Iran’s Ring of Fire

Iran has over the years built a “smart” strategy for its war with Israel. This strategy has two main components:

1. Military nuclear capability to serve as an umbrella to ensure that hostile actions against Iran will not be possible, and that Tehran will be able to continue and even expand its aggressive activities throughout the region, mainly against Israel, but also against the United States.

2. A “Ring of Fire” surrounding Israel with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and foreign militias in Syria). The assassinated IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani also dreamed of building an independent Iranian capability in Syria, but Israeli operations over the past dozen years or so made it impossible for this dream to be fully implemented. The Ring of Fire also has more distant components: the Houthis in Yemen and pro-Iran militias in Iraq. The guiding principle of the Ring of Fire is clear: Iran remains distant and ostensibly uninvolved, because it has no direct responsibility for any action by these elements, and there is no way to prove that it is “the hand that rocks the cradle.” Iran is like an octopus whose center and brain are not responsible for the actions of its long arms – and therefore there is no legitimate possibility of acting against it with overt force.

A strong signal to Iran

The array of forces that Iran has built up from all sides is proving difficult for Israel to deal with. Therefore, total elimination of Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s military power in Gaza is of the utmost importance in order to make it clear to the octopus and its proxies that crossing red lines will lead Israel to drastic actions, as the fact that the elements of the “Ring of Fire” are close to Israel allows it to use its full military force against them. But even if Israel succeeds in minimizing Iran’s ability to operate its proxies in Gaza (and to do so the IDF will have to enter Rafah and dismantle the four Hamas battalions there), Iran will remain out of the game – it will not have paid a price and will remain distant and protected. The principle will be preserved.

The Damascus operation makes it clear to Iran that it will not always be immune, and that if it steps up its actions against Israel any Iranian who approaches Israel will be a legitimate target. The attack on the building next to the Iranian embassy in Damascus, which the Iranians call a “consulate” (I don’t know if this is true or another Iranian bluff. No diplomat was there when it was bombed), is a strong signal to Iran that its continued actions are bringing Israel closer to a direct attack on it. The operation against a senior IRGC official in the area closest to the Iranian embassy, an area considered Iranian territory in Damascus, like any embassy around the world, is a warning signal to Iran that goes beyond the importance of the senior commanders it lost.

The strike killed senior Iranian commanders with extensive operations experience. This will not lead to the collapse of the Revolutionary Guards, but they will find it more difficult to operate in the arena around Israel. It will be interesting to see if Iran will be able to find suitable replacements for the assassinated commanders. So far, Iran does not have a good track record – to date, Tehran has not found a suitable replacement for Qassem Soleimani, just as Hezbollah has not found a substitute for Imad Mughniyeh.

Israel must take into account that the Iranians will make a major effort to find a suitable target for revenge. In my assessment, they will not intensify the fighting in Lebanon, because they apparently have no interest in entering a major war in which Hezbollah will sustain major harm (certainly when it becomes clear to them that the Gaza component of the “Ring of Fire” is being dismantled). In my assessment, they will look for a painful and isolated target that will not lead to a regional escalation but will take a cruel toll. The 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina following the assassination of Hezbollah Secretary General Abbas Musawi (who preceded Hassan Nasrallah) is an appropriate example from history.

The operation in Damascus must be understood against the background of the direct struggle emerging between Israel and Iran. In this instance, the damage inflicted is a critical component of the Iran strategy – distancing Iran and its ability to evade responsibility for the actions of its representatives in the region under the pretext that it is not directly involved. The operation will not change Iran’s longstanding strategy, but it will make it difficult to continue its implementation – Iran for its part will do everything it can to overcome this and continue its aggressive operations which have intensified during the Gaza war.

Originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.