Analysis: Hezbollah’s expected Response to IRGC-QF Gen. Mohammad Zahedi’s killing

According to the Syrian Army, at 17:00 hours on April 1, Israel launched an airborne attack from over the Golan Heights, targeting a building in Damascus that it described as the Iranian consulate in the Syrian capital. As the dust settled, it became clear the Israeli precision strike had destroyed the targeted building, killing several occupants – the most prominent among them was Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, aka “Hassan Mahdawi,” responsible for Lebanon and Syria operations for Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF).

The other casualties were also IRGC figures – Gen. Haji Rahimi, Hossein Amanollahi, Mahdi Jalalati, Mohsen Sadghat, Ali Aghababai, and Ali Salehi Rouzbahani. It was later revealed that Hussein Ridha Youssef, a Hezbollah figure whose precise role remains undisclosed, may also have been killed in the strike.

Mohammad Reza Zahedi’s Significance to Hezbollah

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah addressed Zahedi’s significance to the group on April 8, briefly explaining his biography. According to Nasrallah, Zahedi was one of the first members of the embryonic IRGC, joining the organization in his early 20s – spending that decade of his life fighting in the Iran-Iraq war. After the war ended, he moved within the organization’s ranks until he was appointed in 1998 to direct Quds Force operations and activities in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel by then-commander Qassem Soleimani.

Thus began Zahedi’s first regional tour of duty, during which Nasrallah said Zahedi worked closely with Hezbollah’s then-military commander Imad Mughniyeh – leading up to the May 25, 2000, Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon and helping Hezbollah set its plans for the “next stage” of its war against Israel after that withdrawal. He returned to Iran in 2002, assuming command of the IRGC’s ground forces, and was reappointed to his former role by Soleimani in an unusual move mere weeks after Mughniyeh’s February 2008 assassination in Damascus. This second Levantine tour of duty – during which Zahedi was again based in Lebanon – lasted until 2014. While this went unmentioned by Nasrallah, during these years, Zahedi doubtlessly assisted Hezbollah’s campaign to prevent the downfall of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which began in 2011. At the end of this tour of duty, Zahedi returned to Iran, only to be redeployed to Lebanon for a third and final tour of duty, which began in 2020 after Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani’s killing and lasted until Zahedi’s death on April 1, 2024.

During these cumulative fourteen years, Nasrallah stressed Zahedi was – among other things – a “partner and adviser” to Hezbollah. Zahedi reportedly was also the only non-Lebanese sitting on Hezbollah’s senior decision-making body, its Shura Council, according to an unnamed source close to the organization. Nasrallah insisted Zahedi did not involve himself in Lebanese domestic politics. Why did he do so when Hezbollah could fulfill that task? – devoting himself entirely instead to “the Resistance, the readiness of the Resistance, increasing the resilience of the Resistance, developing and evolving the Resistance and that the Resistance will be at the needed level to protect Lebanon and liberate Palestine, and supporting the Palestinian people – I am speaking about [all] of the Resistance movements in the region.”

Nasrallah insisted that Zahedi was always on the frontlines and had returned during his last tour of duty with the expectation and desire to be martyred – chastising Nasrallah for banning him from “going down to the south [of Lebanon] or to the frontline,” during previous tours. Nasrallah says he nevertheless banned him from the frontlines this time around as well, despite Zahedi’s overwhelming desire to directly join the fight against Israel after October 7, 2023. Despite this, Nasrallah said Zahedi’s “heart, mind, and eye were [directed] to Gaza” – from the onset of Al-Aqsa Flood until his “martyrdom.” Nasrallah added, “We were following all the developments/details together.”

Zahedi apparently died as he lived: planning attacks against Israel. The Israelis brought down the building as Zahedi was reportedly meeting with the leadership of Palestinian militant groups. Given Zahedi’s overall role, and that this meeting occurred in the context of an ongoing, multi-front Resistance Axis war with Israel, it is virtually indisputable that the outcome of this meeting, had it not been impeded by the airstrike, would have imminently negatively impacted Israel’s security, and possibly the lives of its citizens or soldiers. Israel has disputed that the targeted building was a consulate or diplomatic mission – “this is no consulate and this is no embassy,” insisted IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, “this is a military building of Quds forces disguised as a civilian building in Damascus” – the targeted figures, their meeting during wartime, and its imminent impact in an ongoing war would arguably have pierced the immunity otherwise afforded by international law to an Iranian diplomatic mission as a civilian building.

Iranian Calculations

Nevertheless, Iran cannot let the Israeli attack pass quietly. Zahedi, as noted, was a significant commander in the IRGC – arguably the most valuable Iranian target killed by the Israelis in decades. Moreover, Iran considers this attack to have occurred on Iranian soil. However, the Islamic Republic rarely retaliates impulsively – especially when a revenge attack could work at cross ends with other Iranian interests.

