IN an already highly charged Middle East, things are getting edgier by the day. This weekend both Israel and the US are on high alert after Iran vowed to strike back in retaliation after a suspected Israeli air strike in Damascus last week killed senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders and stirred fears of a widening war across the region.

Ever since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and the subsequent Israeli ­onslaught on Gaza, the prospect of a ­deepening ­crisis has ebbed and flowed. Now though is perhaps the most ­dangerous moment to date in terms of a potential escalation.

We have, of course, been here before when it comes to Iranian retaliation for the killing of its military leaders. Four years ago in 2020, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “tough revenge” against those responsible for ­assassinating Qasem Soleimani.

On that occasion, the strike on the ­Islamic Republic’s most revered ­commander was carried out by the US and within days, Iran made good on its threat by launching a huge ballistic ­missile strike on a US base in Iraq.

Only by Tehran reportedly giving ­advanced warning of its strike was the killing of many American soldiers averted – along with the possibility of a wider war.

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But with feelings running high over Gaza right now, the current tone in the Middle East is very different from how it was back then, making for a ­tinderbox moment.

For decades, what has been dubbed the “shadow war” between Israel and Iran has shaped the Middle East and of all the conflicts that have roiled the region, theirs has long been the most volatile and dangerous.

The roots of this shadow war can be traced back to the overthrow of Iran’s last monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza ­Pahlavi, in 1979. Following the Islamic ­revolution, Iran’s leaders adopted an ­anti-Israel stance, aligning themselves with groups such as Hezbollah in ­Lebanon and ­Hamas in Palestine.

It was around this time too that the new government in Iran began referring to ­Israel as “Little Satan” and the US as “Great Satan”. For its part, Israel also began to see the Islamic ­Republic’s ­nuclear ambitions as an existential threat, thus beginning what security ­analysts say has been a concerted series of ­covert ­operations to derail Iran’s nuclear ­programme.

While Iran’s leaders say they have no ambition to build nuclear weapons, the Israelis dismiss this claim, pointing to a cache of documents their intelligence agents spirited out of Iran in 2018 that suggest otherwise.

Time and again, Israel has implied that should Iran be on the cusp of such a ­weapons capability, it would attack its nuclear installations.

Israel has done this in the past ­elsewhere when faced with what it deemed regional nuclear threats, such as during Operation Opera – also known as Operation ­Babylon – a surprise airstrike conducted by the ­Israeli Air Force on June 7, 1981, which ­destroyed an unfinished Iraqi nuclear ­reactor southeast of ­Baghdad. Then again in Syria in 2007 during Operation ­Outside The Box.

The National: Emergency workers work at a destroyed building hit by an airstrike in Damascus, SyriaEmergency workers work at a destroyed building hit by an airstrike in Damascus, Syria

Since then, both Israel and Iran have ­attacked each other, mostly quietly, off the radar and in Iran’s case, often by proxy using the various regional militias allied with it like Hezbollah. This “quiet” war thus ensured that any escalation into direct confrontation was avoided.

But it was last December when the rules of the game in the shadow war ­began to shift when a missile strike ­attributed to Israel – which has a policy of never ­commenting on responsibility – killed IRGC officer, Razi Mousavi, near ­Damascus in Syria.

Mousavi was the man responsible for ­delivering Iranian weapons to its ­Hezbollah proxy in neighbouring ­Lebanon. Then, barely a month later on January 20, General Sadegh Omidzadeh, the head of intelligence for the Quds Force – one of the branches of the IRGC in Syria – was killed alongside several others.

As is usual, there was no official ­confirmation that Israel was behind the strike, but in a region where the rules of this deadly “game” are well understood, few doubted who the perpetrators were.

But then fast forward to last week’s direct hit on the Iranian consulate in Damascus that killed Mohammad Reza Zahedi, commander of the Quds Force in Syria and Lebanon, and his deputy ­Mohammad Hadi Haji-Rahimi, along with five other IRGC military advisers, and analysts say that the “old rules” of engagement are being broken altogether.

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That very point was summed up by ­Israeli journalist Zvi Bar’el writing in last Thursday’s edition of the daily newspaper Haaretz in the wake of the air strike.

“The important difference between this week’s attack (about which we should perhaps abandon the hollow phrase ­‘attributed to Israel’) and earlier strikes is that it targeted an Iranian ­government ­facility, not a Syrian military base where Iranian officers were present or a ­Hezbollah facility that ‘hosted’ Iranian advisers and instructors,” Bar’el noted.

While Israel insists that the target of the airstrike was not a diplomatic ­facility, that Iran has no consulate in Damascus and those killed were known IRGC not diplomats, Tehran remains ­outraged. This, after all, Iran argues, was legally on ­Iranian soil, irrespective of who was killed, and marks a significant ­escalation.

Many countries – including the United States – consider their own embassies and consulates abroad, as well as foreign ­countries’ embassies and consulates to have a special status. According to the US State Department, for example, “an attack on an embassy is considered an attack on the country it represents”.

And so, four years on from the ­killing of IRGC general Soleimani, Iran’s ­supreme leader is again vowing revenge while the leader of Iran’s ally ­Hezbollah – ­Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah – has said the Israeli strike was a ­“turning point”, also vowing that an Iranian ­response was “definitely coming”.

