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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 19 APRIL 2024

Iran warns Israel on atomic site strikes; US slaps fresh sanctions on Tehran

Iran warns Israel on atomic site strikes; US slaps fresh sanctions on Tehran
The nuclear enrichment plant of Natanz, in central Iran, 18 November 2005. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Abedin Takerkenareh)

Iran said it may review its nuclear policies if Israel threatened to attack the country’s atomic sites and vowed to respond in kind to any such strike.

The US imposed fresh sanctions on Iran over its April 13 strike on Israel, targeting 16 people and entities including a company that helped make engines for the type of drones launched in the barrage.

Long-stalled aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan is on track to pass Congress as House Democrats lined up to back Speaker Mike Johnson’s plan and provide the votes to overcome a planned blockade attempt by GOP conservatives. 

Iran says Israeli threats may spark shift in nuclear policy

Iran said it may review its nuclear policies if Israel threatened to attack the country’s atomic sites and vowed to respond in kind to any such strike by the Jewish state.

While the comments from a senior Iranian military official didn’t specify what the change would be, Tehran has long said its nuclear programme was only for peaceful purposes.

“It’s possible and conceivable to revise the nuclear doctrine and policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran and deviate from the considerations of previous declarations” if Israel used the threat of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities to pressure Tehran, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Ahmad Haghtalab said in comments reported by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. 

Tehran is bracing for a potential Israeli response to its weekend missile and drone strike, which was in turn a retaliation for a strike on its diplomatic compound in Syria. An attack on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme would be one of the most aggressive potential scenarios. 

Read more: What are Israel’s options for retaliating against Iran’s strike?

The US is urging Israel to show restraint after it successfully intercepted most of the Iranian assault, fearing tit-for-tat operations between the long-time enemies could escalate into a full-blown war.

Haghtalab threatened to retaliate in kind if Israel targeted the Islamic Republic’s atomic facilities.

“The nuclear centres of the Zionist enemy have been identified and the necessary intelligence about all targets is at our disposal,” he said.

Israel has a nuclear research centre near the desert town of Dimona. The country is widely believed to have nuclear weapons but has neither confirmed nor denied this.

US imposes fresh sanctions on Iran over Israel drone barrage

The US imposed fresh sanctions on Iran over its April 13 strike on Israel, targeting 16 people and entities including a company that helped make engines for the type of drones launched in the barrage.

The sanctions also targeted subsidiaries of the Iranian automaker Bahman Group, which the Treasury Department said has supported Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, as well as customers of a steel company that brings in billions of dollars of revenue for Iran every year.

“Let it be clear to all those who enable or support Iran’s attacks: The United States is committed to Israel’s security,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “We are committed to the security of our personnel and partners in the region. And we will not hesitate to take all necessary action to hold you accountable.”

The US and its allies are trying to demonstrate to Iran that there will be consequences for the attack on Israel, which saw Tehran launch about 300 drones and missiles, almost all of which were shot down before they hit their targets. At the same time, allied nations have implored Israel not to retaliate, fearing that a direct strike on Iran could touch off a regional war.

Even so, any impact of the sanctions announced Thursday is likely to be limited. Iran’s drone programme, the IRGC and the Bahman group have been under sanctions for years, and those restrictions failed to deny Iran funding to advance its production of the types of weapons used in last weekend’s barrage against Israel. The IRGC is also designated a terrorist group, meaning it’s already severed from the US financial system.

Netanyahu is caught between hitting Iran and heeding allies

When Iraq fired dozens of Scud missiles on Israel in early 1991, the US implored then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir not to respond. Shamir said he had to act. After days of late-night calls, high-level visits and long Cabinet meetings, Israel stood down and the US led a 42-nation alliance that defeated Iraq in what became the Gulf War.

Iran’s decision to launch about 3o0 missiles and drones at Israel last weekend was the first time since then that a sovereign nation carried out such an assault on the Jewish state. Another hardline Likud party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is prime minister and an equally frantic set of calls and visitors is urging him not to react while cabinet meetings focus on the need to do something.

But while offering many parallels, the latest events are different from 1991 in at least one significant way: Israel’s powerful Western allies aren’t offering to do the fighting for it. Rather, they’re suggesting that no one challenge Iran militarily just now. And many in Israel, including in Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition, say that will not fly.

Iran has said its mission is over after seeking to avenge an attack on its diplomatic compound in Syria. Israel claimed success after repelling the barrage with virtually no damage or deaths. Yet the urgent question remains whether the two plunge into a deeper direct conflict with repercussions beyond the Middle East, and how much of the answer comes down to Israeli politics — and Netanyahu’s survival instincts.

“We can’t absorb this quietly,” Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said on Israel’s Army Radio on Wednesday. “We are at a crossroads regarding our place in the Middle East, as well as that of our children. Our deterrence is in a problematic spot, and a weak response is dangerous.”

Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have told Netanyahu all week to “take the win,” referring to the fact that — with their help and that of neighbouring Arab states — Israel stopped 99% of the projectiles aimed at it.

The Israeli government and public are torn about how to proceed. A poll from Hebrew University published on Wednesday showed half believing Israel should not respond and half saying it should, even if it means extending the current round of the conflict.  

Then there’s how to do it, and whether to do it alone. Brigadier-General Zvika Haimovich, a former head of aerial defence, said there was no way Israel would do nothing, but “I think it is very important for Israel not to stand alone against Iran.”

Netanyahu must weigh his desire to respond to Iran’s attack against pressure from Biden and other world leaders to hold back and keep the scrutiny on Iran’s actions.

Ukraine, Israel aid on track to pass as Democrats back plan

Long-stalled aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan is on track to pass Congress as House Democrats lined up to back Speaker Mike Johnson’s plan and provide the votes to overcome a planned blockade attempt by GOP conservatives.

The House is expected to hold a series of votes on Saturday on the aid package with the Senate taking it up as soon as next week. The plan largely mirrors the $95-billion foreign aid package the Senate passed in February, with about $10-billion in economic assistance to Ukraine converted into a loan.

“We’re going to do what’s necessary to make sure the national security Bill gets over the finish line,” House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York said. “It’s not Johnson’s foreign aid package. It’s America’s foreign aid package in terms of meeting our national security needs.” 

Google fires 28 workers protesting against $1.2bn Israeli contract

Alphabet’s Google has fired 28 employees after they were involved in protests against Project Nimbus, a $1.2-billion joint contract with Amazon.com to provide the Israeli government and military with AI and cloud services.

The protests, which were led by the No Tech for Apartheid organisation, took place on Tuesday across Google offices in New York City, Seattle, and Sunnyvale, California. Protesters in New York and California staged a nearly 10-hour sit-in, with others documenting the action, including through a Twitch livestream. Nine were arrested on Tuesday evening on trespassing charges.

Several workers involved in the protests, including those who were not directly engaged in the sit-in, received a message from the company’s Employee Relations group informing them that they had been put on leave. Google told the affected employees that it was “keeping this matter as confidential as possible, only disclosing information on a need-to-know basis” in an email seen by Bloomberg.

On Wednesday evening, the workers were informed they were being dismissed by the company, according to a statement from Google staff with the No Tech for Apartheid campaign. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

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