Monday, April 22, 2024

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Israel responds to Iran’s barrage with a symbolic strike

BOTH WERE aerial strikes on military bases, but the similarities end there. The Iranian barrage of more than 300 missiles and drones aimed at Israel on April 13th—its response to the deadly air strike two weeks earlier at the Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus—could not have been more public. Officials announced it whilst the projectiles were still in flight, and their path across the Middle East was tracked by social-media videos that showed them streaking across the night sky.Israel’s apparent retaliation five nights later, on the other hand, was shrouded in the fog of war. Hours after it began, there has been no official confirmation from Israel, and only the sketchiest details have emerged from Iran. The strike was of a limited scale so Iran may not feel compelled to retaliate again. Still, after decades of clandestine warfare, the Middle East’s two strongest powers have now exchanged blows on each other’s territory—an ominous precedent.Map: The EconomistWhat is clear is that, in the early hours of April 19th, Iran activated its air defences at an air base near the central city of Isfahan. It also temporarily grounded flights in Isfahan and several other locations, including the capital, Tehran. Unnamed American officials leaked that Israel had fired missiles at its longtime foe, though other reports point to it using a small number of drones.Iran sought to downplay the incident. A state-television correspondent told viewers that everything was calm in Isfahan and that the explosions heard by residents were from Iranian air defences, not incoming projectiles. A spokesman for Iran’s space agency said that three small drones had been shot down and the attack foiled. Social-media accounts linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) circulated stock photos of tiny quadcopters to mock the size of the attack.Oil markets shrugged it off too. The price of Brent crude jumped by more than $3, to above $90 a barrel, amid the first reports of explosions in Iran. As more details emerged, though, it pared those gains, and by mid-afternoon in the Middle East it was trading slightly below the previous day’s price.Isfahan is home to a missile-production complex that researches and builds many of Iran’s ballistic weapons. It also houses some of Iran’s F-14s, which are half a century old but are still among the most sophisticated fighter jets in its arsenal. There was thus a certain symmetry in the tit-for-tat strikes, since Iran’s barrage aimed ballistic missiles at an Israeli air base that hosts the country’s advanced F-35 jets.The city is also home to parts of Iran’s clandestine nuclear programme (though the most important bits are elsewhere). In recent years Iran has produced an ever-larger stash of enriched uranium, some of it to near weapons-grade. Early rumours that Israel had targeted nuclear facilities on April 19th seem inaccurate, however. The International Atomic Energy Agency said there was “no damage” to Iran’s nuclear sites.Some Iranian analysts have questioned the quadcopter story. Such drones have a range of only a few kilometres, while Isfahan is more than 300km from any land or sea border (and 1,500km from Israel). But they have been used before as part of shadowy attacks on arms factories in Iran—presumably deployed by Israeli agents inside the country.Given the scale of the Iranian attack on April 13th, it was all but certain that Israel would retaliate. It had a range of options, from a major strike that matched Iran’s in scale to covert operations or cyber-attacks. By choosing direct yet symbolic action it hopes to strike a balance: signalling that it is capable of hitting Iran and not deterred from doing so, but without forcing Iran to hit back. Israel deviated from its usual policy and notified America of the plan in advance. It hopes to preserve the American-led coalition, which includes several Arab countries, that helped it fend off the Iranian missiles and drones.Hours before the apparent Israeli strike Hossein Amirabdollahian, the Iranian foreign minister, told CNN that his country’s response to any further Israeli attack would be “immediate and at a maximum level”. By pretending no attack even happened, Iran buys room to manoeuvre. Still, behind the scenes, some hawks—like Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the IRGC’s missile force—are probably urging a response.Even if this round is over, though, both countries may be unable to go back to fighting in the shadows. Iran raised the stakes by launching a direct attack from its territory—setting a new precedent the next time Israel tries to assassinate members of the IRGC. This is yet another complication for Israel’s war cabinet, which is already planning an attack on Hamas’s last remaining stronghold in Gaza and a possible campaign against Hizbullah in Lebanon.It took a series of tempestuous cabinet meetings, and at least two aborted operations, until the Israelis decided on their response against Iran. Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, is operating within narrow constraints. His international allies, led by America, have been urging restraint. Meanwhile some of his ministers have called for a more devastating move.They have been told to keep mum about the strike on April 19th. But Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national-security minister, posted a single word on social media—dardale—a term which, in Israeli sport, refers to a half-hearted and harmless kick towards the other side’s goal. Such goading is meant to pressure Mr Netanyahu not only to take more forceful action against Iran, but also to escalate operations in Gaza, where Israel’s deployment is at its smallest in the past six months. The prime minister may be cautious about the former, lest he overstretch Israel’s army and anger its allies.The latter is more likely. An offensive in Rafah, a city where an estimated 1.5m displaced Palestinians are now huddled, would almost certainly cause large numbers of casualties. It has so far been delayed by international pressure, but the Israeli army is now making preparations to drop leaflets calling on civilians to leave Rafah for “safe areas” (which are not yet equipped to handle an influx of desperate people). Not for the first time, the people of Gaza may have to pay for the Iranian-Israeli conflict.■