At the moment, the primary goal of Iran and its proxies and extensions – the collective known as the Resistance Axis – is saving Hamas and other Resistance Axis terrorist factions in the Gaza Strip from destruction at Israel’s hands while incurring minimal costs. To that end, the Resistance Axis has been working in coordination along concentric circles of pressure to halt Israel’s onslaught in the Gaza Strip.

The first circle consists of the direct confrontation between the Gaza-based terrorist organizations and Israel. Here, Hamas and its partners hope to bring direct pressure to bear upon Israel to stop the war. In part, they are betting on a fundamentally erroneous understanding of Israeli – and particularly Jewish Israeli – society as inherently artificial and brittle and, therefore, incapable of bearing the inevitable costs in blood and treasure of the ongoing war. However, they are also gambling on the ability of autocratic systems – because of their relative disregard for public opinion – to endure the type of prolonged war necessary to eliminate Hamas and its partners, which have spent nearly two decades embedded in the series of dense urban environments comprising the Gaza Strip. By contrast, democratic societies like Israel’s are inherently averse to such protracted war campaigns. This factor is magnified by Israel’s unique characteristics – namely, the impact of the deaths of soldiers, Israelis displaced from the Gaza Envelope, and the economic and social impact of a lengthy war and call up of reserve forces on a society as relatively small and tight-knit as Israel’s – and the impact of Hamas’ use of Israeli hostages in its psychological warfare to erode Israeli morale.

The second circle, consisting of the so-called “support fronts,” consists of other Resistance Axis militias, primarily Hezbollah, but also Iraqi groups and the Houthis , directly attacking Israel to compound the first circle’s impact – by forcing Israel to divide its forces along several fronts, and impacting Israeli society’s morale and economy by displacing Israeli citizens along different fronts, and forcing the Israel Defense Forces to call p more reserves.

In the event direct pressure fails to dissuade Israel from its warpath, the third circle is meant to pressure the United States into forcing the Israelis to do so. The underlying logic here rests on both faulty and correct assumptions – the former that Israel is a mere tool of U.S. imperialism. At the same time, the latter correctly understands that Israel is a junior partner to the United States and that its war effort depends on U.S. military and diplomatic support. In his April 8 speech, Nasrallah elaborated.

“Some say Israel controls America. No, American controls Israel. This story of the Jewish and Zionist Lobby is a joke told by Arabs [lit. Arab joke] just so the Arabs will not fight Israel, and to [justify] them going to America and putting their money in America, and build relations with America – so that we can build an Arab Lobby to compete with the Jewish Lobby. And look after 75 yrs what came out of the Arab Lobby. Aside from [the fact] that Arab funds are all stashed in American treasuries. This is empty talk. The American, when he puts his foot down, it’s enough for him [i.e. the American] to tell him [i.e. the Israeli] ‘I’m going to stop the funds.’ Israel then quakes in fear. When he [i.e. American] tells him [i.e. the Israeli] I will stop the weapons supply, the [IDF] Chief of Staff starts counting all the projectiles he fired on a note to see what’s left in the arsenal. This is the reality. This is what Israel’s generals say. When they object that Netanyahu is ruining the relationship with America, part of what they say is that Israel will be left without ammunition…”

Therefore, the United States could force Israel to stop the war at a time of Washington’s choosing – and the most direct route to convince the Americans to do so is to make them also pay the price for Israel’s continued prosecution of the war in Gaza continuation through constant harassment of U.S. forces deployed to the region. Hence, the uptick of Resistance Axis attacks on U.S. military assets, which continued until Kataib Hezbollah killed three American servicemembers and risked incurring heavy American retaliation – something Iran and its proxies had been trying to avoid.

The fourth and final circle complements the third and is focused on swaying international opinion against Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip. In part, it consists of kinetic efforts – namely, the Houthi strikes in the Red Sea meant to disrupt international shipping and force Israel’s Western partners to pay a price for the war’s continuation. The remainder consists of narrative – an effort relying on soft power and propaganda to appeal to the sensibilities of specific segments of the Western public to convince them that Israel’s war is genocidal and its existence is unjust. The impact of this fourth and final circle is also meant to be felt in the United States – where the Resistance Axis is likely betting on the ruling Democratic Party’s greater responsiveness than its Republican counterpart to international opinion, and its desire not to alienate Pro-Palestine progressive, Arab, and Muslim Americans during an election year.

Iran and its proxies were also likely hoping that Israel would commit an error of the type that is common to all protracted wars to help galvanize international opinion against its war in Gaza. That came hours after Zahedi was killed, when the IDF misidentified and struck a World Central Kitchen humanitarian aid convoy in the Gaza Strip – sparking international outrage and pressure to halt the war in Gaza.

