Iran Carefully Weighs Response to Israeli Attack in Damascus • Stimson Center

The Israeli attack on an Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1, which killed seven senior military officials,  was not the first time Israel has killed Iranian generals. It was uniquely audacious in that Israel struck a building claimed by Iran as a diplomatic facility.

According to international law, an attack on an embassy or consulate is not typically regarded as an attack on the territory of the country it represents. The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations delineates several diplomatic provisions and courtesies, but it does not confer territorial jurisdiction to embassies and consulates. In this instance, however, Iran appeared to regard the Israeli strike as an assault on its own soil.

In a message released on April 2, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “The nefarious regime will be punished by our brave men. We will make them regret this crime and other ones like it, by God’s will.”

The Nournews website affiliated with the country’s highest security institution, the Supreme National Security Council, wrote on the same day that during an extraordinary and urgent meeting, a decision was made regarding the response to the Israeli attack. The precision strike killed Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, who was in charge of Iran’s relations with Hezbollah in Lebanon and non-state groups in Syria, as well as six other Iranian officers. Nournews added that “our country’s response to this incident will be quick and based on consensus at the highest level of decision-making regarding national security issues.”

Several members of the Iranian parliament expressed concern that an Iranian failure to respond quickly and in kind could undermine the authority and position of the Islamic Republic as the leader of the so-called “Axis of Resistance” of militant non-state actors that oppose Israel and the U.S. The “Axis” has taken on new importance since the outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel following Hamas’s bloody attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023.

Representative Jalal Rashidi Kouchi proposed hitting an Israeli embassy in the region, suggesting that the embassy in Azerbaijan – which has increasingly close ties with Israel — would be a suitable target.

However, the factors determining Iran’s retaliatory response are tricky and twofold. First, the Iranian government finds itself compelled to take action to preserve its internal authority and satisfy its political and social base. Second, adhering to Khamenei’s worldview, any response must be meticulously calculated to avoid escalation into a full-scale war.

Khamenei, who came to power at the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, staunchly opposes major military conflict, as evidenced by historical precedents. One striking example occurred in August 1998, following an attack on the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan by armed assailants, resulting in the deaths of ten Iranian diplomats. Tens of thousands of Iranian troops gathered at the Afghan border, poised for retaliation against the Taliban, who were sworn enemies of Shi’ite Muslims. Despite escalating tensions and calls for military action, Khamenei intervened at the last moment, halting proposed operations. This decision came despite endorsement from the Supreme National Security Council, led and approved by even the mild-mannered, reformist president at the time, Mohammad Khatami.

Another clear example of Iran’s aversion to escalation was its response to the U.S. assassination of Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani in 2020 in Baghdad. Soleimani, who oversaw Iran’s extraterritorial military activities and was the architect of the “Axis of Resistance,” was considered the second most powerful figure in Iran after Khamenei. After Soleimani’s death, top Iranian military and civilian figures, including Khamenei, vowed vengeance. Many Western analysts anticipated imminent military conflict. However, Iran’s subsequent missile strike on an Iraqi base housing American troops was carefully orchestrated to minimize casualties. Tellingly, Americans were informed in advance about the attack, which ultimately resulted in no American deaths, although 100 soldiers received treatment for concussions. This strategic approach reflected Iran’s preference for avoiding full-scale conflict while asserting its retaliatory capabilities.

The Israeli strike on Damascus, which occurred after a drone attack on the Israeli naval base in Eilat on March 31, 2024, led some observers to speculate that it was retaliation for the Eilat incident. However, planning and executing such an operation within 24 hours seems unlikely. Given the political context in Israel, particularly the challenges facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, the attack may have had broader objectives.  

As the war in Gaza has continued with a mounting civilian death toll, international opinion has shifted against Israel even in its staunchest ally, the United States. On March 15, the Biden administration abstained in a U.N. Security Council vote calling for an immediate cease-fire. On April 4, following the death of foreign aid workers in what Israel called a “mistake,” President Joe Biden told Netanyahu in a telephone call that Israel had to change its approach to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Biden also suggested that Netanyahu had set too many conditions for a cease-fire and the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas. The U.S. president did, however, reiterate U.S. support in the face of “public Iranian threats against Israel and the Israeli people.”

An earlier report by Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, labeled Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocide.” Protests have mounted in European and American cities over the high toll in lives and property.

Israel’s failure to achieve its avowed objective of eradicating Hamas has left the Netanyahu government in a precarious position. Considering the international backlash against Israel, Netanyahu’s government cannot sustain this situation. Meanwhile, retreating from Gaza in the wake of this unprecedented bloodshed would signify a strategic setback. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the most senior Jewish elected official in the U.S., accused Netanyahu in a speech on the Senate floor on March 14 of “allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel.” Schumer called for new elections, adding that Israel “cannot hope to succeed as a pariah opposed by the rest of the world.”

In this conundrum, Netanyahu seeks an escape route. Provoking the Iranian government into an action that warrants a major escalation could divert attention from the tragedy in Gaza and compel the United States to rally behind Israel, which aims to depose Iran’s Islamic government, its arch enemy, for good. Israel has warned Iran that if it retaliates for the Damascus killings, it could take the conflict to a “new level.”

Iran may be content to watch Netanyahu twist in the political wind and Israel and the U.S. lose face internationally rather than risk a potential astronomical loss of Iranian lives.  It is important to remember that one of Israel’s cabinet ministers, Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, suggested in November 2023 using a nuclear bomb on Gaza as an option. The crucial question remains: will the Iranian government choose to retaliate against Israel’s attack, potentially providing the ultra-right cabinet with the pretext to initiate a full-scale war on Iran?

Shahir Shahidsaless is an Iranian Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist writing about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East, and the U.S. foreign policy in the region. He is the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. He is a contributor to several websites with focus on the Middle East. He tweets @SShahidsaless.

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