Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Iran Seeks Revenge for Killed Commanders, Limited Options on Table

HomeWARIran Seeks Revenge for Killed Commanders, Limited Options on Table

An audacious Israeli airstrike obliterating Iran’s embassy compound in Damascus has sparked a combustible new crisis, with a furious Tehran vowing “severe vengeance” Monday over the brazen attack killing seven officials, including two elite Revolutionary Guard commanders.

The pre-dawn bombardment pulverizing the consular section of Iran’s embassy marked a dramatic escalation by Israel in the long-simmering shadow war between the Middle East arch-foes. For Iran, it constituted an unacceptable attack on sovereign Iranian soil – a profound humiliation demanding forceful retaliation that now risks igniting a direct military confrontation.

“By rashly and falsely accusing Iran and striking our embassy, the Zionist regime has made a new, strategic error for which it will pay a severe price,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned in acerbic remarks flagging the prospect of retaliatory strikes.

While Israel stopped short of claiming responsibility, it justified the bombing of what it called an “active military compound” housing cells of the Quds Force – the elite overseas branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps long blacklisted by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.

“This no embassy annex and no consular building,” said Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari. “The confirmed target was an active Quds Force terrorist station engaged in regional subversion and fomenting violence across the Middle East.”

For Iran, however, the strike indisputably hit facilities considered Iranian sovereign territory under international law, dramatically escalating the protracted covert struggle between the two archenemies and sharply raising the risks of a direct military showdown neither can afford.

The bombing’s audacity – penetrating deep inside Syria’s capital amid withering air defenses – marks the biggest such strike since U.S. forces assassinated Iran’s revered Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in 2020. And for the Islamic Republic’s leadership, the killing of senior Revolutionary Guard officers Mahmoud Zamiri and Dhayaa’ Daanaah al-Muthafar marked an unacceptable red line demanding a harsh response.

“By supporting this criminal, terrorist incident, the U.S. too is culpable,” Amir-Abdollahian fumed, summoning the Swiss envoy representing U.S. interests to relay “an important message” over America’s perceived backing of Israel’s “Zionist” aggression.

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The crisis erupted against a febrile backdrop of spiraling Israeli-Palestinian violence following an audacious October 2023 attack by Gaza’s Hamas militants that killed over 1,200 Israelis and triggered a devastating Israeli military offensive still raging in Gaza’s densely-populated cities and refugee camps.

And analysts say it reflects Israel’s calculated strategy of forcefully degrading and destroying looming threats across multiple fronts – particularly countering Iran’s ability to mobilize allied Shiite militias as proxies – even as the Jewish state’s resources are taxed battling Hamas fighters in Gaza.

A Strategic Gambit

What unfolded early Monday has hallmarks of the so-called “campaign between wars” – a core Israeli security doctrine that enshrines preemptive strikes to destroy emerging perils before they metastasize and upend the regional balance of deterrence.

By decimating Iranian diplomatic offices and killing elite Quds Force commanders spearheading Tehran’s regional ambitions to export its Islamist revolution, Israel could strike a powerful symbolic and substantive blow crippling Iran’s force projection capabilities, military analysts say.

In effect, the strike exemplifies Israel’s willingness to launch daring raids across multiple fronts and escalate the shadow conflict, even as it remains embroiled in devastating bombardment across Gaza.

“Israel is provoking Iran into reaction here, essentially daring it to respond,” said Vali Nasr, a Middle East scholar who advised the U.S. State Department. “The ball is now in Iran’s court on how severely and decisively it wishes to escalate.”

By striking Iranian sovereign territory, Israel appears be gambling both on its own deterrent capabilities and on what it sees as Tehran’s reticence to enter direct confrontation – even as the attack indelibly humiliates the Islamic Republic at home and further isolates Israel diplomatically amid rising global outcry over Gaza’s massive civilian casualties.

“Iran is now compelled to act given the escalatory nature of this strike,” said Sanam Vakil, director of Chatham House’s Middle East program. “But a direct military response risks igniting the very regional war with Israel it would prefer to avoid.”

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For the beleaguered Iranian leadership grappling with domestic turmoil and economic privations under Western sanctions, an all-out conflict threatens an existential disaster scenario. Yet non-retaliation over such a provocative attack on sovereign soil and the death of senior commanders would underscore impotence, damage Revolutionary Guard prestige and potentially imperil the regime’s legitimacy at home.

“This is the biggest strike on Iranian targets of its kind since the Soleimani assassination,” said Trita Parsi, vice president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “It puts a target on the back of American troops across the region, particularly if Iran pursues retaliation against U.S. interests as well.”

Wary of Direct Confrontation

Few regional analysts anticipate Iran opting for direct retaliation through conventional military strikes on Israel, which analysts say would inevitably invite devastating reprisals by the Jewish state and potentially draw the United States into a direct Iranian-American confrontation Tehran seeks to avoid.

Instead, expect Iran to unleash a calibrated spectrum of asymmetric offenses – what one analyst called “a cascade of disruptive responses” – that could include clandestine attacks, cyberstrikes, drone bombardments, and disruptive harassment of Israeli and American shipping in strategic regional chokepoints like the Red Sea.

Iran may also redouble efforts galvanizing diplomatic condemnation of Israel, requesting an urgent UN Security Council session to denounce Israel’s “violation of international regulations” following its deadly strike inside Syria.

“Iran is going to play multiple cards simultaneously, likely including low-level military provocations via the ‘Axis of Resistance’ proxies, cyber-offensives and a fresh diplomatic push to isolate Israel,” Vakil told CNN.

At the vanguard of that proxy force is Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia, which swiftly condemned the embassy strike as “terrible aggression” and vowed support for Iran’s right to “deterrence and punishment.”

With an estimated 150,000 rockets and missiles capable of striking every corner of Israel, Hezbollah stands as Iran’s most formidable proxy force poised to retaliate at Tehran’s behest. But analysts doubt the group will unleash its fearsome arsenal in the absence of explicit Revolutionary Guard backing – raising risks of uncontrolled escalation.

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“A broader war of attrition benefiting nobody appears likely,” said Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute. Yet he warned the crisis has now entered uncharted territory exposing looming scenarios few can safely predict.

Within Israel, communities lining the northern Lebanese border have been evacuated in recent months and the military placed on high alert in anticipation of potential escalation.

While Tehran insists its Revolutionary Guard presence in Syria remains solely advisory – aiding Damascus in battling Sunni extremist groups – regional analysts confirm the presence of extensive Elite Quds Force cadres and proxy militia networks focused on undermining Israeli security. Those forces formed the likely target of Monday’s strike.

Other potential vectors of Iranian retribution include unleashing attacks by valued allies like Yemen’s Houthi rebels – who have pelted Saudi Arabia and disrupted Red Sea shipping with drones and missiles – or by Iraqi militia proxies operating near U.S. forces across Syria and Iraq.

But senior Washington officials communicate directly with Tehran that any direct attacks on American personnel risk crossing an unacceptable red line, and could potentially trigger a devastating American military onslaught few in Iran’s leadership appear positioned to risk at this juncture.

“Israel is betting Iran will ultimately restrain itself from escalating too far despite the severe provocation,” said Dan Arbell, an Israeli national security expert. “But it’s a high-risk gamble dependent entirely on Tehran’s self-restraint in the face of such withering humiliation.”

With neither side apparently seeking direct confrontation yet both rhetorical posturing and counter-threats intensifying, the coming weeks may prove pivotal determining whether the crisis remains confined to sporadic proxy clashes and covert strikes – or escalates into a violent regional war with catastrophic global implications.

Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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