US officials say strike on Iranian general ‘a blow’ to Tehran, risks inflaming region

Ex-CIA agent tells NYT alleged Israeli attack aimed to ‘punish’ Guard Corps for efforts to harm Israelis abroad; retired US general says Iran’s options for response ‘very limited’

A banner displaying pictures of Israeli army officials with their faces encircled by a red crosshair icon hangs in Tehran on April 2, 2024, following a suspected Israeli strike in Damascus that killed the top IRGC officer in Syria. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
A banner displaying pictures of Israeli army officials with their faces encircled by a red crosshair icon hangs in Tehran on April 2, 2024, following a suspected Israeli strike in Damascus that killed the top IRGC officer in Syria. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

The alleged Israeli strike that killed Iran’s top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander in Syria was a strategic blow to Tehran and may risk an escalation of tensions in the region, current and former US officials told The New York Times Tuesday.

Though it was blamed by Iran and its allies, Israel has not officially commented on the attack on the building in Damascus, which killed Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the IRGC’s most senior official in Syria, along with his deputy Gen. Mohammad Hadi Hajriahimi, five other IRGC officers and at least one member of Hezbollah.

In the wake of the strike, US troops based in southeastern Syria intercepted an attack drone, marking the first such incident in two months, a Defense Department told The Times, speaking on condition of anonymity. Iran-backed militias had refrained from attacking US bases in an apparent attempt at deescalation after three US troops were killed in a drone strike in Jordan in January.

Ralph Goff, a former senior CIA official who operated in the Middle East, called the alleged Israeli strike “reckless,” adding that “it will only result in escalation by Iran and its proxies.”

He told the Times that the attack was in line with Israel’s long-term strategy of weakening the IRGC and “punishing them for ongoing plots to kill or kidnap Israeli Jews around the world.”

The “long-term, carefully developed relationships” built by the senior officers who were killed were eliminated with the attack, former US Central Command chief and retired four-star general Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr told the Times, calling it “a blow” to Tehran.

IRGC official Mohammad Reza Zahedi, July 2, 2017. (Ali Khara/Fars Media Corporation, via Wikimedia CC BY 4.0)

But he doubted the risk of a major retaliation, stating that “Iran’s options to hit Israel are very, very limited,” and “the Israelis aren’t going to back down.”

Dana Stroul, the Pentagon’s former top Middle East policy official, labeled the attack “the Israeli version of the US strike on Qassem Suleimani,” referring to the assassination of the Quds Force chief in Baghdad in January 2020, and warning that it was a “significant escalation and risks tipping an already volatile, unstable region into full-scale war.”

“The question is, will Iran respond in a manner that deescalates the situation, or will it climb further up the escalation ladder?” she said.

The strike “should have strategic effect on how the Quds Force operates abroad and should erode any semblance of invincibility or deniability that this terrorist organization only brings instability and violence to the places it seeks to operate,” added Stroul.

Sabrina Singh, a Pentagon spokesperson, emphasized that the US played no part in the strike and wanted to avoid an escalation.

“Tensions being high in the region, we wanted to make it very clear in private channels that the US had no involvement in the strike in Damascus,” she said.

Zahedi was reportedly responsible for the IRGC’s operations in Syria and Lebanon, for Iranian militias there, and for ties with Hezbollah, and was thus the most senior commander of Iranian forces in the two countries. The IRGC is a US-designated terrorist organization.

Emergency and security personnel search the rubble at the site of strikes which hit a building annexed to the Iranian embassy in Syria’s capital Damascus, on April 1, 2024. (LOUAI BESHARA/ AFP)

Faced with ongoing attacks by the Iran-backed Hezbollah and Shiite militias throughout the Middle East in the wake of Hamas’s brutal October 7 massacre, which sparked the war in Gaza, Israel has escalated its strikes on Iran-linked terror targets in Syria, reportedly killing numerous IRGC operatives, as well as members of Hezbollah and other Iranian proxy groups.

Israel has grown increasingly impatient with the daily exchanges of fire with Hezbollah, which have escalated in recent days, and warned of the possibility of a full-fledged war. Houthi rebels have also been launching long-range missiles toward Israel, including on Monday.

While Israel does not, as a rule, comment on specific strikes in Syria, it has admitted to conducting hundreds of sorties against Iran-backed terror groups attempting to gain a foothold in the country over the last decade. The Israel Defense Forces says it attacks arms shipments believed to be bound for those groups, chief among them Hezbollah. Additionally, airstrikes attributed to Israel have repeatedly targeted Syrian air defense systems.

Iran and Hezbollah have vowed to respond to the strike on the IRGC generals, with Iranian state TV reporting that the country’s Supreme National Security Council, a key decision-making body, met late Monday and decided on a “required” reaction.

In an online statement, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi blamed Israel for the attack, saying the “cowardly crime will not go unanswered.”

“After repeated defeats and failures against the faith and will of the Resistance Front fighters, the Zionist regime has put blind assassinations on its agenda in the struggle to save itself,” his statement added.

“The evil Zionist regime will be punished at the hands of our brave men. We will make them regret this crime and the other ones,” Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a message published on his official website.

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