Israel, which isn’t a Security Council member, cannot merely shrug off such mistakes as the inevitable tragedies inherent in warlike, more powerful Western countries that have committed similar mistakes. Iran, meanwhile, is happy to let Israel stew in the international opprobrium resulting from this erroneous strike, which will, at least, slow the IDF’s efforts against Tehran’s proxies in Gaza.

Hezbollah’s Role in Avenging Zahedi

Like Iran, Hezbollah is mourning Zahedi’s death, immediately condemning his killing. Within days, Nasrallah took to his bully-pulpit on International Quds Day to describe Zahedi’s killing as an “inflection point” – much like many previous incidents before it, but which did not prompt a change in Hezbollah’s military posture. While the group has continued to launch attacks at Israel, they have remained within the accepted post-October 8 rules of engagement.

In the same breath, as he described the significance of Zahedi’s killing, Nasrallah distanced Hezbollah from primary responsibility for retaliation. He stressed that the “response” would be “Iranian.” “The Iranian response is coming, it is inevitable,” he reiterated throughout his speech. This mirrored Nasrallah’s statements after the 2020 killing of Qassem Soleimani – and, partially, for the same reasons. Lebanon remains mired in economic and political instability, and Hezbollah does not want to be perceived as the party that invited the ruin of war on a country already groaning under the weight of financial collapse. Inviting a destructive war with Israel for Palestinian interests could risk uniting the Lebanese street in anger at Hezbollah and perhaps even undermining its support base.

Indeed, in his three speeches since Zahedi’s killing – on April 3April 5, and April 8 – Nasrallah fell back on Hezbollah’s tried and true tactic of using propaganda against Israel in lieu of risky military action. Nasrallah devoted most of these speeches to reiterating variations of his constant refrain throughout this war: Israel is weak and on the verge of destruction, while the Resistance Axis is strong and victorious. Israel, he claimed, has accomplished nothing in the current war, and has already been defeated. Meanwhile, he exaggerated the actions of the Resistance Axis since October 7, 2023, and their impact. Thus, Hezbollah and its allies could maintain their image of strength – upon which their support depends – without actually incurring a commensurate price. 

This chest-thumping only underscored Hezbollah’s disinterest in expanding the fight with Israel over Zahedi’s killing. Indeed, Indeed, despite the bellicose bluster, Nasrallah fell back to a years-long talking point – one that Hezbollah’s leadership has reiterated since October 7 – that Hezbollah is ready for war and does not fear it, but also does not want to initiate it.

Furthermore, unbridled revenge may undermine the central goal of Hezbollah’s and Iran’s activities since October 7 – the objective that Nasrallah said on November 3, 2023, must “always be before our eyes.” That objective, he said, was comprised of two goals: the first goal…is to stop the aggression on the Gaza Strip…and the second goal is that Gaza, the Palestinian Resistance in Gaza, and specifically Hamas, emerge victorious.” All other goals, including avenging Zahedi, are subordinate to this primary objective for the time being.

Iran’s Revenge

Iran and the Resistance Axis, as noted, are trying to save their allies in the Gaza Strip while paying only the minimum price. That is why all their attacks, particularly Hezbollah’s, have remained below the threshold that would grant Israel legitimacy among the international community to prosecute more aggressive or expansive campaigns against them. Moreover, if they can accomplish their central objective of saving Hamas without paying a price at all, even better.

Indeed, it now seems that Iran and the Resistance Axis are depending on international pressure in the wake of the World Central Kitchen tragedy to halt Israel in its tracks and do the job for them. On April 8, Nasrallah expressed cautious optimism that this newfound international pressure on Israel would bring his group and its partners closer to the objectives he enumerated on November 3. After all, a careful study of the Resistance Axis’ decades-long behavior reveals, rather ironically, that they prefer to achieve their goals through the paths of least resistance. A massive and direct strike against Israel by Iran and its proxies, or either alone, could risk reinvigorating the flagging legitimacy of Israel’s campaign in the Gaza Strip – and potentially create newfound support for Israel expanding its war effort into other theaters where the Resistance Axis operates.

Iran will extract a price for Zahedi’s death – but it will do so in a manner that denies Israel the upper hand or resuscitates support for its war effort, and at a time that is most advantageous to Tehran. Iran will likely strike at one of Israel’s soft underbellies, perhaps a diplomatic mission or a Jewish or Israeli target abroad. Iran could also try to activate the assets it has been developing within Israel and the West Bank, drawing Israeli blood while hiding behind the degree of plausible deniability that such an attack would afford it. If Hezbollah participates in the response at all, it will do so in a secondary role.

David Daoud is Senior Fellow at at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies where he focuses on Israel, Hezbollah, and Lebanon affairs.

Tags: , , ,


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram