Expert on Arab affairs Marianna Belenkaya talks about the Israeli attack on high-ranking officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the subsequent Iran's threats, the worsening relations with the USA, and Palestine's new submission for membership in the UN.

This week in the Middle East was marked by the threat of an expanded theater of military operations. The cause was an Israeli Air Force strike on a building belonging to the Iranian consulate in Damascus, which resulted in the death of high-ranking officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The main question of the week is how and when Tehran will respond. The timing of the actions added to the tension: the last week of Ramadan, which is traditionally associated with expressing solidarity with the Palestinians in the Islamic world. Not a single one of the main groups of the "axis of resistance," in one way or another connected with Iran, avoided making threats against Israel.

Meanwhile, the official Palestinian authorities unleashed criticism on Tehran, accusing it of destabilizing the situation in the region. There were also signs of cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, Ramallah is betting on international recognition.

The operation in Damascus

The death of seven Iranian military advisors, including two IRGC Brigadier Generals, as a result of an airstrike on a building belonging to the Iranian consulate in Damascus became the main event of the week in the region. According to media reports, three members of the Lebanese Hezbollah and two Syrians also died alongside the Iranians. A total of 13 people were killed.

Tehran accused Israel of the attack. Israeli authorities traditionally did not take responsibility but indicated that the target was legitimate. According to the spokesperson of the Israel Defense Forces, Daniel Hagari, the strike was not on a diplomatic mission but on the military headquarters of the IRGC's Quds Force, disguised as a civilian building. The Quds Force is responsible for conducting sabotage operations outside of Iran, including overseeing the activities of Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian formations in the region and supplying them with weapons. One of the eliminated Brigadier Generals was Mohammad Reza Zahedi, who had worked with Hezbollah first in Lebanon and then in Syria for decades. According to the latest information, he also played a role in preparing Hamas's operation to attack Israel on October 7th. At least, that's how it is presented in Tehran.

The elimination of high-ranking IRGC officers on Syrian territory, attributed to Israel, is not uncommon. However, after the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip in October, the number of such incidents has sharply increased. According to some reports, there have been about 18 instances of eliminations.

However, Zahedi's death became emblematic, demonstrating a change in the rules of the game in the region. As noted by the website, which specializes in Iranian issues, Zahedi was the only member of Hezbollah's Shura Council of non-Lebanese origin. According to sources, he was also an IRGC delegate to the jihad council of this Lebanese movement, possessing an effective right of veto. Thus, his assassination is not just a direct attack on Iran but a serious blow to the ties between Hezbollah and the IRGC. Furthermore, points out that Israel has shown that it no longer sees any restrictions. For example, in December, IRGC Brigadier General Saeed Reza Musavi was killed after leaving a building belonging to the Iranian diplomatic mission. According to sources, several days before his death, he was advised to stay there, as Iran was confident that Israel would not attack a diplomatic site. In December, that was the case, but now things are different.

Despite their promises, Iranian authorities did not retaliate for Musavi's murder. However, leaving the attack on its diplomatic mission unpunished is problematic for Tehran. Tehran could lose credibility not only domestically but also in the eyes of its proxies – the numerous groups united in the so-called "axis of resistance." Already, the Iranian segment of the internet is filled with mockery related to Tehran's threats against Israel, which have not been followed by action. However, Iran does not want to be dragged into a confrontation with Israel on its territory and, according to most experts, does not seek to escalate the conflict in the region. As a result, Iranian authorities face a dilemma – how to prevent further escalation in the region while still retaliating against Israel.

Among the possible scenarios described by various experts is the activation of the "axis of resistance." That is an intensification of attacks on Israeli territory by the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi movement Ansar Allah, and the Al-Nujaba group. The latter is part of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq (IRI). This brand became the banner under which several Iraqi pro-Iranian groups declared solidarity with the Palestinians in October 2023. The IRI targeted bases of the international anti-terrorism coalition in Iraq and Syria, but some groups also attempted to attack Israel. According to estimates by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, since November 2023, the IRI has claimed responsibility for 40 attacks on Israel. Of these, Al-Nujaba is responsible for about 20. In particular, this week Al-Nujaba claimed attacks on Eilat and Haifa. The first was confirmed by Israeli military officials. Information about the strike on Haifa has not been confirmed.

Moreover, through its proxies, Iran can continue and even intensify the blockade of trade routes, as is already happening in the Red Sea.

Another possible form of Iranian retaliation could be attacks targeting Israeli diplomatic missions and offices of Jewish organizations in third countries, which has happened repeatedly in the past. The Israeli embassy in Baku is considered one of the most vulnerable targets. An escalation of Tehran's nuclear program is also not ruled out as a form of retaliation.

