Challenging the Iranian presence in the north 


In light of the targeted strike on Iranian Gen. Mohammed Reza Zahedi, this paper gives the latest assessment on the confrontation between Israel and Iran and its proxies.

Challenging the Iranian presence in the north 

Israel is braced for an Iranian responses after an airstrike in Damascus killed the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Syria and Lebanon Corps, Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi on Monday 1st April 2024. According to the IRGC, Zahedi’s deputy, Gen. Mohammad Hadi Hajriahimi was also killed, along with five other officers, in a strike on a building adjacent to the Iranian Embassy in Damascus. The strike was executed with a high degree of precision, necessitated by the presence nearby of the Canadian embassy. Whilst not commenting on any role it may or may not have had, IDF spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari did say that “according to our intelligence,” the building struck is “no consulate and… no embassy… this is a military building of Quds forces disguised as a civilian building in Damascus.”

In line with longstanding policy, Israel does not generally comment on or confirm operations in Syria (a rare exception came in September last year when Defence Minister Gallant implicitly confirmed Israeli Air Force strikes in northern Syria). However, Zahedi’s assassination continues a pattern over recent months of killings of IRGC personnel, seemingly designed to degrade and disrupt the flow of Iranian weapons to affiliates and proxies in Lebanon and Syria.  

In parallel, direct Israel-Hezbollah hostilities have further intensified in this time, even as the prevailing consensus remains that both Iran and Hezbollah on the one hand, and Israel on the other, seek keeping fighting below the threshold of all-out war.

For the past decade, Israel has targeted Iranian weapons conveys and storage facilities in its “campaign between the wars”. Israel’s calculus appears to have changed since October 7th, with IRGC and Hezbollah personnel now targeted as well.

The significance of Zahedi 

Zahedi’s (also sometimes known as Hasan Mahdavi) is the most significant assassination thus far attributed to Israel since October 7th.  A hugely experienced officer, Zahedi served as the IRGC’s most senior man in Lebanon and Syria, having previously served as commander of the IRGC’s ground forces.

His role saw him oversee relations between all Iran’s regional affiliates and proxies, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as the Syrian authorities and Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq.

In terms of regional influence, perhaps only Hezbollah leader Nasrallah was of greater importance than Zahedi. He was a key component in the ongoing smuggling of Iranian arms to these groups. Iranian resupply of Hezbollah’s weaponry is an essential element in its ability to wage war on Israel. This resupply has become considerably easier since Iran’s presence in Syria increased following the Syrian civil war. Iran has opened up both a land and air corridor, with the frequency of presumed Israeli strikes around Damascus (and other) airports suggesting that is the primary route.

Zahedi is also believed to have been intimately involved in numerous de facto Iranian attacks on Israel. The March 31st attack on an Eilat naval base by Iranian proxies in Iraq further underscored the threat from Shia proxies in the region.

The operation also marks the most senior assassination of IRGC personnel since the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad in January 2020. Other assassinations have taken place in recent months, however. On December 25th 2023, Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a senior IRGC advisor who played a key role, along with Soleimani, in coordinating between Iran and Syria, was killed in an airstrike in Damascus. On January 20th, 2024, another Damascus airstrike attributed to Israel killed at least five IRGC officers, including Quds Force deputy intelligence officer Sadegh Omidzadeh and his deputy, Hajj Gholam.

Tehran and Hezbollah threaten a response 

The prevailing consensus remains that with the war in Gaza ongoing, Tehran will not seek an escalation which leads to all-out war between Israel and another of its proxies. However, Tehran immediately pledged a “serious response”, while Hezbollah promised “punishment and revenge.” On March 3rd, the IDF announced that “following an IDF situational assessment, it was decided to increase manpower and draft reserve soldiers to the IDF Aerial Defense Array.”

Israel’s embassies around the world have been put on a raised alert level, with Israeli diplomats urged to “take preventive measures and pay greater attention to your surroundings, with emphasis on routine movements.” This advice is based on previous Iranian willingness to strike at diplomatic targets (see, for example, a failed Iranian plot against Israel’s embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, in July 2023), along with the fact that the strike on Zahedi occurred adjacent to Iran’s Damascus Embassy. The opposition media outlet Iran International quoted Jalal Rashidi Koochi, a senior Iranian parliamentarian, as demanding attacks on embassies in response, with Azerbaijan mentioned as a possible target.

Wider immediate responses are also possible, including the potential for a direct missile or UAV attack from Iran.

Growing tensions on the northern border

Tensions have already increased on the Israel-Lebanon border in recent weeks, with an intensification of the strike and counter-strike dynamic seen between Israel and Hezbollah since October 8th.

