Smoke, flames, death: Iranian consulate in Damascus

A paper tiger revealed

Israel is acting in an ever more bellicose fashion, doing everything it can to provoke war with Iran. Yassamine Mather looks at the Damascus consulate attack

On April 1 a missile attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, widely believed to have been conducted by Israel, killed seven people, including brigadier-general Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior commander in the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and his deputy, general Mohammad Hadi Hajriahimi.

Of course, Israel has a history of targeting Iranian military installations in Syria. However, this was the first time a diplomatic mission was hit, marking a significant escalation of the Israel-Iran conflict - a largely secret war, not least because of Iran’s reluctance to openly respond.

The timing could not be a coincidence - soon after a resolution against Israel was approved in the United Nations security council, when for the first time the United States declined to use its veto and abstained. According to international law, the sovereignty of embassies and consulates belongs to the home country, so this attack in Syria could only be interpreted as an attack on Iranian soil.

Hence both the location and timing of the missile were significant, fuelling once again concerns about the spread of the Gaza war to other parts of the Middle East - even the outbreak of a full-scale war in the region.

If Iran responds proportionately to the attack on its consulate and the killing of one of its highest-ranking IRGC commanders, it will find itself two steps away from a war that it has tried so far to avoid, mainly because, despite all the rhetoric and slogans to the contrary, it does not have enough military strength to be effective in such a war.

So far the Tehran regime has done nothing, but that is, though, also a heavy blow to its reputation and regional credibility. An anonymous source quoted in The Times of Israel summed up Iran’s position: “If they don’t respond in this case, it really would be a signal that their deterrence is a paper tiger.”

But the options for responding are limited. Iran does not want to start a confrontation that leads to a domino-like increase in military tension. At the same time, it cannot afford to look weak and cowardly.

The consulate - adjacent to the main embassy compound - was flattened. Israel, feeling isolated and abandoned by key allies, and facing charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing, probably hoped this attack would bring Iran into a confrontation with Israel, paving the way for a regional war that would renew unconditional US support.

Given this situation, the failure of major European countries and the US to condemn the attack has sparked further anger in Iran, with officials expressing outrage. During the recent UN security council session discussing the Damascus bombing, China, Russia and Switzerland condemned the incident. However, Britain, France and the US declined to support a proposed press statement regarding the matter. The head of Iran’s mission to the UN took to Twitter/X to state, “The double standard undermines the security council’s credibility and sets a dangerous precedent.”


On April 8, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s foreign secretary, inaugurating a new consular building in Damascus, insisted that “America is responsible” for the bombing “and must be held accountable”. “The fact that the US and two European countries opposed a resolution condemning the attack on the Iranian embassy is a sign that the US gave the green light” to Israel to carry out the missile strike, he said.

As I have already noted, amongst the victims were Mohammad Reza Zahedi. During the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, he was one of its middle-ranking commanders. He was also involved in the 33-day war between Lebanon and Israel in 2006, alongside Imad Mughniyeh, a senior Hezbollah military commander. Other victims were Hossein Aman Elahi, who, according to the Iranian media, was “chief of staff of the IRGC Quds Force, Syrian and Lebanese branch”, and Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi, who was “a close friend and successor of Mohammad Reza Zahedi” from the “Syrian and Lebanese Branch of IRGC Quds Force”.

Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, was quoted as saying: “We will make them regret this crime and similar ones”. Iran will take “hard revenge” and “will respond at the right time and place”. He added: “We have already taken revenge on Israel” and “We will punish them for this.”

These statements by individual officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran give an indication of the pressure the regime is under. Yet more than 10 days after the event it is not clear how, where and when Iran will ‘retaliate’. On April 5, the Israeli media reported panic buying, as rumours of an imminent Iranian missile attack spread.

That is the view of many international news outlets too. For example, according to India Today,

GPS navigation services blocked, leave for combat units cancelled, air defence command amplified - Israel has left nothing to chance, as it fears a possible retaliatory attack from Iran following the killing of 13 people, including two Iranian generals, in an airstrike in Syria, foreign media reports said.1

The “13 people” refers to those killed in the last two weeks, it seems. A week before the April 1 attack, an Israeli missile destroyed a villa housing Iranian officials in a Damascus suburb.

Over the last few years around 30 senior Iranian military personnel have been killed in Syria and, although every embassy has military attachés, Iran’s involvement in the civil war in Syria is a more serious issue. That started after Iran saw the military advances of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq as a direct threat to its security, but Iran’s involvement in the Syrian conflict has come with a heavy price. (Of course, there is another aspect to Iran’s continued presence in Syria - its support for Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon.)

One possibility, it is claimed, is an attack on an Israeli embassy in Latin America or in Africa - maybe in a country with friendly relations with the Islamic Republic or a cyberattack on Israeli infrastructure. On the other hand, there are rumours of the continuation of secret Iran-US talks, with the Biden administration promising Iran it will be rewarded for its calm, considered response.

We all know from reports in the Israeli media that Iran and the US have held secret talks throughout the six months since October 7. And, immediately after the attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, indirect messages were exchanged between the two countries, with the US issuing a statement denying any advance knowledge.

According to a New York Times report published on March 15 (also reported in the Financial Times), the two sides met in Oman in January, when those present included “the Biden administration’s Middle East tsar, Brett McGurk, and special envoy on Iran, Abram Paley, and Iranian deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani”.

According to The Times of Israel, US and Iranian officials said they have continued to exchange messages about the proxies and a ceasefire. Quoting an unnamed senior US official, the paper claimed:

… the administration chose to take part in the talks to show it’s still open to diplomacy with dialogue, despite the heightened regional tensions. American officials said Iran initiated the meeting and that Oman strongly urged the US to send representatives.2

Last week there rumours that Iran’s reluctance to retaliate against Israel is partly due to US guarantees to Iran regarding its support for a ceasefire in Gaza. This week, as the conclusion of such a deal seems unlikely, the rhetoric from Khamenei and Biden has escalated.

  1. www.indiatoday.in/world/story/israel-gps-navigation-services-cancels-leave-for-soldiers-iran-attack-2523778-2024-04-05.↩︎

  2. www.timesofisrael.com/iran-reportedly-pushed-us-to-broker-gaza-ceasefire-during-secret-talks-in-oman.↩︎