US Braces for Retaliation After Attack on Iran Consulate — Even as it Says it Wasn’t Involved

Iranian protesters attend an anti-Israeli gathering to condemn killing members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Syria, at the Felestin (Palestine) Sq. in downtown Tehran on Monday.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Shortly after an airstrike widely attributed to Israel destroyed an Iranian consulate building in Syria, the United States had an urgent message for Iran: We had nothing to do with it.

But that may not be enough for the U.S. to avoid retaliation targeting its forces in the region. A top U.S. commander warned on Wednesday of danger to American troops.

And if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent broadening of targeted strikes on adversaries around the region to include Iranian security operatives and leaders deepens regional hostilities, analysts say, it’s not clear the United States can avoid being pulled into deeper regional conflict as well.

The Biden administration insists it had no advance knowledge of the airstrike Monday. But the United States is closely tied to Israel’s military regardless. The U.S. remains Israel’s indispensable ally and unstinting supplier of weapons, responsible for some 70% of Israeli weapon imports and an estimated 15% of Israel’s defense budget. That includes providing the kind of advanced aircraft and munitions that appear to have been employed in the attack.

Israel hasn’t acknowledged a role in the airstrike, but Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said Tuesday that the U.S. has assessed Israel was responsible.

Multiple arms of Iran’s government served notice that they would hold the United States accountable for the fiery attack. The strike, in the Syrian capital of Damascus, killed senior commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for Syria and Lebanon, an officer of the powerful Iran-allied Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, and others.

American forces in Syria and Iraq already are frequent targets when Iran and its regional allies seek retaliation for strikes by Israelis, notes Charles Lister, the Syria program director for the Middle East Institute.

What the Iranians have always done for years when they have felt most aggressively targeted by Israel is not to hit back at Israelis, but Americans, seeing them as soft targets in the region, Lister said.

On Wednesday in Washington, the top U.S. Air Force commander for the Middle East, Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, said Iran’s assertion that the U.S. bears responsibility for Israeli actions could bring an end to a pause in militia attacks on U.S. forces that has lasted since early February.

He said he sees no specific threat to U.S. troops right now, but “I am concerned because of the Iranian rhetoric talking about the U.S., that there could be a risk to our forces.”

U.S. officials have recorded more than 150 attacks by Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria on U.S. forces at bases in those countries since war between Hamas and Israel began on Oct. 7.

One, in late January, killed three U.S. service members and injured dozens more at a base in Jordan.

In retaliation, the U.S. launched a massive air assault, hitting more than 85 targets at seven locations in Iraq and Syria, including command and control headquarters, drone and ammunition storage sites and other facilities connected to the militias or the IRGC’s Quds Force, the Guard’s expeditionary unit that handles Tehran’s relationship with and arming of regional militias. There have been no publicly reported attacks on U.S. troops in the region since that response.

Grynkewich told reporters the U.S. is watching and listening carefully to what Iran is saying and doing to evaluate how Tehran might respond.

Analysts and diplomats cite a range of ways Iran could retaliate.

Since Oct. 7, Iran and the regional militias allied to it in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen have followed a strategy of calibrated attacks that stop short of triggering an all-out conflict that could subject Iran’s homeland forces or Hezbollah to full-blown war with Israel or the United States.

Beyond strikes on U.S. troops, possibilities for Iranian retaliation could include a limited missile strike directly from Iranian soil to Israel, Lister said. That would reciprocate for Israel’s strike on what under international law was sovereign Iranian soil, at the Iranian diplomatic building in Damascus.

A concentrated attack on a U.S. position abroad on the scale of the 1983 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut is possible, but seems unlikely given the scale of U.S. retaliation that would draw, analysts say. Iran also could escalate an existing effort to kill Trump-era officials behind the United States’ 2020 drone killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

How far any other retaliation and potential escalation goes may depend on two things out of U.S. control: Whether Iran wants to keep regional hostilities at their current level or escalate, and whether Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s far-right government does.

Sina Toossi, a fellow at the Center for International Policy, said analysts in Iran are among those trying to read Netanyahu’s mind since the attack, struggling to choose between two competing narratives for Israel’s objective.

One perceives Israel’s actions as a deliberate provocation of war that Iran should respond to with restraint, Toossi wrote in the U.S.-based think tank’s journal. “The other suggests that Israel is capitalizing on Iran’s typically restrained responses,” and that failing to respond in kind will only embolden Israel.

Ultimately, Iran’s sense that it is already winning its strategic goals as the Hamas-Israel war continues — elevating the Palestinian cause and costing Israel friends globally — may go the furthest in persuading Iranian leaders not to risk open warfare with Israel or U.S. in whatever response they make to Monday’s airstrike, some analysts and diplomats say.

Shira Efron, a director of policy research at the U.S.-based Israel Policy Forum, rejected suggestions that Netanyahu was actively trying with attacks like the one in Damascus to draw the U.S. into a potentially decisive conflict alongside Israel against their common rivals, at least for now.

First, the risk of escalation has increased. No doubt, Efron said.

I don’t think Netanyahu is interested in full-blown war though, she said. “And whereas in the past Israel was thought to be interested in drawing the U.S. into a greater conflict, even if the desire still exists in some circles, it is not more than wishful thinking at the moment.”

U.S. President Joe Biden is facing pressure from the other direction.

So far he’s resisting calls from growing numbers of Democratic lawmakers and voters to limit the flow of American arms to Israel as a way to press Netanyahu to ease Israeli military killing of civilians in Gaza and to heed other U.S. appeals.

As criticism has grown of U.S. military support of Israel’s war in Gaza, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller has increasingly pointed to Israel’s longer-term need for weapons — to defend itself against Iran and Iranian-allied Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The U.S. is “always concerned about anything that would be escalatory,” Miller said after the attack in Damascus. “It has been one of the goals of this administration since October 7th to keep the conflict from spreading, recognizing that Israel has the right to defend itself from adversaries that are sworn to its destruction.”

Israel for years has hit at Iranian proxies and their sites in the region, knocking back their ability to build strength and cause trouble for Israelis.

Since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, one of a network of Iran-aligned militias in the region, that shattered Israel’s sense of security, Netanyahu’s government has increasingly added Iranian security operatives and leaders to target lists in the region, Lister notes.

The U.S. military already has deepened engagement from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea since the Hamas-Israel war opened — deploying aircraft carriers to the region to discourage rear-guard attacks against Israel, opening airstrikes to quell attacks on shipping by Iran-allied Houthis in Yemen.

It is also moving to build a pier off Gaza to try to get more aid to Palestinian civilians despite obstacles that include Israel’s restrictions and attacks on aid deliveries.