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On the evening of April 13, Iran launched approximately 130 drones, 30 ballistic missiles, and 120 cruise missiles towards Israel, 99% of which were shot down, according to IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari. The attack represents one more step on a path of escalation that may not have reached its endpoint. Following the Israeli army's attack on the Iranian consulate building in Syria on April 1, Joe Biden issued a warning that Tehran stands ready to retaliate with a “serious attack” at any given moment. The recent assassination of high-ranking officers from the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) in Damascus has thrust the Middle East into the shadow of a potential large-scale conflict, one with implications reaching far beyond the region's borders. While the possibility of Israel and Iran continuing their hostilities without formally declaring war remains, as they have done for years with varying degrees of intensity, it is important to note that such actions could still result in collateral damage for third-party nations. Against this backdrop, the recent increase in dialogue between the U.S. and Iran takes on a renewed sense of urgency and significance.

Content
  • Unprecedented attack

  • Taking revenge

  • Improving Iran-US relations

  • Undeclared war

  • Role of Syria

  • Changes post-October 7th

Unprecedented attack

In the run-up to Saturday night’s Iranian attack on Israel targets, CBS reported that the U.S. has received intelligence indicating Iran plans a retaliatory strike using Shahed drones and cruise missiles. Official sources had indicated that the timing and targets of such an attack were unknown, as was the launching ground. In the end, it appears that Iranian, Yemeni, and Iraqi territory were used, with Hezbollah also firing off several dozen rockets from its base in southern Lebanon.

The Iranian barrage was widely seen as retaliation for an April 1 attack on an Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus, Syria. That missile strike resulted in the deaths of Iranian Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi of the country’s Al-Quds Force, six other officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), several Syrians, and multiple members of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. Iran swiftly pointed the finger at Israel for the attack. While Israel refrained from officially claiming responsibility, there remains little doubt in the minds of many within the region and beyond that Israel was indeed behind the strike.

On Monday, April 8, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian made a visit to Damascus, where he leveled accusations against the United States, alleging complicity in what he termed “Zionist aggression.” He pointed to Israel's use of American weapons and aircraft as evidence, asserting that the “Zionist regime must be punished,” and calling for America to be “held accountable.”

As a result, concerns mounted about the potential outbreak of a major war in the Middle East. However, this was not the first instance of Israel targeting IRGC officers in Syria. According to regional sources, there have been at least 18 such incidents in the last six months, all attributed to Israel. Among the casualties were other high-ranking, well-known figures.

In November, Colonel Daud Jafari of the IRGC Aerospace Force was killed in a bomb explosion in Damascus. He had been involved in a 2014 incident in which American sailors in the Persian Gulf were taken hostage, and he was implicated in the downing of a Ukrainian airliner by Iranian forces over Tehran in 2020, allegedly giving the order to fire.

In December, Brigadier General Saeed Reza Musavi of the IRGC fell victim to a rocket attack in Damascus. He was considered a close associate and friend of Qasem Soleimani, the former IRGC's Quds Force commander who was killed by an American drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020. Musavi was responsible for coordinating the activities of Iranian military advisors in Syria and Lebanon and had survived at least two assassination attempts.

Among the five Al-Quds Force officers killed in yet another strike on Damascus — this one in January 2024 — was one of the deputies of the late Soleimani and the head of the intelligence unit of the Al-Quds Force in Syria, Hajjatullah Omidvar. He is believed to have been involved in planning attacks on American bases located on Syrian territory.

However, in the case of the April 1 strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, there are several noteworthy details. The killing of Mohammad Reza Zahedi marks the second-largest loss for Iran since the death of Qasem Soleimani. According to sources cited by Amwaj.media, a website specializing in Iranian developments, Zahedi was the sole non-Lebanese member of the Shura Council of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. Additionally, he held veto power within the movement’s Jihad Council.

The killing of Mohammad Reza Zahedi marks the second-largest loss for Iran since the death of Qasem Soleimani

It's crucial to note that the attack targeted a building believed to have diplomatic immunity, at least as perceived by Tehran. Iranian officials were confident in its absolute safety until now. For instance, in December, Israeli agents waited for Saeed Reza Musavi to leave the diplomatic mission's premises before assassinating him. However, the Israelis now demonstrate that they no longer recognize such limitations. The spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces, Daniel Hagari, while not admitting his country's responsibility for the incident, pointed out that the building did not belong to a consulate. According to him, it housed the headquarters of the Al-Quds special forces and was merely disguised as a civilian building, thus making it a legitimate military target.

