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Iran says Israel ‘in complete panic’ over Syria attack

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Emergency personnel extinguish a fire at the site of strikes which hit a building next to the Iranian embassy in Syria’s capital Damascus. While Iran has blamed Israel and vowed to avenge the April 1 air strike on Damascus that levelled the Iranian embassy’s consular annex, killing seven members of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including two generals., on April 1, 2024, Tehran has also said it does not seek to expand the war, the writer reports. Picture: Louai Beshara / AFP / April 1, 2024

By AFP

An adviser to Iran’s supreme leader said yesterday that Israel was panicking over a possible retaliatory response from Iran after a strike in Syria which killed members of its Revolutionary Guards.

“It has been a week that the Zionists are in complete panic and are on alert,” Yahya Rahim Safavi, senior adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.

“They don’t know what Iran wants to do, so they and their supporters are terrified,” ISNA quoted him as saying.

Tehran has blamed Israel and vowed to avenge the April 1 air strike on Damascus that levelled the Iranian embassy’s consular annex, killing seven members of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including two generals.

Following the strike, which Israel has not commented on, its army announced a leave suspension. It also said officials decided to increase manpower and draft reserve soldiers to operate air defences.

“This psychological, media and political war is more terrifying for them than the war itself, because they are waiting for an attack every night and many of them have fled and gone to shelters,” Safavi said.

Britain-based war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the April 1 strike killed 16 people. Among the dead were generals Mohammad Reza Zahedi and Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi who were senior commanders in the Quds Force, the IRGC’s foreign operations arm.

The strike in Damascus took place against the backdrop of the Gaza war which began with Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel in which 1,170 people, mostly civilians, were killed.

Tehran backs Hamas but has denied any direct involvement in the attack that triggered relentless bombardment and a ground invasion as Israel vowed to destroy Hamas.

The health ministry in the Hamas-run Palestinian territory says at least 33,686 people have been killed there during six months of war.

Iran does not recognise Israel, and the two countries have fought a shadow war for years. The Islamic republic accuses Israel of having carried out a wave of sabotage attacks and assassinations targeting its nuclear programme.

Violence involving Iran-backed groups flared around the Middle East, including in Lebanon, Yemen and Syria. After calls with his Australian, British and German counterparts on Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said: “Iran does not seek to expand the scope of the war.”

However, he said it had no choice but to respond to the attack on its diplomatic mission. There are a number of ways Iran could retaliate, and not all pose the same risk of escalation, experts said.

“What is certain is that Tehran does not want a direct war with Israel, at least at the current stage,” said Eva Koulouriotis, an independent Middle East analyst.

After Iran’s retaliation threats, Israel said it was strengthening air defences. Yesterday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized a container ship “related to the Zionist regime (Israel)” in the Gulf, Iran’s state media reported, with tensions soaring in the region.

The container ship “was seized by the Sepah (Guards) Navy Special Forces by carrying out a heliborne operation”, state news agency IRNA reported, naming it as the MSC Aries.

It added that the operation took place “near the Strait of Hormuz” and “this ship has now been directed towards the territorial waters” of Iran.

The ship’s operator, the Italian-Swiss group MSC, confirmed that Iranian authorities had boarded the Aries as she passed the Strait of Hormuz yesterday morning.

It said that 25 crew were on board and that it was “working closely with the relevant authorities to ensure their wellbeing, and safe return of the vessel”.

The Strait of Hormuz connects the Gulf with the Indian Ocean and, according to the US Energy Information Administration, more than a fifth of annual global oil consumption passes through it each year.

Yesterday, the Dutch foreign ministry said its embassy in Tehran and consulate in Arbil, Iraq, would remain closed today “in connection with the rising tensions between Iran and Israel”.

Citing similar reasons, Germany reiterated a warning against travel to Iran. France earlier warned its nationals against travelling to the region, after the US embassy in Israel announced it was restricting the movements of its diplomats over security fears.

Airlines said they would start avoiding Iranian airspace. German airline Lufthansa said its planes would no longer use Iranian airspace, and extended a suspension of flights to and from Tehran.

Its subsidiary, Austrian Airlines, made a similar move. Australian airline Qantas said its long-haul Perth-London flights would avoid Iranian airspace.

Iraq

Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani left Baghdad yesterday for the US, his office said, where he will meet with the US president as regional tensions flare.

President Joe Biden is due to receive the Iraqi leader tomorrow to “co-ordinate on common priorities” and discuss the “evolution of the military mission” of the US-led anti-jihadist coalition in Iraq and Syria, according to the White House.

“This official visit occurs at a delicate and sensitive time in the relations with the United States, as well as in the context of regional conditions and the ongoing crimes against innocents in the Palestinian territories,” a statement from Sudani’s office said.

The surging tensions come against the backdrop of the six-month war waged by Israel against Iran-backed Palestinian Hamas militants in Gaza.

The “meeting with President Biden will discuss the regional issues and the current escalations, focusing on the joint efforts to promote calm and prevent the conflict from widening, which could impact global stability”, Sudani’s office added.

United States

After the war in Gaza erupted, armed groups linked to Iran carried out a slew of attacks across the region on US soldiers deployed in the Middle East with the anti-jihadist coalition, in support of Palestinians.

Washington has responded with several strikes on the factions. But calm has largely returned and tensions have subsided between the US and Iraq, which have resumed talks on the future of the anti-jihadist coalition.

However, troop reinforcements from the US, Israel’s ally, headed to the region yesterday, with fears of wider war growing as a result of Israel’s battle against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“We are moving additional assets to the region to bolster regional deterrence efforts and increase force protection for US forces,” said a US defence official in Washington.

The US already has tens of thousands of troops in the Middle East and provides billions of dollars worth of military assistance to Israel.

Biden sent the head of US Central Command, General Michael Kurilla, to Israel for talks. After meeting Kurilla on Friday, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel and the United States stood “shoulder to shoulder”, despite differences over the conduct of the Gaza war.

Gaza and West Bank

After pulling forces from the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis one week ago, Israel’s military said it was continuing to operate against militants in central Gaza.

In the West Bank, where more than 460 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops or settlers since October 7, gunshots rang out and black smoke poured skywards from burning vehicles and buildings in the Palestinian village of Al-Mughayyir.

Violence erupted on Friday afternoon when Jewish settlers who were part of a manhunt for missing 14-year-old Israeli Benjamin Achimeir raided Al-Mughayyir, an AFP reporter said.

Settler attacks left at least one Palestinian dead and dozens injured.

Gallant warned against revenge attacks after the missing teenager was found dead in the West Bank.

“Let the security forces act quickly in the hunt for the terrorists – revenge actions will make it difficult for our fighters in their mission – the law must not be taken into one’s own hands,” Gallant posted on X.

Washington has ramped up pressure on Netanyahu to increase aid flows to Gaza where the United Nations warns of imminent famine.

Israel’s military said an undisclosed number of aid trucks had been allowed to enter Gaza on Thursday through a newly opened border crossing.

Despite repeated requests from AFP for comment, Israeli authorities did not disclose the exact location of the new crossing.

Gallant had announced the new crossing on Wednesday, promising to “flood Gaza with aid”, but on Thursday the UN Security Council said “more should be done”. – AFP