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Iran grapples with response to deadly consulate strike

Iran’s supreme leader vowed “tough revenge” in 2020 against those responsible for assassinating Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic republic’s most revered military commander.

Within days, Tehran launched a huge ballistic missile strike against a US base in Iraq in retaliation. But Iran also reportedly communicated its intentions in advance, helping to ensure that no American soldiers were killed. The risk of war with the US was averted.

Four years on, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vowed again to avenge a general killed by another of Iran’s foes — this time a Revolutionary Guard commander who was among seven officers who died in a suspected Israeli air strike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus.

It means Tehran is once more grappling with the dilemma over how to calibrate a retaliation that sends a robust message to its adversaries without igniting a wider conflagration.

By targeting an Iranian diplomatic mission, Israel upped the ante in the regional hostilities that have erupted since Hamas’s October 7 attack on the Jewish state. The question now reverberating across the Middle East is how and when Tehran will respond?

“A response is necessary to maintain the equation of deterrence,” said Kassem Kassir, a Lebanese analyst who closely tracks Iran and its network of proxies in the region.

Damascus emergency personnel at the site of an Iranian consular building damaged in an air strike © Youssef Dafawwi/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The danger for Iran is that a retaliation perceived as weak will risk damaging its standing and the morale of its forces, as well as the proxies that include Hamas. Yet a more aggressive response could drag the republic into a direct confrontation with Israel, and potentially the US, which the regime is thought keen to avoid.

Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a hardline Iranian politician, told the Financial Times that Tehran would be wary of Israel “trying to drag other parties into a regional war”.

But he added: “Iran’s insistence that the conflict should not escalate does not mean that Iran will sit by and do nothing if Israel commits such an aggression.”

The Islamic regime’s hostility towards Israel and the US has always been balanced by a pragmatism that seeks to avoid direct conflict. But tensions with Israel and Washington have escalated in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war as Iran-backed militants have launched attacks against the Jewish state.

Iran has voiced support for the groups in its so-called Axis of Resistance, but claims the militants act independently. Israel, meanwhile, has launched a spate of strikes against Iranian-affiliated targets in Syria.

Three months after the Israel-Hamas war erupted, Tehran responded to a suspected Israeli attack that killed another of its commanders in Syria by launching a barrage of missiles against what it called an Israeli “espionage centre” in northern Iraq. The attack killed several civilians, but there were no reports or claims of Israeli casualties.

This time, however, the pressure is mounting on Tehran to hit back harder, given the significance of the Israeli strike on its diplomatic mission, which has been equated as a direct assault on Iranian territory.

Hossein Shariatmadari, an influential Iranian journalist, demanded “reprisal attacks against Zionist embassies and consulates”, which he said was the “legitimate right of Iran”.

Former conservative lawmaker Ali Motahhari also questioned Tehran’s decision to leave senior members of its military vulnerable to an Israeli attack in Syria. “Why were our dear ones gathered [in one place] while facing the enemy’s arrow?” he asked on X.

18 Revolutionary Guard commanders and advisers have been killed by suspected Israeli strikes in Syria since October 7

From left: Mehdi Jaladati, Mohammad-Hadi Haji-Rahimi, Mohammad-Reza Zahedi and Mohsen Sedaqat © Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images
April 1 2024: 7 killed in air strike on Iranian consulate in Damascus

Mohammad-Reza Zahedi, commander of Quds Force in Syria and Lebanon, and his deputy Mohammad-Hadi Haji-Rahimi.

Revolutionary Guards military advisers Hossein Amanollahi, Mehdi Jaladati, Mohsen Sedaqat, Ali Aqababaei and Ali Salehi Rouzbehani.

March 26 2024: 1 killed in air strike in Deir el-Zor

Revolutionary Guards military adviser Behrouz Vahedi.

March 1 2024: 1 killed in air strike in baniyas

Revolutionary Guards military adviser Reza Zarei.

February 2 2024: 1 killed in air strike south of damascus

Revolutionary Guards military adviser Saed Alidadi.

january 20 2024: 5 killed in air strike in damascus

Hojjatollah Omidvar, deputy intelligence chief of Quds Force in Syria.

Revolutionary Guards military advisers Ali Agazadeh, Hossein Mohammadi, Saeed Karimi and Mohammad Amin Samadi.

