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The Expert Answers Q&As and columns reflect the expertise and opinions of individual faculty members and do not necessarily represent an official policy or position of the university.

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Peter White and Matt Clary

Auburn Department of Political Science faculty Peter White, left, and Matt Clary discuss Israel's attack on an Iranian consulate and what it may mean for the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy.

On April 1, Israel attacked the Iranian consulate in Syria, intensifying a contentious and unstable atmosphere in the Middle East. Auburn University faculty Peter White and Matt Clary say that, despite the heightened animosity between the two nations and the CIA’s belief it could lead to an Iranian retaliation, a larger war backed by major powers like the United States, Russia and China is unlikely. White and Clary weigh in on the situation, describe what it means for the Middle East and how it may affect U.S. foreign policy.

What was behind Israel’s attack on Iran’s Damascus consulate, and what is the history between these two countries that led to this situation?

White: The main target of the attack was the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC is a massive military and intelligence organization within the Iranian state, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization. The IRGC trains and supplies a number of militant groups in the region that advance Iran’s foreign policy goals. These include Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Among those killed in the attack on the consulate were several IRGC officers. The IRGC also provides support to the Syrian government. The attack by Israel may have been intended to degrade the IRGC’s capabilities in the region, to deter it from further support for groups such as Hezbollah or to deter it from instructing Hezbollah to carry out further rocket attacks against Northern Israel.

Clary: Israel’s attack of the Iranian consulate complex adjacent to its embassy to Syria was most likely indicative of Israel being opportunistic about reducing Iranian paramilitary capabilities in Syria and Lebanon (mostly directed at Israel). It likely learned that there were several high-level Iranian officials at the facility that could be targeted, and Israel was willing to accept the risk of escalating tensions with Iran to reduce Iran’s capacity through the Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Of the 16 individuals killed in the attack, seven were advisers and leaders from this paramilitary group, including two of its top leaders, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi and Deputy General Mohammad Hadi Hajriahimi. This is similar to the U.S. strike in Iraq in 2017 that resulted in the death of Qasem Soleimani who was head of Quds Force at the time. Quds Force represents the primary funding and logistical support that Iran provides to its proxies across the Middle East, including Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, so any reduction in its capacity, even short-term, would be a strategic gain for Israel.

Additionally, it is likely intended to signal to Iran that there are continued and serious consequences to Iranian support of groups like Hamas or Hezbollah, for attacking Israel and to put additional pressure on ongoing negotiations between Hamas and Israel over a cease-fire and hostage release in Gaza. Such an attack is definitely not out of character for Israel. While it risks escalation between the two and is a serious breach of diplomatic protocols (i.e. that embassies/consulates are not to be military targets), Israel determined that 1) the risk was acceptable and 2) that because it does not maintain formal relations with Iran and perceives the Quds Force and IRGC as a sponsor of terrorism, it argues that the targeting of such individuals, even as ‘government officials,’ is justified as they constitute terrorists themselves.

Could this lead to “World War III” if the United States, China and Russia support opposite sides of the conflict?

Clary: I think this is already the status quo in the broad geopolitical tensions between Iran and Israel. The U.S. generally backs Israel for better or worse due to historical ties and shared values/interests, and China and Russia generally back Iran. But in the event of a larger regional war between Iran and Israel, it would unlikely draw in any direct military response from China or Russia — I don’t expect this to be a catalyst for a much larger conflict. Of course, China and Russia have an incentive to continue to back Iran, if for no other reason than it is a friend in the region to both and that it is a thorn in the United States’ side, financially and politically (i.e. protecting the country from punishment in the United Nations Security Council for example), but like the U.S., they likely have a preference to prevent this conflict from escalating to a larger direct war between Israel and Iran.

White: My sense is that Russia would back Iran because Iran is already supporting Russia by giving it military material, like drones, to use in Ukraine. Russia already supplies Iran with some advanced equipment like air defense systems, and Iran and Russia both support the Assad regime in Syria. But I see Russia as much more focused on Ukraine, and China more than anything wants a steady supply of oil from the region, so would want to avoid war at all costs. So, a great power war over this conflict is unlikely.

How might this escalation affect the United States from a foreign policy perspective?

