Is war between Iran and Israel inevitable after attack on Iranian embassy in Syria?

What will the Islamic Republic’s response be to the attack on its embassy in Syria?

The Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1 left political experts and millions of people around the world wondering whether the attack will lead to a direct war between the two nations. Iran has every reason to retaliate, since the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 is still in force. Tehran could respond either by striking the Israeli diplomatic mission on the territory of another country, or by directly attacking Israel. However, this course of action would be too predictable and could lead to a full-scale war with unforeseen consequences. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that he is ready to take harsh action in such a case. According to Netanyahu, Iran has acted against Israel for years, and Israel will respond to any threat to its security. In other words, if Iran strikes Israel, war is inevitable. 

The death of the high-ranking Iranian General Mohammad Reza-Zahedi forces Tehran to respond, but the further development of events will depend on what this response looks like and what reaction follows. Zahedi was an iconic figure in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and in recent times was often compared to the legendary General Qasem Soleimani, who died four years ago in a US airstrike near Baghdad. According to the Coalition Council of Islamic Revolution Forces – a conservative coalition of parties close to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – Zahedi was directly involved in the planning and implementation of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, which Hamas launched against Israel in October 2023. The deceased general was an important “link” between Tehran and Damascus, as well as Tehran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and also instructed Hamas militants in conducting military operations against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

In addition to Zahedi, General Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi and nine (or 11, according to other sources) Iranian diplomats were killed during the strike. While at first the Israeli side tried to deny any involvement, it was immediately clear that West Jerusalem was behind it. In order to justify its actions, the Israeli side claimed that the Iranian consulate was used by Tehran as the headquarters of the IRGC and Hezbollah. Iran did not confirm this information, but did not deny it either. This is understandable, since there’s nothing illegal or unusual about military advisers, military attaches, and generals being on the premises of embassies and consulates. However, according to international rules, even during war, embassies and consulates cannot be attacked, and a direct strike on any country’s diplomatic mission is equivalent to declaring war on that country.

Iran may have expected something like this to happen sooner or later – but certainly not on April 1, 2024. The Iranian Consulate was located in the Mezza area of Damascus. This area has been often subjected to Israeli airstrikes since an airbase and storage facilities are located there. The airbase was used for the transit of Iranian weapons, military gear and equipment, as well as for the military needs of the Syrian Army and the Hezbollah movement, which Iran also supports. After the tragic events of October 7, 2023, Iran stopped delivering equipment to the base by air, and instead used an overland route, which was difficult for US and Israeli intelligence to track. Three days after the incident, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei posted on X (formerly Twitter) in Hebrew, vowing retaliation for the strike on Damascus. He said that Israel would repent for the crime, and a few days later, at a meeting with senior Iranian officials and ambassadors of Islamic countries on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr, Khamenei declared that Islamic countries that cooperate with Israel, supply weapons or provide financial assistance to the Jewish state are traitors. Experts were concerned that Khamenei made a fateful decision that day, and had essentially declared war. However, it should be noted that Khamenei is known for his harsh rhetoric against Israel. For example, some time ago, he directly stated that “in the future, the Islamic world will be able to celebrate the destruction of Israel.”

Anti-Israeli sentiments have always been strong in Iran, particularly among the influential Muslim clergy who are close to Khamenei. However, Israel had not previously openly attacked Iranian diplomatic institutions, meaning the confrontation has reached a new level. This begs the question: does Iran indeed want war, and is it ready for a conflict? 

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (R) speaks with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative, Hojjatal Islam Mohsen Qomi, during a farewell ceremony before leaving Tehran’s Mehrabad airport to Indonesia, May 22, 2023.

©  Morteza Nikoubazl / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Does Iran want war?

There is no doubt that Iran has a strong military force and can stand up for itself. The country’s population is growing rapidly and has increased by 10 million people over the past 11 years. Many men want to serve in the army, motivated both by active propaganda efforts and government benefits. However, Iran has long refrained from becoming involved in direct combat, and the situation on the border with Lebanon and Syria has remained under control, except for some intense but localized clashes. Tehran stated that it had nothing to do with the conflict between Hamas and Israel which started after the Palestinian militant group’s attack on October 7, and even Israeli representatives have reluctantly admitted they are not directly fighting against Iran. Back in November, during a meeting with Hamas representatives in Tehran, Khamenei told the group that Iran would not go to war with Israel. He said Hamas had not warned Iran about its attack on Israel, and that Tehran does not intend to fight on behalf of the militant group. However, it is ready to provide political support and supply weapons. This does not mean that Tehran is afraid of war or is not ready for it. Rather, it does not see any reason to enter into a large-scale conflict with Israel. Loud statements by Iranian politicians such as “death to the United States!” or “death to Israel!” should be regarded only as political slogans used to fuel Iran’s present-day ideology. Of course, the current Iranian leadership considers the US and, to a greater extent, Israel, as its opponent and enemy. But this does not mean that Tehran is really trying to destroy both countries. For modern Iran, the Jewish state is only a political player which, according to Iranian imams, oppresses Palestinians.

On the other hand, Tehran is aware that the West Bank does not really support its brethren in Gaza, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas merely utters routine phrases in condemnation of Netanyahu. Consequently, Iran poses a completely natural and logical question – why should it rush to the aid of those who do not want to fight for their own rights and existence? Does it make sense for Iran to be more “Palestinian” than the Palestinians themselves? Incidentally, Iran hasn’t forgotten its own confrontation with Hamas during the “hot phase” of the Syrian civil war, when the militants played along with Israel and sided with the Free Syrian Army, which was opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom Tehran supported. So in this respect, the situation is quite ambiguous. 

Iran is a country with a rich history, and it has always relied on historical memory and its ability to sense the political climate in the region. This has often saved it from falling into traps set by its opponents. In many ways, the Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate looks like a plan to lure Tehran into a trap from which it may never be able to free itself. The Iranian elites are divided on the issue of Israel (as on many others). Khamenei’s inner circle consists of two factions: the army of clerics, and the military generals of the IRGC who influence certain foreign policy decisions. Both sides are quite influential and are supported by different parts of society. There is also Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi who, de jure, is not responsible for the country’s security and foreign policy, but only for the economy and humanitarian issues