(April 18, 2018 / MEMRI) In light of Israel’s recent military operations against Iran’s military expansion in Syria, comprising strikes against strategic Iranian and Syrian targets such as Iran-controlled airfields, missile bases and drone bases, Iran now faces a strategic question: whether or not to respond to these attacks, when doing so could lead to all-out conflict with Israel.
Iran’s long-term goal in Syria is to expand militarily and economically there, giving it control across the country, which will enable it, when the time comes, to act effectively and decisively against Israel. It is in Iran’s interest that it will face all-out war with Israel only after it has finished doing so, and after U.S. forces have left Syria.
Other reasons for Iran to postpone responding to Israel’s operations include Iran’s shaky economic situation and the devaluation of its rial on the free-currency market in recent weeks; U.S. President Donald Trump’s upcoming May 12, 2018 decision regarding the future of the JCPOA nuclear deal; the fragility of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad; and Tehran’s inability to ensure that Russia will stand alongside it militarily against Israel.
But Israel’s strategic activity, as declared and executed—i.e., that it will not permit Iran to expand militarily in Syria—presents Tehran with a difficult challenge: whether to respond immediately to it, which may lead to all-out war, as expressed by several lower-level Iranian officials, Iran-sponsored Shi’ite militias such as Hezbollah and media affiliated with the resistance axis, or whether Tehran would be better off continuing to overlook the Israeli attacks for now so as not to risk what it has accomplished so far in Syria and in the region. Support for this latter position is evident in Iranian spokesmen toning down their statements, postponing the Iranian response to “an appropriate time and place in the future.”
It should be noted that Tehran did not respond to the second of Israel’s two attacks deep inside Syria on Feb. 10, 2018, which struck numerous Syrian and Iranian targets. Nor did it respond to Israel’s April 9 strike on the T-4 air base near Homs in central Syria, in which seven Iranian officials of the Iranian drone array there were killed.
It also did not respond to two additional attacks early on April 17, attributed to Israel by Syrian and Lebanese (i.e., Hezbollah) spokesmen and by Russian spokesmen on the Sharyat air base near Homs and the Dumair air base near Damascus, regarding which Syria at first said that it had intercepted all the missiles, though one struck the Dumair base. Afterwards, it changed its story and claimed that a false alarm caused by “a joint electronic attack” by Israel and the United States had triggered Syria’s air-defense system.
As noted, Tehran’s response so far to Israel’s attacks has been restrained, both militarily and with regard to statements about them. However, in contrast to its behavior following Israel’s Feb. 10 attack on the drone base and command and control vehicle, and following Israel’s second attack that day against numerous Iranian and Syrian targets in Syria—that is, refraining from revealing its losses in the media—following the April 9 attack on the T-4 air base it did report its losses. This could reflect the Iranian regime’s willingness to expose itself to pressure from the Iranian public to respond with counter-operations.
Tehran’s thunderous silence in light of Israel’s repeated attacks on strategic Iranian and Syrian targets strengthens assessment that Tehran prefers, as of now, to overlook the Israeli attacks. But it is possible that Iran thinks that the serial Israeli operations are preventing it from accomplishing its strategic goals—that is, expanding in Syria—and that there is, therefore, no escape from all-out conflict with Israel now, not after Iran has established itself there. It is also possible that this restraint is a cover for secret preparations for an attack on Israel.
Israel has, with its operations, made it clear to Iran and Russia that it is ready for war. An Iranian response to Israel could lead to an all-out Iran-Israel war. The fact that we are waiting to see how the Iranians will respond to Israel’s operations is proof that the next war has already begun, and that it can be stopped only if Iran is deterred from carrying out its threats.
Past experience shows that Iran has always refrained from direct confrontation with the Gulf states, with Israel, and with the United States, despite its far-reaching threats to wipe Israel, the U.S. military and Saudi Arabia off the face of the earth.
Appendix: Reactions in Iran to Israel’s operations in Syria
An example of the dilemma faced by the Iranian regime leadership is an analysis by the conservative Iranian daily Javan, which is affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). It stated in its April 9 editorial, written right after the Israeli strike: “According to [Israeli] Gen. Amiram Levin, it is clear that the Zionists want to create a strategic and fundamental change in Syria.
Furthermore, they do not agree with President Trump’s decision to withdraw his forces from Syria. … The attack on the T-4 [base] shows that the Zionists have started down a very dangerous path that must be seriously fought, before the situation in Syria gets worse than it is today.”
In its April 16, 2018 editorial, the Kayhan daily, the regime mouthpiece that is known for its vociferously hawkish anti-Israel, anti-U.S., and anti-Saudi position, was vague about the expectation of an Iranian response, explaining that Iran was not answering the Israeli move, which it called a plot aimed at provoking an Iranian reaction in order to keep the United States in Syria.
