On February 12, 2008, a car bomb ripped through the Kafr Sousa neighbourhood in the Syrian capital of Damascus. The target was Imad Mughniyah, a Hezbollah leader and Iranian agent. His assassination was a joint operation by the Israeli and American intelligence agencies, Mossad and the CIA.
Mughniyah was the mastermind behind multiple international terrorist outrages such as the 1983 Beirut US embassy and barracks bombings that killed more than 350 people; the 1992 and 1994 Israeli embassy and Jewish community centre attacks in Argentina that killed 29 and 85 people respectively; and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that took the lives of 20 individuals.
The death of Mughniyah elicited calls for revenge by both Hezbollah and Iran. However, his death crippled the operational capacity of both. It was not for want of trying; in 2012, Hezbollah attacked and killed five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria and made unsuccessful attempts to kill Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia. But Hezbollah and Iran have yet to make a fitting response to the assassination of their key operative to match the nature of their promises of revenge; perhaps only the likes of Mughniyah himself could have organised such a reprisal.
On the very same day of Mughniyah’s assassination, Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force, a special unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was also in the sights of Israel. Suleimani was meeting Mughniyah in Damascus. Reportedly, Mossad wanted to kill both but fearing the regional repercussions, the US baulked and ruled out a hit on Suleimani.
Last week, Suleimani – along with Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the deputy head of a pro-Iranian Iraqi militia – was killed in a targeted US drone strike. In the 11 or so years since the US spared Suleimani's life, the Iranian commander had been busy increasing his country's regional influence, exploiting the civil wars in Yemen and Syria to further entrench the regime and develop its regional proxies. Suleimani was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents through Iran's involvement in conflagrations, conflicts and terrorist attacks.
Israel’s initial reaction to the assassination of Suleimani was to brace itself for potential retaliation under the assumption that Israel would be blamed for what was a US operation. The popular skiing resort of Mount Hermon in the occupied Golan Heights was closed, security was beefed up in and around Israeli interests abroad, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the caretaker prime minister, cut short his visit to Greece.
Israel's security establishment has a tendency to prefer to deal with known threats rather than strategic uncertainties. There have been ongoing concerns in Israel that if the so-called Islamic Republic felt backed into a corner or embroiled in a conflict with the US – now a real possibility following the death of Suleimani – Tehran could launch missiles to Israel, if not directly then through its regional proxies. The arsenal of Hezbollah is believed to have tripled since the 2006 Lebanon War and the Lebanese terrorist group might also have acquired precision guided missiles.
Israel is also concerned about the prospect of a two-pronged conflict against both Hezbollah and Hamas at the same time. Just as disconcerting is the possibility that Hezbollah’s external operations unit might activate its sleeper cells outside of the Middle East to attack Israeli targets.
Last month, Israel’s chief of staff Aviv Kochavi warned of the dangers of Iranian influence in Iraq through its militias. Several months earlier, Israel struck a weapons depot in Iraq that was transferring weapons to Syria. Israel has also launched multiple strikes in Syria over the years in an effort to counter Iran’s menacing presence. Mr Kochavi added that Israeli forces were preparing for a limited conflict against Iran.
Israeli strategic planners will quietly take solace in the fact that the architect of Iran’s regional influence is gone and Tehran is on the backfoot. Tehran has lost its key strategic planner, architect and executioner. The regime’s strength lies in its ability to use proxies throughout the region and its use of asymmetrical warfare. It was Suleimani who developed clandestine networks despite Iran’s limited resources due to international sanctions and embargoes. Iran also has to deal with a possible loss of morale and confidence, and it must also work to salvage ties with the regional proxies cultivated by Suleimani.
In the short term, it is doubtful that Iran will make any significant strike against Israeli targets either directly or through Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas cannot afford another conflagration with Israel, and Hezbollah knows that if it were to launch hostilities, not only would its infrastructure be destroyed but so too would much of Lebanon’s. This would risk a popular anti-Iranian backlash throughout Lebanon, a dangerous development in a country already gripped by popular protests and resentment towards sectarianism. A war with Israel would also deplete Hezbollah’s weaponry as well as its fortifications in Lebanon and Syria, which would be difficult to rebuild now that Suleimani is no more.
Israel will certainly take comfort in the fact that the death of Suleimani is a significant setback for Tehran. Just like the death of Mughniyah more than 10 years ago, Tehran might find that Suleimani is irreplaceable and his death hampers Tehran’s ability to retaliate in a manner that matches its promises for revenge. Still, Israel will want to keep a low profile in the weeks and months ahead to avoid provoking an unnecessary conflict.
Simon Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London