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Have counterstrikes shifted the political and military landscape in the Mideast?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we begin a new week, there is still very little official confirmation about what exactly happened late last week. We're talking about a counterattack that Israel launched on central Iran. A senior U.S. military official told NPR there were missile strikes on Iran. A state news agency in Iran said air defenses intercepted a, quote, "suspicious target," unquote. And the Biden administration limited its comment to denying any role in offensive operations. But we wanted to take a step back to consider what these developments might mean, so we've called Vali Nasr, a professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Johns Hopkins University. Good morning, Professor.

VALI NASR: Good morning.

MARTIN: So let me just back up for a minute. The strike on Friday followed Iran's assault on Israel that involved more than 300 missiles and drones, and that was retaliation for what is widely believed to have been an Israeli airstrike back on April 1 at an Iranian diplomatic compound in Syria. So having said all that, have these strikes and counter strikes shifted something in the region?

NASR: Yes, they have, because I think both Israel and Iran established new facts on the ground, the willingness to escalate against the other one, willingness to attack the other one, and, sort of, the red lines that existed before in their shadow war have now shifted in a more dangerous level.

MARTIN: Is there a danger of a further escalation? 'Cause both sides seem to be sending mixed signals about that.

NASR: The danger is not immediate. I think both sides are not ready for a wider war, and the international community, led by the United States, interceded very aggressively to make sure that there's no escalation. But the rivalry between them has not gone away, and they now view the other side as dangerous. And they're also taking lessons from what happened, what worked and what didn't work, and that will basically set the tone for the rivalry going forward.

MARTIN: Is this in some way redrawing what we have understood for many years to be the power balance in the Middle East?

NASR: I think in many ways it has. We're now seeing Iran and Israel as the principal protagonists in this region, deciding its security and peace, each in its own way. The sources of tension in the region at this moment are not coming from inside the Arab world, with ISIS or Arab governments going after Israel or one another, but it's coming in this power rivalry between Iran and Israel as to the two emerging military and political and diplomatic heavyweights in this region.

MARTIN: So it seems like the Arab world is caught in the middle, in a way.

NASR: It has. They're fighting, essentially, their battle over the Arab world. When Israel attacked Iran's diplomatic compound in Damascus, it basically signaled that it holds Iran responsible for the war in Gaza, which meant that it views Iran, not any other Arab country, as the main protagonist in the Gaza war. And Iran also repeatedly has said that it views Israel as its main enemy in the region and all of its missiles, drones, etc. are directed at Israel and its supporter, the United States, and not at any one Arab country.

MARTIN: You mentioned the war in Gaza. How does this play into what we've been seeing these last few weeks?

NASR: The conflict between Iran and Israel for a time took eyes off of Gaza, but in reality, the Gaza war is still there. The impasse that Israel faces in how to defeat Hamas, how to deal with the humanitarian issue, its relationship with the United States are there. But Israel continues to see Iran and its ally Hezbollah as the main protagonist in that war.

MARTIN: And briefly, what do you think happens next?

NASR: I think for now, our focus will be on Gaza because the big issue of whether Israel goes into Rafah is still there, but that the Rafah war itself would also have an impact on Iran's relative power in the region and how Iran will react to Israel going forward. But down the road, the real issue emerging in this region is the Iran-Israel rivalry and how it will play out post-Gaza.

MARTIN: That is Vali Nasr, a professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University. Professor Nasr, thank you so much.

NASR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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