Iran weighs up response against Israel that avoids open war

Indications that a direct attack against Israel would trigger a resounding retaliation by Biden and Netanyahu are deterring Tehran from action, experts say

Ali Jamenei Iran
The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, before the coffins of the seven members of the Revolutionary Guard killed in an Israeli bombing in Damascus.IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER OFFICE / (EFE)

The shadow war that Israel and Iran have been waging for years, with mutual unattributed attacks in countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, came into the light on April 1 when an Israeli strike on the residence of its embassy in Damascus killed one of Iran’s most prominent military commanders in Syria — Mohammad Reza Zahedi, commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard — and six other members of that corps. The Iranian regime has vowed revenge for the attack. So far, the escalation between the two countries has been limited to words, with threats being issued from both sides, but Israel’s chief ally, the United States, is taking them very seriously. On Thursday, the head of the U.S. Army Central Command, General Michael Kurilla, arrived in Israel to discuss the possibility of an Iranian attack on Israeli territory. The only European operating flights to Tehran, Lufthansa, has suspended the route and on Wednesday U.S. intelligence sources told Bloomberg that they assume Iran will attack Israeli military and government targets with high-precision missiles and drones.

Iran has the military capability to carry out such an attack, which even one of its allies, Russia, appears to fear. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday called for “maximum restraint” in the Middle East. “Iran’s missile capability is significant. [Its missiles] have reached Iraq and Syria. They could very well reach Israel,” says Luciano Zaccara, a professor at Qatar University’s Gulf Studies Center.

Whether such an attack would be in the interest of the Iranian regime is another matter. Zaccara believes “it is very difficult for Iran to directly attack [Israel] because it knows that if it does so and admits it, Israeli retaliation and that of its ally, the United States, will be considerable.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz posted two messages on social media on Wednesday, in which he stated in Hebrew and Persian: “If Iran attacks from its territory, Israel will react and attack in Iran.” In both tweets, Katz tagged the account of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Shortly before, Khamenei had said, Israel “should be punished, and it will be punished.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also alluded to a possible Iranian attack on Thursday. During a visit to the Tel Nof military base in southern Israel, he said that his country is preparing for war scenarios in other areas, in addition to Gaza: “Whoever harms us, we will harm them. We are prepared to meet all of the security needs of the State of Israel, both defensively and offensively,” he said.

Zaccara views these verbal exchanges as “a game of deterrence between two states that have been at war for a long time. Israel has carried out more than 40 actions — registered by the United States — against Iranian interests inside Iran and elsewhere, including the assassination of several nuclear scientists on its territory and even in the Iranian capital,” he notes, referring to cases such as that of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, considered the father of Iran’s nuclear program, who was assassinated on November 27, 2020.

Iran has “less deterrence capability than Israel. It does not have the U.S. behind it. And technologically it is not as advanced as Israel. I don’t think it’s going to launch missiles in a very obvious way from its territory, because the [Israeli] response will come there as well. Israel has made that very clear,” the expert asserts.

The Quds Force

Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the highest-ranking military officer killed in the April 1 attack in Damascus, was the commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard, the parallel army tasked with defending Iran’s Islamic regime. The Quds Force is the enforcer of Iran’s regional policy, which it has implemented by supporting non-state actors such as the Shiite militia Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen with training, weapons and money. It also backs Hamas, Israel’s nemesis in Gaza, with whom an Israeli delegation has been negotiating a truce in Cairo since Monday. These negotiations have been overshadowed by the threat of an Iranian attack on Israel.

The assassination of Reza Zahedi and his comrades-in-arms was a direct message that has surely put the Iranian regime on edge, as it is confronted with the need to respond in some way to satisfy the powerful military force and its support base among the Iranian population, which is very hostile to Israel.

“There are compelling reasons for some people in Tehran to think it is necessary [to respond to Israel’s attack], but I think there are other compelling reasons as well for that attack not to come to pass. The first is that Israel’s retaliation, most likely with U.S. help, would be disproportionate. Iran has more to lose than to gain from a retaliatory strike. Another reason is that, if Iran attacks, it will divert attention from the war in Gaza, which is a problem for Israel. The more attention is paid to that war, the more it will be to Israel’s detriment and the more it will be to Iran’s benefit,” Rouzbeh Parsi, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, explains by telephone.

The Iranian regime is also experiencing a serious economic crisis, as evidenced by the latest official inflation figure of 56%. Popular discontent has increased due to the repression of demonstrations over the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s mandatory hijab law, in 2022. At least 500 people were killed in that crackdown, according to Iranian human rights organizations. More than 22,000 were arrested, and nine men were hanged. In the last legislative elections in Iran, only 41% of the electorate voted. The last thing Tehran seems to need now is a war.

Parsi believes that “the most symbolically logical thing” would be for Iranian retaliation “to be limited to an attack on an Israeli diplomatic building somewhere. Literally, an eye for an eye,” he says.

“If you look at which of these two countries is really interested in a war, right now it’s Israel,” the expert stresses. “Netanyahu needs to keep that pot boiling because the moment things calm down, he will have to take responsibility.” For the time being, Israel has already succeeded in getting its ally, Washington, to close ranks again. After the attack on the NGO World Central Kitchen (WCK), the U.S. had shown signs of growing irritation toward the Netanyahu government. On Thursday, speaking at the White House, President Joe Biden defined his support for his ally as “ironclad.”

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