December 25 2023: 1 killed in air strike in damascus

Razi Mousavi, senior Quds Force commander in Syria.

december 2 2023: 2 killed in air strike in damascus

Revolutionary Guards military advisers Mohammad-Ali Ataei Shourcheh and Panah Taqhizadeh.

Iran and Israel have a history of targeting each other’s interests, but the Islamic republic has never launched a direct strike against the Jewish state.

Israel is believed to have killed at least six nuclear scientists on Iranian soil over more than a decade, as well as military officials in Iran and the region. Israel usually neither confirms nor denies involvement in such incidents.

Such attacks have embarrassed the Iranian regime as it seeks to project its power and position itself as the patron of regional anti-Israel forces, including Hizbollah in Lebanon, Yemen’s Houthis, militias in Iraq and Syria, and Hamas.

All the axis members have been engaged in hostile acts against Israel since October 7.

Hizbollah has engaged in near-daily exchanges with Israel while Iraqi militias have launched attacks on US forces in the region. The Houthis’ targeting of shipping in the Red Sea has badly disrupted one of the world’s important maritime trade routes.

Yet Iran has also pursued de-escalation by pressing Iraq militias to curb their attacks on US forces, and by holding indirect negotiations with Washington as both parties sought to ease tensions.

But the challenge of maintaining that balance becomes harder with each suspected Israeli assault.

Israel has taken steps to prepare for retaliation, with the army suspending leave for combat units and beefing up air defence manpower. Navigational signals were also scrambled over Tel Aviv, a measure that appeared to be designed to disrupt GPS-navigated drones or missiles.

Asked if Iran might retaliate by targeting Israeli diplomatic missions, the hardliner Taraghi replied: “The Islamic republic will give a calculated response.”

Tehran has options. “It could strike an empty building and claim to have struck a key Mossad installation in Erbil again,” said one person with knowledge of Tehran-backed groups’ operations. “But they’ve already done that, so that could be considered not enough.”

Or it could delegate the task to regional affiliates, such as encouraging the Houthis to increase their attacks in the Red Sea.

Iranian officials have partly blamed the US for Monday’s strike, which the Syrian health ministry said killed 12 in total, including the seven Iranians, one Hizbollah fighter and four Syrians. US officials said Washington had no involvement in the strike on the Iranian consular building and was not warned in advance.

But there is a risk Iraqi militias will resume their attacks against US troops based in the region. Attacks on US personnel had stopped in February, in the wake of a January drone assault on a military base on the Jordan-Syria border that killed three US troops.

Lieutenant General Alexus Grynkewich, commander of the US Air Force in the Middle East, said he was concerned “there could be a risk to our forces” given Iranian rhetoric directed at the US. “I don’t see any specific threats right now to our forces, but we’re watching that very closely to see if the pause that we’ve benefited from since February [will] end,” he said.

With tens of thousands of battle-hardened fighters and a powerful missile arsenal at its disposal, Hizbollah poses the biggest threat to Israel. But using the crown jewel in Iran’s network risks an escalation on Lebanese soil that neither Iran nor Hizbollah want, analysts say.

Israel and Hizbollah have been engaged in intensifying clashes since the war in Gaza broke out, but these have mostly been contained to the borderlands.

Despite targeted assassinations of senior Hamas and Hizbollah officials on Lebanese soil and more than 240 dead fighters, Hizbollah’s response has been calibrated to remain under a certain threshold.

If asked to respond to Monday’s attack on Tehran’s behalf, it could upset this delicate balancing act. But it is also facing pressure from its base and from allies to escalate, for fear of appearing deterred, two people with knowledge of Hizbollah’s thinking said.

A senior Lebanese official said Hizbollah was “stuck”, adding: “It has to keep responding [to Israeli attacks] but it can’t escalate.”

A fear in Tehran is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be seeking to goad Iran into a direct confrontation.

Saeed Laylaz, a reformist analyst, said of the attack on Monday: “Even that part of the [Iranian] public that are not particularly fond of the Islamic republic have been outraged this time and are pressing the establishment to take action.”

But others caution the regime to show restraint. Ahmad Dastmalchian, Iran’s former ambassador to Lebanon, said Tehran was adopting “smart crisis management” in biding its time.

“It will definitely deliver a firm response at the right time and under the right conditions. But it will give a calculated response to Israel, rather than reacting impulsively.”

Additional reporting by Malaika Kanaaneh Tapper in Beirut, Felicia Schwartz in Washington and Guy Chazan in Jerusalem

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