"The axis of resistance" demonstrates unity

So far, among all measures, Iran has emphasized demonstrating the unity of the resistance movements.

This week in Beirut, an event titled "Jerusalem Pulpit (minbar)" took place. It was timed to coincide with Al-Quds Day – established in Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinian people. Since then, this day has been celebrated on the last Friday of Ramadan in many Muslim communities around the world, but primarily where Tehran's influence is widespread.

In Beirut, via video link, spoke President of Iran Ebrahim Raisi, Secretary-General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of Al-Nujaba Akram al-Kaabi, the head of Ansar Allah Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, as well as leaders of the Palestinian movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Ismail Haniyeh and Ziyad al-Nakhalah, respectively. The statements they made were quite standard – support for the Palestinian resistance, readiness to continue the fight against Israel and the USA, and a report on the work already done in this direction. However, the words were not as important as the demonstration of unity.
The speech by President Raisi was also significant – an official representative of the state on par with the leaders of groups that, although influential, are not equal in status to him. Thus, Tehran once again emphasized that it is still ready to coordinate and support the resistance movements. And this signal was heard in the region, although not equally well received by everyone.

Criticism from Fatah and others towards Iran

On Wednesday, the Fatah movement accused Iran of attempting to sow chaos in the West Bank and stated that it would not allow the Palestinian issue to be used as a card in favor of "suspicious projects that have nothing to do with the Palestinian people." This occurred simultaneously with the event in Beirut. Furthermore, one should not forget the visit of the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to Tehran last week.

This statement was set against the backdrop of several events. This week, Hamas sharply accused Fatah of collaborating with Israel. This occurred after HAMAS security forces detained several Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, suspected of working for Fatah. These individuals were in the sector along with a humanitarian mission. HAMAS claims that the mission was overseen by the head of the PNA intelligence, Majed Faraj, in coordination with Israel. This version is also supported by the Israeli newspaper "Israel Hayom".

The website of the Qatari TV channel Al Jazeera, citing sources, also claims that Faraj was tasked with leading groups to escort trucks carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza as part of the preparations for finding an alternative to Hamas after the end of military operations. Arab media note that Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant also recently suggested that Faraj could take over the management of the Gaza Strip after the war ends. Meanwhile, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu officially refuses to cooperate with the PNA and Fatah.

Another story involves clashes between Palestinian security services and militants of the so-called Tulkarm Brigade, associated with Al-Quds Brigade (the military wing of Islamic Jihad). As a result, the Palestinian authorities have faced accusations of opposing the resistance movements and acting in concert with Israel. Social networks, in particular, are awash with such statements. In Ramallah, this is seen as an organized campaign backed by Iran and Hamas, aiming to destabilize the situation in the West Bank. Palestinian authorities also point to Hamas's attempts to inflame the situation in Jordan, where protests expressing solidarity with the Gaza Strip have been ongoing for many weeks. The developments are causing concern in Amman as well.

Simultaneously, a discussion erupted in Arab media and social networks about Iran's actions in the region, in contrast to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This was triggered by a statement from Nadim Koteich, the general manager of the UAE-based TV channel Sky News Arabia. According to him, there are two Middle Easts. The priority of the first is resistance, and its result is famine, while the priority of the other is peace. "One Middle East is living in the past, and the other is creating the future," he emphasized. Opinions on this statement were divided. Some claimed that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi do not do enough to protect the Palestinians, but there were also those who agreed with Koteich.

The discussion is particularly interesting against the backdrop of the rapprochement process between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Recall that a year ago, they officially announced the normalization of relations. And Riyadh, as well as Abu Dhabi, expressed condemnation of the attack on the embassy in Damascus. Furthermore, there has been a recent rapprochement between the UAE and Hezbollah. However, this does not prevent the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf from being wary of Iran's regional ambitions and its role as a leader of the resistance movements. From this perspective, they are very sensitive to the possibility of escalation in the region.

US interests

Among the options for Iranian retaliation not mentioned above is the activation of pro-Iranian groups against American military targets in the region. The "axis of resistance" has also placed responsibility for the strike on Damascus on the USA, as Israel's main ally. Meanwhile, Washington was quick to distance itself.

It's important to note that attacks by pro-Iranian groups against American military targets in the region ceased in February. This happened after Washington launched a massive strike on the bases of Islamic Resistance groups in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for the killing of three and wounding of more than 30 American service members in Jordan.

Photo: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

The calm is important both for Washington and Baghdad. In mid-April, a visit to the USA by the Prime Minister of Iraq, Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani, is scheduled. Among other agenda items is the lifting of Washington's sanctions against certain Iraqi banks and individuals linked to the IRGC and pro-Iranian groups that have attacked American bases. For the USA, maintaining the military alliance with Iraq is crucial. This is also in Baghdad's interest, but the Iraqi authorities face opposition from pro-Iranian forces. Iraqi resistance forces claim their patience is running thin if the issue of withdrawing forces led by the US anti-terrorism coalition from Iraq is not resolved soon.