Although not responding as Hamas desired in its call for full-scale assault from all members of the “Axis of Resistance” on October 7th, Hezbollah has proceeded with multi-site daily rocket attacks on northern Israel. Analysis from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies claims there have been 4,400 “violent incidents” in the border area since October 8th. This includes, according to the IDF, over 2,800 missiles which have been fired at northern Israel from southern Lebanon and Syria (as of April 3rd).

In comparison with previous rounds of fighting with Israel, Hezbollah is increasingly deploying more sophisticated weaponry, including Iranian-produced Almas anti-tank guided missiles with a 10-kilometre range and the shorter range Burkan with its heavy payload. Iranian-produced Hezbollah UAVs have also been used in at least 40 attacks on Israel since October 7th, some fatal.

Seven Israeli civilians and 12 soldiers have been killed and around 300 fighters on the Lebanese side of the border (mostly Hezbollah, along with some Palestinian militants who operate with its approval). Meanwhile, 80,000 northern Israelis from 28 border communities remain displaced, along with a similar number of southern Lebanese.

The bulk of the exchanges of fire have occurred in the border areas, with Hezbollah targeting Israel’s northern military infrastructure along with civilian areas. Israel, for its part, has returned fire to source, along with seeking to degrade Hezbollah’s elite, 10,000 Radwan force, massed on the border, and its rocket and missile-firing capabilities.

In late February and early March, meanwhile, Israel began to conduct strikes far deeper into Lebanese territory, sometimes as much as 110km from the border. Hezbollah’s Aerial Defence Array in Baalbek was struck by the IDF on February 26th and again on March 11th, which also saw a strike on the group’s aerial forces in nearby Tarayaa. Hamas’s deputy chair and West Bank military commander in Beirut Saleh Al-Arouri was also killed in early January.

Attempts at a ceasefire 

US and French attempts at brokering a sustainable ceasefire on the northern border have so far failed to produce results. In mid-February, France submitted a proposal to Lebanon to secure a ceasefire and resolve Lebanon’s border disputes with Israel. The proposal would see Hezbollah withdraw roughly ten kilometres from the Israeli border, and dismantle its military infrastructure within that zone. Some 15,000 Lebanese army troops would be deployed in the area to ensure compliance with the buffer zone. UNIFIL peacekeeping forces would later support both sides to resume negotiations on the points on dispute on their land border. In response, Hezbollah said it would not comment until a ceasefire had been effected in Gaza.

Prospects for further escalation 

The prevailing wisdom has always been that Hezbollah’s 130,000 rocket pile is a powder to be kept dry for the event of a strike on Iran’s ever-advancing nuclear weapons capacity. In addition to its large supply of unguided rockets, the group also possesses precision guided missiles, drones and anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles. It has previously boasted that it can hit any part of Israel. So large an arsenal therefore acts, in the Iranian calculus, as an insurance against an Israel operation against its nuclear programme.

Israel, too, would prefer to keep conflict at a level lower than all-out war, not least because its primary focus remains on the war in Gaza. “We do not want to enter into a war,” with Hezbollah, said Gallant in mid-February, “but rather wish to reach an agreement that will allow the safe return of residents of the north to their homes, under an agreement process. But if there is no choice, we will act to bring [the residents] back and create the appropriate security for them. This should be clear to both our enemies and our friends. And as the State of Israel, the defence establishment, and the IDF have proven in recent months, when we say something, we mean it.”

Therefore, Israel is intensifying its preparations for a northern escalation. Last week, IDF commanders completed a specialised training programme at Northern Command HQ in Safed, including both active and reserve units. On April 1st, IDF Chief of Staff Halevi then approved fresh plans “for the continuation of the fighting” during an assessment held with the commander of the Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Ori Gordin. Public awareness has been increased about the threat of intensified fighting in the north, along with greater preparation for the resulting threats to civilian infrastructure such as communications and energy.


Israel has also been adamant that the pre-October 7th status quo cannot be maintained, and that something approximating the proposals of the French and US envoy Amos Hochstein must ultimately be implemented. The return of the displaced norther residents would require the Radwan Force redeploying at least seven to ten kilometres north of the border – the range of Hezbollah’s Kornet antitank missiles. UN Security Council Resolution 1701, passed in 2006 after the Second Lebanon War, goes further in demanding that Hezbollah move its forces north of the Litani River. Further CSIS analysis “indicates that Hezbollah’s anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) have struck Israeli forces from concealed launch sites less than three kilometres from the Blue Line on at least 17 occasions since October 7,” an illustration both of the group’s violations of UNSCR 1701 and of the need for the Radwan Force to be pushed back at least seven kilometres from the border. Any move away from the border on the part of Hezbollah fighters will need to be made sustainable, since Hezbollah has a track record of initially complying with such deconfliction steps, before then moving its fighters back closer to the border.

Absent a diplomatic solution succeeding, Israel has suggested that sustainable security for returned northern residents will be secured by force, once its operations in Gaza are sufficiently complete.