Tanzania’s opposition, once flat on its back, is now on its knees

The most recent Tanzanian general election, held in 2020, made a mockery of democracy. Agents of the ruling CCM party stuffed ballot boxes, pre-marked voting slips and erected fake polling stations. Police officers rounded up opposition candidates and their supporters. To hide the fraud, the authorities shut down the internet, gagged journalists and suppressed rights groups. The few opposition supporters brave enough to protest were shot at. At least 14 were killed. John Magufuli, then Tanzania’s president, duly won re-election with 84% of the vote. The CCM did even better, securing all but seven of the directly elected seats in the country’s parliament.Overturning such a whacking majority in a single electoral cycle would be tough anywhere. Yet, when Tanzanians return to the polls next year, the opposition ought not despair. The execrable Mr Magufuli is dead. His successor, Samia Suluhu Hassan, is more tolerant of criticism. She is also more vulnerable electorally than her predecessor. The margin of Mr Magufuli’s victory may have been inflated, but he was undoubtedly popular. By demonising foreign investors, denouncing Western imperialism and championing the poor, he built a broad support base. Mrs Samia, by contrast, has rebuilt ties with the West, welcomed foreign investors and declined to engage in rabble-rousing. These may be sensible policies, but there are few votes in them. Tanzania’s GDP per person is among the 30 lowest in the world. Some 44% of people are poor. Given that the CCM has held power since independence from Britain in 1961, there must be a sizeable chunk of Tanzanians yearning for change.Even so, diplomats and analysts think it may take 15 years before the opposition has a shot at winning power. “Politicians like to say ‘we will win, we will win’, but we have to be practical,” says Zitto Kabwe, who stepped down as the leader of Tanzania’s second-biggest opposition party, ACT-Wazalendo, in March. Mr Kabwe reckons the best the combined opposition can hope for next year is about 25% of the vote.This is because Mr Magufuli eviscerated the opposition in a five-year reign of terror. The trigger was an election in 2015, when the opposition won 40% of the presidential vote and 45% of the parliamentary vote. In response, Mr Magufuli intimidated, bought off and silenced his critics. Defections from Chadema, the principal opposition party, were encouraged. The business interests of opposition members and donors were relentlessly targeted.Those who could not be induced to defect faced arrest, or worse. Tundu Lissu, Chadema’s presidential candidate in 2020, survived after being riddled with bullets by unknown assassins. Freeman Mbowe, its chairman, was assaulted and had his leg broken. Mr Magufuli may be dead, but the chilling effect of his presidency lingers.Worse than the fear, though, was the systematic dismantling of the opposition at a local level. In 2016 Mr Magufuli banned the opposition from holding political rallies. These allow politicians to forge connections with potential voters, particularly in villages and the countryside. More people attend political rallies in Tanzania than anywhere else in the world, as far as available statistics show, according to Dan Paget of the University of Sussex, who is writing a book on the subject. Although Mrs Samia lifted the ban last year, it had silenced the opposition across swathes of Tanzania for six years.Perhaps the most grievous blow Mr Magufuli struck against the opposition came not in the general elections of 2020 but in the local polls the year before. The electoral commission barred 94% of Chadema candidates from standing, prompting an opposition boycott. As a result, the CCM won 99% of local seats.It took two decades from the restoration of democracy in 1992 for the opposition to become competitive. Its emergence at national level was built on its successes in running local governments. Without a presence in parliament or local government, the opposition can hardly present itself as a government-in-waiting. “Under Magufuli our focus was on survival,” says Mr Kabwe. “Now we have to rebuild.”Tanzania’s election process has long been laughably skewed. Every official involved in running previous polls, from returning officers to the electoral commission, was either directly appointed by the president or was a public servant whose livelihood depended on not upsetting the ruling party. Losing candidates were forbidden from mounting court challenges in a legal system where, in any case, judges are also appointed by the president. Negotiations between Chadema and the government for electoral and constitutional reforms have broken down. Mr Lissu, who opposed the talks, says that the CCM “flatly rejected” all proposals for meaningful change that Chadema put forward. “While uttering pretty phrases, she has actually been consolidating authoritarianism,” he says of Mrs Samia. Now, he fears, the CCM is intent on ensuring that local elections in December will be a repeat of those in 2019, with Chadema candidates again excluded on technicalities.In this gloomy view, any prospect of rebuilding and securing even 25% of the vote next year therefore looks remote. “Without electoral reform, there is no hope that we will get democracy peacefully,” says Mr Lissu. “We will have to advance our cause on the streets through demonstrations and mass action.” ■Sign up to the Middle East Dispatch, a weekly newsletter that keeps you in the loop on a fascinating, complex and consequential part of the world.

