Creating new perspectives since 2009

Iran has many options for retaliation against Israel, but all are risky

April 3, 2024 at 1:29 pm

People carrying Iranian and Palestinian flags protest the Israeli airstrike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, the capital of Syria gathering at the Palestine Square in Tehran, Iran on April 1, 2024 [Fatemeh Bahrami – Anadolu Agency]

Iran faces a dilemma following an Israeli attack on its consulate in Syria: how should it retaliate without sparking a wider conflict that Middle East analysts say Tehran doesn’t appear to want?

Monday’s air strike, which killed two Iranian generals and five military advisers at Iran’s embassy compound in Damascus, comes as Israel accelerates a long-running campaign against Iran and the armed groups it backs. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vowed revenge.

Tehran has options. It could unleash its proxies on US forces, use them to strike Israel directly or ramp up its nuclear programme, which the US and its allies have long sought to rein in.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, US officials said that they were watching closely to see if, as in the past, Iran-backed proxies would attack US troops based in Iraq and Syria after the Israeli air strike.

Such Iranian attacks ceased in February after Washington retaliated for the killing of three US soldiers in Jordan with dozens of air strikes on targets in Syria and Iraq linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and militias that it backs.

The officials said that they had not yet picked up intelligence suggesting Iran-backed groups were looking to attack US troops following Monday’s attack, which Iranian media said killed IRGC members including Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a brigadier general.

Nevertheless, the US warned Tehran bluntly on Tuesday against attacking its forces.

“We will not hesitate to defend our personnel and repeat our prior warnings to Iran and its proxies not to take advantage of the situation… to resume their attacks on US personnel,” said Deputy US Ambassador to the UN Robert Wood.

READ: Palestinian Muslim doctor walks out of White House Iftar

The US official said that given the significance of the Israeli strike, Iran may be forced to respond by attacking Israeli interests rather than going after US troops.

One source who tracks the issue carefully and who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Iran faced the conundrum of wanting to respond to deter further such Israeli strikes while avoiding an all-out war.

“The Iranians have faced this real dilemma that if they respond they could be courting a confrontation which they clearly don’t want,” he said. “They are trying to modulate their actions in a way that shows that they are responsive but not escalatory.”

If they don’t respond in this case, he added, it really would be a signal that their deterrence is a paper tiger. “Iran might, therefore, attack Israel proper, Israeli embassies or Jewish facilities abroad.”

Elliott Abrams, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in America, also said that he believes that Iran does not want an all-out war with Israel but could target Israeli interests.

“I think Iran does not want a big Israel-Hezbollah war right now, so any response will not come in the form of a big Hezbollah action,” said Abrams, referring to the Lebanese group seen as Tehran’s most powerful military proxy. “They have many other ways to respond… for example by trying to blow up an Israeli embassy.”

Iran could also respond by accelerating its nuclear programme, which Tehran has ramped up since 2018, when former US President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal designed to constrain it in return for economic benefits.

However, the two most dramatic steps — increasing the purity of its enriched uranium to 90 per cent, which is considered bomb grade, or reviving work to design an actual weapon — could backfire and invite Israeli or US strikes on nuclear facilities in Iran.

“Either one of those would be viewed by Israel and by the US as a decision to acquire a bomb. So… Iran is really taking a big risk. Is Tehran ready to do it? I would not think so,” said the source who tracks the issue closely.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the CSIS think tank in Washington, said he does not expect a massive Iranian response to the attack on its embassy. “Iran is less interested in teaching Israel a lesson than (in) showing its allies in the Middle East that it isn’t weak,” he suggested.

READ: Israel’s war on aid workers in Gaza

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.