Two weeks ago, Sayyed Razi Mousavi was a ghost on the internet. He left no mark on search engines or in coverage of Iran’s military and the Middle East.
But in the Syrian capital Damascus, Mousavi’s 30-year presence was an open secret. He had been the right-hand man of General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guards’ branch for operations outside Iran.
Mousavi was the liaison with the Assad regime, as it killed hundreds of thousands in putting down dissenters after March 2011, as well as with Lebanon’s Hezbollah. In 2021, he became Iran’s senior commander in Syria.
On Christmas Day, Israel put Mousavi in the headlines. Warplanes fired three missiles into Iran’s main military compound in the Sayyed Zeynab area south of Damascus. The commander was killed immediately.
In contrast to Mousavi, Saleh al-Arouri lived in the spotlight of conflict. A founder of Hamas’s military branch, he oversaw operations in the West Bank and was also the deputy political leader of the Palestinian organisation.
Under political pressure from Israel, al-Arouri moved from Qatar to Turkey to Lebanon, but he never disappeared from view as he liaised with Hezbollah and Iranian officials. He was reportedly involved in the planning of Hamas’s October 7 mass killings in Israel and – amid Israeli killings in Gaza – in discussions of a pause to exchange Hamas-held hostages for women and children in Israel’s prisons.
On January 2, an Israeli drone fired into a building in Dahiyeh, the southern suburb of Beirut where Hezbollah is based. Al-Arouri, two senior Hamas commanders and several other personnel were slain.
While it rarely claims responsibility, Israel has regularly used assassination, including of Hamas’s spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin in 2004. It has recurrently struck Iranian and Hezbollah targets as well as Assad regime positions in Syria.
But this time, the Israelis are attacking in the context of their military assault across Gaza, expanding their rules of engagement – if there are any. They are telling Hamas, the Iran military and Hezbollah, “We can hit you anytime, anywhere,” and asking, “What are you going to do about it?”
Tough poses meet tougher realities
So far, the answer from Iran’s leaders and Hezbollah is “not much”. At least as far as a direct confrontation with Israel is concerned.
Speaking at Mousavi’s funeral, Revolutionary Guards commander Major General Hossein Salami declared: “Our revenge for the martyrdom of Sayyed Razi will be nothing less than the removal of the Zionist regime.” But he quickly added that this would come through “great and honourable Palestinian fighters”.
Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi postured in a photo opportunity with Mousavi’s family. “This crime will definitely not go unanswered and the Zionist criminals will pay for this crime,” he said – without offering any specifics.
On Wednesday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah read from the same script over the killing of Hamas’s al-Arouri: “This serious crime will not go unanswered or unpunished.”
Both the Iranian leadership and Nasrallah insisted that the assassinations were a marker of Israel’s “weakness”, an unconvincing line when two military commanders had just been eliminated and more are being targeted.
The likely calculation, from Iran’s supreme leader to Hezbollah’s command, is that a full-frontal war with Israel is not just a risk but a possible suicide operation.
An expansion of those skirmishes would not only raise the military stakes. It could be the terminal blow to Lebanon’s economy, which is already described by the World Bank as being in one of the most significant economic crises globally since the 19th century, with about 80% of citizens living in poverty. The near-paralysed Lebanese government, with no president and 12 intermittent and inconclusive parliamentary sessions, could finally dissolve into anarchy.
Iran presents “stability” through its theocracy and the military as well as the government. But the economy is still fragile, if not at breaking point, after years of US-led sanctions as well as mismanagement and distortion from the Revolutionary Guards’ extensive interests.
The “woman, life, freedom” protests that have taken place since September 2022 are the latest expression of discontent with the regime’s hold on Iranian society, even as the demonstrations have been violently repressed.
Fighting the indirect war
Given these constraints, the leaders of Iran and Hezbollah will likely be content in letting Hamas – and Gaza’s civilians – take the brunt of Israel’s military assault. Tehran will seek a propaganda victory: in trouble in October over possible complicity in Hamas’s mass killing, the regime is seeking advantage by posing as the moral defender of suffering Palestinians.
Meanwhile the world, if not the Israelis, can be unsettled by “indirect war”. Yemen’s Houthi insurgency, with political and military backing from Iran, are attacking civilian vessels in the Red Sea.
While the US and other countries have deployed warships – with American helicopters sinking three Houthi small boats that threatened a Maersk container ship – the Yemenis have forced many operators to divert traffic around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Ocean cargo rates have more than doubled in a week.
Iran-backed militias are attacking American personnel on bases in Iraq and Syria, with more than 100 rocket and drone assaults since October 7. The Americans have responded with deadly force against militia positions, including the killing of a leader of the Iraqi militia group al-Nujaba in Baghdad on Thursday.
With this mix of operations, the Iranian regime will try to discomfit other countries, short of a direct showdown with Israel. Hezbollah will continue the show of force on the northern Israeli border without committing itself to a widespread battle.
But there is always a risk of a chain reaction that, response by response, will wind up in the second-front war that no one wants or intends.
The bottom line remains. As long as Israel maintains its “open-ended” assault on Gaza, without any apparent endgame at this point, the “indirect war” beyond Palestine – including assassinations – is likely to expand.