Iran’s attack has left Israel in a difficult position

In the space of two weeks Israel has been dealt two major strategic surprises. The first came in the aftermath of Israel’s air strike against Iran’s embassy compound in Damascus on April 1st. Intelligence indicated the Islamic Republic was about to abandon its decades-long strategy of confronting Israel through proxies and this time retaliate directly from its territory.The Iranian attack came on April 13th in the shape of hundreds of drones and missiles launched towards the Jewish state. With it came the second surprise. A coalition of Western and Arab nations deployed fighter jets in the skies over the Middle East and, along with Israel’s missile-defence systems, intercepted nearly all the incoming threats. Together they reduced the immediate impact of the attack to one wounded girl and some minor damage to an Israeli air base. But they also left Israeli decision-makers with a dilemma.For Israel, a small nation that has built its survival in a hostile region on military deterrence, failing to respond to a direct attack on such a scale on its territory is all but unthinkable. The missiles fired by Iran could have been devastating. Few in Israel doubt the need for a response.But Israel has a lot to lose if it fails to calibrate its response. The international coalition formed at the urging of President Joe Biden to foil Iran’s attack could continue to be a big strategic asset. “All the countries involved, both from the West and the Arabs, have already been working quietly together for years,” says an Israeli security official. “This is the first time they’ve been seen openly in action against Iran—and that’s a massive development.”Mr Biden, anxious to avoid a regional war, urged Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, to “take the win” and avoid further escalation. The Arab regimes that were involved, particularly Jordan and Saudi Arabia, do not want to be seen as Israel’s protectors; most of the Middle East is still focused on the bloodshed in Gaza. Preserving the coalition will be no easy task.The Iranian attack has shifted some of the international focus away from Gaza. After months of condemnation of its actions in Gaza, Israel has unexpectedly found itself once again in the position it was in the wake of the Hamas massacres on October 7th—supported by its allies. “We’ve been given another moment of grace. Let’s see how quickly we waste it,” says one jaded Israeli general.The consensus among Israel’s war cabinet and generals is that Israel will retaliate. But the timing and nature have been hotly debated in a series of inconclusive cabinet meetings. Plans for an immediate counter-attack were already in the works in the early hours of April 14th, while Iran’s drones and missiles were on their way to Israel. The failure of the Iranian attack and the phone-call from Mr Biden stopped Israel in its tracks. But this may not last.As the ministers and generals argue, the biggest mystery has been the position of Mr Netanyahu. Since the 1980s he has been warning of the Iranian threat and the need for the West to co-operate with Israel and the Sunni Arab nations against it. But in the days since Iran’s strike he has fallen notably silent. He has appeared once in public, in front of new idf conscripts. All he had to say was that “Iran stands behind Hamas” and that Israel is determined “to defend ourselves in all sectors”.Mr Netanyahu’s dilemma is that even as he is being offered the coalition against Iran that he has demanded for so many years, his far-right allies in government are demanding he take action which would squander that opportunity. They are clamouring for “a crushing attack”, in the words of Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national-security minister. The far right is also worried that America will force Israel into agreeing to a ceasefire in Gaza and the return of the Palestinian Authority there. Mr Netanyahu’s silence is explained by his dependence on the support of such political allies.But Aryeh Deri, one of the prime minister’s closest allies in the government, hinted at Mr Netanyahu’s position in a radio interview. “We have to remember that there is still an unfinished campaign in Gaza,” said Mr Deri. “At a time like this, we shouldn’t open more fronts.” ■Sign up to the Middle East Dispatch, a weekly newsletter that keeps you in the loop on a fascinating, complex and consequential part of the world.

