April 8, 2024

IntelBrief: Israeli Escalation Against Iran Puts the Region on Alert

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Iran will undoubtedly retaliate for Israel’s April 1 attack on its consulate in Damascus that killed seven high-ranking Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) officers, but Tehran’s main target and attack methods are not known.
  • Israel’s air strike on the facility was intended to tell Tehran that it will be held accountable for the actions of Hamas and other non-state allies such as Lebanese Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen.
  • The Israeli strike and any Iranian retaliation increase the likelihood the relatively contained clashes between Israel and Hezbollah will escalate into significant combat.
  • An Iranian missile or armed drone attack on U.S. forces in the region is unlikely because of the potential to spark significant conflict with Washington, but a miscalculation on the part of Iran or its proxies still remains a worrying possibility.

The April 1 Israeli F-35 air strike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus, which apparently served as a cover for IRGC operations against Israel, the United States, and other actors, has injected additional instability and uncertainty into a region already roiled by the Israel-Hamas war and associated Iran-backed actions in support of Hamas. The strike killed Mohammed Reza Zahedi, a top IRGC-Qods Force commander, his deputy, Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi, and five other IRGC officers, according to Iran’s Foreign Ministry. Israel has been striking the IRGC’s highest-ranking commanders in Syria for years, and the Financial Times reports that suspected Israeli strikes have felled 18 IRGC commanders and advisers since the Gaza war broke out on October 7. A Christmas Day 2023 attack killed Seyyed Razi, who headed the IRGC’s ‘logistics’ and military coordination in Syria, responsible for arranging Iran’s weapons shipments to Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian and Iran-backed forces operating in Syria. On January 20, Israel struck a building in Damascus’s Mazzeh neighborhood, killing senior IRGC-QF commander Hajj Sadegh, who served as deputy intelligence chief of QF forces in Syria.

Yet, the April 1 Israeli strike represented a significant escalation because it destroyed an Iranian diplomatic facility. No matter the actual purpose Iran was using the building for, the strike represented an assault on what is considered sovereign Iranian territory, seemingly boxing Tehran into a position where it must respond itself and not through its regional allies - or risk being viewed as weak and susceptible to intimidation. Iran’s Supreme Leader has publicly announced Iran will retaliate, but without specifying how or limiting the retaliation to Israel. Suggesting that Iran might try to strike not only Israel but also U.S. military or diplomatic personnel in or outside the region, a deputy to the Iranian president's chief of staff said on April 5 that Iran had told Washington in a written message to "stay away" from Israel or risk getting "hurt." Amid reports that Iran might conduct its response at the end of the Ramadan period in mid-April, both Israeli and U.S. officials reportedly have placed forces and assets on “high alert,” including positioning air defense and undertaking several other measures. The posture adopted by both governments suggests they expect Tehran to conduct its attack using its arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as armed drones similar to those Iran has sold in large quantities to Russia. The likely Iranian attack, which U.S. officials characterized to journalists as “inevitable,” reportedly was a major topic of discussion on President Biden’s phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on April 4. However, most of that conversation centered on U.S. insistence that Israel improves access and protections for aid agencies assisting the population of the Gaza Strip, where substantial famine is apparently taking hold.

No matter how Iran chooses to respond, its actions will further roil a region that the Israel-Hamas war and the related Iran-backed attacks on Israel, U.S. forces, and commercial shipping have destabilized. To date, Iran has not intervened directly in the Israel-Hamas conflict, choosing instead to back and cheerlead actions by its allies from the sidelines, thereby achieving a measure of deniability that ensures that conflict does not reach Iranian soil. It remains possible that Iran will ultimately choose not to respond to the Israeli strike using its own arsenal - but instead empower its allies to resume or ratchet up actions they have been taking since October 7. Iran might unleash its allies in Syria and Iraq, which, for the past two months following significant U.S. retaliatory attacks in February, have stood down from further drone, rocket, and missile launches targeting U.S. facilities in Iraq and Syria. However, after the Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate, pro-Iranian forces in Syria launched an armed drone near the U.S.-manned al-Tanf garrison in Syria; although U.S officials said it was not clear al-Tanf was the intended target of the drone, which was intercepted. Israel has reported attempted attacks on its southern port of Eilat by armed drones sent from pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Many experts speculate that Tehran might, additionally or alternatively, urge Lebanese Hezbollah to launch its expansive arsenal of rockets and missiles further and more frequently into Israel than it has done since October 7. An escalation by Hezbollah has the potential to evolve into a major conflict between the two, destroying or damaging large parts of both Israeli and Lebanese society and infrastructure. U.S., French, and other global officials have undertaken significant diplomatic missions since October 7 to try to de-escalate what has thus far been relatively low-level conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, although without achieving a diplomatic breakthrough to date. Another avenue Tehran might pursue would be to increase its assistance to the Houthi movement’s campaign against commercial shipping in the Red Sea, although the Houthis appear to have been able to sustain their attacks without resupply from Iran. Iranian ships deployed off the Yemen coast have been helping the Houthis identify targets for their barrages.

The instability across the region would no doubt increase exponentially if Tehran chose to respond to the Israeli strike by attacking U.S. forces or personnel. An Iranian response against Israel is largely expected and might lead to an Israeli response that would not necessarily alter the fundamental dynamics of what has been more than a decade of Israel-Iranian low-level warfare and six months of October 7-related regional clashes. However, an Iranian military attack primarily on the United States - for example a missile or armed drone attack on a U.S. base - would negate six months of patient and private diplomacy the two countries have conducted to avoid direct conflict. Reflecting the extent to which U.S. officials want to keep Iran’s response to the Israeli action limited, on April 5, a State Department spokesperson told RFE/RL and other outlets that: “[The United States] responded [to Iranian threats] by warning Iran not to use this as a pretext to attack U.S. personnel and facilities." The spokesperson added: "We did not 'ask,'" asserting the U.S. communications to Iran constituted a firm warning of a significant U.S. retaliatory response, not a request for Iranian forbearance.

Taking into account the U.S. warnings, Iranian officials are likely to calibrate Iran’s actions to achieve maximum effect without embroiling the country in warfare with the United States. Many experts speculate that, should Iranian leaders seek to direct their response toward the United States, they might act in the “grey zone” that provides deniability and delays and perhaps limits any U.S. retaliatory response. For example, Iran might try to attack the United States not with military action, but rather with terrorist attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in or outside the region. Iran, in partnership with Hezbollah, has in the past attacked Israeli facilities and citizens in Argentina, India, Thailand, Bulgaria, and elsewhere. Iran was responsible for or involved in attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions not only in Tehran but in Beirut in the years after Iran’s 1979 revolution, but has mostly steered clear of attacking U.S. diplomats directly in recent years. Iran might also attempt disruptive cyberattacks on U.S. facilities in the United States or abroad. On several occasions in recent years, U.S. authorities have cited Iran for cyber operations against U.S. infrastructure facilities. By opting for an attack on the United States short of outright military action, Iranian leaders might calculate they could spark a debate among U.S. leaders about the extent to which the United States should retaliate, if at all.