Middle East

Iran wants to punish Israel for the killing of its commanders. But its options are limited

Analysis by Abbas Al Lawati and Nadeen Ebrahim, CNN

Editor’s Note: A version of this story appears in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.

CNN  — 

Seven Iranian officials including two elite military commanders were killed in an airstrike on an Iranian embassy complex in Damascus on Monday that was widely believed to be Israel’s doing.

Experts say the attack is the biggest of its kind on Iranian targets since then-US President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander, in Baghdad in 2020. Iran may now be compelled to respond despite its unwillingness to enter war with Israel and the United States.

Israel has been attacking Iranian and Iranian-allied interests in Syria for years as part of its “campaign between wars” strategy to deter and destroy emerging threats to its security. And it has increased such attacks since October 7, when Iran-backed Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and kidnapping 250, prompting a devastating Israeli war in Gaza.

But Monday’s attack was a major escalation, experts say, as it targeted an embassy compound and killed a top commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). Iran considers it an attack on its sovereignty territory as per international law.

Israel hasn’t claimed responsibility for the attack but has argued that the target was a “military building of Quds forces” — a unit of the IRGC responsible for foreign operations. “This is no consulate, and this is no embassy,” Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told CNN.

Retaliation in the form of a direct Iranian attack on Israel is unlikely as it would invite a reciprocal attack on Iranian soil, and could drag the United States into a regional war.

Here are Iran’s options:

Target US interests

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian held the US responsible for the attack.

The Swiss chargé d’affaires in Tehran, who represents US interests in the country, was summoned by Iran’s foreign ministry early Tuesday and “an important message was relayed to the American administration as the Zionist regime’s supporter,” Amir-Abdollahian said on X. “The United States should be answerable.”

“It appears that the Iranians are holding the US responsible for what Israel has done just as much as the US holds Iran responsible for what the Iraqi militias do,” Trita Parsi, executive vice president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, DC, told CNN’s Paula Newton.

Iran has already been engaged in a low-level proxy conflict with the US through allied militias in Syria, Iraq. But that conflict has de-escalated since the killing of three US servicemembers in Jordan in January. The US retaliated by carrying out dozens of strikes on at least seven locations across Iraq and Syria.

Parsi said that Iran’s rhetoric since the embassy attack indicates that this “truce” with the US may be over. “That would mean that the Israeli attack on Iran has put a target on the backs of American troops in the Middle East,” he said.

US forces in the region operate in close proximity to Iran-allied militias, but an attack on the US in retaliation to Israeli action would leave Israel unpunished and potentially bring Tehran and Washington into a direct confrontation, which analysts say neither has an appetite for.

The last time Iran conducted a direct attack on US interests was in 2020 when the Islamic Republic fired a barrage of ballistic missiles at a US base in Iraq in response to Soleimani’s killing days earlier. The strike was the widest scale attack on a base housing US troops in decades.

Washington has, however, tried to distance itself from Monday’s Israeli attack. A US National Security Council spokesperson told CNN on Tuesday that the Biden administration was not involved and had no advance knowledge of Monday’s strike, and that the US has “communicated this directly to Iran.”

Mobilize proxies against Israel

Iran’s most capable proxy in fighting Israel is Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The militia is said to have some 150,000 rockets and precision guided munitions in close proximity to Israel and has proven its ability to strike deep into Israeli territory.

But Israel has been preparing for war with Hezbollah for months, having evacuated more than 40 communities in its north. The two sides have been engaging in skirmishes that have been confined to a few kilometers on each side of the border, although Israel last month struck as deep as 100 kilometers into Lebanon.

Hezbollah said Monday’s strike will be met with “punishment and revenge,” but experts have cast doubt on its appetite to enter a devastating war with Israel.

Iran could also mobilize other allied militias in the region, but their ability to cause harm to Israel is limited because of how far they are. Yemen’s Houthis have already been disrupting Israeli and global trade through the Red Sea, and have made some failed attempts to launch missiles towards Israel. Iraqi militias, which are closer in proximity than the Houthis, have also made attempts, mostly futile, at hitting Israel.

Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank in London, said Iran is likely to use its proxy forces along with diplomatic efforts to isolate Israel, but it isn’t likely to escalate significantly.

“The Axis of Resistance can be activated,” she said, referring to the network of pro-Iran militias in the region. They aren’t likely to retaliate with massive attacks, but rather with a “cascade of responses,” she told CNN.

Attack Israeli interests abroad

After past attacks on Iran, Israel has often anticipated Iranian retaliation on its interests in foreign countries, and beefed up security at its embassies.

Israel has in the past accused Iran of attempting to target its diplomatic missions abroad in retaliation to alleged Israeli killings of Iranian scientists and officials as well as attacks on its nuclear facilities. Iran has denied those charges.

In 1992, a bomb at the Israeli embassy in Argentina killed 29 people. Israel blamed it on Hezbollah and Iran. In 2012, Israeli diplomats were targeted in India, Georgia and Thailand, which Israel and others blamed on Iran, which it denied.

Jalal Rashidi Kochi, an Iranian member of parliament, suggested on X that Iran should retaliate by striking the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan.

Vakil said that it is unlikely Iran would attack Israeli diplomatic missions abroad, adding that Tehran “likely doesn’t want to lose whatever favor” it has garnered from this attack.

“Since October 7 there has been a lot of criticism that Iran has lost its deterrence capability,” she said, adding that Tehran will try to show that it maintains that capability without provoking a larger war.

Emergency services work at a destroyed building hit by an air strike in Damascus, Syria, on April 1, 2024.

Take no direct military action

Israel is believed to have increased its targeting of Iranian officials since October 7. The reaction from Tehran has so far been largely confined to fiery rhetoric, with few of its threats materializing into action.

Analysts say the Islamic Republic may be compelled to act this time given the escalatory nature of Monday’s attack, but caution that Tehran may be falling into a trap. A wider war with Israel that involves Iran could draw in Western nations on Israel’s side at a time when Israel is becoming increasingly isolated on the world stage due to its conduct in Gaza.

“Now the ball is in Iran’s court,” Vali Nasr, a Middle East academic and former adviser to the State Department, wrote on X. “Israel is provoking Iran into reaction. Likely Iran bides its time and not let the story on Israel change from Gaza to Syria and Iran.”

Vakil of Chatham House said Iran is unlikely to respond with a direct military attack. Instead, it will likely “build on this momentum of international condemnation for the war in Gaza,” stoke up international fears of a broader, regional war and isolate Israel further.

Knowing that the wider region, Israel and the US all want to avoid a larger war, Tehran will try to use these dynamics to buy itself some time and favor, she told CNN.

“I think Iran is going to play multiple cards simultaneously,” she said, including cyberattacks, low-level military confrontations via proxies and diplomatic offensives.

Iran has already asked for an urgent UN Security Council meeting to “categorically denounce the violation of international regulations,” according to the IRNA news agency.

The lack of direct military action however “creates the major risk for Iran that Israel will have the time and space to dismantle the Axis of Resistance fronts one by one (possibly with the direct support and even participation of the next US administration) once major operations in Gaza are complete,” Farzan Sabet, a senior research associate at the Global Governance Centre in Switzerland, wrote on X. Such a change could seriously impact Iran’s capabilities in the region.

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