The Iranian leadership is escalating its responses to the operation that killed senior IRGC and Hizbullah officials in the Quneitra area, pointing an accusatory finger at Israel, and again threatening its destruction.
A Generational Embrace
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei posted on the main page of his personal site1 and tweeted on his Twitter account (in Persian, English and Arabic) rare “unseen” pictures of him hugging and kissing Jihad Mughniyeh and his father, Imad. These testify to the profound tie Khamenei maintained with Imad Mughniyeh, a favorite of his from the start of Mughniyeh’s activity in Lebanon until his February 2008 assassination in Damascus, and with his son.2 It also illustrates the depth of Iran’s involvement in Lebanon including its special and strategic ties with its “favorite son,” Hizbullah.
The Iranian media and social networks also highlighted Jihad Mughniyeh’s special tie with the commander of the Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, who reportedly was seriously injured in a recent ISIS suicide bombing in Iraq. The Twitter account that may belong to Soleimani tweeted: “RIP Jihad Mughniye followed the steps of his father.”3 Moreover, Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, a senior IRGC official who was killed in the attack, was very close to Soleimani and also served under his command, as various publications in the Iranian media have made clear since his death.
The Iranian news agency Tabnak, which is associated with former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei, reported shortly after the attack that several IRGC members including Allahdadi were also killed.4 The report was removed from the site soon after it was posted.5 It was also reported that Allahdadi had been in Syria to advise the regime on the war against the Salafi-Takfiri [apostate] terrorists.
An extensive background report on Allahdadi’s military career and close ties with Soleimani was posted on the Mashregh News site. It related that when the IRGC’s 41st Sarallah Division was established in the Karaman Province under Soleimani’s command, AllahDadi joined it and fought alongside him until the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. After holding a number of other posts in the IRGC, the most recent of which was commander of the Al Ghadir division in the Yazd Province (until June 2011), he was invited by Soleimani to join the Quds Force and fight the “Zionist regime” in Syria and Lebanon.6 The article sheds light on the methods of the Quds Force and its commander and on the veterans of the war in Iraq who are loyal to him and who Solomeini recruits for the most consequential Iranian security roles in Syria and Lebanon. AllahDadi’s funeral was held January 21 with the IRGC Commander attending.
A lone report by a Fars News journalist in Syria indicates that a senior IRGC official named Asadi was also killed in the attack, saying that he was a commander of the IRGC advisers in Syria.7 The names of the other IRGC fatalities have not yet been published.
In a special and stern message after the attack,8 IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to continuing the struggle against Israel until its destruction. Jafari said:
As the recent rounds of fighting in Lebanon and in Palestine have already demonstrated, the IRGC will continue to stand firm [beside Hizbullah and the Palestinian organizations] until the destruction of the Zionist regime and its removal from the geostrategic equation in the region…. The martyrdom of the members of the Ummah constitutes a further springboard for the destruction of the oppressive, satanic, and terrorist political system of the Zionist regime…. The martyrdom again proved that we must not distance ourselves from the jihad and that the Zionists must prepare themselves for the “devastating thunderbolt” of Iran.9
The Iranian defense minister, Hussein Dehqan, who has played a central role in the IRGC’s activity in Syria and Lebanon and also was involved in the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut,10 stated that the Israeli operation in Syria was a continuation of its “crimes” in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon and that “its support for the radical, heretical (or Takfiri, the Iranian term for the extreme Sunni organizations operating against the Assad regime) Islamists also highlights Israel’s shameful nature.”11
The Arming of the West Bank
Ali Larijani, chairman of the [legislative] Majlis, sent condolences to Hizbullah and said, “The Zionist regime’s role in the terrorist attacks in the region is well evident, especially in the terrorist operations in Syria and Iraq, and a global unity is needed to annihilate the [Zionist] regime.”12 Mohammad Reza Mohseni-Sanihead of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee said that the “killing of the resistance (Hizbullah) commanders would not go unanswered” and that in his opinion “the response would defeat the Zionist regime for the fourth time and bring about its destruction.”13 The committee’s spokesman Hussein Naqavi-Husseini threatened:
Lebanese Hizbullah is capable of raining an ongoing missile offensive onto the occupied territories [Israel] and retains the right to respond militarily to the killing of its people…. Hizbullah has long-range missiles that can hit military bases [in Israel]…. It is easy for Hizbullah to respond militarily.
