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Business News/ Politics / With its latest assassination, Israel is testing Iran

With its latest assassination, Israel is testing Iran

The Economoist

It is a dangerous game in a region already at war

Anti-government protesters stage a four-day sit-in Jerusalem on April 2, 2024. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (AFP)Premium
Anti-government protesters stage a four-day sit-in Jerusalem on April 2, 2024. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (AFP)

It is hard to say which was more significant: who was killed, or where. On April 1st a suspected Israeli air strike flattened a building at the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus. The blast killed seven people, among them several high-ranking Iranian officers. It was a serious escalation in the long shadow war between Israel and Iran, hitting a target that should have been off-limits under international norms. The question now is how Iran will choose to respond—and whether it does so by attacking Israel itself or its main foreign backer, America.

The strike killed General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a commander of the Quds Force, the expeditionary wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He had served for years as the group’s head of operations in Syria and Lebanon; Arab and Israeli analysts say he was close to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia militia and political party. His deputy and five other IRGC officers were also killed in the blast. The general was the highest-ranking Iranian commander to be assassinated since America killed Qassem Suleimani with a drone strike in 2020.

Israeli officials did not publicly claim responsibility for the strike (though in private they leave little doubt about their role). But they did argue that whoever bombed the embassy compound had a right to do so. Daniel Hagari, the army spokesman, described the building in question as a “military building…disguised as a civilian building".

It is true that the IRGC officers were not in Damascus to negotiate lower pistachio tariffs. And it is galling to hear Iranian officials invoke the sanctity of consular buildings, when the first major act of the newly established Islamic Republic was to take hostages at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. But that sanctity is nonetheless a long-standing global norm. If the mere presence of military men was enough to override it, some of Israel’s own embassies would be legitimate targets too. Even Saudi Arabia, a longtime rival of Iran, was quick to denounce the strike, although it did not name Israel in its condemnation.

Since October 7th, when Hamas militants crossed the border from Gaza and killed more than 1,100 people, Israel has been fighting on two fronts: against Hamas in Gaza, and against a wider array of Iranian-backed militias across the region. The most powerful of those is Hizbullah, which has carried out near-daily missile attacks against towns and army bases in northern Israel. But the group has held back from all-out war: most Lebanese do not want their country dragged into one, and Iran is wary about risking its most useful proxy.

Israel, in turn, has been avoiding striking too deep into Lebanon, lest it elicit a heavier response from Hizbullah. It has mostly limited its bombing to southern Lebanon, though in recent weeks it has struck further into the Bekaa valley, a fertile expanse in the country’s east where Hizbullah also has a big presence. It has no such reservations about hitting Syria, however. After a decade of civil war, Bashar al-Assad’s regime is too brittle to fight back, and the Iranian-backed militias in Syria lack the enormous arsenal of their Hizbullah comrades in neighbouring Lebanon.

Syria offers a long list of targets: Iranian officers, allied militiamen and shipments of weapons bound for Hizbullah. It has turned into a free-fire zone for Israel, which has carried out dozens of strikes in Syria since October 7th, wiping out most of the IRGC’s top leadership in the country. On Christmas Day it killed an Iranian general in Damascus; in mid-January it killed five officers, including the IRGC’s intelligence chief in Syria. Other strikes have targeted Hizbullah, including an attack on Aleppo’s airport on March 29th that killed seven members of the group and dozens of Syrian soldiers.

After the Suleimani assassination, Iran made do with firing a barrage of ballistic missiles at two American bases in Iraq in reply—the largest such attack to date, but hardly the sort of fire-and-brimstone response demanded by some hardliners. There may be more domestic pressure to respond this time: Iran has weathered months of Israeli attacks, and by striking a consular building Israel has now in effect bombed Iranian soil. Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, suggested that Iran might respond directly rather than through its proxies. “The evil regime will be punished by the hands of our brave warriors," he said in a statement on April 2nd.

That may well be empty talk. Iran always prefers to fight through others. The night before the embassy strike, a drone launched from Iraq hit a naval base in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city. A coalition of pro-Iranian militias took credit. Iran may now approve more such attacks—and may also lash out at America.

The two countries have tried to de-escalate tensions since January 28th, when an Iranian-backed group launched a drone at an American base in north-eastern Jordan and killed three soldiers. In response, America bombed Iranian targets in Iraq and Syria. Nervous about further escalation, Iran told its proxies to suspend further attacks on American troops, and they begrudgingly obliged. American officials have made it known publicly that they had no advance knowledge of the Israeli attack in Damascus, a message they also passed via intermediaries to their Iranian counterparts.

The Iranians sound unconvinced. “America must be held accountable," said Hossein Amirabdollahian, the foreign minister, on April 2nd. Ali Shamkhani, an adviser to the supreme leader, made similar comments, arguing that America holds “direct responsibility" for the attack. Hours after the embassy was bombed, American troops shot down an attack drone flying near al-Tanf, a remote American garrison in eastern Syria. Officials are not sure whether the drone was targeting the base. Still, it was the first such incident since early February.

Israel is playing a risky game in Syria. It thinks it has a rare opportunity to damage Iran’s proxies in the region, and that Iran is too nervous about a broader war to retaliate in a big way. So far, that gamble has proved correct. But past performance is no guarantee of future results: if Israel pushes too far, the region could find itself in a far messier conflict.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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Published: 03 Apr 2024, 09:22 AM IST
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