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Damascus attack: New chapter in Iran-Israel conflict

Iranian embassy compound after the attack: destroyed consular building on the right, adjacent to embassy building

Iran and Israel have evolved from allies to sworn enemies, especially after Iran's Islamic Revolution. Israeli strikes against Hamas in Gaza and an attack on Iran's consulate in Syria have raised the stakes further.

Since launching its war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Israel also stepped up attacks on Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Syria. One such apparent strike occurred in early April when an Iranian consulate building in the Syrian capital, Damascus, was hit, killing at least 13 people, including seven high-ranking members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Iran, Syria and Russia blamed Israel for the attack, though Israel itself did not comment on the incident.

"This [consulate attack] is in some way unprecedented. Israel is really upping the ante," Arash Azizi, a lecturer of history at Clemson University in South Carolina who specializes in Iran, told DW. 

"It has changed the usual rules of engagement. Israel and Iran have been in something of a shadow war for a very long time, for more than a decade, but part of the rules was that you don't do actions like this, [like] attacking an Iranian consulate."

Revolutionary Guard commanders, like General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone strike in 2020, have played a key role in training and financing Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, which has launched numerous attacks against Israel. Iran's leadership vowed to strike back at Israeli targets abroad in retaliation for the Damascus consulate bombing.

"If Iran is not able to respond to this [targeted killing of high-ranking Revolutionary Guard commanders], it shows that it doesn't have any deterrence against Israel," Azizi said. "My best guess would be that Iran would try to do a limited retaliation that wouldn't go to something broader. Because Iran can ill afford a broader conflict."

Azizi believes Iran is not seeking a major military confrontation with Israel. This is because an attack on Israel could force the US to intervene in the conflict, which could have unforeseeable consequences for the country.

When were Iran and Israel allies?

Iran and Israel have been enemies for the past few decades. Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map and has threatened to annihilate it. Israel, for its part, regards Iran as its biggest adversary.

But this was not always the case.

In fact, Israel and Iran were allies until Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran was one of the first states to recognize Israel after it was founded in 1948. Israel regarded Iran as an ally against the Arab states. Iran, meanwhile, welcomed US-backed Israel as a counterweight to the region's Arab countries.

Back then, Israel trained Iranian agricultural experts, supplied technical know-how and helped build up and train the Iranian armed forces. The Iranian Shah paid Israel in oil, as its burgeoning economy was in need of fuel. 

Not only that. Iran was home to the second-largest Jewish community outside of Israel. Yet, after the Islamic Revolution, many Jews left the country. That said, even today, more than 20,000 Jews still live in Iran.

When did Israeli-Iranian relations change?

After the Iranian Islamic Revolution brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his religious revolutionaries to power, Iran scrapped all previous agreements with Israel. Khomeini directed fierce criticism at Israel for its occupation of Palestinian territories. Gradually, Iran adopted an increasingly harsh rhetoric towards Israel with the aim of winning the favor of regional Arab states, or their citizens at the very least. The Iranian regime, after all, was eager to grow its regional influence.

When Israel sent troops into southern Lebanon in 1982 to intervene in the country's civil war, Khomeini dispatched Iranian Revolutionary Guards to the Lebanese capital, Beirut, to support local Shiite militias. The Hezbollah militia, which grew out of this support, is today regarded as a direct Iranian proxy in Lebanon.

Iran's current leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all matters, remains just as antagonistic towards Israel as his predecessors. Khamenei and the entire Iranian leadership have also repeatedly questioned and denied the Holocaust.

Should Iran change its anti-Israel stance?

Not all ordinary Iranians support Iran's hostility toward Israel. "Iran must reassess its relationship with Israel because its stance is no longer in keeping with the times," said Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, the daughter of former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in a 2021 interview. Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, who once held a seat in Iran's parliament, said Muslim Uyghurs are oppressed in China and Chechen Muslims in Russia — and yet "Iran has close relations with both."

Prominent political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam, who teaches at the University of Tehran, has repeatedly criticized Iran's policy towards Israel. "This stance has isolated the country on the international stage," Zibakalam said in a 2022 interview with DW.

Staunch backers of Iran's Islamic Republic, however, support the country's hostile position against Israel and are keen to see it oppose the great powers.

Some Iranian regime supporters and members of the so-called "Axis of Resistance" are irritated by Iran's reluctance to attack Israel in the context of the Gaza war or avenge attacks on Iran itself, says analyst Ali Fathollah-Nejad. The director of the Berlin-based Center for Middle East and Global Order think tank said frustration is growing over "Iran's lack of credibility as the main champion of the Palestinian cause and its hesitance to confront Israel directly."

Fathollah-Nejad thinks Iran will use its proxy militias in Syria, Iraq or Yemen's Houthis to retaliate.

This article was translated from German

Second publication by courtesy of DW


Rajanews,CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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