, leading to the ICJ determining that there is a credible claim of genocide taking place there. The latest escalation, however, comes as a result of 1 April Israeli attack on Iran’s consular office in Damascus, Syria, which resulted in seven casualties.

Status quo side

US President Joe Biden, who has not condemned the 1 April attack by Israel, has made the following statement after Iran’s attack:

“”I just met with my national security team for an update on Iran’s attacks against Israel. Our commitment to Israel’s security against threats from Iran and its proxies is ironclad.””

Other pro-status quo (i.e., pro-NATO, pro-US and pro-Israel) world leaders, including the UK, Germany, France, Argentina, and the Scandinavian countries, have made similar condemnations of Iran’s actions clear. Only one so far, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has made the link between the current Israel-Gaza War. When doing so, he uses the history to lay further blame on Iran.

“Canada unequivocally condemns Iran’s airborne attacks against Israel. We stand with Israel. After supporting Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 attack, the Iranian regime’s latest actions will further destabilize the region and make lasting peace more difficult. These attacks demonstrate yet again the Iranian regime’s disregard for peace and stability in the region. We support Israel’s right to defend itself and its people from these attacks.”

Revisionist side

On the other hand, countries outside the US/NATO orbit have expressed concern about the attack, but are careful to characterise it as part of the wider regional situation. They also link it to international law, thereby indirectly condemning Israel itself for the attack on Iran’s diplomatic office in Syria on April 1st. Those countries include China, Mexico, Colombia, and Chile. Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro has been the most forthright:

“It was predictable; we’re now in the prelude to World War III precisely when humanity should rebuild its economy towards the rapid goal of decarbonization. The support of the U.S., in practice, for a genocide, has ignited the world. Everyone knows how wars start, no one knows how they end. If only the people of Israel were high enough, like their ancestors, to stop the madness of their ruler. The United Nations must meet urgently and must immediately commit to peace.”

China, a leading state on the side of the ‘revisionist’ camp, has similarly expressed deep concerns, while in the aftermath of the Israeli attack on the consular office it had made the following statement:

“Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China strongly condemns the attack on the Iranian Embassy in Syria. He stressed the inviolability of the security of diplomatic missions and that Iran and Syria’s sovereignty must be respected. This round of escalation is the latest spillover of the Gaza conflict. The pressing need now is to bring an end to the conflict as soon as possible. China calls on parties to the conflict to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2728, put in place an immediate ceasefire and halt the humanitarian crisis. China will continue to view the issue based on its merits, play a constructive role in resolving the Middle East issue and help deescalate the situation. The US in particular needs to play a constructive role.”

Even if later statements follow, the knee-jerk statements by some, and silence by others, are telling in themselves. If it was not clear before, it must be now: we are in a Second Cold War. The attack on Israel has also not yielded any casualties due to that country’s sophisticated Iron Dome defence system. This likely makes Israel eager to retaliate though with no sense of urgency. This, and the geography of the Middle East (see map below), mean that the unofficial war will continue in that mode.

Some unknowns

Map of the Middle East. Source: Flickr.

Why would Iran take the brazen step of risking interstate war by attacking directly on Israeli soil, something it has avoided doing for decades? There are a number of reasons, some more probable than others.

  1. Israel’s attack on Iran’s diplomatic site in Syria has lost Israel the credibility of being a victim in world opinion. April 1, in addition to well-documented war crimes in Gaza, changed its tempo from defence to offence.
  2. Iran has a position of relative security; Israel would need to fly its air force over two countries to make further attacks on Iran, namely Jordan and Iraq. Neither of these countries is an ally of Israel, and both have already closed their airspace, thereby limiting the former’s ability to retaliate immediately.
  3. Iran may have gotten direct or indirect assurances from key players in the revisionist camp for support should there be further retaliation.
  4. Finally, and perhaps most far-fetched, Iran may be approaching nuclear status and therefore acting with unprecedented confidence. In recent months, reports have emerged that the country has reached such capabilities. A Guardian story reports, for example, that “Iran is enriching uranium [at a] high level – very close to the 90% regarded as weapons grade.”

The last point is worth pulling at some more. In March this year, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an agency of the UN tasked with ensuring nuclear energy is only used for civilian purposes, admitted that that the inspectorate had lost “continuity of knowledge about the production and stock of centrifuges, rotors, heavy water and uranium ore concentrate” in Iran. In other words, Iran may be approaching a state of nuclear ambiguity — as Israel has long done for some decades. What this would mean for the new Cold War is yet to be seen. Some literature indicates that the possession of nuclear capabilities makes states less likely to engage in direct conflict or, as in the case of India and Pakistan as well as China and India, when they do, the nuclear factor makes them have regular but low-level skirmishes.

Still, fears of the prospect of nuclear terrorism are real and would add another layer of volatility to an already unstable world.