Iran, unsurprisingly, vowed retaliation. In the days after the strike, the country's entire military and political leadership made statements to this effect, declaring that it will occur at a time convenient for Tehran and in a manner deemed necessary by Iran. Whether or not Saturday night’s aerial assault marks the end of the retaliatory cycle remains to be seen. The attack appears to have been successfully repulsed by IDF forces working with the support of Israel’s Western allies, with U.S. forces claiming to have intercepted in excess of 70 drones and at least three ballistic missiles themselves.

In the days before the drone and missile barrage was launched, a senior Iranian official informed Reuters that Tehran would be compelled to take serious measures to deter Israel from repeating attacks like the one on the consulate. However, he added that the response would be limited and aimed at containment rather than escalation. Many experts agree that Iran is not interested in expanding the geographical scope of the conflict in the Middle East, let alone bringing it onto its own territory.

Iran is not interested in expanding the geographical scope of the conflict in the Middle East, let alone bringing it onto its own territory

The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has always been cautious in his approach to geopolitical matters, avoiding hasty decisions. Many remember an incident in August 1998 when, following an attack on the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif (Afghanistan) that resulted in the deaths of a dozen diplomats, the Iranian army mobilized towards the Afghan border. However, Ayatollah Khamenei did not endorse a military operation.

A more recent example is the assassination of Soleimani by American forces. Soleimani, as the head of the Al-Quds Force, held considerable influence in Iran, second only to Ayatollah Khamenei. Following the commander’s death, there were fears of a major regional conflict. However, the most dramatic visible result involved Iran striking an American base in Iraq — with reports at the time suggesting that the Americans had been forewarned, possibly in an attempt to limit casualties and thus freeze any potential escalation cycle in place. The injuries that American personnel suffered were largely limited to concussion.

Now the question arises: did the attack of April 13 constitute the totality of Iran’s response? On one hand, the Iranian authorities could not ignore the attack on their diplomatic mission in Damascus. Failure to respond could have undermined their authority, both domestically and among their proxies. Despite threats made against Israel, previous actions have not led to significant consequences for the Jewish state, sparking ridicule on Iranian social media, and members of the Iranian parliament were likely concerned that the government's delayed response could have weakened the Islamic Republic's leadership role in the “axis of resistance.”

To maintain political and social support, Tehran may feel compelled to respond even more decisively. However, choosing the method and timing of retaliation is no easy task, especially as voices within the Iranian elite advocate for a more cautious and prudent approach, urging against hasty decisions.

Taking revenge

An aerial bombardment was not Iran’s only potential means of retaliation, and Tehran may yet turn to its other levers of influence if its standoff with Israel continues to escalate. One such option involves the use of its proxies, united along the so-called “axis of resistance.” This coalition includes Hezbollah, the Yemeni-based Houthi movement Ansar Allah, and various Shiite groups in Iraq and Syria. All of these entities have already engaged in conflicts with Israel to varying degrees. Under Iran's directives, they could escalate their activities further: launching more rocket attacks aimed at Israeli territory, or mirroring the actions of the Houthis, who in recent months have taken to targeting commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea.

Another option would be to take aim at Israeli diplomatic missions or offices of Jewish organizations in third countries. One particularly vulnerable potential target is the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, a point that has been highlighted in various political statements. The principle of “an eye for an eye” seems evident here.

Iran must choose a country for the strike where diplomatic relations won't suffer, or where they simply have no room to deteriorate

There are also more intricate options to consider, including those that involve the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has been treading carefully in this regard. Its uranium enrichment levels are nearing weapons-grade, making crossing that threshold relatively easy — but it has thus far refrained from crossing that threshold, as doing so could complicate Tehran’s already delicate relationships with the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as with the U.S. and EU. Still, the potential for nuclear coercion remains.

Improving Iran-US relations

The recent escalation around Israel and Iran is all the more notable given the recent uptick in Tehran’s diplomatic engagement with Western states. Reports emerged in March indicating that the U.S. and Iran had resumed communication through various channels, using Oman as the site of discussions between officials of the two interlocutors. The talks, which took place in January, revolved around topics including Iran's nuclear program and attacks by Ansar Allah on vessels in the Red Sea. The U.S. was hopeful that Iran could rein in the Houthis and quell its other proxies, particularly in Iraq and Syria, which had targeted American military installations in retaliation for Washington's support of Israel.

From October 2023 to February 2024, the frequency of such attacks was approximately twenty times higher than it had been in the four months preceding the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, and they included a January strike on a Jordanian base that resulted in the deaths of three American servicemen. In response, the U.S. launched a substantial strike of its own against positions held by pro-Iranian militants in Iraq and Syria. This approach proved more efficacious than diplomatic negotiations.

