Iran’s failed attack on Israel a mere face-saving exercise

Iran’s failed attack on Israel a mere face-saving exercise

The much-anticipated Iranian response has happened and now the ball is in Israel’s court. (Screenshots)
The much-anticipated Iranian response has happened and now the ball is in Israel’s court. (Screenshots)
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On April 1, Israel reportedly struck the Iranian consulate in Damascus, causing the death of Brig. Gen. Mohammed Reza Zahedi, the Quds Force commander overseeing Syria and Lebanon, and six other military personnel, including his deputy Mohammed Hadi Haji Rahimi.
This operation was in line with Israeli military objectives to target pro-Iranian military forces present in Syria. Nevertheless, it was the first time that an Israeli assault was directed against an Iranian diplomatic building. Moreover, it represented a change in the conflict’s rules of engagement. Israel was not targeting arms supplies to Hezbollah or pushing Iranian-backed groups away from its border. This attack was designed to eliminate so-called Iranian military advisers in Syria.
This new Israeli military strategy in Syria was implemented in the wake of Oct. 7. Before that date, Israel’s military objectives in Syria were mainly focused on targeting Iranian affiliates or proxies present in the country. After Oct. 7, Israel understood the limitations and shortcomings of its containment strategy vis-a-vis pro-Iranian forces in Syria.
On Dec. 25, the elimination of Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a high-ranking Iranian general, in Damascus marked a new phase in the evolution of the Israeli military strategy in Syria. This direct targeting of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel in Syria continued after the end of 2023. Indeed, in the six months following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Tel Aviv carried out more than 50 airstrikes in Syria, including five on Aleppo airport, two on the adjacent Nayrab military airport, four on Damascus airport and one on the Mezzeh military airport.
Since Oct. 7, Israeli airstrikes have targeted 18 to 20 IRGC personnel in Syria, as well as about 32 from Lebanese Hezbollah and one from Hamas. Following the April 1 Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Tehran warned of “the harshest” of responses. Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, said: “Iran will determine the timing and the type of operation against Israel. The operation will be done in a careful manner, imposing maximum damage on the enemy, in such a way that it will regret its move.”
Israel has been preparing for an Iranian military response. Almost 30 Israeli embassies globally have been temporarily shut and Israel’s population has stocked up on water and food. It was known that there would be a retaliation. The question was when and, above all, where.
On April 2 and 4, cruise missiles and Katyusha rockets were fired toward the occupied Golan Heights. Moreover, in the wake of the consulate attack, US forces intercepted two drones in Syria, suggesting that the pause in attacks against them since early February may have ended.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that the attack on the Iranian consulate would “be punished” and other officials signaled that Iran’s response would be significant enough to deter Israel from repeating its act or escalating further.
However, Tehran did not seem to have many positive options. If it retaliated too strongly, with a direct strike from Iranian territory against targets inside Israel, there would be a risk of a broader military escalation and a direct conflict between Iran and the US.

The regime would have known that the missiles and drones would have been easily intercepted. 

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

Iran also had the option of targeting Israeli diplomatic sites in a third country, possibly in Africa, South America or Asia. This could be considered as a proportional response. But targeting Israeli diplomatic sites with Iranian missiles and drones or using proxies in a covert operation could be perceived as too weak of a military response and not sufficient to deter Israel from continuing its targeting of Iranian military targets in Syria and beyond.
An Iranian military response considered to be too weak could also weaken the IRGC’s power inside Iran, given the high level of discontent in the country, and simultaneously incentivize the regime’s opponents to challenge the security apparatus and discourage the hard-line supporters of the IRGC from supporting the system. The hard-liners have been asking for revenge after the Israeli operation in Damascus and there was a risk that the Iranian leadership would not consider this internal pressure in its decision to retaliate.
Another possibility for Iran’s military forces was to pursue the harassment of Israeli military forces using its proxies and partners. Tehran could intensify proxy attacks by increasing their number and/or transferring more sophisticated weapons. This option was less attractive, as Iran needed to be able to claim responsibility for the attack.
Moreover, the recent change in Iran’s management of its network of influence includes more high-profile interventionism and a direct supervision of pro-Iranian forces in the Middle East since Oct. 7. This option would also probably have failed to satisfy the most hard-line supporters of the system inside Iran and would not have been sufficient to deter further attacks from Israel against Iranian military forces in Syria.
Whether or not Iran’s military retaliation provokes a wider regional escalation, Tehran’s objective is clear: to deter any future Israeli attack while not provoking a full-scale war between Iran and the US. This is why the need to calibrate the Iranian military response after the Israeli attack in Syria was so difficult to define in Iran.
Ultimately, before taking any decision, the priority of Khamenei was to guarantee the survival of the Islamic Republic and not to pursue an ideological or direct military conflict against Israel and, more broadly, against US military forces in the region. The fear of the fall of the Islamic Republic was the main political limitation in shaping Iran’s military response to the Israeli attack in Syria.
Based on the latest events, it seems that Iran has employed its response, with news of Iranian proxies launching attacks from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. To soften the criticism that was expected, the Iranian regime also fired missiles at Israel and sent waves of armed drones toward it.
The regime would have known that the missiles and drones would have been easily intercepted by Israel’s air defenses, but it seems likely this was an arranged face-saving exercise to blunt criticism and boost its support and legitimacy, especially among its key hard-line constituencies. The Iranian aim was to reestablish some level of deterrence, deter further Israeli attacks and prevent a direct full-blown confrontation by launching a soft direct attack on Israel.
In addition, this unsuccessful attack likely inhibits Israel from launching direct attacks on Iran. Instead, it will probably continue with targeting Iranian interests, proxies and infrastructure in Syria or IRGC personnel and those connected to Iran’s nuclear program inside the country.
The much-anticipated Iranian response has happened and now the ball is in Israel’s court. But what is for sure is that the US will be applying pressure on the Netanyahu government to not respond or at least to limit its response to prevent a tit-for-tat escalation that has the possibility of engulfing the whole region in conflict.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). X: @mohalsulami
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