Four ways Iran could retaliate against Israel’s latest strike

Iran is vowing to respond to Israel’s strike last week that killed seven Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officials, including Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi. Zahedi was not just another senior Iranian official. Reportedly the commander of the IRGC’s overseas paramilitary organization, known as the Quds Force, in Syria and Lebanon, he was among the most prominent and important Quds Force leaders—and one of Hezbollah’s primary interlocutors.

The strike was in line with Israel’s efforts to kill Iranian officials whom it views as posing a direct threat to Israel because of their position and responsibilities. Since the Israel-Hamas conflict broke out six months ago, Israel is reported to have killed eighteen IRGC officials. But while Israel might view the strike on Zahedi as being consistent with its shadow war strategy, it comes amid the conflict in Gaza, hostilities on the Israel-Lebanon border, and threats from the Houthis and Shia militants in Iraq and Syria. Taken together, it creates a context in which Israeli adversaries almost certainly viewed the killing of Zahedi as escalatory.

Tehran’s policy of “strategic patience” might still sway Iranian officials, and ultimately Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, to respond in a measured way. But some response—unlike with the deaths of previous IRGC officials—is almost certain to occur, or Tehran would be risking its credibility given how loudly it has been saber-rattling about retaliation. Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations said last Thursday that he would give interviews to US news outlets “after Iran’s response to Israel.”

The type of action will directly determine whether the response is the conclusion of this incident or just the prologue to something much bigger—like a broader regional war.

Four pathways of retaliation
The big question is: Does Iran want to retaliate in a manner that is equivalent to the loss of Zahedi? Or does Tehran want the appearance of retaliation, sufficient to claim it responded appropriately but with a goal of avoiding an Israeli counter-response that could lead to a regional war?

The answer to that question will determine what happens next. Four broad scenarios are most realistic—with others, such as Iran using this episode as an excuse to race for a nuclear weapon, plausible but unlikely. Each scenario has value for Iran and risks associated with it. The decision will reveal whether Iran’s true priority is to create meaningful deterrence against Israel or to avoid regional escalation—because Tehran probably cannot do both.

  1. Iran’s response is asymmetric and not in the region. Iran has a history of seeking to organize terrorist attacks against Israeli interests throughout the world. Just last month, Peruvian police arrested a Quds Force officer alleged to have been plotting to kill an Israeli official during the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. In June 2022, then Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid urged Israelis to leave Turkey immediately, claiming they may be targets, weeks after IRGC Col. Sayyad Khodai was shot dead outside of his home in Tehran. Less than two weeks later, Turkey arrested members of an Iranian terror cell. This time, Iranian officials are already threatening Israeli embassies and consulates as a likely target.

Value: A successful terrorist attack would probably provide Iranian leaders a sufficient basis to publicly claim that Tehran retaliated. But it would minimize the risks of escalating the current conflict into a regional war by keeping the response to an isolated event both in scope and geography.
Risk: Tehran may not be convinced that such an act will sufficiently deter Israel from continuing its efforts to kill senior Iranian officials and experts, and may therefore conclude that it is insufficient as a response to Zahedi’s death.

  1. Iran leverages its partners or proxies, such as Hezbollah, to undertake an attack or strike targets inside Israel. Hezbollah has its own independent decision-making calculus when it comes to hostile engagement with Israel. But if Iran insists that Hezbollah take action to retaliate for the death of the Quds Force official closest to the group, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah might struggle to decline that request. If he carried it out, he would probably undertake a response that he could claim is a successful retaliation but that would not be seen by Israel as particularly escalatory or more threatening than the back-and-forth strikes of the last few months.

Value: Iran would turn to its most trusted partner, optimistic that by not undertaking the attack itself it decreases the risk of an Israeli military response on the Iranian homeland. Avoiding a homeland attack is almost certainly an Iranian priority, as Tehran’s number one objective is always regime stability, and Iranian leaders might worry that the public will blame them for such an attack.
Risk: This scenario would risk the worst of all outcomes for Iran: It may be perceived as too weak to restore deterrence against Israel. And, at a time when tensions between Israel and Hezbollah are already high, Israel could use the retaliation as an excuse to undertake a broader war against the group, which could both degrade Iran’s most important ally in the region and quickly escalate into the regional war Iran doesn’t want.

  1. Iran leverages its Shia proxies in Iraq or Syria to strike US targets. Iranian proxies haven’t attacked US forces in Iraq or Syria since late January when three US soldiers in Jordan were killed and Iran immediately sought to distance itself from the attack to avoid risking a conflict with the United States and a broader regional war. Among those in Tehran last week for the annual Quds Day rally in support of the Palestinians was Abu Fadak al-Muhammadawi, the leader of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the umbrella organization for various Iraqi Shia militia groups supported by Iran. PMF leaders are reported to be waiting for instructions from Tehran on responding to Zahedi’s death.

Value: In Iran’s view, this option could increase deterrence by highlighting that the United States will not be absolved from Israel’s actions; this would be the inverse, perhaps, of Washington’s view that Iran was accountable for the 10/7 Hamas terrorist attack even if it did not specifically order the attack. Iran probably would believe that any US response would not be overly large, needing to be sufficiently calibrated to meet the consistent US priority of avoiding a broader regional war.
Risk: The United States went out of its way last week after the strike to publicly highlight that it had not played a role and wasn’t aware Israel was planning the strike. If Iranian proxies nevertheless attack US personnel and interests in the region, the Biden administration might, and should, view it necessary to respond swiftly in a manner that far exceeds what Iran thinks is likely and goes beyond Washington’s response in early February to the attack that killed three US service members.

  1. Iran militarily attacks the Israeli homeland and/or kills senior Israeli officials. A kinetic attack using ballistic missiles or drones against Israeli homeland targets would be the most impactful, and risky, option available to Tehran. While Iran might seek to prevent escalation to a full-scale war—for example, by striking military or intelligence targets only, as opposed to civilian ones—this is still a risky step given that Iran has been trying to avoid a wider conflict for which it is likely ill-prepared.

Value: Tehran is likely to view such an attack as having the best opportunity to restore its deterrence and demonstrate that Israel cannot strike Iranian leaders with impunity. Tehran might also believe such an attack could lead the United States to increase pressure on Israel not to retaliate again and risk sparking a broader war. Such a view, however, risks overestimating both the US ability to influence Israel in such a situation and President Joe Biden’s willingness to do so.
Risk: Israel would almost certainly respond fulsomely to a loss of civilian or military personnel in Israel or to the assassination of senior officials. This option has a high potential to trigger a full-scale, region-wide war.

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