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Middle East on edge as Israel and Iran trade threats

JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel and Iran traded threats after Tehran’s first-ever direct attack on its arch-foe sharply heightened tensions in a region already on edge after six months of war in Gaza.

The war in the besieged territory and its soaring civilian toll have revived the push for a two-state solution, with the United Nations (UN) Security Council preparing to vote Thursday on full UN membership for a Palestinian state, according to diplomatic sources.

The United States (US), meanwhile, announced on Tuesday that it was preparing new sanctions on Iran’s missile and drone programme after its weekend attack on Israel, and the European Union’s (EU) foreign policy chief signalled the bloc would levy new punitive measures as well. Iran has characterised the barrage as an act of self-defence following a deadly air strike on its consulate in Syria, saying that it would consider the matter “concluded” unless Israel retaliated.

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi warned that “the slightest action against Iran’s interests will definitely be met with a severe, extensive and painful response”.

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi attends a military parade alongside high-ranking officials and commanders during a ceremony marking the country’s annual army day in Tehran. PHOTO: AFP

US President Joe Biden has stressed that “the US is committed to Israel’s security” but wants to prevent the conflict from spreading.

Washington, Israel’s top ally and arms supplier, has made clear it will not join Israel in any retaliatory attack on Iran, according to a senior US official.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday that Washington would “impose new sanctions targeting Iran, including its missile and drone programme”, as well as the Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian Defence Ministry, in the coming days.

The measures, he said in a statement, would help to “contain and degrade Iran’s military capacity and effectiveness”.

World leaders have urged restraint and de-escalation in the aftermath of the weekend’s attack.

Iranian soldiers take part in a military parade during a ceremony marking the country’s annual army day. PHOTO: AFP

During a phone call with Iran’s Raisi, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on both sides to “prevent a new round of confrontation fraught with catastrophic consequences for the entire region”, the Kremlin said.

United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister Rishi Sunak warned his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu against “significant escalation” and said now was a moment for “calm heads to prevail”.

Throughout, Israel has kept bombing targets in Gaza, the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory that has been largely devastated by more than six months of war and a siege on its 2.4 million people.

Against the backdrop of the grinding conflict, the Security Council is expected to take up the matter of full Palestinian UN membership Thursday, several diplomatic sources told AFP. The Palestinians this month formally revived an application first made to the world body in 2011, though the veto-wielding US has repeatedly expressed opposition to the proposal.

Algeria, a non-permanent Security Council member, has drafted the resolution recommending full Palestinian membership.

A general view shows the United Nations Security Council chamber during an emergency meeting at UN headquarters. PHOTO: AP