No margin for error with Iran's response to consulate bombing

After Iranian generals were killed in Damascus, Tehran will feel it needs to hit back, not least because Iranians demand it. Doing so without declaring all-out war is the tricky bit.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praying over the coffins of seven Iranian military leaders killed in Damascus.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praying over the coffins of seven Iranian military leaders killed in Damascus.

No margin for error with Iran's response to consulate bombing

Israel’s targeted assassination of senior figures from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has left Tehran caught in a political bind.

It has to be seen to respond, but it cannot respond too forcefully, because that could start a war that it does not want.

The latest strike—at the heart of the country’s consulate in Damascus—now leaves Iranian leaders with a big decision to make.

No response would imply acquiescence to Israel's breach of clear red lines and open the door for further provocations.

Yet Iran has a long-standing commitment to ‘strategic patience’ and an historic aversion to full-scale conflict, so the calibrations need to be just right.

Seeking retribution

In Tehran’s corridors of power, alongside discreet diplomacy, efforts are underway to navigate a precarious path between retribution and a full-blown conflict.

The question now being asked in capitals from Washington to Moscow and Riyadh to Amman is what might amount to calculated retaliation from Tehran?

President Joe Biden’s White House has distanced itself from Israel’s assassinations, unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, who approved the operation to kill Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, in Baghdad in 2020.

In Tehran's corridors of power, efforts are underway to navigate a precarious path between retribution and a full-blown conflict.

The US is not believed to have supplied Israel with the intelligence it used to assassinate the IRGC's second-in-command, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, in an airstrike executed by an F-35 aircraft.

Iran's response to Soleimani's death was to hit US installations in Iraq.

It was meticulously measured, designed to protect Iran's dignity without escalating tensions. Washington was pre-alerted, Trump and others have said.

Analysts suspect that most US military outposts in the Middle East are likely be excluded from Iran's latest calculations.

Direct vs indirect

The Houthis in Yemen are already targeting international maritime routes and oil tankers in the Red Sea.

Tehran also has proxies in Iraq and Syria, which might intensify their actions against US positions ahead of the Iraqi prime minister's imminent visit to Washington. More broadly, it would seek to hasten a US departure.

Israel's offensive may even offer Tehran leverage to secure concessions from the US, which may be important in reshaping regional geopolitics.

People in Tehran burn an Israeli flag during a rally marking Quds Day and the funeral of Iranian commanders killed in an airstrike on the Iranian embassy complex in Damascus.

Direct Iranian retaliation against Israel over the Golan Heights from Syria seems like a plausible response to the recent Israeli strike on Iran's consulate in Damascus.

But there are problems with this approach, not least the Syrian government's official stance of non-involvement in the Israel-Iran standoff.

It is for this reason that Damascus has offered only a muted response to the Hamas attack on southern Israel on 7 October or of Israel's response ever since.

Another complicating factor is the presence of Russian forces near the Golan Heights. The Russians are there because six years ago, Washington and Moscow agreed a deal over Syria.

The essence of that deal was that the US would end its support for Syria's anti-Assad rebels in exchange for Syria kicking Iran out and for Syria and Russia re-establishing Syrian control of Syria's south, near the border with Israel.

Russia and the UN

Moscow, prioritising its geopolitical interests, has since prevented Iran from using the southern Syrian front as a launchpad against Israel.

It is likely that Russia seeks to maintain a delicate balance where Tehran remains strategically dependent on Moscow's support in Syria, mirroring Iran's importance to Russia for supplying weapons for use in Ukraine.

Moscow would prefer to keep Tehran's influence in Syria in check. An Iranian escalation could destabilise the region or compromise Russia's position.

An Iranian strike against Israel over the Golan Heights from Syria seems plausible, but the official Damascus stance is of non-involvement.

Another factor is the presence of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which monitors the area after the American-Russian agreement.

Israel has violated the international disengagement agreement, which was signed in 1974 and is covered by UNDOF, on multiple occasions.

Furthermore, its attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus undermined the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Nonetheless, an assault across the disengagement line in the Golan Heights would represent a significant escalation with wide-ranging repercussions for geopolitics and international relations.

Syria and Jordan

Since the war in Gaza, Iran has become a Jordanian national security problem. Several Arab states see this as crossing a red line.

Iran has armed its militias near Jordan's border with Syria and Iraq, offering an arsenal of weapons and drones. It has also inundated Jordan with narcotics.

Furthermore, Tehran is believed to support organisations that orchestrated the recent demonstrations in Jordan.

The aim of all this is to put pressure on Amman and Cairo to do more to help the Palestinians, particularly now Iran has a diminishing influence over Hamas in Gaza.

An Iranian attends the funeral for seven IRGC leaders killed in a strike in Syria, which Iran blamed on Israel.

Groups aligned with Iran might avenge the consulate attack in Damascus by targeting the Al-Tanf base on the Syrian-Jordanian border, which Tehran has described as an "Israeli spy station."

The Netanyahu trap

Hezbollah, Iran's principal ally and a pivotal player in the Tehran-led Axis of Resistance, has avoided a full-scale war in solidarity with Hamas by controlling its escalation.

This is despite significant losses from targeted Israeli airstrikes, up to and including the assassination of its commanders.

Its response remained subdued even as Israel violated the 'rules of engagement' by operating into Lebanese territory.

If Iran could not or did not prompt Hezbollah to retaliate for Gaza, would it – or could it - prompt Hezbollah to retaliate for the assassination of the Iranian generals?

Given that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to want to escalate tensions in the north, the challenge lies in executing a precise retaliatory strike without ensnaring Hezbollah in all-out conflict.

Iran's other option is to target Israeli embassies abroad, which would be a like-for-like attack.

Tehran and its affiliated groups have a history of similar actions, from Beirut to Africa, Europe to South America.

Netanyahu wants an escalation in the north, so the challenge is a retaliatory strike that does not ensnare Hezbollah in all-out conflict.

This kind of 'embassy war' is possible, given that Iranian operatives are known to target Israeli diplomatic missions worldwide.

For Iran, it might also be a lower-cost, lower-risk alternative to more direct forms of retaliation, but any such operation would require careful timing, extensive planning, and favourable conditions.

Strategic patience

The one option not yet considered is for Iran to do nothing but to persist with its policy of strategic patience. In other words, not to take the bait.

In the past it has experienced severe provocations. Even after fatal attacks on key scientists in Tehran, the theft of its nuclear archive, and the assassination of top Iranian leaders, Iran has exercised restraint.

A billboard showing members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps killed in a suspected Israeli airstrike on the Iranian embassy complex in Damascus.

Tehran's long-term objective is to expand its influence slowly, quietly, and incrementally across the Arab world, while continuing its nuclear programme.

This strategy leverages time and shifts within global and regional dynamics.

It requires patience as Iran continues its shadow war via proxies against the US and Israel, with Syrians the unintended casualties.

Whatever Iran does in response, if anything, it will need to take account of the complexities of the region, the fine lines and delicately balanced standoffs, the boundaries and sensitivities.

Iranians demand a response. They demand that Israel pay for what it did at the Damascus consulate.

But Iran's military knows better than to act emotionally. The world may learn a lot from what follows.

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