Posters depicting victims of an air strike on the consular annex of the Iranian embassy's headquarters in Damascus are displayed during a memorial service for them on the premises in the Syrian capital on April 3, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Cairo: Iran may be close to launching missile or drone strikes on Israeli targets in response to a deadly attack on its diplomatic compound in Syria last week. Yet how the Islamic Republic retaliates is more complicated than the why.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly said Israel will be “punished” for the assault, which destroyed the consulate building and killed at least 13 people. The risk is that the move could significantly escalate the conflict in the Middle East and put Iran even more in the crosshairs.

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The US and its allies believe a major revenge attack is imminent, either by Iran or its various proxies in the region, according to people familiar with the intelligence. Recent history suggests any assault will be measured against what might come next from Iran’s adversaries. When the US killed General Qassem Soleimani in 2020, for example, Iran opted for non-lethal attacks on military bases.

“Iran is in a precarious position — Israel has been calling its bluff for some time,” said Bader Al Saif, an assistant professor at Kuwait University and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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“It’s kind of damned if it responds and damned if it doesn’t.”

Israel hasn’t claimed responsibility for the Damascus attack, in keeping with its usual response to accusations of targeting Iran, though it has tried to cut off weapons supplies to Islamist militant groups via Syria for years.

Its military campaign in Gaza against Hamas — a group backed by Iran and categorized as a terrorist organisation by the US and the European Union — has entered a seventh month and been accompanied by heightened tension with Hezbollah and the Houthis, other militia allied with Iran.

What’s at stake?

At stake for Iran is the risk of diverting the world’s attention away from Israel’s war in Gaza, which Hamas authorities say has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians and led to increasing international and domestic pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A humanitarian crisis has been building in the enclave, and the United Nations has warned that tens of thousands of people are on the brink of famine.

Tehran’s potential attack, which has spooked oil markets, could come in a variety of forms.

Potential to trigger full-on war

Khamenei has said the Damascus assault was equivalent to an attack on Iranian soil, and the most explosive response would be to launch one in Israel. That would have the potential to trigger a full-on war that would likely draw in the US and other Israeli allies. A precedent for Iran attacking Israeli territory came in 2018, when Tehran fired rockets from Syria on positions in the Golan Heights.

Yet even if Iran’s leader were to attempt such a move, his military would have to get past Israel’s sophisticated defense systems, according to Fabian Hinz, research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

That becomes even harder from long range, unless supplemented by attacks from, say, Hezbollah next door in Lebanon. That, though, would risk further conflict between Israel and the group. A lower-key option would be an escalation of Hezbollah’s rocket barrage on northern Israel or Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.

“The Iranian systems are very good — there’s no doubt about that — the issue is just that Israeli defences are absolutely exceptional,” Hinz said.

Tit-for-tat response

“If a strike would show that most of them can get intercepted and are not very effective, you might still have a political and symbolic victory, but it would degrade your deterrence capabilities.”

Israel scrambled navigational signals over the Tel Aviv metropolitan area a week ago in preparation for an Iranian attack, a showcase of its capabilities.

Another option is to target Israeli embassies, a tit-for-tat response to the Damascus bombing. But it would be a high-risk move given Iran’s other priorities in the Middle East.

A non-military assault — via agents or a proxy group — could be more practical, though Iran’s track record of success with similar attempts in the past is poor, according to Hinz.

“A lot of these attacks were prevented by Israeli intelligence,” he said.

Military bases

Iran could respond by attacking Israeli or US military bases, as it has done during previous flare ups. Most recently, the US — Israel’s main ally — said Iranian-backed militants killed three US service members and wounded 25 others in a drone attack near the Syrian border in January.

Iran holds the US responsible for the Damascus attack as well as Israel, due to Washington’s support for the Jewish state. The US made the rare move of contacting Tehran directly to say it wasn’t involved.

Attacks on military bases was Iran’s preferred approach after former US President Donald Trump ordered the killing of General Soleimani. Iran struck the Al Asad airbase in Iraq, injuring more than 100 US troops, while suspected Iranian proxies fired rockets at the US embassy in Baghdad.

“Iran’s response, whether in self-restraint or attack via proxies, hasn’t amounted to much in terms of deterring Israel,” said Al Saif at Kuwait University. “A direct response is its litmus test.”