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Iran vows retaliation on Israel after commanders’ deaths, growing fears of war spiraling

Monday’s airstrike on the Syrian capital is reverberating across the Middle East, raising fears that the war between Israel and Hamas could flare into a wider conflict.

On Tuesday, Iran vowed retaliation for the suspected Israeli attack on its embassy compound in Damascus that killed two of the country’s top commanders. The attack also killed five military advisers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s immensely powerful military and political organization.

Among those killed was Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior commander in the Quds Force, the IRGC’s elite foreign espionage group, the IRGC said. Zahedi was a key figure in coordinating the so-called Axis of Resistance — the anti-Israel, anti-West network of Iran-backed groups that operate with militants from across the Arab world. He is the most senior Iranian official to be killed since Gen. Qassem Soleimani was targeted by an American airstrike in 2020.

While much of the international attention has been focused on another Israeli strike that killed seven aid workers in Gaza, the Damascus bombing risks pushing archenemies Iran and Israel into a direct confrontation, according to to Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

Like many experts, Vakil believes that neither Israel nor Iran want an all-out conflict.

Israel is probably judging that the best way to avoid this, she said, is to mete out targeted attacks against Iranian proxies to “create deterrence across all of its borders.”

“This is a clear escalation and it could provoke something” wider, she said, but Israel is banking on Iran and its proxies continuing to react cautiously to its aggressions.

Israel has not commented on the attack, but it has previously acknowledged targeting Iranian forces in Syria, where they are deployed to support President Bashar al-Assad in an ongoing conflict against a patchwork of rebel groups.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant appeared to obliquely reference the Damascus strike while speaking to a parliamentary committee Tuesday.

“We are currently in a multifront war — we see evidence of this every day, including over the last few days,” Gallant said, according to a statement from his office. “We operate everywhere, every day, in order to prevent our enemies from gaining strength and in order to make it clear to anyone who threatens us — all over the Middle East — that the price for such action will be a big one.”

Iran’s reaction has been purely rhetorical so far.

“This cowardly crime will not go unanswered,” President Ebrahim Raisi said in a statement, according to the country’s state-run media. Israel “must know that it will never achieve its goals,” he added.

Iran “reserves the right to take countermeasures against the attack and will make a decision as to how to punish the aggressor,” its Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Hussein Akbari, the Iranian ambassador whose Damascus residence was destroyed in the attack, warned on X: “We will reciprocate when we want.”

The United States, Israel’s biggest military funder and supplier, did not know about the strike in Syria and was not involved in any way, two U.S. officials told NBC News. Two other U.S. officials said the administration was told about the operation while Israeli planes were in the air but didn’t know what the target was.
Yet the international focus has been on the war in Gaza, where Israel is fighting to uproot the militant group Hamas. But Israel is arguably more concerned about Hezbollah, the militant group and political party in Lebanon. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are backed by Iran and form part of the “Axis of Resistance,” alongside the Houthis in Yemen and powerful militias in Iraq.

Michael Stephens, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank, said the attack on the Iranian Embassy in Syria is a warning.

“My view is that, yes, it is an escalation, but also a message from the Israelis that this can get bad real quick on a much wider front if war breaks out over the northern border,” he said. Each side is trying to send each other messages “while trying not to let the pot boil over,” he added.

Iran said the attack struck the embassy compound’s consular section, which typically provides support to nationals living in that country. Israeli officials have disputed this account, however, saying in interviews that their intelligence suggests the compound was not in fact a civilian building but a Quds Force military headquarters in disguise.

The IRGC did say that two commanders had been killed in the attack, Zahedi and Gen. Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi, as well as five other members.

Zahedi is “an important figure within the IRGC who has risen through the ranks over many generations and is close to key leadership,” Vakil said. “He’s been responsible for coordinating Hezbollah, Palestinian groups, Syrian groups and Iraqi groups, and this coordination capacity has elevated his importance, and helped enable the Axis of Resistance to become a transnational entity.”

He is the latest IRGC official killed in an apparent Israeli strike. Before him, Soleimani was killed by an American airstrike in 2020.

Soleimani was a talismanic, quasi-spiritual figure both politically and militarily in Iran. The regime has since decentralized power among a number of top officials, and so Zahedi’s death is not likely to carry the same resonance.

All the same, “this will sting,” said Stephens. “I do think the Iranians will have to respond. The question is how and against who?”