Getty images

Israel-Iran: A Tale of Growing Hostilities


Thu, 11-04-2024 11:16 AM, Aden Time

Dr. Marta Furlan

On April 3, an airstrike hit the compound of the Iranian Embassy in Damascus’ Mezzeh district. The strike destroyed the adjacent consular building and killed seven members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Those killed included Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, who led the IRGC’s Quds Force in Lebanon and Syria, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Hadi Haj Rahimi, who served as Zahedi’s Deputy, and five other military advisers: Hossein Aman Allahi, Mehdi Jalalati, Shahid Sadaqat, Ali Babaei, and Ali Rozbehani. The casualties also included three Syrian nationals and a Lebanese national.

By their nature, diplomatic representations are de facto sovereign territory of the country therein represented, making this latest attack symbolically tantamount to an attack against Iranian soil. It is thus unsurprising that Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian described the attack “as a violation of all international obligations and conventions”. Similarly unsurprising is that Iran quickly blamed Israel for the attack.

Israel, in fact, has long fought a shadow war (known as Campaign Between Wars, CBW) of airstrikes against Iranian and Iranian-allied targets in Syria, where the influence of Teheran is seen as a direct security threat and where the weakness of Bashar al-Assad’s regime is taken as an opportunity to strike with impunity. Just days before the attack on the Iranian consulate, the Israeli military had launched massive airstrikes on Syria’s northern province of Aleppo, killing at least 40 people, most of whom soldiers.

Significantly, the attacks linked to Israel’s CBW have intensified since 2017. However, the targeting of an Iranian diplomatic representation is unprecedented.  

Reactions in Iran

Two days after the airstrike, a large funeral procession was held in central Teheran for the IRGC members killed in Syria. As the funeral procession proceeded through the streets of the capital city, thousands of people chanted against Israel and the United States. Mourners held Iranian flags, as well as Palestinian flags and Hezbollah flags, and chanted "Death to Israel!" and "Death to America!"

Driven by the same spirit of revenge that prevailed among the crowd, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed that “the hands of our brave men will punish the Zionist regime. We will make it regret this crime and others it has committed.” IRGC chief General Hossein Salami also warned that Israel "cannot escape the consequences" and that Iran is determined to make Israel pay for the raid. 

On this same line, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah noted in a televised speech that "Iran's response to the targeting of its Damascus consulate is inevitable". He also warned that Hezbollah, had yet to deploy its "main" weapons in its cross-border exchanges with the Israeli army: "We have not employed our main weapons yet, nor have we used our main forces."

Significantly, the funeral ceremony coincided with the annual al-Quds Day commemorations, when Iran and its allies organize marches in support of the Palestinian cause. Al-Quds Day was first established by late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution, thus putting the issue of Jerusalem’s (and Palestine’s) liberation at the core of the Iranian theocracy. As every year, rallies also took place in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and other countries. 

The view from Israel

As Iranian (and allied) leaders voiced their threats, Israel proceeded to “enhance security” at its embassies and diplomatic missions around the world, in anticipation of possible attacks on part of Teheran. Netanyahu also placed the military on high alert, cancelling leave for combat troops and ordering the defense systems to prepare for possible Iranian ballistic missile or cruise missiles, suicide drones, and other security threats. 

Inside Israel, in the meanwhile, a certain sentiment of anxiety and discomfort seemed to prevail, as people rushed to the stores to stock for food, water, and other essentials and queued in front of ATMs to withdraw cash from their deposits. In response, the Israeli Home Front Command reiterated that there is no need for extreme actions such as purchasing generators or hoarding food supplies. At the same time, though, the Israeli military's head of intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliwa, was quoted as warning that "the worst may not be behind us yet."

As Israel prepares for a possible Iranian response, the United States informed Teheran that they had no involvement, and no prior knowledge, of the Israeli airstrike. Nonetheless, US President Joe Biden assured Israel’s prime minister that the United States would defend Israel in case of attack by Iran and its proxies. During a phone call on Thursday about the Israeli war in Gaza, Biden made clear to the Israeli prime minister “that he could count on US support to help them in their self-defense against threats directly and publicly posed by Iran”.

What next?

The assassination of Brig. Gen. Zahedi was the most significant blow suffered by Iran since the targeted killing of Qassem Suleimani in January 2020. The loss of Zahedi was made even more bitter by the symbolic violation of Iran’s territorial sovereignty.

Having suffered this dramatic blow, Iran is now considering the options for its response. Among those, some are especially worth mentioning: a direct missile strike on Israel, covert operations against Israeli targets abroad, attacks on Israel (or Israel-related targets) by Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, or even attacks on US troops and targets in the region.

Faced with these options to choose among, the Iranian leadership faces no easy task. On the one hand, Iran cannot escape delivering a forceful response and demonstrating to the Israelis that they are capable of retaliating. On the other hand, Iran is certainly interested in avoiding a fully-fledged confrontation with Israel and an escalation of the Hamas-Israeli conflict to the rest of the region. Balancing between these competing interests, is going to be a significant challenge.

Given these considerations, a direct missile strike on Israel from Iranian territory seems the most unlikely option, since this could easily turn into an unwanted casus belli for escalation. On the contrary, attacks against Israeli targets abroad or attacks against Israel by Iran’s proxies seem the most likely options, those that would allow Iran to defend its international image and restore its national pride while avoiding the risk of being drawn into conflict. As a matter of fact, Hezbollah has exchanged near-daily cross-border fire with Israel since October and the Houthis have targeted Israeli-related (and international) shipping in the Red Sea for the past half year.

What is certain is that the Iranian dilemma puts Israel in a win-win situation. If Israel escalates its attacks against Iranian assets in the region, chances are that these attacks will not come at a high price for Tel Aviv. If Israel escalates its attacks against Iranian assets in the region and Iran does respond forcefully, a justified pretext for expanding the war is offered to the Israelis.

Non-resident fellow at South24 Center. Research Program Officer at The Liberation of the Slaves (FTS), an NGO working to end human trafficking and modern slavery. She is also a non-resident fellow at the Orion Policy Institute (OPI) and a fellow at the Center on Armed Groups.

Iranian Embass DamascusIslamic Revolutionary GuardIsraelIranian revengeIranian response