Clary: This attack is similar to the U.S. strike that targeted Qasem Soleimani in 2017, so there is some degree of precedent for how to expect this to play out and impact U.S. foreign policy in the region. The direct consequence of that attack was a worsening of relations between the U.S. and Iran, which were already extremely strained, and limited retaliatory strikes against U.S. bases in Iraq. While this attack is different since it was conducted by Israel and under the shadow of the ongoing war in Gaza, I expect that the Iranian response will likely be similar. It will retaliate against Israel, likely against one of its embassies or consulates in the region or in Northern Israel (as targeted by Hezbollah), but that retaliation should be restrained since Iran does not seem to desire a full-scale conflict between itself and Israel that would almost certainly draw the United States in as well.

Of course, Iran could determine to carry out a much larger strike, which would require a serious escalation from Israel and the U.S. against Iran, but the long-term costs of that approach would severely harm Iranian capabilities and interests, as it is generally outgunned by the combination of Iran and the U.S. So, the U.S. will need to remain vigilant for any retaliation or escalation against Israel and perhaps U.S. forces in Syria, Iraq or the region more broadly, but that has been the general condition since the Gaza conflict began. It will also make U.S. efforts to negotiate a diplomatic resolution to the situation in Gaza and the region more broadly more difficult.

Given Israel’s war in Gaza and its past attacks in Syria, what is the country attempting to do with the multi-pronged warfare? Is it all about erasing Iran’s supply for Hezbollah, or is there more to it?

Clary: It’s possible that Israel’s attack is intended to be more than a weakening of Iran’s Quds Force and backing of Hezbollah and Hamas. There are some within the Israeli government that expect an inevitable conflict with Hezbollah, so this might be a precursor to that effort to degrade Hezbollah’s capabilities prior to such an escalation. However, Hezbollah has so far been hesitant to get too involved against Israel and, ironically, it could be this attack that results in Iran putting more pressure on them to intervene against Israel. The most likely scenario here though is that this was Israel sensing an opportunity to weaken Iran’s paramilitary capabilities, support for its proxies (Hezbollah and Hamas) and to send a message to Iran more generally that it is not to be trifled with; all messages that have likely been received by Iran’s leadership. Think of this as a particularly aggressive series of moves within a long game of chess between Israel and Iran that will likely result in Iran making a similar set of somewhat aggressive moves, but with the anticipation that the game will continue in the long run and that neither side is willing to risk undertaking the scale of escalatory actions that would lead to full scale war and likely end the game. Neither side really would come out without suffering costs, meaning there would be no clear ‘victor.’

What do you see materializing in the next few weeks and months in this region?

White: Escalation is possible. The nightmare scenario is that Iran tells Hezbollah to escalate their attacks on Israel. Hezbollah’s attacks against Israel thus far have been fairly limited given the group’s capabilities. Hezbollah, if given the “green light” by Iran, could escalate its attacks significantly. The IRGC also could strike against the U.S., which has significant troop deployments in Iraq, Jordan and Syria, or at vital shipping in the Arabian/Persian Gulf. This could spark a wider Middle East conflict and draw the U.S. in more directly.

Clary: In the short term, Iran will have to retaliate in some capacity. It simply cannot allow such an attack to go unanswered. However, I expect that its response will be limited and calculated like it was following the Soleimani strike in 2017. In the longer term, this is indicative of a ‘hot’ phase of the Iran-Israel geopolitical rivalry/conflict that will likely continue for some time, but both sides will likely continue to avoid undertaking consecutive military actions that would produce a full-scale and direct war between the two countries. Additionally, the U.S. will continue putting pressure on Israel to avoid such an eventuality as any war between Iran and Israel would draw in U.S. military forces as well. While the risk for that larger scale conflict is now higher than it was before the April 1 attack, it remains relatively unlikely given these constraints.

How might this escalation affect U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, and what is the Biden administration doing to address any potential threats?

Clary: U.S. forces and facilities across the region are already on high alert, but are on the highest of alert awaiting the inevitable Iranian response. The U.S. will continue to put pressure on Israel and Hamas (through Qatar) to negotiate an immediate cease fire to conflict in Gaza, but it’s possible that this strike will make those negotiations more difficult if Iran puts pressure on Hamas to either not negotiate in good faith or to stall negotiations until Iran can implement its retaliatory response. The greatest threat to U.S. forces in the region remains missiles launched by Iran and/or its proxies, for which the U.S. has proven capable of handling thus far. This doesn’t mean the risk for incident and harm is zero, but with these forces on high alert, it will be difficult for an Iranian strike to do widespread harm/damage to U.S. forces — that and any retaliatory response is likely to be mostly directed at Israel and its interests/capabilities.