How Israel is raising the risk of a regional war with Iran

Analysis: Israeli strikes are targeting senior Iranian and Hezbollah leaders, a sign that the once-mutual deterrence that prevented war no longer exists.

On 1 April, rockets fired by Israel ripped through Syrian airspace and struck the annexe of the Iranian Embassy’s consular office in Damascus, killing 13 people.

Among those killed was Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force commander in Lebanon and Syria, making him the highest-ranking IRGC member killed since the US assassinated Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January 2020. Zahedi’s deputy, Hadi Haji Rahimi, was also killed in the strike.

In the aftermath, Iran and Hezbollah said that Israel would pay a high price for killing the IRGC commander.

“The evil Zionist regime will be punished by our courageous men. We will make them regret this and other crimes like it,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated.

"What would constitute a breaking point for either Iran or Hezbollah remains unclear, as multiple Israeli strikes in the last six months would have previously been considered to have crossed an unspoken line" 

“This crime indicates that the Israeli enemy is still foolish when it believes that liquidating the leaders can stop the roaring tide of people’s resistance. Certainly, this crime will not pass without the enemy receiving punishment and revenge,” Hezbollah said in a statement released the following day.

Despite the rhetoric coming out of Tehran and Hezbollah, analysts are not so sure that the response to the killing will be as large as the two are making it seem.

“They’ve wiped all Iran-linked deterrence clean. Little boundaries are left there, specifically in relation to such strikes,” Mohanad Hage Ali, the deputy director of research at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The New Arab.

Israel’s free rein assassinations

While Zahedi might be the highest-ranking IRGC figure killed since Soleimani, he is not the only significant leader assassinated since fighting between Hezbollah and Israel started on 8 October, the day after Hamas launched its al-Aqsa Flood Operation.

On 25 December 2023, Razi Mousavi, who was described as Iran’s most influential commander in Syria, was killed in an Israeli strike on the outskirts of Damascus.

Only a couple of weeks later, in Khirbet Slem, in south Lebanon, Wissam Tawil was killed after a bomb was placed under his car. Tawil served as a senior commander in Hezbollah’s elite Radwan Force, a special operations unit named after the party’s slain second-in-command Imad Mughniyeh, and was the highest-ranking Hezbollah commander killed in several years.

Outside of Iran and Hezbollah, Saleh al-Arouri, one of the founding commanders of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, was assassinated in Beirut’s southern suburbs on 2 January, which, until the killing of Marwan Issa in Gaza last month, was the most significant Hamas leader killed by Israel since 7 October.

In the past, such brazen strikes would have seen a major Hezbollah response from south Lebanon as a way of ensuring that Israel does not push things further, or else it would risk a full-scale war that would prove extremely costly for all of those involved.

However, since the recent round of fighting began, Hezbollah has resorted only to firing large rocket barrages at Israeli military positions along the Lebanese-Israeli border – something that amid an already hot conflict fails to ensure any semblance of deterrence.

Iran-backed militias in Iraq have also targeted US military positions in the region but these attacks have essentially come to an end after US soldiers were killed in a drone attack on the Tower 22 base in Jordan, leading to US military reprisals that killed Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari, the head of Harakat al-Nujaba, which the US said was behind the attack.

According to Hage Ali, neither Hezbollah nor Iran are really capable of responding in any meaningful way “without an escalation” which runs the risk of leading to a widening of the conflict which would run contrary to what Iran and Hezbollah have been saying since the beginning about not wanting a full-scale war and remaining in a “support front” for Hamas in Gaza.

"What's very clear is that the status quo is untenable. Iran and Hezbollah are haemorrhaging as a result of their decision to engage in this limited war against Israel. They need to make a decision" 

“The Iranian regime has swallowed bigger pills than that and moved on,” Hage Ali stated.

Firas Maksad, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, agreed with Hage Ali’s assessment, adding that Iran could plan a response for a later date, but even that could never come to fruition.

“The Iranians will have to swallow this – at least in the foreseeable future. A response would most likely stick with Iranian modus operandi which is asymmetric warfare, using its various proxies and allied militia formations throughout the region,” Maksad told The New Arab.

“There might be long-term planning on a response but this might be something similar to the killing of Qassem Soleimani by the United States where there is a much-promised response – at the time there were missile attacks – but, in the larger scheme of things, it passed. This might also pass.”

Ulterior motives

According to Maksad, the Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus could also be about more than just taking out a high-level IRGC commander.

Since the Spring of 2023, there has been an informal understanding between the Iranians and the Biden Administration in which the Iranian government ensured that its uranium enrichment does not surpass 60 percent and, in return, would help keep regional tensions down to a minimum.

That all came to an end on 7 October.

The killing of the US soldiers at the Tower 22 base also nearly pushed things over the brink, but, with the help of the Omanis, a larger crisis was averted.

However, just like with the 2015 nuclear deal brokered between Iran and the Obama Administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is staunchly against any sort of understanding between its key backer and its arch-foe.

“What Bibi Netanyahu here is targeting is not just Iran,” Maksad explained. “I don’t think Netanyahu is comfortable with these understandings that have taken place and taken hold between Iran and the Biden Administration.”

These repeated strikes that target key Iranian and Hezbollah leaders could ultimately help to undo this informal understanding between Iran and the US since, for Iran, “this isn’t working anymore,” Maksad told TNA.

“Clearly there is restraint by its proxies. The Iraqi proxies have been pulled back. Hezbollah is restrained. The Houthis are not causing much damage. But it keeps taking punches. Netanyahu is taking full advantage of that Iranian restraint,” he said, adding that this could “push Iran past the threshold of pain that it can continue to withstand” and “cause the collapse of that Iranian-American understanding”.

What would constitute a breaking point for either Iran or Hezbollah remains unclear, as multiple Israeli strikes in the last six months would have previously been considered to have crossed an unspoken line.

"Without deterrence, Israel could become emboldened enough to go after a high net worth Iranian or Hezbollah target" 

No more red lines

In an August 2023 speech, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah made a clear line in the sand for Israel: any assassinations in Lebanon will see a major Hezbollah retaliation no matter who was killed.

“Any assassination on Lebanese lands, that targets a Lebanese or a Syrian or an Iranian or a Palestinian, there will be a strong response,” Nasrallah stated at the time. “We will not allow it to be tolerated and we will not allow Lebanon to become a new field of assassinations for Israel.”

While Hezbollah’s massive rocket attacks in response to the killings over the last six months could be classified as “strong,” they have failed to re-establish any semblance of deterrence between the two sides.

Both Hage Ali and Maksad argue that there are not any red lines to be crossed at this point given that Israel has been able to kill whoever it wants without facing any serious consequences from Hezbollah.

“So far, Israel has crossed so many red lines that the colour doesn’t bear any meaning,” Hage Ali stated bluntly. This leaves Iran and Hezbollah with few options.

One route that they could take is the diplomatic path in which international mediation, especially from the Americans, helps to find a way to de-escalate the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel.

However, there have been no signs that either Iran or Hezbollah are interested in this at the moment.

The other option is for Iran and Hezbollah to try and restore a level of deterrence with Israel by risking an escalation.

Without deterrence, Israel could become emboldened enough to go “after a high net worth target like a Nasrallah or a Naim Qassem [Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general],” Maksad explained.

“What’s very clear is that the status quo is untenable. Iran and Hezbollah are haemorrhaging as a result of their decision to engage in this limited war against Israel. They need to make a decision,” he stated.

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