One of the Middle East’s oldest conflicts has entered a new era

EVEN an ineffective act can be transformative. The Middle East spent the first half of this month waiting for Iran to retaliate for an Israeli air strike, on April 1st, which killed two generals at its embassy compound in Damascus. When it came, on the night of April 13th, it was bolder than expected, a barrage of more than 300 missiles and drones aimed at Israel. That it caused no death and little destruction did not diminish its import: this was the first time Iran has struck Israel directly.Now the region waits nervously again, this time to see when and how Israel conducts its almost inevitable response. Its partners in the West, particularly America, must strike a delicate balance between defending their ally and restraining it. Friendly Arab states are in an awkward position, too. And the belligerents themselves, Iran and Israel, must now navigate a conflict in which the old rules of engagement have been abruptly shredded.No one doubted that Iran would retaliate. Months of Israeli strikes had wiped out almost the entire leadership of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria. The attack on a consular building was a last straw for hardliners, who demanded a muscular response. But most observers, including Israel, thought Iran would do so in a less direct way, pursuant to a long-standing policy of fighting Israel through proxies rather than head-on.Iran’s strike was telegraphed for days. That gave ample time to prepare: not only for Israel, but also for an ad hoc coalition that included America, Britain, France, Jordan and other Arab states. They shot down all but a handful of the projectiles. Four missiles hit Nevatim air base, in southern Israel, but caused little damage.Israel’s leaders have vowed to hit back. “Any enemy that fights against us, we will know how to strike him, no matter where he is,” Yoav Gallant, the defence minister, said on April 16th. Their options range from a response in kind against military bases in Iran to cyber-attacks on key infrastructure or strikes on the IRGC abroad.Allies have spent days pushing for restraint. Joe Biden told Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, that America would not support a direct counter-attack. The American president worries that it would lead to expanding tit-for-tat bombardment—the sort of regional war he has sought to avoid since October 7th. European leaders sent a similar message.To dissuade Israel, they will need to convince it that they take the Iranian threat seriously. That is easier said than done. America promises new sanctions on Iran’s missile and drone programmes, but that alone will not reassure Israel. Some American officials suggest a loftier idea. They point to the unprecedented co-operation between Western and Arab states during the Iranian attack: Jordanian jets downed dozens of Iranian drones, while Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) helped behind the scenes. Such co-ordination seems to fulfil a long-held American goal. For years it has urged Arab states and Israel to integrate their air defences, hoping to blunt Iran’s arsenal.If Israel refrains from a spectacular counter-attack, these officials argue, there is an opportunity to reinforce a regional coalition. The idea appeals to Israeli officials as well. “This event is not over,” said Benny Gantz, a member of the war cabinet. “The regional co-operation which we built, and which withstood a significant test, needs to be strengthened.”Don’t forget GazaSuch talk makes Arab officials uncomfortable. They are still furious with Israel over Gaza and also worry about the threat from Iran, which has threatened to attack Jordan if it co-operates further with Israel.Jordan says, rightly, that it shot down Iranian drones because they violated its airspace. It also probably saw a diplomatic benefit. The kingdom is among the world’s most aid-dependent countries. America, its largest single donor, provided $1.2bn, along with military aid worth around 20% of Jordan’s defence budget in 2022. Helping protect Israel gives King Abdullah a boost with