OpinionIsrael at War

Iran’s ‘Ring of Fire’

The assassination of a senior IRGC officer in Damascus dealt a blow to Iran's strategy of maintaining distance from the actions of its proxies in the region.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh meets with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran, March 26, 2024. Source: Screenshot.
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh meets with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran, March 26, 2024. Source: Screenshot.
Yaakov Amidror
Maj.-Gen. (Ret.) Yaakov Amidror is a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

Iran has over the years built a “smart” strategy for its war with Israel. This strategy has two main components: 

1. Develop military nuclear capability to prevent hostile actions against Iran, enabling Tehran to continue and even expand its aggressive activities throughout the region, mainly against Israel but also against the United States.

2. Surround Israel with a “Ring of Fire” comprising Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, foreign militias in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen and pro-Iran militias in Iraq.

Former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani also dreamed of building an independent Iranian capability in Syria, but Israeli operations over the past dozen years or so made full implementation of this impossible.

The guiding principle of the Ring of Fire is clear: Iran remains distant and ostensibly uninvolved, because it has no direct responsibility for any action by these elements. Iran is like an octopus whose center and brain are not responsible for the actions of its long arms—preventing its enemies from retaliating against it with overt force.

A strong signal to Iran

The array of forces Iran has built up on all sides is proving difficult for Israel to deal with. Therefore, total elimination of Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s military power in Gaza is of the utmost importance in order to make it clear to the octopus and its proxies that crossing red lines will lead to drastic Israeli responses; The fact that many elements of the “Ring of Fire” are necessarily close to Israel exposes them to its full military might.

But even if Israel succeeds in minimizing Iran’s ability to operate its proxies in Gaza (and to do so the IDF will have to enter Rafah and dismantle the four Hamas battalions there), Iran will not have paid a price, and will remain distant and protected. The principle will be preserved.

However, the April 1 Damascus strike made it clear to Iran that this immunity is not guaranteed, and that if it steps up its actions against Israel any Iranian who approaches Israel will be a legitimate target. The attack on the building next to the Iranian embassy in Damascus, which the Iranians call a “consulate” (I don’t know if this is true or another Iranian bluff. No diplomat was there when it was bombed), is a strong signal to Iran that its continued actions are bringing Israel closer to a direct attack on it. The operation against a senior IRGC official in the area closest to the Iranian embassy, an area considered Iranian territory in Damascus, is a warning to Tehran that goes beyond the importance of the senior commanders it lost.

The strike killed senior Iranian commanders with extensive operational experience. This will not lead to the collapse of the IRGC, but they will find it more difficult to operate in the arena around Israel. It will be interesting to see if Iran is able to find suitable replacements for the assassinated commanders. Iran does not have a good track record on this score—to date, Tehran has not found a suitable replacement for Soleimani, just as Hezbollah has not found a substitute for Imad Mughniyeh.

Israel must take into account that the Iranians will make a major effort to find a suitable target for revenge. They are not likely to intensify the fighting in Lebanon, because they apparently have no interest in sparking a major war in which Hezbollah will sustain severe damage (certainly as it has become clear to them that the Gaza component of the “Ring of Fire” is being dismantled). Instead, they are likely to look for a painful and isolated target that will not lead to a regional escalation but will take a cruel toll. The 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina following the assassination of Hezbollah Secretary General Abbas Musawi (who preceded Hassan Nasrallah) is an appropriate example from history.

The operation in Damascus must be understood against the background of the direct struggle emerging between Israel and Iran. In this instance, the damage inflicted is to a critical component of the Iranian strategy—Tehran’s ability to distance itself from its actions and those of its representatives in teh region under the pretext that it is not directly involved.

The operation will not change Iran’s longstanding strategy, but will make it difficult to continue its implementation—Iran for its part will do everything it can to overcome this and continue its aggressive operations, which have intensified during the Gaza war.

Originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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