Israel seeks to deter Iranian proxy attacks with consulate assault


Since the Hamas attacks of October 7, Israeli officials have made clear that they will do whatever is needed to restore the Jewish state’s deterrence. But this week’s presumed Israeli strike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus was a sharp step up in actions against its arch foe since the war began.

The strike — which killed Mohammad Reza Zahedi, believed to be a top commander of Iran’s Quds force in Syria and Lebanon, and six other Iranian military officials — has renewed fears that the Israel-Hamas war could spill over into full-blown regional conflict.

Yet analysts said that for Israel, a state at war in a hostile region, the strike was a risk worth taking to raise the cost of the attacks that Iran and its proxies across the Middle East, dubbed the Axis of Resistance, have been launching against the Jewish state.

“The clear understanding in Israel is that unless the Iranian regime pays a heavy price for the games it carries out through proxies, nothing will change,” said Alexander Grinberg, an Iran expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

In keeping with their policy of silence on operations against Iran, Israeli officials declined to comment on the Damascus strike, which also killed Zahedi’s deputy, Mohammad Hadi Haji-Rahimi.

Addressing a critical parliamentary committee on Tuesday, however, Israel’s defence minister Yoav Gallant said the Jewish state was engaged in a “multi-front war” and that deterring Israel’s foes was an important part of its thinking.

“We operate everywhere, every day, in order to prevent our enemies from gaining strength and in order to make it clear to anyone who threatens us — all over the Middle East — that the price for such action will be a big one,” he said, without mentioning Iran directly.

Rescue workers search in the rubble of a building annexed to the Iranian embassy a day after an air strike in Damascus
The strike in Damascus killed Mohammad Reza Zahedi, believed to be a top commander of Iran’s Quds force in Syria and Lebanon, and six other Iranian military officials © Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

In recent years, Israel has struck hundreds of targets related to Iran and its proxies throughout the Middle East, as the two countries and their intelligence agencies fought out a shadow war across the region.

But since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, the intensity of the conflict has risen sharply. Israel and Hizbollah militants have been trading near daily cross-border fire, with Israeli jets in recent days striking deeper and deeper inside Lebanon. Iran-linked militants in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have also launched sporadic missiles at Israel, as well as targeting US military bases in the region and Red Sea shipping.

Iran has expressed support for the militants’ attacks, but insisted that they act independently and that it wants to avoid a full-blown regional war. In recent weeks, there were signs that it was seeking to de-escalate tensions with the US.

US officials said Washington had no involvement in the strike on the consular building and was not warned in advance.

For its part, Israel has also stepped up attacks. The strike on the consular building in Damascus marked the fourth suspected Israeli strike on Tehran’s forces in Syria this year. At least 17 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have been killed in suspected Israeli strikes on Syria since October 7.

The assault on an Iranian diplomatic mission brought the strikes to a new level. Iran has vowed to respond, describing the attack as “Israel’s latest war crime against a foreign mission with diplomatic immunity”.

“There is no doubt that yesterday’s attack was very unusual due to the seniority of the commander who was targeted and the proximity to the Iranian embassy in Damascus. But it wasn’t a strategic surprise,” said Raz Zimmt, an Iran expert at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies.

Iran’s ambassador to Syria Hossein Akbari (R) receives Syria’s Prime Minister Hussein Arnous (L) and Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad (C) at the Iranian embassy in Damascus
Iran’s ambassador to Syria Hossein Akbari, right, receives Syria’s Prime Minister Hussein Arnous, left, and foreign minister Faisal Miqdad, centre, at the Iranian embassy in Damascus on Tuesday © Louis Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

For Iran, the loss of Zahedi — the highest-profile blow to Iran’s military elite since the US assassination of Qassim Suleimani in Baghdad four years ago — was a high price. Since Soleimani’s death, Zahedi had played an increasingly important role in the activities of Iran’s proxies in Lebanon and Syria, as well as in the transfer of weapons between the two.

An Iranian official reiterated that the Islamic republic did not want a “direct conflict with Israel or the US”.

But they added that given the nature of the attack there would be “huge pressure” to respond, and the strike in Damascus could not mean “anything else other than Israel wants to drag Iran into a conflict”.

Former Israeli security officials and analysts said Israel’s calculation was that while Zahedi’s killing was a painful blow to Iran, and would draw a response, it would not be so serious as to trigger a full-blown conflict.

“Right now I don’t think that Hizbollah and the Iranian militias in the north will carry out crazy operations like launching rockets at Haifa,” said Michael Milshtein, a former IDF intelligence officer. “But I do think that the Iranians will try to respond in other arenas, for example to harm Israeli or Jewish targets in Europe or South America or other places.”

However, other observers said that Israel’s strike raised the risks of a further escalation for the entire region.

“The developing conflict between Israel and Iran . . . is increasingly moving out of the shadows towards direct confrontation,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and north Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “And [that] would propel the wider region into far deeper levels of conflict and instability.”



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