Al Sudani's visit to Washington also holds significance for the USA as another informal communication channel with Iran. Regional sources have noted an uptick in contacts between Tehran and Washington through various intermediaries. Recall that the Joe Biden administration, unlike its predecessors, attempted to establish a dialogue with Iran, including negotiating a full return to the "nuclear deal" that Donald Trump exited. This involves limiting Iran's nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions against it. These attempts have not yielded results and are unlikely to do so before the US elections, but according to publications, both sides have maintained an interest in each other.

In this context, the strike on the Iranian building in Damascus is ill-timed for the USA, although they generally approve of Israel's policy of containing Iran's regional ambitions. However, if the result is an acceleration of Iran's nuclear program, Washington would not be pleased. It's entirely possible that Tehran might blackmail the USA in this direction, hoping that Washington will increase pressure on Israel.

However, Iran is not the only pressure on the USA. The Joe Biden administration finds itself in a difficult situation ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for November. The issue primarily concerns growing dissatisfaction within the Democratic Party supporters with the administration's policy towards Israel. It is considered insufficiently firm against the backdrop of information about the rising civilian casualties in Gaza. And we see that Joe Biden is changing his tone regarding Israel.

Furthermore, the Biden administration has not abandoned its plan to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. This seemed very close before the outbreak of the October war, but now the situation has become more complicated. Riyadh would like guarantees that Israel will take real steps towards a final peace settlement with the Palestinians, i.e., towards the creation of a fully-fledged Palestinian state. This prospect does not suit the Israeli authorities at all. Nonetheless, Washington still hopes for positive developments, as this would be a significant plus for the Biden administration ahead of the elections.

So, the White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was supposed to travel to Saudi Arabia this week for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman regarding a potential deal, which would include Riyadh normalizing relations with Israel. The trip was postponed due to health issues Sullivan experienced, but it still remains on the agenda. Part of the deal directly concerns Saudi-American agreements: enhancing the level of defense cooperation and Washington providing guarantees to support the Saudi program for the development of the peaceful use of atomic energy. As noted by Israeli journalist Barak Ravid, if Washington and Riyadh come to an agreement, the Israeli authorities will face a choice: either accept the proposed terms or jeopardize their relations with the USA. However, everything remains very uncertain, including the prospect of achieving American-Saudi agreements.

In any case, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies are increasing pressure on the USA to push Israel towards a settlement with the Palestinians. The first step should involve interaction with the official Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in Ramallah. According to Arab countries, the PNA should take control of the Gaza Strip after the end of military actions there. Such a plan would also suit the majority of the international community. The USA is also working in this direction. In this context, the coming weeks will be very indicative.

Palestine's Application for UN Membership

On April 3rd, the PNA once again submitted an application for full membership in the UN. The issue is to be considered by the UN Security Council, and initial consultations on this topic could start in as soon as two weeks. Open debates on the Middle East are scheduled for April 18th.

The Palestinian authorities understand that recognition of the state does not equate to its full functionality, but they consider this as a tool to pressure Israel.

Since 2012, Palestine has had the status of a non-member observer state at the UN. This allows its representatives to participate in discussions at the UN General Assembly, but they do not have the right to vote. Nevertheless, this status enabled the Palestinians to join the International Criminal Court in 2015. This led to the commencement of investigations into Israeli military operations in Palestinian territories.

To obtain the new status, the PNA's request must be supported by two-thirds of the UN member states during a vote at the UN General Assembly, with preliminary membership approval by the UN Security Council. It is necessary that none of the permanent members of the Council exercise their right of veto during the vote. Previously, the USA, the United Kingdom, and France have opposed such a development. Paris might reconsider its position, especially in light of the increasing number of European countries ready to recognize the Palestinian state. Pressure on the British authorities is also growing within the country.

However, the decisive factor will be Washington's position. At the beginning of the year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked his staff to conduct an analysis and present policy options regarding the potential recognition of a Palestinian state. This represented a significant shift in the US stance on this issue. In the region, it is speculated that this may also be related to efforts to achieve normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

This week, a spokesperson for the United States Department of State, Matthew Miller, stated that while Washington supports the idea of creating a Palestinian state, it should be established through direct negotiations between the parties, not by appealing to the UN. However, Miller did not specify whether the US would use its veto right if the issue comes before the UN Security Council. Nonetheless, it's clear to everyone that Washington is in a difficult position between Israel and the Arab countries.