On April 1, 2024, a suspected Israeli airstrike destroyed the Iranian consulate in Damascus, marking a significant escalation in regional tensions. The attack, resulting in the deaths of eight Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) senior commanders, including Brig.-Gen. Mohammed Reza Zahedi – in charge of the Quds Force operations in Syria and Lebanon – presented Tehran with an unprecedented dilemma, reminiscent of former ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s “chalice of poison” decision during the 1985 Iran-Iraq war.

To deter future Israeli attacks, Iran would need to retaliate directly against Israel. However, such action could provoke a severe response from the IDF at a time when the Iranian regime has already lost much of its legitimacy.

Iran’s UN mission accused Israel of “a flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter, international law, and the foundational principles of the inviolability of diplomatic and consular premises.” Tehran urged the UN Security Council to condemn the attack, quoting the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic and Consular Relations, which provides immunity to embassies and consulates.

However, these lamentations sounded hollow, given the regime’s decades-long history of using diplomatic facilities to promote its violent goals.

Hossein Dhaghan, an IRGC commander in Lebanon in the early 1980s, helped Imad Mughniyeh, the chief of the military wing of Hezbollah, to blow up the American Embassy in Beirut in 1983 and the Embassy Annex in 1984, in addition to attacking the US Marine Corps Barracks in Beirut. Hundreds of Americans perished in these atrocities. An Iranian-backed group had also tried to destroy the US embassy in Kuwait in 1983, all part of a coordinated plan to get the American forces out of the Middle East.

Targeting Israel and Jewish facilities was also high on the IRGC agenda. In 1992, a suicide bomber destroyed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and, in 1994, the AMIA, the Jewish communal center.

Argentinian authorities found that the Iranian embassy was “used as a primary operations center” for the AMIA bombing and Hadi Soleimanpour, the ambassador, was served with an arrest warrant.

Embassies to operation centers was a common tactic

TURNING IRANIAN embassies into virtual operation centers of the IRGC-QF was common practice. The Iranian embassy in Damascus was a case in point. Ali Akbhar Mohtashami Pour, the ambassador, doubled as the IRGC front man in creating the Hezbollah terror group. Under his supervision, Iranian arms and ammunition were flown into Damascus airport, where Mohtashami Pour had them smuggled into Lebanon.

In another notorious case, the QF flaunted its presence in the Iranian embassy in Baghdad. Qassem Suleimani, the chief of QF, picked the ambassadors from the ranks of his commanders. Iraj Masjedi controlled the pro-Iranian Shia militias who fought the American forces in the early 2000s. His successors, Hassan Kazemi Qomi and Hassan Danaeifar were likewise senior QF commanders who continued the oversight of the Shia militias.

Less publicized but equally insidious was the regime’s use of its embassy in Yemen. Hasan Irloo, a QF member close to Suleimani, played a major role in providing advanced weapons and training to the Houthis. He bore the title of chief of staff in the embassy in Sanaa, but in reality, he was part of IRGC-QF network supporting operations throughout the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen. Suleimani referred to QF’s oversight of the embassies when he wrote to Gen. David Petraeus that “I control Iran’s policy for Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.”

Zahedi, a close friend of Suleimani, was a key player in this network. As chief of Sepah e-Lobnan (the Lebanon Corps) between 1998-2002, he collaborated with the new Iranian ambassador in Damascus, Hossein Sheikholeslam, in upgrading Hezbollah’s capabilities, including an elaborate tunnel system. Zahedi, also known as Hassan Mahdavi or Reza Mahdavi, was part of a small Quds Force-Hezbollah cadre that included Suleimani, Brig.-Gen. Ahmed Kazemi, and Imad Mughniyeh, the chief of Hezbollah’s military operations.

The triumvirate was credited with forcing Israel to leave Lebanon in 2000 and with the IDF’s difficulties during the Second Lebanon War, in 2006.

After Mughniyeh died in a joint CIA-Mossad operation in 2008, Zahedi returned to head the Lebanon Corps, which in due course was merged with Syrian command, becoming Sepahe Lobnan va Sorieh (the Syria- Lebanon Corps).

The new assignment put Zahedi in the center of QF outreach to its proxies, a role that grew in importance after the killing of Suleimani in January 2020. Zahedi acquired more responsibility when Jawad Ghafari, the head of QF Unit 4000 – in charge of transmitting weapons to Hezbollah through Syria – was forced to resign under controversial circumstances in 2021. Zahedi utilized drones, secret airline flights, and the land bridge to transport a significant amount of weapons to Hezbollah. The arms were delivered either directly to Beirut International Airport or through Damascus, employing civilian airlines like the IRGC-affiliated Meraj Airlines and Mahan Air, which is also connected to the IRGC.

Zahedi also oversaw the Iranian militias operating in the Golan Heights, known as the Golan File. Reflecting Zahedi’s unique prestige, he was the only non-Lebanese member of Hezbollah’s Shura Council.

Most crucially, Ismael Ghani, Suleimani’s successor, deputized Zahedi to lead the so-called “Unity of Fronts” operation, a plan to mobilize the Israeli Arabs and the West Bank Palestinians under the command of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). The plan was deemed a success when widespread riots in Israel led to Operation Guardians on the Wall in May 2021. To augment Hezbollah’s traditional smuggling from Lebanon, Zahedi ordered a pro-Iranian militia in the Daara Governate in Syria to open a new smuggling route to the West Bank through Jordan.

On March 25 this year, the IDF seized a significant number of advanced arms that Unit 4000 had smuggled into the West Bank with the help of a Fatah official based in Lebanon and affiliated with Hezbollah.

With the outbreak of the Gaza War, Zahedi became a coordinator for Hamas and PIJ, Hezbollah, the Popular Mobilization Forces, and the Houthis. The consulate building in Damascus turned into a full-fledged operations center and a meeting place of representatives of the proxies, including Ziad al Nakhalah, the secretary-general of the PIJ, a frequent visitor.

Both Zahedi and his deputy were given consular ranks to ensure them diplomatic protection. Having exploited the Vienna Convention with impunity for decades, the regime felt satisfied that Israel would not risk attacking a consular facility.

Devastating as the loss of Zahedi was to the QF, the hit on the consulate presented Tehran with an unprecedented dilemma. To deter future attacks on its diplomatic outposts, Iran would need to directly retaliate against Israel.

A show of force would be all the more important because the regime lost credibility by giving mostly rhetorical support to Hamas, a key member of its “Axis of Resistance.” However, direct action would invite a costly IDF retaliation at a time when the autocratic regime has lost most of its legitimacy.

Iran is facing a second “chalice of poison” moment.

In 1985, Ayatollah Khomeini was forced to end the war with Iraq to avoid a collapse of the regime. He described the decision as “drinking a chalice of poison.” It looks like his successors may have to drink from that same chalice to avoid total ruination.

Source » jpost