Why did Iran attack Israel? Why did Israel attack Syrian consulate, conflict explained, why are they fighting?

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Historically, Israel and Iran have not engaged in direct military conflicts - so why now?

Lord David Cameron has urged Israel to be “smart as well as tough”, and to not escalate the conflict with Iran.

The Foreign Secretary said Israel should regard Tehran's attack as an “almost total failure”, and respond by thinking “with head as well as heart."

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The unprecedented attack by Iran, which it said was in retaliation against a strike on an Iranian diplomatic compound in Syria earlier this month, has raised fears over the Israel-Hamas war spiralling into a wider regional conflagration.

Leaders of the G7 on Sunday (14 April) warned an “uncontrollable regional escalation” in the Middle East must be prevented, and said they “stand ready to take further measures now and in response to further destabilising initiatives”.

All eyes will be on the response from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, with countries in the region and elsewhere urging restraint to avoid intensifying the conflict.

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But why are the two countries fighting in the first place, and what is the historical context behind the conflict? Here is everything you need to know about it.

Why are Israel and Iran fighting?

The complex and volatile relationship between Israel and Iran is deeply rooted in historical, geopolitical and religious factors, contributing to ongoing tensions and occasional confrontations between the two nations.

Israel, established in 1948, emerged in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust as a homeland for the Jewish people - its formation was met with immediate hostility from neighbouring Arab states, setting the stage for decades of conflict in the region.

An artist paints along a street in Mumbai depicting the unrest between Palestine, Israel and Iran (Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)An artist paints along a street in Mumbai depicting the unrest between Palestine, Israel and Iran (Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)
An artist paints along a street in Mumbai depicting the unrest between Palestine, Israel and Iran (Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)

Iran, on the other hand, has a rich history dating back thousands of years, with a predominantly Shia Muslim population and a legacy of regional influence.

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Historically, Israel and Iran maintained relatively friendly relations prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Under the rule of the Shah, Iran was a key ally of Israel in the region, sharing intelligence and cooperating economically.

But the revolution transformed Iran into an Islamic Republic led by Ayatollah Khomeini, ushering in an era of anti-Western sentiment and hostility towards Israel.

The Islamic Republic of Iran's leadership, particularly under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Supreme Leader of Iran since 1989), has consistently expressed opposition to the existence of Israel, often referring to it as the "Zionist regime" and calling for its destruction.

This rhetoric, combined with Iran's support for militant groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, has fuelled Israeli concerns about Iran's regional ambitions and support for groups that threaten Israeli security.

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Additionally, Iran's nuclear program has been a major point of contention, with Israel viewing it as an existential threat and taking steps to counter Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Historically, Israel and Iran have not engaged in direct military conflicts, but their proxy wars and support for opposing factions have contributed to regional instability and ongoing tensions.

One of the most significant proxy conflicts was the 2006 Lebanon War, where Hezbollah, backed by Iran, fought against Israel. The conflict resulted in significant casualties on both sides and further deepened animosity between Israel and Iran.

In recent years, Israel has taken proactive measures to counter Iran's influence in the region, including conducting airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria and supporting international efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program.

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Iran, meanwhile, has continued to support militant groups opposed to Israel and has expanded its regional influence through proxies and alliances with countries like Syria and Lebanon.

Efforts to ease tensions between Israel and Iran have been sporadic and largely unsuccessful, as deep-seated mistrust and conflicting interests continue to drive the antagonism between the two nations.

Despite occasional diplomatic hopes, a comprehensive resolution to the Israel-Iran conflict remains elusive, with both sides deeply entrenched in their positions and unwilling to compromise on core issues of security and national identity.

Despite decades of enmity, the drone attack on 13 April marked the first time Iran had ever launched a full-scale military assault on Israel.

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What’s behind current events?

The events that have sparked the current escalation in the Middle East are just as complicated as the decades of history between Israel and Iran.

Iran had been threatening to attack Israel since an airstrike on 1 April killed two Iranian generals and 14 others - including two civilians - in Syria. Israel has not commented on that attack, but Iran accused it of being behind it.

For days, Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had threatened to “slap” Israel for its Syria strike.

Iran has largely avoided directly attacking Israel, despite its targeted killings of nuclear scientists and sabotage campaigns on Iran’s atomic sites. Iran has targeted Israeli or Jewish-linked sites through proxy forces.

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Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip has also inflamed decade-old tensions in the Middle East, with any new attack threatening to escalate that conflict into a wider regional war.

Since launching its 7 October attack, Hamas had hoped that regional partners might come to its assistance and drag Israel into a broader war.

While some have done – including the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and Yemen’s Houthis – Iran had not directly entered the fray until Sunday; Hamas, backed by Iran, welcomed the strike.

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Hamas could hope that the attack is the first salvo in deeper Iranian engagement in the war in Gaza. It could also hope that violence in the West Bank, where an Israeli teenager was killed and settlers rampaged in Palestinian towns, continues to heat up.

At the very least, Iran’s attack may have emboldened Hamas to dig in its heels in current negotiations over a ceasefire, hoping the increased military pressure on Israel might lead it to accept the militant group’s harder-line terms for a deal.

What does it mean for the UK?

Israel is considered a key ally of the UK in the Middle East, and has been supportive of Israel's right to exist and defend itself, though it has sometimes criticised Israeli policies regarding settlements and the peace process with the Palestinians.

The UK's relationship with Iran has been more complex. Following the Islamic Revolution, Iran severed diplomatic ties with the UK, and relations remained strained for decades, exacerbated by Iran's nuclear program and human rights issues - though there have been efforts to improve relations in recent years.

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As a close ally of Israel, the UK has already expressed support for Israel's right to self-defence, and provided diplomatic backing and logistical support.

But it seems that, at least for the moment, the UK is seeking to deescalate tensions and promote dialogue between Iran and Israel, rather than getting directly involved in a military conflict.

Speaking ahead of a Commons statement by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on the matter, Lord David Cameron echoed US President Joe Biden’s comment that Israel should view the successful defence against around 350 drones and missiles launched by Iran as a victory.

He described it as a “double defeat” for Tehran, with its attack being not only “an almost total failure, but also the rest of the world can now see what a malign influence they are in the region”.

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“Had those weapons not been shot down, there could have been thousands of casualties, including civilian casualties,” he told Sky News, describing Tehran’s actions as “reckless and dangerous”.

The UK would “absolutely” consider further sanctions on Iran and will seek to work with G7 partners to “look at what further steps we can do”, the Cabinet minister said.

RAF jets could defend Israel again, even if the country’s leaders ignored calls from the UK and US to hold back from retaliation against Iran, Lord Cameron suggested.

“If there was another Iran attack – Iran has said they’re not going to attack again, and after the failure of their attack, I’m not surprised – but absolutely, we’ll always keep these things under review.

“We’re trying to avoid escalation and the action we took alongside the Americans and others clearly has helped to stop that escalation because the Iran attack was an almost total failure.”

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