The strike on positions held by pro-Iranian militants in Iraq and Syria proved more efficacious than diplomatic negotiations

The second round of negotiations, initially scheduled for February, failed to materialize. One explanation suggests this was due to Iran's dissatisfaction with the U.S. role as a mediator in the Gaza conflict. However, despite this setback, communication between Washington and Tehran persists — as was evident following the attack in Damascus.

After the April 1 Israeli strike, Washington and Tehran exchanged written messages through Swiss authorities. Iran reportedly cautioned the U.S. against falling into what it termed “Netanyahu's trap for the U.S.,” advising Washington to keep its distance if it wished to avoid harm. This rhetoric reflected a prevailing belief in the region, particularly among Arabs and Iranians, that the Israeli government, facing challenges in Gaza and losing U.S. support, sought to provoke Iran into a larger conflict. The Iranian warnings were reinforced by the appearance of drones near a U.S. base in Syria, marking the first such spike in tensions since the lull in February.

Iran claims that the U.S. asked Tehran to “refrain from striking American targets.” But while the U.S. State Department confirmed the exchange of messages, it stated that no “requests” to Iran had been made. In the American telling, Iran had instead been warned against using the Israeli strike of April 1 as a “pretext for attacking US personnel and facilities.”

However, it appears that this was not the end of the matter, as additional evidence of continued contact between Tehran and Washington emerged through two other developments. Firstly, Amwaj.media reported that Iran's Foreign Minister planned to participate in a UN Security Council meeting on Palestine, expected to take place on April 18th. Sources indicate that the U.S. has issued entry visas to the minister and his delegation.

The second development involves Iran's Foreign Minister, Amir-Abdollahian, who visited Oman before proceeding to the Syrian capital on April 8 to open a new consulate in Damascus. This timing may not be coincidental — as was noted above, Oman serves as a crucial communication channel between Iran and the U.S. During his meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Omani foreign minister Badr bin Hamad bin Hamoud Al-Busaidi strongly urged de-escalation in the region, emphasizing the need for reason to prevail and highlighting the paramount importance of addressing the Palestinian issue as a means of promoting regional stability.

The Palestinian angle is intriguing. If Iran seeks to refrain from further escalation, one option for Tehran to assert its strength without engaging directly in war with Israel involves seeking a diplomatic solution to the ongoing conflict in Gaza. According to the Arabic-language website Jadeh Iran, which prior to the April 13 attack cited chatter from Arab diplomatic sources claiming that the “exchange of messages between Tehran and Washington aims to restrain escalation,” leaves open the possibility that talks could pull the increasingly belligerent parties back from the brink. These sources suggested that part of Iran's supposed proposal to the U.S. involved initiating a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. Additionally, a high-ranking political source in Iran, as quoted by Amwaj.media, suggested that this approach might be “likely the best way out of the current mess.” It's worth noting that during the January negotiations between the U.S. and Iran in Muscat, the Palestinian issue was also discussed, with Iran urging the U.S. to pressure Israel into a ceasefire in Gaza.

These developments take on added significance amidst recent reports of a potential ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. While the Biden administration has its reasons to pressure Israel on this matter (regardless of any negotiations with Iran), Tehran and its collection of “resistance forces” could potentially claim credit for a Gaza ceasefire should one materialize. However, for this to occur, numerous factors must align, and considerations must also account for other retaliatory options.

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And of course, Tehran alone cannot dictate what happens next. Before the April 13 attack, Israel promised to retaliate against any actions taken by Iran, and the potential for indefinite escalation remains. While some experts have suggested that Israel's targeting of the diplomatic mission building in Damascus was not intended to provoke Iran into a larger conflict, but rather to serve as a deterrent, in the end it led to Saturday’s massive barrage. Where things go from here remains uncertain.

Undeclared war

For the past two decades, Iran and Israel have been engaged in a covert form of warfare against each other. Despite efforts towards normalization of relations with Iran in some Arab countries, Tehran remains widely viewed in Israel as the primary source of regional tension. For Iranian authorities, confronting Israel has become a means to assert leadership within the Islamic world, appealing not only to Shiites, but also to Sunnis. Iran has established an extensive network of influence across the region and beyond — the aforementioned “axis of resistance” — with Israel and the U.S. as its primary targets.

