Iranian Consulate in Damascus after the attack Iranian Consulate in Damascus after the attack. Photo: Rajanews / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

Israel’s bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus was a blatant act of war, and shows Israel’s willingness to widen the war, even as it grows more isolated, argues Chris Bambery

The horror of Israel’s war on Gaza is with us all the time. In six months, some 33,000 Palestinians have been killed, a third of them children. Mass hunger faces the survivors as Israel blocks food supplies, in clear violation of the international Genocide Convention and to the condemnation of the International Court of Justice.

Amidst the ongoing horror this week, which includes the ending of Israel’s siege of Al Shifa Hospital, in which 200 patients, staff and sheltering civilians were killed, and the killing by a drone attack of seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen, the most serious was the Israeli air attack on the Iranian consulate in the Syrian capital, Damascus. The strike killed Mohammad Reza Zahedi, believed to be a top commander of Iran’s Quds force in Syria and Lebanon, and six other senior Iranian military officials.

This was the fourth Israeli strike on Iranian forces in Syria this year. At least seventeen members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have been killed in Israeli strikes on Syria since 7 October.

Why was this the most serious? Because diplomatic buildings are part of the state they represent. If you recall, Julian Assange took asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy and police could not enter under international law, until Ecuador withdrew its protection of him, because it was regarded as Ecuadorian soil.

Attacking a consulate can, therefore, legitimately, be viewed as an act of war, carried out by one state against another. That is certainly the view in Teheran. The strike represents a major escalation of the conflict.

Israel repeated its usual mantra about having a right to defend itself, claiming Iran is behind the mounting conflict between it and Hezbollah along the Israeli-Lebanon border and behind the Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.

It might, at this point, be worthwhile asking how Israel might respond if the Iranians carried out a strike on an Israeli diplomatic building in, say, New Delhi? The response would beggar belief.

Defending the indefensible

Predictably the New York Times defended Israel’s attack on the consulate. It did admit that diplomatic buildings have protection under Article 22 of the Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states: ‘The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission. The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.’

Consulate premises are likewise inviolable under Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. But the article goes on to argue: ‘… in the case of the Damascus bombing, experts say, because they only refer to the responsibilities of the “receiving State” — in this case, Syria — and say nothing about attacks by a third state on foreign territory.’ Therefore Israel is in the clear. This is not so.

The problem that Israel and its supporters, such as the New York Times, face is that the US State Department says clearly, ‘an attack on an embassy is considered an attack on the country it represents.’ The New York Times piece quotes Aurel Sari, a professor of international law at Exeter University:

‘An Israeli airstrike carried out within Syria without its consent would be in contravention of Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter, which prohibits a state from using force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any other state. Unless Israel were able to justify any airstrike as an act of self-defense, it would be in violation of international law.’

Back in 2005, a set of principles was prepared by the International Law Programme at Chatham House which set out instances when a state had the right to defend itself. These included this:

‘The “armed attack” may include not only an attack against a state’s territory, but also against emanations of the state such as embassies and armed forces.’

Iran will be studying international law closely, but it will also be aware of precedents when diplomatic buildings are attacked. The USA has responded to attacks on its diplomatic posts with military action. In August 1998, the US embassies in both Kenya and Tanzania were attacked by Al Qaeda; 250 people were killed and over 5000 injured.

Almost immediately, President Bill Clinton ordered a cruise missile attack on a remote site in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, was based and on what Clinton claimed was a chemical plant in Sudan, where bin Laden was allegedly producing chemical weapons. In fact, it was a pharmaceutical plant supplying half of the country’s medicine, both for human and veterinary use.

This might explain why Washington was so quick to condemn the Israeli strike on the Damascus consulate. The country which has seen the most attacks on its diplomatic posts is the USA, admittedly thus far by non-state organisations. Another reason was that the operation was carried out using American supplied F16 jets.

Iran and its allies

The Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made it clear Iran will respond stating: ‘We will make them regretful about the crime and similar acts.’

How Teheran will actually respond, we don’t know, but here it is important to scotch the myths spun by Israel and its allies that Iran is the conductor directing the actions of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and various militias in Iraq.