Also addressing the issue of the West Bank and Khamenei’s call to arm the Palestinians there, Naqavi-Husseini said that Israel’s actions would not succeed to stop the arming of the West Bank and that the Palestinians there would undoubtedly be armed for the anti-Israeli struggle.14
The Border Guard of the Islamic World
Hesam al-Din Ashena, head of the Center for Strategic Studies of the Iranian presidency and adviser to Rouhani for cultural affairs, said that the events in Syria in recent years are meant to prevent it from becoming the front line of the battle against Israel and therefore “it is only natural that Hizbullah, as the border guard of the Islamic world, will be present at the border of Syria [with Israel] and will continue to maintain this presence so that the confrontation will continue.”15
The Iranian Foreign Ministry condemned the killing of the Hizbullah and IRGC commanders in Syria, which foreign media attributed to Israel. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, “We condemn all actions of the Zionist regime as well as all acts of terror.”16
Revenge…Not Long in Coming
The conservative Iranian media hastened to draw a connection between the Israeli operation and “a few Arab regimes,” headed by Saudi Arabia. An editorial in the newspaper Kayhan, Khamenei’s mouthpiece, stated that the “destructive process” in Syria (which had almost led to Assad’s fall) had played into the hands of Israel and Saudi Arabia until the Iranian and Hizbullah advisers began to change the equation in Syria. The paper further wrote that if Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad had managed to fire rockets at Israel for 51 days, Hizbullah could similarly fire rockets at Haifa and Tel Aviv whenever it wanted to. The revenge against Israel, Kayhan promises, will not be long in coming.17 On January 21, its lead headline was “Harsh Revenge, Hizbullah the Nightmare of the Zionists.”18 A day earlier the paper’s lead headline quoted Nasrallah, who had called on Israel’s residents to get their bomb shelters ready.
Syria: The First Line of Defense against Israel
The killing of the senior Hizbullah and IRGC officials finds Iran in the midst of debilitating warfare in Syria and Iraq against ISIS and the other organizations opposing Assad’s regime. Iran and Hizbullah have been incurring heavy losses, including senior IRGC commanders. One of these, General Hamid Taghavi, was one of Soleimani’s senior aides and was killed in Iraq at the end of 2014 while advising the Iraqi army in its war against ISIS.19 Recently the death of another senior IRGC official in the Mosul area was reported.
Syria constitutes a central axis of these two campaigns. At the same time it is, as attested by the Iranian political and military leadership, a crucial element in Iran’s overall strategy of struggle and containment of Israel. Hence in recent years, since the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring, Iran has devoted abundant resources of skilled manpower, advisers, money (despite the drastic decline in oil revenues), arms shipments and logistics to preserving Assad’s regime.
Iran has injected Lebanese Hizbullah into the campaign in Syria and Iraq while creating cells of “Hizbullah Syria,” which Hizbullah Lebanon has been tutoring. The timing of the attack a few days after Nasrallah’s boastful speech about Hizbullah’s offensive capabilities, with threats against Israel, puts the organization and its patron in a difficult dilemma concerning the nature and characteristics of the response, which could spark an escalation and an expansion of the fronts they have to deal with despite limited resources.
Not only has Iran intensified its activity in Syria and assumed control of the operational issues affecting the Assad regime’s survival in its battle with the opposition organizations, Iran has also gradually begun to turn the Golan Heights into an active theater of combat with Israel. Thus the younger Mughniyeh, who was the symbol of his mythological father and enjoyed open and intimate channels of communication with Supreme Leader Khamenei, was appointed to the sensitive task of establishing and activating the terrorist infrastructure on the Golan.
These groups carried out attacks in the Har Dov area (October 7, 2014) and were preparing for further attacks of new kinds, as Nasrallah implied in his latest speech — including the conquest of Israeli settlements and “other surprises” involving missiles and rockets. At the beginning of next week, Nasrallah is expected to deliver an additional speech in which he will probably hint at how Hizbullah will respond.
The joint patrol of Hizbullah and IRGC officials that was struck may have been part of Hizbullah’s preparations, under Iranian tutelage, to intensify attacks against Israel along the Golan border using improvised explosive devices (IED), antitank weapons, and other means of asymmetrical warfare, with the aim of forcing Israel to expand its activity in Syria. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television station confirmed that the fighters were killed in Quneitra “during a field reconnaissance mission.”
The decision on the timing, location, and nature of the possible response to the killing of the IRGC and Hizbullah officials will be made in Tehran according to its strategic interests beyond the Syrian-Lebanese theater. The new midyear target date for reaching a nuclear agreement with the West, increasingly a subject of controversy within Iran, could figure in Iran’s considerations regarding Hizbullah’s response. Iran is now in domestic distress because of the drastic decline in oil prices, making it difficult to continue its assistance to Hizbullah and the Palestinian organizations. Although no significant decline in this assistance is evident, and recently there were even reports of improved relations with Hamas, the issue of sustaining the assistance continues to foment within a difficult internal dispute between the IRGC on one side and Rouhani and his government on the other.
In any case, the last word on the nature and timing of the response is reserved for Khamenei, who holds a special place in his heart for his favorite Imad Mughniyeh, whose death has not yet been avenged. Now he is joined by his son. Soleimani’s longstanding ties with Allahdadi could also be a factor leading to “personal” and painful revenge. For Iran and Hizbullah the series of assassinations that have not been avenged (Imad Mughniyeh in 2008, Hassan al-Laqis in 2013), which have damaged Hizbullah’s prestige, tip the scales toward those who favor a painful and imminent response. This could lead the IRGC, which sets the tone in Iran, to decide to allow Hizbullah to respond in an irregular fashion that carries the risk of an escalation.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Foresight Prudence. See more of his writings here.
5 http://www.tabnak.ir/fa/news/467972/%D8%B4%D9%87%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%AA-%D8%B3%D8%B1%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%84%D9%87-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AF%DB%8C-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%DB%8C%D9%87 (467972/شهادت–سردار–الله–دادی–در–سوریه)