Iran has few options to retaliate after Syria strikes

Though it has long made threats to Israel’s existence, Iran doesn’t have a modern air force to take on Israel.
Tuesday 08/05/2018
Big and bold. Israeli Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference in Tel Aviv, on April 30. (Reuters)
Big and bold. Israeli Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference in Tel Aviv, on April 30. (Reuters)

DUBAI - After a second suspected Israeli strike killing Iranian forces in Syria, Tehran has few ways to retaliate as its leaders wrestle with unrest at home and the prospect of its nuclear deal collapsing abroad.

Though it has long made threats to Israel’s existence, Iran doesn’t have a modern air force to take on Israel. Launching ballistic missiles remains a question mark, considering Israel’s anti-missile defence system, the near-certainty of massive Israeli retaliation and the risk of further alienating the West as US President Donald Trump threatens to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name of the Iran nuclear agreement.

Iran’s long-favoured strategy of relying on allied militant groups and proxies faces limits as well. Hezbollah, bloodied and battered from Syria’s long war, may not have the appetite for another conflict as the Shia militant group tries to further integrate into Lebanese politics.

Here’s a look at what happened and the challenges confronting Iran as it weighs its response.

On April 9, a suspected Israeli jet fighter targeted Syria’s T4 airbase in central Homs province, hours after a suspected poison gas attack on a rebel-held Syrian town. That strike killed 14 people, including seven Iranians.

On April 29, just before midnight, another attack struck Syrian government outposts further north, in Hama and Aleppo provinces. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes, which targeted an arms depot containing surface-to-surface missiles belonging to Iranian militias in Hama and a military base in Aleppo, killed 26 pro-government forces, most of them Iranians.

Suspicion for both attacks immediately fell on Israel, which, in keeping with tradition, neither confirmed nor denied carrying out the strikes. If Israeli jets carried out the latest assault, it would mean the country’s fighters are flying deeper and deeper into Syrian territory. Hama is 180km from Israel.

While Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the April 9 attack “a crime” and other officials threatened revenge, there are significant limits to Iran’s conventional military forces.

Iran’s air force has suffered since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The backbone of its air power remains pre-revolution American F-4s, F-5s and F-14s, with a mix of other Soviet, French and ageing aircraft. That fleet is outgunned by the modern US-supplied fighter jets flown by Israel and the Gulf Arab countries.

To counter that, Iran has put much of its money towards developing a ballistic missile force it says provides a defensive deterrent to a direct air attack. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a hard-line paramilitary force answerable only to Khamenei, controls those ballistic missiles, which can reach Israel.

There is a recent precedent for Iran firing ballistic missiles to avenge attacks. Last June, six Iranian Zolfaghar missiles targeted Islamic State (ISIS) positions in Syria in revenge for an ISIS-claimed attack on the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder. However, Israeli media later reported only one made it to its target, something denied by the IRGC.

Israel, in cooperation with the United States, has developed a multilayer system of missile defence that could protect it against Iranian weapons. While no missile defence is perfect, Israel could defend itself. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, long a hawk on Iran, likely wouldn’t hesitate to launch a massive retaliatory strike.

A missile attack on Israel would draw an immediate response from the West, in particular, the United States, which long has acted as the guarantor of Israel’s safety. Trump has pledged “we have no better friends anywhere” than Israel and is moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, a move that has angered Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, and their Arab backers.

Any military action would further isolate Iran as Trump faces a May 12 deadline to decide what to do about the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. That deal allowed Iran to sell crude oil on the international market and regain access to the world’s banks. Losing it could mean further economic problems for Iran, which has seen its currency, the rial, crater against the US dollar.

While average Iranians haven’t experienced any direct benefit from the nuclear deal, they have felt the currency crisis. Iranian government officials recognise that anger, coupled with smouldering resentments after nationwide protests swept the country in December and January, could challenge their rule. That could grow with a fumbled direct attack on Israel.

Iran could fall back on its regional militant allies or proxies to launch an attack, a strategy it has used with great success after its ruinous 1980s war with Iraq. After the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the United States blamed Iran for training Iraqi militants to build so-called explosively formed projectiles, which penetrated armoured vehicles to maim and kill soldiers. Tehran denied doing this.

Western countries and UN experts also say Iran supplied the Shia rebels holding Yemen’s capital with weapons, from small arms to ballistic missiles, something Tehran also denied.

Iran’s greatest proxy achievement is Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group and political organisation that pushed occupying Israeli forces out of Lebanon in 2000. Since then, Hezbollah has remained an adversary of Israel and fought one war against it in 2006. Southern Lebanon’s rolling hills bordering Israel remain Hezbollah’s stronghold.

Iran could retaliate through Hezbollah but the group has been battered in the Syrian war. Supporting embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad has seen hundreds of its fighters killed and wounded.

Hezbollah also wants to further integrate into Lebanese politics as the country votes for a new parliament for the first time in nine years. Beginning a new war could endanger its political support base, including among its Shia constituency, which is wary of another ruinous war with Israel.

Iran continues to threaten retaliation. If none comes, Israel may feel emboldened to carry out strikes even deeper into Syria to hit major Iranian bases before that country’s war ends. However, continuing strikes risks escalation on all sides, with Hezbollah still heavily armed just across the Israeli border. How Russia and the United States would respond to any escalation remains a question as well.

(The Associated Press)