Iran on Tuesday threatened to retaliate in response to an Israel attack in southern Syria on Sunday that killed an Iranian general along with six members of the Lebanon-based militant group Hizbollah.
Despite warning Israel of “devastating thunderbolts”, however, analysts said Tehran is likely to react cautiously in order to avoid jeopardising negotiations over its nuclear programme.
Israel has girded itself for a possible military escalation in the aftermath of the attack, deploying one of its Iron Dome rocket interceptor units in its northern border region after Iranian and Hizbollah officials threatened to retaliate for the drone strike in the Syrian Golan region. Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet met on Tuesday to discuss its response to the rising regional tensions.
Mohammed Allahdadi, a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was killed in Sunday’s attack, along with the son of Hizbollah’s late military leader Imad Moughniyeh and five others.
Israel, which has struck military targets in southern Syria belonging to Hizbollah or its Syrian government ally several times over the past two years, has not publicly acknowledged it carried out the air strike, and local media have cited “foreign media reports” as their sources.
However, on Tuesday an unnamed senior security official appeared to be seeking to head off further escalation with Hizbollah and Iran, Israel’s foremost regional enemy, when he acknowledged the strike, but told a Reuters reporter that Mr Allahadi was not its intended target.
“We saw this as a limited tactical operation,” the source said, adding that Israel’s military aimed to hit a Hizbollah field unit that was preparing to carry out an attack at the Golan border fence.
While the presence of Hizbollah fighters in the Golan region has alarmed Israel’s government, the death of the Iranian general in the attack has raised fears that it could provoke a broader confrontation.
Mohammad-Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, on Tuesday warned the “Zionists” that his forces would step up their support for anti-Israel movements throughout the region until “this epitome of evil” was “eliminated” from the Middle East.
However, Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a conservative Iranian politician, said that Iran was not seeking an escalation of tensions with Israel but stressed that there had to be a response.
Speaking in Lebanon before the strike, Hizbollah leader Sayyed Nasrallah warned that the group reserved the right to respond to Israeli attacks on Syria, and pointed out that it possessed Iranian Fateh 110 missiles, which have a range of 200km. He also denied that Hizbollah had military formations on the Golan — ostensibly the reason Israel struck — but hinted they could be there in support roles.
A source close to the militant group told the Financial Times that the group’s Lebanese base wanted to respond to the Israeli attack, but was constrained by Iran’s reluctance to do anything large-scale right now because of its nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 western powers.
“Don’t forget that Hizbollah is a Lebanese wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, first and foremost,” the source said. “It will not act without Iran.”
A banner across the group’s al-Manar news website read “Prepare your (bomb) shelters”, in Hebrew and Arabic.
Israeli analysts said the strike was in keeping with other recent sorties against Hizbollah, which has extended itself fighting in Syria, but broader in its extent, raising the risk of a counter-strike.
“This last attack probably was more extensive than what was originally planned,” said Benedetta Berti, a fellow with the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
“Hizbollah may now be in a position where it has to respond — to send a signal to Israel while avoiding a fully-fledged war which I don’t believe it has any interest in fighting.”
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