May 19, 2024

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Iran indicates “thoughtful” retaliation for the Israeli strike

Iran indicates “thoughtful” retaliation for the Israeli strike

Iran has signaled to its allies and Western countries that it will respond to a suspected Israeli airstrike on its consulate in Damascus in a “calculated” way to head off a full-blown regional conflict, according to officials familiar with the talks.

An official familiar with the talks between Iran and Oman, the Gulf state that has often facilitated back-channel diplomacy between Tehran and Washington, said Tehran was unlikely to target Israeli diplomatic facilities in the region.

US intelligence about any impending attack appears to be detailed and specific, according to officials familiar with the situation, giving Israel an opportunity to prepare its defenses.

President Joe Biden said in Washington on Friday that he expects an Iranian attack on Israel “sooner rather than later” and that his advice to Tehran is “don't.”

Biden added: “We are committed to defending Israel, we will support Israel, we will help defend Israel, and Iran will not succeed.”

The April 1 airstrike on Iran's diplomatic compound in Syria, for which Israel has not publicly claimed responsibility, has dramatically increased tensions with Israel, threatening to turn the long-running shadow war between the two regional rivals into a direct confrontation.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei twice vowed to make Israel “regret” the killing of Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the commander of Iran's Quds Force in Syria and Lebanon, and six other military officials on Iranian “territory.”

But diplomatic calls this week between Iran, its regional allies and European capitals have led at least some Western officials to conclude that Iran is preparing a response aimed at demonstrating deterrence while also showing restraint.

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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei looks at the coffins of Revolutionary Guard members killed in the Israeli airstrike in Damascus during their funeral in Tehran on April 4. © Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/Wana/Reuters

A regime insider in Tehran said he was willing to wait for the right time to maximize the political impact of the final response. He noted that Iran is deliberately seeking to exhaust Israel, both by creating a state of psychological uncertainty and forcing it to remain on high alert. He added that Iran would use a “range” of options in its attacks against Israel, without providing further details.

Iran's expected response has created a sense of anxiety in Israel, with the government warning citizens against hoarding generators and essential supplies.

There are several factors that may prevent Iran from attempting to strike an Israeli diplomatic mission. “[Tehran] It cannot risk further international isolation by attacking Israel [diplomatic] “They are targets in a friendly country, and they cannot easily target Israeli diplomatic assets in unfriendly countries,” one Western official said. “It limits their options.”

The Western official said that even a direct attack on Israeli territory would likely be “thought out” in a way that would demonstrate a strong response, without provoking Israeli retaliation that would lead to the destruction of Iranian assets in Lebanon and Syria, while warning that a miscalculation was possible.

Israel has prepared for any range of attacks, from medium-range missiles and drones launched by Iranian-affiliated militias in Lebanon and Syria, to long-range missiles launched from further afield.

Despite their long history of hostility, Israel and Iran have never exchanged fire using strikes launched from their territory. Only once — in 2018 — have Iranian forces stationed in Syria fired directly at Israel.

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A display showing the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem shows Iranians killed in Damascus
A display showing the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem shows Iranians killed in Damascus, as well as allied Lebanese and Palestinians, at Tehran's embassy in Beirut on April 8 © Hassan Ammar/AFP

Iran has been enhancing its military support for decades in Lebanon, and for more than a decade in Syria, but has not deployed it fully against Israel. Tehran also strictly refrained from engaging in direct clashes with Israel, and chose not to respond to the assassinations of nuclear and security personnel inside the Islamic Republic in recent years, which it blamed on the Israeli spy agency Mossad.

Analysts and officials in Tehran have long warned of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempt to lure Iran into a direct confrontation, which the regime sought to avoid.

Senior Israeli officials have threatened to respond not only defensively, but offensively to any attack. This includes striking Iran directly if Israel is targeted from Iranian territory.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday, “Whoever harms us, we will harm him.”

Western diplomats said Israel may be able to tolerate an attack that causes only some material damage to military facilities. But if civilians or soldiers were killed, that would trigger a broader Israeli response.

Netanyahu also held a meeting of Israel's Defense Cabinet late Friday afternoon, in an extraordinary meeting before Saturday, to discuss contingency planning ahead of any Iranian strike.

Israel and the United States, which have strengthened their military presence in the region to deter Iran and its proxies, prepared to launch attacks on military sites in the border areas of northern Israel, where most of the civilian population had already been evacuated, an Israeli official said.

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General Michael Corella, the top US commander in the Middle East, is visiting Israel and meeting with senior Israeli defense and military officials to help prepare for a possible military response. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Israeli counterpart on Thursday evening “to confirm full American support for defending Israel against Iranian attacks,” according to the Pentagon.

Israel has already beefed up the personnel and equipment of its air defense system, which includes Iron Dome to shoot down low-range missiles, and systems such as David's Sling and Arrow, designed to protect against long-range ballistic missiles. Leave has been canceled for almost all Israeli combat forces.

US officials said they had moved additional military assets to the region in preparation for any possible response.

The Western official, who was briefed on Iran's communications with its regional allies, said that it is possible that Iran will deploy a new missile capability for the first time, which indicates technical prowess and the extent of its ability to punish Israel.

Iran's official news agency (IRNA) published a list of Iranian drones on Friday, which it said could cover a distance of 1,600 kilometers from Tehran to Tel Aviv.