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Middle East crisis: Netanyahu calls strike that killed aid workers ‘tragic’ but unintentional

The Israeli bombing of an Iranian embassy building in Damascus, which killed senior Iranian military and intelligence officials, represents a significant escalation in the long-simmering, undeclared war between Israel and Iran.

Iran promises extensive retaliation, and the risk of misjudgment is ever-present. But given what is at stake for both countries, neither Israel nor Iran wants a major war, even as they press for benefits in Gaza and southern Lebanon.

Instead, the attack is a graphic demonstration of the regional nature of the conflict, as Israel seeks to deter and deter Iran’s allies and proxies who threaten Israel’s security from all directions.

It is often referred to as a “war between wars,” with Israel and Iran as the main adversaries, fighting in the shadow of the more obvious hostilities in the region.

The Iranian officials killed Monday were deeply involved in arming and leading proxy forces in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen for decades as part of Iran’s clearly stated efforts to destabilize and even destroy the Jewish state.

For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is believed to have authorized such a sensitive attack, the successful elimination of these key Iranian military figures is a political coup. It comes at a time when demonstrations demanding his resignation have intensified as the war against Hamas drags on and Israeli hostages remain in the Gaza Strip.

Demonstrating its ability to infiltrate Iranian intelligence, Israel seeks to target the operational arm of Iran’s regional proxies, its so-called Axis of Resistance to Israel, to disrupt and deter them, even as the war in Gaza continues.

Since the war began in October, Israel has begun targeting key Iranian officials responsible for relations with its proxies, and not just the advanced weapons Tehran supplies, said Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group .

But no matter how many experienced generals Israel eliminates, “no one is irreplaceable in the Iranian system,” he said. “Iran knows that this is a dangerous game and that there is a price for it.”

Some fear the price could be borne by Israel’s allies. Ralph Goff, a former senior CIA official who served in the Middle East, called the Israeli attack “incredibly reckless,” adding that “the Israelis are writing checks that the U.S. CentCom forces have to cash,” referring to refers to the central command of the US military.

“It will only lead to escalation by Iran and its proxies, which is very dangerous,” Mr. Goff said, for U.S. forces in the region that could be targeted by retaliatory strikes by Tehran’s proxies.

Mr. Netanyahu has stressed for years that Israel’s main enemy is Iran and that the attack could help him “restore his reputation as ‘Mr. Israel’ security,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House . Still, it may not be enough, she said, with Israel stuck in Gaza, Hamas so far undefeated and Iran and its proxies undiminished.

Iran has vowed retaliation and revenge for what it said was an unprecedented attack, but since October 7, “Iran has been clear that it does not want a regional war,” Ms. Vakil said. “It assumes that this conflict with Israel will have an impact over a longer period of time.”

U.S. officials do not believe Iran initiated the Hamas attack or was even informed about it in advance. Yet Iran still sees Gaza as “a victory for them because it isolates Israel and puts Israel on the defensive in the region and the world,” said Suzanne Maloney, director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

The ongoing war and its civilian casualties make it “almost inconceivable to create a vision of the Middle East that Israel, the US and the Saudis wanted to achieve before October 7,” she said, rejecting Arab regional recognition of Israel Nations react to Iran’s growing influence.

Still, Ms. Vakil said, “This attack will be difficult for Iran to ignore” because “it was a direct attack on its territory,” an embassy building, and killed three senior commanders of Iran’s Quds Force, outside military and intelligence services were in the service of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran said the Israeli strike killed an Iranian general, Mohammad Reza Zahedi, along with his deputy, a third general and at least four other people, including reportedly senior officials of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iranian affiliate also fighting in Gaza.

The assassination of General Zahedi, who was said to be responsible for Iran’s military ties with Syria and Lebanon, is widely considered the worst assassination of an Iranian leader in years.

Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi of Iran, who was killed in the Israeli airstrike in the Syrian capital on Monday.Credit…Fars News Agency, via Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser, called General Zahedi’s death “a huge blow to Iran’s immediate capabilities in the region.” He helped oversee Iran’s attempt to create a “ring of fire” around Israel through its militant proxies while keeping Tehran’s involvement at arm’s length, Mr. Amidror said.

But how and when Iran decides to retaliate will raise the stakes even further. The most obvious recent example is the response to the assassination of Quds Force commander Qassim Suleimani by the United States four years ago. Then Iran launched a major missile attack on an American base in Iraq, but only after informing them of the attack in advance. There were no immediate U.S. casualties, although more than 100 service members suffered traumatic brain injuries, the Pentagon later said.

Worried Iran, on high military alert, also shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing 176 people, believing it to be an enemy plane.

“But one of the lessons of Suleimani is that the network and redundancy that Iran has built with the groups still holds up well even if you take out someone who is critical,” Ms. Maloney said.

Recently, Iran has sought to ease tensions in its relations with the United States after a drone strike on a U.S. military base on the Jordanian-Syrian border in January killed three American soldiers.

But Iran may be more willing to risk military escalation with Israel.

It could make other decisions – a major cyberattack on Israel’s infrastructure or its military, a rocket fire from southern Lebanon, a similar assassination of an Israeli commander, an attack on an Israeli embassy abroad, or a further sharp acceleration of its nuclear enrichment program.

The latter would be a kind of direct response to Mr Netanyahu, who has long warned about the danger of Iran becoming nuclear and has vowed to prevent it. (Iran has always insisted that its nuclear program is purely peaceful, even as it has enriched uranium to near weapons-grade levels.)

Or Iran could wait. Mr. Amidror, Israel’s former national security adviser, said he doubted the attack would lead to a major escalation between Israel and Iran, such as an all-out war with Hezbollah along Israel’s northern border.

“Their interests haven’t changed since then. They will seek revenge, but that is something completely different,” he said, and that does not have to be limited to the immediate region.

A previous example he cited was the Islamic Jihad bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, which killed 29 people and was in response to Israel’s assassination of Hezbollah leader Abbas al-Musawi .

Aaron Boxerman contributed reports from Jerusalem and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

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