What exactly are Iran's options to retaliate for Israel's strike in Damascus?

All but a few of Tehran's choices will lead to more dangerous escalation

The site of the Israeli air strike on Iran's consulate in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on April 1. Reuters
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Following Israel's attack in Damascus, on an annexe of the Iranian consulate building that served as a headquarters for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, decision makers in Tehran face a range of options. As do Iranian proxies in the region – which Iran calls the "relevant forces" – including Hezbollah, Hamas and Iraqi factions. The choices include launching "limited" operations to unleashing "unlimited" ones.

The attack killed several Revolutionary Guard leaders overseeing operations in Syria and Lebanon, including Quds Force commander Mohammad Reza Zahedi.

The Biden administration is cautiously monitoring the situation while communicating with relevant Iranian parties through various channels both a message of de-escalation and a warning of dire consequences should American interests be targeted.

Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to avoid direct US-Iran confrontation, as this could jeopardise a comprehensive strategic deal between Russia and Iran, which Mr Putin plans to sign during his Tehran visit this summer. This deal could be as big as the strategic pact signed between China and Iran.

So, what potential courses of action are open to Iran? How will it navigate the space between strategic patience and the pressure for retaliation, both domestically and from Iranian regional proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen?

One likely decision by Tehran is to increase support for the Houthis, encouraging them to escalate Red Sea attacks to disrupt international navigation. Chinese and Russian ships would continue to be exempted under existing agreements so this would primarily harm Western interests. Iran could choose to deny involvement or openly claim responsibility, as it deems advantageous.

Under the "limited operations" scenario, the Revolutionary Guard and Quds Force might direct "relevant forces" to attack American embassies in the region. This would signal to Washington that it bears responsibility for Israel's actions in Gaza and beyond.

Israel's attack on the Iranian consulate compound sent a powerful strategic message. It indicated that Israel has moved from a "shadow war" with Iran to direct, overt and precise targeting of the Quds Force on its own turf, including its Damascus operations centre.

This attack sends a message directly to the Revolutionary Guard, the architects and executors of Iran's regional foreign policy. They command proxies under the "Axis of Resistance" banner yet prefer the shadows, where they can operate and evade accountability.

Moreover, Israel's move is a clear statement that it seeks direct confrontation with Iran. It signals to Hezbollah in Lebanon that the rules of engagement are not fixed because Israel does not want a war of attrition but may favour a major confrontation, trusting it could draw the US into the conflict.

Iran doesn't want a full-scale war but aims to show Israel the risk of a costly conflict. Indeed, the leadership, under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has different priorities: safeguarding its nuclear programme, mending ties with the Biden administration for sanctions relief, and continuing proxy attrition wars against Israel by using Arab countries as battlegrounds rather than risk the collapse of its unspoken understanding with Israel regarding direct warfare.

This brings us to Tehran's dilemma if forced to retaliate against Israel for the killing of the Quds Force commanders. Under the guise of "unlimited operations", Iran could consider shooting down Israeli aircraft in Syrian airspace, where it holds significant sway with the leadership and military. Another option is a targeted attack on the port of Haifa, aiming to destroy its infrastructure.

Yet all options, whether limited or unlimited, point to a dangerous situation. Even more perilous is Iran's deliberate ambiguity, making it hard to predict their course of action. On one hand, retaliation seems inevitable, as continued patience (whether strategic or tactical) carries a high domestic cost. Inaction could make the Iranian leadership appear weak. To maintain its power, the regime may feel compelled to act in the name of revenge.

On the other hand, a decision to go to war is not easy for Iran. An existential war would be costly for both Iran and its proxies. Hezbollah is particularly vulnerable. A conflict in Lebanon would not only devastate the country but also damage Hezbollah's infrastructure and the critical secret bases and shipping ports it provides Iran, in addition to the country’s airport. Iran knows the US would not sit idle, and such a gamble could jeopardise its nuclear programme, its bargaining power and its network of militias.

So far, Tehran has been careful to confine Hezbollah's activities to the rules of engagement to avoid direct involvement in a war and to prevent the loss of its strategic asset, Hezbollah itself.

Meanwhile, Israel seems hesitant to jump into a war through Lebanon because it would be a risky gambit. The Biden administration has warned Israel more than once that a war on Lebanon, akin to the operations Israel threatens to mount in Rafah, would face serious American opposition, and Israel's habitual recklessness would prove costly.

It will be said that if Mr Biden were serious, he wouldn't continue pouring advanced American weapons into Israel while issuing warnings with one hand and raising a finger of caution with the other. This is true.

Within the Biden administration, however, there are indications that the special alliance between the US and Israel compels the White House to continue providing arms to Israel as it is in a war of self-defence.

This is the logic of the Biden administration. Some could ask, why the continued US threats and warnings to Israel then? The answer is that the Biden administration has leverage over Israel – some of which is economic and some political – that it must have the courage and audacity to wield.

The Biden team does not like to walk the path of accountability for Israel on their own, and therefore it is trying to rally European countries to speak the language of accountability and sanctions against Israel.

The US is aware that Israel's arrogance and open disdain for Mr Biden and his administration has become costly for the credibility of the US President and his team. America fears that subservience to Israel could lead to more problems for Mr Biden within his party, where the left insists on pressuring Israel to stop its war of killing and starvation against Palestinian civilians, who have been forcibly displaced from their destroyed homes. The administration realises that Mr Biden's use of "quiet pressure" on Israel recently has improved his approval ratings in presidential election polls.

Therefore, Biden and his team are angry at Israel and its open rejection of everything the White House requests, such as refraining from provoking Iran. Israeli leaders even refuse to listen to or consider American ideas. This is an unprecedented humiliation in US-Israeli relations. Hence, voices within and outside the Biden administration and the Democratic Party are rising to say: "enough".

This does not mean that the Biden administration or either of the Democratic and Republican parties are ready to abandon Israel and its determination to eliminate Hamas and its insistence on self-defence. The US-Israeli disagreement is about how to achieve the goal, not its essence.

The difference is that Israel sees no alternative to crushing Hamas other than through a brutal ground operation in Rafah, while the Biden administration wants to protect civilians and find solutions for them first, and then let Israel crush Hamas’s infrastructure and major leaders.

Furthermore, there is a stark disparity between the Biden administration and Israel concerning Iran. While the Biden administration is seeking a conciliatory relationship with Iran through secret talks with Tehran, Israel perceives such actions as indicative of a policy of appeasement and submission to Iran, even as Iran is the mastermind financing, training, arming, and strategically guiding its proxies in the region, including Hezbollah and Hamas.

Iran is poised to amplify its support for Hamas, not solely in response to the recent assault on the Quds Force in Damascus but also as a consequence of the recent meticulous co-ordination between Iran and Hamas leadership abroad. Notably, these leaders, following their meetings in Tehran, resorted to inciting popular anger against some Arab countries, especially Jordan.

Thus, once again, Hamas inadvertently or deliberately aligns with Israel, both in the plot to forcibly displace Palestinians and in the initiative to render Jordan an "alternative homeland" for Palestinians – this time accompanied by extremely insidious Iranian encouragement.

Published: April 07, 2024, 2:00 PM