lawmakers in Washington.Gulf states had their own motives. Some officials were miffed to watch America rush to Israel’s defence. They saw a contrast with 2019, when Iranian-made drones struck Saudi oil facilities, and 2022, when they hit Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. America did little in response. The incidents are not quite analogous. There was no advance warning of the attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia is pushing for a defence treaty with America. By helping shoot down Iranian drones, Gulf leaders hoped to show that a formal arrangement would offer tangible benefits.Like Israel, many Arab states see Iran as their main threat. But a sense of shared danger will not override their anger about Gaza or their fear of an Iranian attack. The prerequisites for deeper co-operation, they insist, are a ceasefire in Gaza and a commitment from America to defend them if attacked. Neither seems imminent.Israeli leaders should not be overconfident. Their air defences were impressive, albeit they had days of advance warning and ample foreign help. A surprise attack might be more effective. Still, Iran can only repeat the trick so many times. America estimates it has around 3,000 ballistic missiles. So it used 4% of its arsenal—and a much larger share of those able to reach Israel—in a single night, to no great effect.Iran had two goals: to appease hardliners and to deter Israel from future strikes. It almost certainly failed at the latter. Firing hundreds of missiles and drones and hitting nothing of value makes Iran look belligerent yet weak—a mix that invites, not deters, further attacks.That suggests a longer-term worry. Mr Biden spent the first half of his presidency trying to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, which imposed strict caps on enrichment work in exchange for relief from economic sanctions (and which Mr Trump abandoned in 2018). The effort failed. Iran now has a stockpile of 122kg of uranium at 60% purity, enough to produce three nuclear bombs if refined further to weapons-grade.The Iranians have been cautious. They have walked up to the “nuclear threshold” but refrained from crossing it, lest they trigger tougher multilateral sanctions or a military strike. The past few weeks may change their calculus. If drones and missiles are not enough to deter Israel, they may reckon they need a nuclear weapon to do so. That, in turn, would greatly increase the chances of an Israeli attack on their nuclear facilities. Iran chose to move its decades-long conflict with Israel into the open—but the consequences of that decision will be hard for anyone to predict. ■Sign up to the Middle East Dispatch, a weekly newsletter that keeps you in the loop on a fascinating, complex and consequential part of the world.

Introducing Middle East Dispatch, our latest newsletter

OUR LATEST newsletter for subscribers, Middle East Dispatch, launches on April 23rd. If you subscribe to The Economist you can sign up here.The Middle East is rarely out of the headlines. Today the focus is on the risks of an escalating conflict between Israel and Iran which would threaten the entire region. Meanwhile Israel is still mired in its war in Gaza and the humanitarian crisis there is deepening. That is not the only potential cause of instability. Some countries, such as Egypt, are home to large restive populations. The Middle East also has booming economies and glittering cities, ruled by autocrats whose decisions help determine the price and supply of oil, on which the fates of other economies and the global climate partly depend. One way or another, events here will affect profoundly what happens in the rest of the world. Middle East Dispatch is here to provide you with insight into this complex and consequential region.Landing in your inbox every Tuesday, our new newsletter will combine on-the-ground reporting with analysis on the trends shaping the Middle East and in turn the world.See the full range of The Economist’s newsletters to receive more exclusive commentary in your inbox each week. ■

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