However, the situation was not always so fraught. Israel maintained close ties with Iran during the Shah's era — and even in the early years of the Ayatollah regime that came to power following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The collaboration was driven by a shared animosity towards Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, whom both nations perceived as a threat to their interests. Consequently, during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Israel covertly supplied weapons to Iran, initially going against the wishes of the U.S.. In return, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini permitted a significant number of Iranian Jews to emigrate from the country. Publicly, however, Tehran actively propagated anti-Israel rhetoric, gaining support from Muslims worldwide, particularly in Arab nations. Concurrently, Iran forged alliances with groups like Lebanese Hezbollah, which eventually emerged as a significant adversary for Israel in the region.

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By the 1990s, the cooperation between Iran and Israel had dwindled, yet the ideologically opposed states had not yet come to view each other as regional adversaries. Everything changed dramatically after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime. Tehran's influence in the Middle East surged rapidly, and so did its backing of anti-Israeli factions like Hezbollah, along with Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This Iranian support grew into the “axis of resistance,” and tensions were only fueled further by Iran's nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile, in Israel, concerns about the Iranian threat became increasingly prevalent. Consequently, the two nations found themselves locked in an unending cycle of reprisals, operating under the principle of “an eye for an eye.”

One of the earliest significant incidents in the history of Israeli-Iranian confrontation was the bombing of the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires in 1995, which resulted in the deaths of 85 people. Argentine authorities promptly blamed Lebanese Hezbollah for the attack, later implicating Iran as well. Israel, likewise, holds both entities culpable.

Over the past decade, Iran and its affiliated groups have repeatedly targeted or attempted to target Israelis in third countries. They have also targeted buildings owned by Israel or Jewish organizations. For instance, in 2012, a bus carrying Israeli tourists was bombed in Bulgaria, resulting in six deaths — including that of the Bulgarian driver — and over 30 injuries.

Against this backdrop, Israeli experts have identified several Iran-linked entities operating in third countries against Israel. Foremost among them are two Quds Force units — Unit 400 and Unit 840 — responsible for the overseas operations of the IRGC. Unit 400 is particularly active in Asian countries, primarily India and Thailand, while Unit 840 was initially established to counter threats to the Iranian regime from Afghanistan and Pakistan before expanding its operations into Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Most operations are conducted by hired mercenaries ranging across Latin America, the U.S., Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East itself.

Another significant player is Division 4000, a special operations unit within the IRGC's intelligence service. This division is responsible for gathering information, bolstering cybersecurity, and the recruiting militants.

Additionally, experts highlight Unit 910, a branch of Hezbollah that conducts operations abroad in coordination with Iran. This unit is believed to have orchestrated the bombing in Buenos Aires. Unit 910 relies on sleeper cells consisting of Hezbollah sympathizers recruited from Shiite communities in South America, as well as those involved in drug trafficking networks. There are also reports of sleeper cells operating in Europe, ready to be activated as needed.

Furthermore, there are units dedicated to foreign operations within several other groups associated with Iran. These Iranian proxies are present on the ground in Lebanon and Iraq, and they include the Palestinian faction Hamas, which actively recruits militants from the Palestinian diaspora in Europe and has interests extending to Asia.

In response, Israel operates the Mossad, its external intelligence agency (and within its borders, the General Security Service, known as Shin Bet). In the week before the Iranian retaliatory strike, another group of Mossad-recruited spies was exposed in Turkey — not the first time such an incident has occurred.

It is also evident that Israel maintains an extensive intelligence network within Iran itself. Israel has been implicated in a series of assassinations targeting Iranian scientists involved in nuclear and defense programs, as well as those aimed at Iranian military personnel. This wave of targeted killings began in 2010 and continues to the present day, with the most notable operation perhaps being the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of Iran's Ministry of Defense's Research and Innovation Center, in November 2020.

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Israel is frequently accused of orchestrating acts of sabotage targeting Iran's industrial and military sites. These operations range from bombings and fires to sophisticated cyberattacks. One notable incident occurred in 2010, when an advanced version of the Stuxnet computer worm was uncovered, believed to have been jointly developed by the U.S. and Israel to disrupt Iran's nuclear program.

Today, cyberattacks from both sides have become commonplace, with reports emerging of Iranian gas station networks being disabled and Israeli hospitals and government databases being breached. Social media platforms are also utilized for espionage recruitment efforts.

An unusual instance of Israel openly admitting to its covert activities within Iran took place in 2018 when Mossad stole secret documents related to Iran's nuclear program in Tehran. This operation resulted in the extraction of 55,000 pages of documents and 55,000 files stored on 183 CDs. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally disclosed this information to the public.

Maritime confrontations also play a significant role in the standoff. Israel has intercepted numerous ships attempting to deliver weapons to the Gaza Strip, which has been controlled by Hamas since 2007. Since 2019, the frequency of mutual attacks has increased. Iranian targets often include merchant ships and tankers, some of which are associated with Israeli businessmen. While these incidents initially occurred primarily in the Persian Gulf region, the confrontations have gradually expanded geographically. According to reports from the Wall Street Journal, between late 2019 and March 2021, Israel conducted strikes on at least a dozen ships transporting Iranian oil to Syria.