The National:  Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps delivers a speech Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps delivers a speech

So now the pressing question is whether Iran will abandon the strategy that has held it back from direct confrontation with Israel. With this question too comes the fear in Europe that the effects of the war in Gaza engulfing the entire Middle East have come one step closer to reality.

Such a doomsday scenario would mean not just a face to face ­confrontation ­between Iran and Israel but also with ­Israel’s ally, the US, who could not sit by on the sidelines should such events unfold.

So what is the likelihood of ­Tehran ­responding in such a way, what comes next and what form might Iran’s response take?

While the precise nature, scale, and ­timing of the response are yet to be ­determined, few doubt that it will be ­forceful. After deliberations by Iran’s National Security Council, ­Ayatollah Khamenei delivered a ­strident speech on Friday in which he ­promised a strong ­response by “our brave ­Iranians”, ­phrasing that many analysts ­interpreted as vow to respond directly, not through allies and proxies, Tehran’s usual modus operandi.

All the options Tehran might be ­considering do not bode well for either the region or global peace. Iran could, for example, judge the situation to be one whereby its usual use of proxies is the best course of action and could ­result in more intense rocket attacks from ­Lebanon and Syria carried out on its ­behalf by ­Hezbollah or the myriad Shi’ite militias that it operates. Alternatively, it could decide to target Israeli embassies or interests overseas – and on this, Tehran has previous form.

One headline in the English-language edition of the official Iranian ­government newspaper Kayhan has already ­declared that all Israeli representative ­offices ­anywhere in the world were now ­legitimate targets for attack, bringing back memories of previous strikes.

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Back in the 1990s, Iran and Hezbollah were linked to attacks in Argentina on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. In more recent years Iran proxies have also been linked to other attempts to strike Israeli diplomatic staff, including the embassies in India and Azerbaijan.

By far though, one of the worst-case ­scenarios would be a direct drone and cruise missile attack launched from Iran itself and aimed at Israeli ­infrastructure sites. Such an attack, say analysts, would mark an end to Iran’s “axis of ­resistance” strategy whereby Tehran acts as a ­facilitator, adviser, supplier and funder of its proxies, and put it in direct ­confrontation.

Both Israel and the US have already taken measures that suggest such a threat is a real possibility. Over the past few days in Israel, GPS was being blocked across swathes of the country in order to disrupt any possible attack from ­missiles and drones. Israelis have been urged to manually set their location on the app which issues alerts about incoming ­rocket attacks to ensure it remains accurate amid the GPS interference, The Times Of Israel reported.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) also announced it was halting all leave for ­soldiers serving with combat units. It comes a day after reservists were called up to bolster air defence units.

Israel’s ally, the US, was likewise on alert across its installations and ­embassies both at home and overseas. A ­forthcoming ­Iranian attack was reported to be a ­major topic of discussion on US ­president Joe Biden’s phone call with Israeli prime ­minister Benjamin Netanyahu on ­Thursday.

“We’re definitely at a high state of ­vigilance,” one US official said, ­confirming a CNN report that said an ­attack could come in the next week.

The National: Palestinian women sit outside their tent set up in front of the Gaza Strip border with Israel (Adel Hana/AP)

CBS News reported that the US ­gathered intelligence indicating Iran is planning an attack that would involve a wave of explosive Shahed drones and cruise missiles. US officials who spoke to CBS said they did not know the timing and target of Iran’s anticipated response, but the report said it was expected to come before Ramadan ends next week.

Meanwhile, in Iran itself, officials said that they had placed all the country’s armed forces on full high alert and that a decision had been made that Iran must respond directly to the Damascus attack to create deterrence.

“Our brave men will punish the ­Zionist regime,” General Hossein Salami, the commander in chief of Iran’s Islamic ­Revolutionary Guards Corps, told the crowd in Tehran, attending the funeral of the officers killed in Damascus.

“We warn that no act by any ­enemy against our holy system will go ­unanswered and the art of the Iranian ­nation is to break the power of empires.”

But some reports from Iran suggest a fear there that Netanyahu may be ­seeking to goad Iran into a direct ­confrontation. The Israeli prime minister knows that almost ­certainly this would bring Washington back on side at a time when relations between the two countries’ governments have been strained despite US supplies of weapons to Israel.

Speaking to the Financial Times ­hardline Iranian politician Hamid-Reza Taraghi confirmed that Tehran would be wary of Israel “trying to drag other ­parties into a regional war”.

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But one thing that all sides – Iran, ­Israel, and its ally the US – agree on is that a ­response is almost certainly coming – and a forceful one at that. Just how Tehran calibrates any action will determine the danger that could lie ahead.

In the wake of the strike on Damascus last week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on all sides to exercise restraint and warned that any miscalculation could lead to a broader conflict with “devastating consequences”.

Ultimately, the decision on a ­matter as important as an Iranian strike against ­Israel rests with Supreme Leader ­Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is also the commander in chief of the armed forces.

Back in 2020, after the US ­assassination of General Soleimani, it was he who ­ordered the missile attack on the ­­American base in Iraq in retaliation.

This weekend, as the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan draws to a close, the mood across much of the Middle East is one of tension as the region and beyond waits to see what decision Khamenei will make this time round. The only thing no one doubts, however, is that the shadow war is now dangerously out into the open.