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After Damascus embassy attack, what will Iran do?

Abbas al-Khashali
April 3, 2024

Iran has vowed to retaliate for an attack on its diplomatic buildings in Syria, likely by Israel. Options include everything from further attacks by Iran's regional proxies to all-out war.

An Iranian flag hangs as smoke rises after what the Iranian media said was an Israeli strike on a building close to the Iranian embassy in Damascus
Image: Firas Makdesi/REUTERS

As soon as the pictures of destroyed buildings, part of an Iranian embassy complex in the Syrian capital, Damascus, turned up online, the question was asked: How would Iran react?

The airstrike killed 13 people, according to Iranian state media. This included five officers and two generals of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Several Syrians were also killed but have not been identified.

The airstrike on the building, marked "consular section of the Iranian embassy" and apparently closed because of a holiday, was widely attributed to Israel even though Israeli officials did not make any comment on the attack. Israel rarely acknowledges strikes on Iranian targets although other news sources, including the New York Times and Reuters cited anonymous Israeli officials who acknowledged they had carried out the airstrike.

Iranian officials reacted angrily. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wrote that Israel "will be punished by the hands of our brave warriors" — a statement observers suggested meant retaliation might come directly from Iran, rather than from its proxies.

Iran supports a number of groups around the region with varying degrees of material, military, financial and advisory aid. This includes Hamas in Gaza, the Houthi rebels in Yemen and various militias in Iraq, who have tended to attack US bases there in retaliation for Israeli actions in the past. It also includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, which plays a significant political and societal role in the country and is the most powerful of various Iranian allies.

Supporters of the Houthi movement rally to denounce air strikes launched by the U.S. and Britain on Houthi targets, in Sanaa, Yemen.
Yemen's Houthi rebels say they have caused havoc on the Red Sea in support of the Palestinian causeImage: Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS

What will Iran do?

The attack on the embassy complex in Damascus "brings Israel's confrontation with Iran and Hezbollah to a new pinnacle," journalist Amos Harel wrote in Israeli daily Haaretz this week. "This may be the most dangerous development on the northern front since the war in Gaza began almost six months ago."

But so far, Harel continued, it is not Iran or Hezbollah that has been raising the stakes on the Israeli-Lebanese border. "To a large extent it was actually Israel that consistently raised the price it exacted from its northern adversary," he wrote, explaining that Israel's target group has expanded as has how far Israeli strikes reach into foreign territory.

Iran knows the rules of the game of "deterrence" it plays with Israel and the US but will be embarrassed if it doesn't respond, Iraqi researcher and political analyst Hamid al-Kafaei told DW Arabic. However al-Kafaei doesn't think Iran will respond directly. "Iran … knows very well that there are no limits to any Israeli response," al-Kafaei  said.

Iran isn't about to do anything major itself, confirms Sharan Tabari, a British-Iranian journalist and an expert on the IRGC based in London. "But it will empower its proxies [to do] more."

Most of the actions the proxies take could be prevented or undone by Israel, the US or other allies, she explains, pointing to how Houthi attacks on the Red Sea have been countered. "So it will all be small things. But Iran will amplify those for domestic consumption," Tabari argues.


What will other Middle Eastern countries do?

A number of countries in the region condemned the attack on the Iranian embassy compound. Saudi Arabia said it rejected any attacks at all on diplomatic facilities and the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Jordan, Oman and Qatar also expressed displeasure.

Israel has previously targeted what it claims are Iranian military objectives inside Syria but they haven't got the same regional reaction. Local experts believe this is because this is the first time Israel has targeted embassy grounds — that is, this is basically an attack on sovereign Iranian territory — and nobody wants to see further attacks on diplomatic buildings, in contravention of international norms and rules, or a regional war as a result. 

The US role

American officials quickly informed Tehran they had not played a role in the strike and observers say it's clear the US would rather the situation in the Middle East calmed, especially with US presidential elections in November.

Netanyahu is under pressure from Washington and he is "running out of time to conduct the war in Gaza," Nicholas Heras, senior director for strategy at the Washington-based New Lines Institute, told news agency AFP. "[He] is instead turning to Lebanon and Syria to weaken the Iranian regional military effort … trying to eliminate the most important and seasoned IRGC commanders to weaken Iranian planning and capabilities."

From the Israeli point of view, the conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah are part of one war being run by the Iranians out of Damascus, Heras added. Netanyahu would expect the US to join Israel if a large-scale war with Iran broke out, he said. 

Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu
Despite US President Biden's (left) support of Israel, tensions are growing between himself and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuImage: Avi Ohayon/dpa/GPO/picture alliance

A larger war?

"Neither Israel nor Iran have the ability or appetite to enter into a big, regional war," London-based researcher Tabari told DW.  And that is for one very important reason, she continued. They simply don't have the support of their own people.

Recent polls show that Netanyahu's political popularity is waning with Israeli voters and "the Israeli government under Netanyahu has really gone too far in their fight against Hamas, which has alienated allies around the world," she says.

"For Israel, it [a war] is perhaps less dangerous politically because Netanyahu's government is going to be replaced anyway," Tabari concluded. "But for Iran, it could be more [politically] costly. The Iranian government does not have the support of its people and this could well be the last nail in its coffin, and could result in regime change in Iran."

This story was originally published in Arabic. With additional reporting by Cathrin Schaer and Youhanna Najdi. 

Why would Israel target Iran's Damascus consulate?