Role of Syria

Over the past decade, Syria has emerged as a critical arena in the fight between Iran and Israel. Iran's foothold in Syria strengthened significantly following the outbreak of internal conflict in 2011. Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and Iranian military advisors rallied to support Bashar al-Assad's regime. With Iran's backing, various Shiite factions were established in Syria, comprising both locals and mercenaries.

Syria also became reliant on Iranian oil shipments, as Iran became the primary patron of the Syrian government. Iran extended multiple lines of credit to Syria, bolstering its economic and military presence in the country. Iranian military bases were established, and Syrian territory served as a conduit for the transfer of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah.

Israel has been quick to respond to these developments. Targets associated with Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian factions in Syria have become regular objectives for Israeli airstrikes. Israel has also targeted Iranian military advisors stationed in Syria. While Damascus is far from content with this situation — and with its dependence on Iran — the Syrian regime currently sees no viable alternative. Interestingly, amidst these developments, there have been rumors in regional media suggesting that Syrians may be providing information to Israeli about the whereabouts of certain IRGC advisors.

Changes post-October 7th

Six months ago, a war erupted between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, sparked by Palestinian militants' attack on Israeli territory. Iran vehemently denies any role in preparing and executing Hamas' plans, yet it actively supports Palestinian forces and, to some extent, orchestrates the “axis of resistance.”

While reports have emerged at the parliamentary level alleging the involvement of high-ranking Iranian officers in planning the October 7th attack, it remains unclear to what extent such reports are founded on actual fact. What is indisputable, however, is that since the onset of the Gaza conflict, tensions between Iran and Israel have escalated further, notably in Syria—where Israeli strikes have surged.

But Syria isn't the sole battleground. Unlike in previous conflicts, Iranian proxies haven't just expressed solidarity with Palestinians — they have openly engaged in war against Israel, drawing in numerous countries. Hezbollah began shelling Israeli territory on October 8th, prompting Israeli retaliation. In Beirut, concerns mount that Lebanon may suffer a fate similar to Gaza, especially given the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Israeli military officials assert their readiness for a new operation to safeguard residents living near the Lebanese border, many of whom fled their homes after October 7th. However, both sides have sought to avoid crossing red lines, even if the frequency and range of strikes is gradually increasing.

One reason for Hezbollah's relative restraint is a clear signal from the U.S. to Iranian authorities: any escalation by Hezbollah could result in significant damage to Iran. At least up until April 13, when dozens of rockets flew towards Israel from southern Lebanon, this deterrence appeared to have been having an effect. For months, the U.S. and France have been exploring diplomatic avenues to prevent large-scale hostilities in Lebanon. It remains to be seen how Saturday’s events will affect these efforts.

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At the same time, another unexpected front has emerged. After October 7, the Yemeni-based Houthi movement began attempting to attack the Israeli port and resort of Eilat on the Red Sea. While the strikes caused minimal damage, the development led to the Houthis effectively disrupting the trade route through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal by targeting passing ships.

As a result, many shipping companies abandoned this route, which typically accounted for about 15% of global maritime trade and around 40% of trade between Asia and Europe. Deliveries of oil, diesel fuel, grain, palm oil, and coffee were particularly affected. Global freight rates sharply increased, and by December, there was a reported 1.3% decline in global trade. The situation worsened further after the U.S. and UK announced the start of a military operation against the Houthis in late February.

Shiite groups in Iraq and Syria also became more active. In addition to traditional attacks on American bases, they began reporting strikes on Israel itself. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, since November 2023, there have been approximately 40 such claims, with roughly half attributed to the Iraqi group Al-Nujaba. Until recently, all of these claims remained unsubstantiated. However, on the night of April 1st, Israeli military officials reported a drone strike on a structure at a military base in Eilat. Al-Nujaba claimed responsibility.

The number of cyberattacks on Israeli infrastructure has also increased. In October alone, the first month of the war with Hamas, the number of operations by Iranian-linked hacker groups rose from approximately one per month to 11. There was also a surge in warnings from Israeli intelligence agencies about the threat of terrorist attacks organized by Iran or its affiliated groups in third countries. Thus, even before Israel's strike on the consulate in Damascus and the wave of Iranian airborne ordnance it inspired in response, the situation was tense.

Tensions have only increased. Now, any discussions about de-escalation continue in parallel with preparations for outright war.

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