Could Israel’s strike on Iranian embassy be the tipping point into wider regional conflict?

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As thick clouds of dark smoke curled into the blue sky above the Iranian embassy in Damascus on Monday afternoon, it was clear something major had happened.

Dust and debris covered the street and cars inside the embassy compound were on fire.

Once the smoke dissipated, it emerged that a suspected Israeli air strike had reduced an entire five-storey consular building next to the main embassy to a pile of twisted rebar and smashed concrete.

The Iranian ambassador’s residence was on the top two floors but he was not home at the time and did not appear to have been the target.

Among the seven Iranians killed were Mohammad Reza Zahedi, one of Iran’s most senior commanders in its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi, his deputy.

Mohammad Reza Zahedi and his deputy Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi were among seven officers killed
Mohammad Reza Zahedi and his deputy Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi were among seven officers killed - Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian/Twitter

Experts have described the attack as unprecedented and a dangerous escalation that threatens to finally tip Israel’s six-month long war with Hamas into a wider regional conflict.

Zahedi was attending a meeting with his officers and members of Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian militant group, at the compound when the attack occurred, according to one source.

It was a “very, very rare opportunity” for Israel to wipe out some of its archrival’s most senior commanders in one go, according to an Israeli source quoted by Reuters. “That’s not something a country at war would pass up.”

Kasra Aarabi, the director of IRGC research at United Against Nuclear Iran, said: “The fact that Israel was able to gather intelligence of a meeting between the highest levels of IRGC commanders in Syria … sends a very, very powerful signal to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“It can strike wherever they may be.”

Israel is believed to have carried out dozens of strikes on Iranian targets in Syria since Hamas, a terrorist group backed by Tehran, launched its brutal attack on Oct 7.

But this was by far the most significant – both in terms of where the strike took place and who it killed.

Zahedi oversaw the IRGC’s operations in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestinian territories and fought on the front line with Hezbollah against Israel during the 2006 war making him the most senior commander to be killed since a US drone strike killed Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in 2020.

According to a statement from a hard-line Iranian group released this week, he was involved in the “planning and execution” of Hamas’ Oct 7 attack, when the terror group killed around 1,200 people and kidnapped more than 200.

Major General Haj Rahimi, of the Iranian army
Maj Gen Haj Rahimi, of the Iranian army, died when a suspected Israeli air strike hit the meeting he was in with seven other officials

Rahimi was the third-highest-ranking IRGC commander and oversaw the entire Middle East, including coordinating Yemeni Houthi rebel attacks against Western shipping targets in the Red Sea.

Both regularly met with Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, and played a crucial role in providing Iranian-made missiles to the Tehran-backed Lebanese militant group, sources told The Telegraph.

Saeid Golkar, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said: “The death of these figures is a significant blow to the IRGC affiliates in Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. We must wait and see how quickly they can replace them.

“In the Islamic Republic, institutions, regardless of their size, are overshadowed by the reliance on specific individuals.

He added: “Amid the ongoing war in Gaza and the looming possibility of its extension into northern Lebanon, the Islamic Republic and its associated militant groups now face a challenge in coordinating their operations in the region.”

But potentially even more significant is how Iran will respond.

Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), said the strike “represents a new moment of dangerous escalation as the Gaza war continues to reverberate across the region”.

There has been no shortage of threatening statements this week.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has said Israel “will be punished” for the killings.

In a televised speech on Friday, Hezbollah’s Nasrallah said: “Be certain that Iran’s response to the targeting of its Damascus consulate is inevitable.”

Thousands of Iranians came out on the street to mourn the loss of the seven officials killed in Monday's strike
Thousands of Iranians came out on the street to mourn the loss of the seven officials killed in Monday's strike - ANADOLU

In Tehran, at a funeral for the seven officials, which saw thousands of people turn out to chant against Israel and the US, Gen Hossein Salami, the IRGC chief, warned: “The Zionist regime cannot escape the consequences of the harm it does.

“It is exposed and knows very well what is going to happen.”

But for most onlookers, it is not at all clear what will happen next.

The likelihood of Iran directly targeting Israel is “highly improbable”, said Mr Golkar.

“With recent domestic protests, the authorities know that they are not very popular inside Iran and are worried that any war would possibly cause a regime change.”

Tehran is also operating at a lower capacity than it would otherwise. Dozens of Israeli strikes over the last six months have killed many senior Iranian commanders and officials, including the IRGC’s intelligence chief in Syria.

That means striking alleged Israeli targets in nearby countries – rather than directly Israel itself – may be Iran’s most likely option.

That way, Iran would have a response “for their domestic propaganda purposes”, said Mr Golkar.

In January, the IRGC did exactly that when it launched ballistic missiles at what it claimed to be Israeli spy headquarters in northern Iraq, and “anti-Iran terror groups” in Syria but there are risks.

“Tehran wants to avoid being sucked into a wider war,” said Mr Barnes-Dacey.

“[But] it may feel compelled to respond more forcefully to maintain the credibility of its regional deterrence posture,” he added.

Potential fallout

Iran is also facing domestic pressure to respond with sufficient force from the public and hard-line elements within the regime.

Vahid, a university student, said: “Israel attacked and killed a bunch of high-ranking Iranian officials, but instead of fighting back, Khamanei and the others were all scared, and started talking about hijab instead,” referring to a speech this week by Khamenei.

“He spent six whole minutes on hijab and only forty seconds on Israel,” he added.

Iran’s playbook has often been to engage through its proxy groups to sow discord in the region and to threaten Israel using asymmetric warfare in hopes of gaining the upper hand, and something along those lines is possible in the coming days and weeks.

The US is certainly concerned about the potential fallout. Washington has told Iran that it had nothing to do with this latest strike and has warned against attacks on American interests.

Israel has put itself on high alert, cancelling leave for all combat units and boosting its air defences.

But how far Iran-backed groups in the region are willing to go on behalf of Tehran is another story.

Since war broke out last October, Hezbollah has been exchanging low-level cross-border fire with Israel almost daily. Nine civilians and 11 soldiers have been killed in Israel and about 240 Hezbollah fighters and 40 civilians have been killed in Lebanon.

Nasrallah has so far shown little interest in taking things any further, especially as its last war with Israel in 2006 was devastating for both it and Lebanon but this week’s strike on the Iranian embassy may have changed things for the Hezbollah leader.

Speaking live on TV on Friday, Nasrallah said the attack was a “turning point”.

Hezbollah “does not fear war and is fully prepared for any war” with Israel, he added.

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