It stated: “In the matter of the Zionist regime’s attack on the T-4 base in Homs, that caused the deaths of seven Iranians who were defending the holy places … there is an interpretation according to which the Zionists’ short-term aim in attacking Iranian elements … is to force Iran to respond and thus to involve the U.S. in the battle. This plot was neutralized thanks to Iran’s wisdom. In any event, and in any situation, there is no doubt that this crime will not remain unanswered … .”
Confirmation of this interpretation by the regime mouthpieces is the fact that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, IRGC commander Ali Jafari, and deputy commander Hossein Salami have said nothing about a response to the Israeli attack, even though they usually make militant statements about Israel.
Iranian regime officials’ statements were aimed primarily against the United States, France and Britain, in the context of their attack on the Assad regime’s chemical-weapons facilities. It should be noted that Supreme Leader Khamenei, who mentioned the tripartite attack on April 14, several hours after it took place, called the leaders of the three countries “criminals” but did not directly mention the Israeli attack on Iranian targets in Syria.
Khamenei then responded to Israel’s claims that Iran was expanding militarily in Syria, saying: “When it is said that ‘Iran is conquering and wants to occupy this particular place [Syria],’ these words are meaningless, counter to reality, and mendacious. No, we have no desire to occupy [Syria], and we also have no occupying view regarding any point in the world. We also have no need [to occupy land]; thank God, the Iranian nation has a large, flourishing country with potential. Iran is present in Syria and in the Middle East in order to fight the evil [forces of repression] that existed and still exist there.”
Other Iranian spokesmen were also generally vague with regard to the timing of the operation and who would carry it out. Ali Akbar Velayati, senior advisor to Khamenei who was at the time visiting Syria, was relatively reticent on the Israeli T-4 air base attack, saying, on April 10: “Certainly, this crime by the Zionists will not remain unanswered.”
At an April 16 press conference, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi backed down somewhat on the issue of the timing of an Iranian response and even assigned the task of a response to the resistance forces.
He said: “Sooner or later, the Zionist regime will be on the receiving end of a suitable response in the matter of these attacks, to the point where it will regret what it did. It cannot make such a move and then sit in a corner unpunished. … For Israel, the era of hit-and-run [attacks] is over, and the resistance forces are capable of giving a response appropriate for these crimes at the required and suitable time.”
While Qassemi said that vengeance would come from “the resistance forces,” the leaders of Hezbollah, the main resistance faction that is subjugate to Iran, placed the responsibility for a response to Israel on Iran, stressing repeatedly that it was Iran that would decide on, and launch, the reprisal.
On April 13, Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah said: “Of course, it is the Iranian officials who will decide what they will do [in response], and they will say what they will do. I do not want to be the one to talk about them or on their behalf. … I want to say to the Israelis that they must know… that they have brought themselves into direct conflict with Iran… This is an incident that cannot be handled with a simple [response] such as happened with many other incidents that took place here. This is an historic turning point … .”
Addressing Israel, he said: “Do not make a mistake in your assessments of the new path of conflict that you started and launched, and in the framework of which you are face to face and in direct [conflict] with the Islamic Republic of Iran, period.”
In an April 16 interview with the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, Hezbollah deputy secretary-general Na’im Qassem clarified: “It should be assumed that following this deliberate killing [at the T-4 air base], Iran will face [Israel] and make the decision, as it sees fit, in order to prevent Israel from determining rules [of conflict] that will limit Iran’s movements in Syria, [which are authorized] based on the agreement between Iran and Syria. Accordingly, we must expect that there will be something [in response] by Iran. But what will the Iranian position be, and what will its scope be? Without a doubt, it is expected that [the response] will be within Syria, but with regard to how it will be carried out, its exact details, its scope, and its timing; this the Iranians will decide.”
It should be noted that at the same time, lower-ranking Iranian officials were more explicit in promising Iranian retribution, although their statements were vague about the nature and timing of the response, and about who would carry it out.
Gen. Abedin Khorram, commander of the IRGC’s Ashoura base, said at the April 11 funeral of IRGC officer Akbar Jannati who had been killed in the T-4 attack: “The Israeli enemy must note that we will respond to the pure blood of Jannati in a timely manner, mightily, and precisely. Israel’s supreme aim in the matter of occupying [the region] from the Nile to the Euphrates is already suffocating them. Additionally, the Zionist aim to swallow up the Islamic world is being suffocated, because [Israel] is surrounded by the Palestinian front, and by the front in Syria, and this is thanks to the blood of the martyrs who defend the holy places.”
Ali Shirazi, Supreme Leader Khamenei’s representative in the IRGC’s Qods Force, said on April 12: “Israel must be careful in its behavior if it wants to extend its criminal life by a few days. It must stop its stupid [actions]. Iran has the might to destroy Israel. If you [Israel] give Iran an excuse, Tel Aviv and Haifa will be destroyed and flattened to dust.”
Three days later, on April 15, Shirazi played down his statement calling for reprisal: “We have already said several times that Iran has the capability to destroy America and Israel, but it will never start a war.”
The full report can be read here.
Y. Carmon is president of MEMRI; A. Savyon is director of the MEMRI Iran Media Project.