Conflict escalation: Israel and the Shiite coalition
'The issue is whether Iran’s government and Hezbollah will react robustly and retaliate against Israel'
According to the official news agency of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Sepah News, Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was killed in an Israeli air strike in Syria. The Iranian commander was killed alongside another six fighters from the powerful Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah in the Golan Heights.
The incident highlights several crucial developments. First of all, although Iranian leaders continue to deny that there are any Iranian troops operating on the ground in Syria, or reject that Tehran is taking sides in the Syrian civil war, the presence of Allahdadi adds more evidence to Iran’s deep involvement in the Syrian civil war.
In other words, Iran’s government is not only boosting President Bashar al Assad’s power through financial, advisory, and intelligence assistance, but also through military manpower that fights alongside the Syrian government against the oppositional and rebel groups.
Escalation of tensions
In addition, this evidence and incidence of the Israeli airstrike, which led to the revelations of the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the Syrian soil, is not the first one to surface. In February 2013, the Islamic Republic accused Israel of killing of General Hassan Shateri in Syria.
On the other hand, the Israeli airstrike illustrated the heightened tensions between the Shiite coalition, Iran-Hezbollah and the Israeli government. Third, the Israeli airstrike reveals that the wide range of actors who are currently involved in the Syrian civil war through military force. This includes the U.S., through the bombing campaign against ISIS, Iranian forces, Israel, and Hezbollah fighters, to name a few.
Nevertheless, the significant issue is whether Iran’s government and Hezbollah will react robustly and retaliate against Israel.
Will Iran and Hezbollah react forcefully?
Iran’s response will differ from Hezbollah for several strategic, tactical, and geopolitical reasons.
As a powerful regional state actor, Iran attempts to deviate attention from the direct involvement of the IRGC in Syria. Although a lot of evidence points to the direct military involvement of Iranian forces as well as to Iranian government’s financial, advisory, and intelligence assistance to the Syrian government.
The Rouhani administration’s attempt not to further raise the concerns of other regional countries with respect to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, and intervention in another Arab country’s soil; Syria. As a result, President Rouhani will utilize a softer diplomatic tone in this respect.
It is crucial to point out that although Iran’s presidential office is closely connected to other state institutions, it does not possess robust leverage against the IRGC’s militaristic strategy, regional hegemonic ambitions and the Supreme Leader’s agenda in the region.
However, Rouhani’s administration plays a crucial role in alleviating the concerns of other countries, with respect to IRGC interventionist role.
In addition, the Iranian government steers away from revealing that it is publicly engaged in any developments that might scuttle the ongoing nuclear negotiations. The decline in oil prices has significantly wreaked havoc upon Iran’s economy. A final nuclear deal will ensure the easing of economic sanctions and boosting of Iran’s economic power.
As a result, any robust reaction from the Iranian government towards Israel might lead to a regional war which would complicate the ongoing nuclear talks primarily between the U.S. and Iranian officials.
Moreover, Iran’s government is currently involved in several countries militarily and financially. Israeli leaders are aware of the fact that Iran’s involvement in Iraq and Syria would indicate that Tehran cannot afford to respond robustly to the Israeli airstrike, and risk another military war.
When it comes to Hezbollah, its response to Israel is normally reliant upon the commands that it receives from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and senior officials of the IRGC.
Iranian leaders are more likely to utilize Hezbollah for rhetorical purposes in order to respond to the Israeli airstrikes. In this case, Tehran permits Hezbollah to utilize tougher language towards Israeli leaders. As the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, pointed out that Hezbollah possess the right to respond and retaliate against the Israeli airstrike, which martyred its fighter.
Finally, since any military retaliation from Hezbollah, leading to a wider conflict with Israel, will pull Iran in as well, Iranian leaders are more likely to caution Hezbollah about using any tactics or strategy that might bring about a war. Iran has much more to lose than Hezbollah if the escalation of conflict leads to a war.
Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC.