Waiting for Iran’s Revenge

Waiting for Iran’s Revenge
April 5, 2024 sdcpm
Waiting for Iran's Revenge - TorchStone Global

Waiting for Iran’s Revenge

By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart

On April 1, 2024, an airstrike targeting a consular building adjacent to the Iranian Embassy in Damascus resulted in the deaths of seven members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force. The IRGC is the most powerful military arm of the Iranian regime and was created to be the praetorian guard responsible for protecting Iran’s clerical establishment and government.

Quds Force is the elite foreign operations arm of the IRGC that is responsible for training, arming, and directing Iran’s militant proxy groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories, among others.

Among the Quds Force officers killed in the strike was General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior Quds Force leader believed to be responsible for overseeing militant proxy groups in Lebanon and Syria, along with his deputy, Brigadier General Mohammad Hadi Hajriahimi.

While media reports note that Zahedi is the most senior member of the Quds Force killed since Qasem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. Airstrike in Baghdad in January of 2020, it is noteworthy that Israel has killed several high-ranking IRGC officers in Damascus in recent months.

Those eliminated in previous Israeli airstrikes include senior IRGC advisor Sayyed Razi Mousavi in December 2023, and General Sadegh Omidzadeh, who was killed with five other IRGC officers in January 2024. Omidzadeh was reportedly the deputy head of intelligence for the Quds Force.

Given the role of the Quds Force in working with militant proxies, it is not surprising one of those killed in the April 1 strike was Hezbollah commander Hussein Youssef.

Iran has expressed outrage over the attack on its consular facility and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed revenge, noting, “The Zionist regime will be punished by the hands of our brave men. We will make it regret this crime and others it has committed.”

Khamenei’s political adviser Ali Shamkhani also threatened the United States, claiming in an April 2, post on X,  that the United States, “Remains directly responsible whether or not it was aware of the intention to carry out this attack.”

Inviolability of Diplomatic Premises

The fact that Iran is protesting an attack against a diplomatic facility would be almost comical if the situation was not so serious. The Iranian regime has a long history of orchestrating attacks on diplomatic premises. One of the first acts of the Iranian Revolution was to seize the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and hold over 50 members of the embassy staff hostage for 444 days.

Over the ensuing decades, Iran has used its militant proxies to conduct numerous attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, including two significant vehicle bomb attacks in 1983 and 1984, as well as numerous attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.  Indeed, it was a dramatic 2019 assault against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by Iranian proxy groups that is believed to have been the final straw that led the U.S. to target Quds Force Commander Soleimani in Baghdad in January 2020.

The Iranian government is also known to have facilitated the March 1992 vehicle bomb attack against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires Argentina with the help of Hezbollah operatives.

Iranian operatives have also conducted or attempted to conduct attacks against Israeli diplomats in several countries including Georgia, India, and Thailand.

In 2011, an Iranian IRGC operative was arrested in the U.S. for attempting to hire members of the Mexican Los Zetas Cartel to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C.

The Iranian government does not have much ground to stand on when it comes to respecting the inviolability of diplomatic facilities.

A senior Israeli government official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said those killed in the airstrike had “been behind many attacks on Israeli and American assets and had plans for additional attacks.” This is not an unreasonable claim considering the identities of those killed and echoes U.S. statements made after the airstrike that killed Soleimani. Soleimani was responsible for hundreds of attacks against U.S. personnel and was reportedly in Iraq to meet with militant proxies to plan future attacks when he was targeted.

Revenge Attack?

Threats of retribution made by the Iranian Supreme Leader and other senior Iranian officials have generated considerable conjecture about when and where such attacks may occur. This is understandable given that the March 1992 Israeli Embassy bombing was retribution for a February 1992 Israeli helicopter ambush that killed Hezbollah Secretary General Sayed Abbas al-Musawi.

Such speculation is not new, however. I wrote a piece in 2008 discussing when Iran and Hezbollah would retaliate for the 2008 assassination of Hezbollah’s external operations commander and Quds Force interface Imad Mughniyeh. I wrote a follow-on piece in February 2009 wondering why they had not yet conducted the anticipated revenge attack. That attack has still not come.

More recently, observers have been waiting for the threatened retribution for the 2020 U.S. airstrike that killed Quds Force Commander Soleimani. While Iran did launch some missiles at bases in Iraq where U.S. personnel were posted as Soleimani was being buried, they were always expected to do more.

The threats they made against members of the Trump Administration such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former National Security Advisors John Bolton and Robert O’Brien, have resulted in them being afforded official government protective details for years after they left office.

In August 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice charged IRGC Quds Force member Shahram Poursafi with attempting to orchestrate the assassination of Bolton and Pompeo. However, it is noteworthy that rather than conduct the assassination using an IRGC officer or a member of a militant group with a presence in the U.S. such as Hezbollah or Hamas, Poursafi was attempting to arrange a contract murder using a hitman—instead, he ended up in contact with a confidential informant who reported him to the FBI.

The Poursafi case bore many similarities to earlier plots such as the previously mentioned 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador, except in this case, Poursafi attempted to contact the hitman directly via the internet rather than reach out to a known Iranian person residing in the U.S. to coordinate the murder.

Just this past month, the FBI Miami field office issued an alert seeking information on an Iranian intelligence officer who had allegedly been attempting to recruit people to conduct attacks on U.S. officials in revenge for the death of Commander Soleimani.

While the IRGC is very capable in terms of guerrilla warfare and irregular warfare using their proxy groups in places like Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, they have clearly struggled to conduct attacks in countries with competent domestic security services.

They have been able to conduct simple attacks against soft targets such as dissidents and journalists in Europe—the recent knife attack against a dissident journalist in London is a prime example. But this attack also served to highlight their operational ineptitude.

In addition to IRGC’s tradecraft struggles, another factor mitigating the threat to Israeli diplomatic facilities around the globe is that they have been on high alert for decades—especially in the wake of the Buenos Aires bombing. Their security programs are mature and have proved effective at spotting pre-attack behaviors and abating the impact of attempted attacks, such as those in New Delhi and Tbilisi. American military bases and diplomatic facilities in the region are also on heightened alert given the repeated Iranian-linked attacks against them.

Finally, given the large number of previous attacks against Iranian interests, including the Mughniyeh and Soleimani assassinations, or the December 2023 and January 2024 airstrikes against senior IRGC Quds Force in Damascus, Iran has ample motive for an attack.

Indeed, the Iranians have been planning and plotting to the best of their capability to conduct attacks against American and Israeli targets for decades now. They have played nearly all the cards they have, short of Hezbollah launching a full-scale war with Israel, or Iran itself declaring war with Israel or the U.S. Both steps would bring significant negative consequences for Iran and their interests in the region.

The Zahedi airstrike did not suddenly provide Iran with a motive they previously lacked, and likewise, it will not furnish them with a new capacity to conduct revenge attacks. Because of this, the threat to the U.S. and Israel has not appreciably increased due to the attack.