In fact, Iran has made it clear it does not want a direct confrontation with either Israel or the USA. When, in January, a drone strike carried out by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq targeted Tower 22, a US base on the Jordanian/Syrian, killing three US troops and injuring 47 others, Iran acted to curtail such attacks.

Hezbollah has reacted in response to Israeli attacks in Lebanon, step by step, and has not unleashed its massive arsenal of missiles on Israel. The threat of escalation comes because Israel is striking deeper and deeper into Lebanon.

It is, in fact, Israel who is escalating the conflict with Iran and its allies, and they are allies, not puppets, as the West portrays them. The attack on the Iranian consulate is a huge leap forward in that. Why?

Even the dogs on the street point to the fact Benjamin Netanyahu needs the war to continue to remain in office given the corruption charges and his bungling of the 7 October Hamas attack. However, there is a more important reason why Israel might choose to escalate this war into a regional conflict. The bulk of the Israel Defence Force is now based along the border with Lebanon. After six months, it has not achieved the victory in Gaza as outlined by Netanyahu: the annihilation of Hamas.

Israel has always relied on its huge military superiority, courtesy of the USA, to act as a deterrent to anyone considering attacking it. After 7 October, it looks vulnerable. In Netanyahu’s mind and those of others in his government and the military, a war with Hezbollah could bring them the decisive victory they need, and if Iran gets drawn in, all the better.

It’s a dangerous fantasy. Hezbollah is far better armed than Hamas – it has some 150,000 missiles targeted at Israel – and has greater manpower. They will fight from well-prepared underground positions, as they did in 2006, when they beat an Israeli invasion, and can obtain arms through Syria. Thousands of Israeli civilians evacuated from along with the border are refusing to return home, which tells you they don’t underestimate Hezbollah. The Houthis and the militias in Iraq would not stand idly by. And what of Iran? It has been preparing for an Israeli attack for years, and is well stocked with missiles, including ballistic ones, and drones. It would be no push over.

Netanyahu believes any Israeli/Iranian war would bring the US on side with him. We’ll see. Iran has a huge missile arsenal. It wouldn’t wait for the US Air Force to arrive but would unleash them, to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system and US bases in the region. Russia would likely support Iran.

For years, Washington has believed it can topple the regime there through a colour-coded revolution as elsewhere. But you do not have to support the Iranian regime there to point out Iranians have very vivid memories of what the USA and Britain did in their country.

In the inter-war period, Iran was in effect a British colony because of its oil. In 1941, Britain and Russia invaded and partitioned Iran between them to ensure the oil kept flowing and the supply route north to Russia was secure. But the most vivid memory is of 1953, when a CIA/MI6 coup overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh and gave absolute power to the Shah. Mossadegh’s crime, in the eyes of London and Washington, was to have nationalised the British government-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company.

The Shah presided over a brutal dictatorship, finally overthrown by the great, popular revolution of 1979. How such a people’s uprising was captured by Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters is another story. This is not ancient history in Iran, and many critics of the regime would oppose an American or Israeli war on their country.

Israeli belligerence

Meanwhile, the sight of large demonstrations in Israel demanding Netanyahu’s resignation might seem a way to bring this war to a close. It is not. The protests are large but they represent a minority of the Jewish population. Peace Index reports on a poll taken in January:

‘A large majority of the Jewish public thinks that the IDF uses adequate or too little force in Gaza. Unlike the beginning of the war, now about half of the Jewish public (51% compared to 37% in November) believes that the IDF uses firepower appropriately against Gaza, compared to 43% (58% in November) who believe that there is use of too little firepower. An absolute majority (88%) also justifies the scope of casualties on the Palestinian side when considering the goals of the war’ [My italics].

When the opposition leader, Benny Gantz, was brought to Washington to be groomed as a successor to Netanyahu, he shocked his hosts by being even more bellicose than Netanyahu. And while the US and UK bleat on about the need for a two-state solution, no important party in Israel backs that.

All of that suggests why Netanyahu might want to extend the war; there are plenty of Israelis cheering it on. Some might warn that a war with Hezbollah, and even more so one with Iran, might end in defeat. If that were to occur, Israel’s fate would be up for grabs. Israel needs to keep winning to maintain its regional dominance. Victories are becoming scarce.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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