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Iran vows revenge as it accuses Israel of deadly airstrike on Syria consulate in deepening Middle East crisis

By Helen Regan, Hamdi Alkhshali and Tamara Qiblawi, CNN

(CNN) — Iran has vowed to retaliate after it accused Israel of bombing its embassy complex in Syria on Monday, in a deadly escalation of regional tensions over the war in Gaza that once again appeared to raise the risk of a wider Middle Eastern conflict.

The airstrike destroyed the consulate building in the capital Damascus, killing at least seven officials including Mohammed Reza Zahedi, a top commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), and senior commander Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi, according to Iran’s Foreign Ministry.

At least six Syrian citizens were also killed, Iranian state television reported on Tuesday.

Zahedi, a former commander of the IRGC’s ground forces, air force, and the deputy commander of its operations, is the most high-profile Iranian target killed since then-US President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of IRGC Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in 2020.

Iran and Syria accused Israel of authoring the attack, with Tehran warning of a “serious response,” and the powerful Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah saying the strike will be met with “punishment and revenge.” Iran also said it would hold the United States “answerable” due to its support of Israel.

Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Israel would be punished for the attack, while President Ebrahim Raisi said it will “not go unanswered,” state news agency IRNA reported.

The Israeli military told CNN it does not comment on foreign reports. However, a military spokesperson said Israel believes the target struck was a “military building of Quds forces” — a unit of the IRGC responsible for foreign operations.

“According to our intelligence, this is no consulate and this is no embassy,” Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told CNN. “I repeat, this is no consulate and this is no embassy. This is a military building of Quds forces disguised as a civilian building in Damascus.”

Four unnamed Israeli officials acknowledged that Israel carried out the attack, the New York Times reported.

CNN cannot verify the Times’ report, nor independently verify the claims from Iran, Syria and Israel.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon’s Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said the US’ assessment was that Israel had carried out the airstrike.

“That’s our assessment, and it’s also our assessment that there were a handful of IRGC top leaders there. I can’t confirm those identities, but that’s our initial assessment right now,” Singh said.

The United States considers its own embassies and consulates abroad, as well as foreign countries’ embassies and consulates in the US, to have a special status. According to the US State Department, “an attack on an embassy is considered an attack on the country it represents.”

A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said the United States was not involved in the strike and did not know about it ahead of time. A US official said that information was “directly” relayed to Tehran.

Significant attack

Israel has intensified its military campaign against Iran and its regional proxies following the October 7 attack on Israel by Tehran-backed Palestinian group Hamas, which killed about 1,200 people and saw more than 200 taken hostage.

Israel’s subsequent war in Gaza has killed more than 32,800 people, according to the Ministry of Health in the besieged enclave, wrought widespread destruction and brought more than 1 million people to the brink of a man-made famine.

While Israel has long targeted Iran and its proxies in Syria, its latest apparent attack in Damascus is a significant escalation due to both the location and the target. The consulate building, which includes the ambassador’s residence and is located next to the Iranian Embassy, is considered sovereign Iranian territory.

Protesters gathered across Tehran to vent their anger and burn Israeli and American flags.

“This is perhaps the first time that the Zionist regime allows itself to attack an official building of the Islamic Republic of Iran embassy, which had the flag of the Islamic Republic raised on top of it,” said Iran’s ambassador to Syria Hossein Akbari.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani warned that Tehran “preserves the right to take reciprocal measures and will decide the type of response and punishment against the aggressor.”

And the country’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian called the attack a “violation of all international obligations and conventions” that demanded a “serious response” from the international community.

Amir-Abdollahian also held the United States responsible given its support for Israel, underscoring the increasing strain between Tehran and Washington.

“The United States should be answerable,” Iran’s top diplomat said in a post on X.

Tehran summoned the Swiss chargé d’affaires in the early hours of Tuesday local time to discuss the incident, Amir-Abdollahian added. Switzerland represents US interests in Iran.

“The dimensions of the Israeli regime’s terrorist attack and crime were explained, and the American administration’s responsibility underlined,” Amir-Abdollahian said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad meanwhile described the strike as a “gross violation of international regulations, especially the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.”

Braced for escalation

Analysts say one of the most immediate fallouts of the consulate strike could be a rise in attacks by Iran’s proxies, particularly against US troops.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on all sides to exercise restraint and warned that any miscalculation could to a broader conflict with “devastating consequences,” said his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric.

“We may see an increase or a resumption of attacks by Iraqi militias and Syrian militias against US troops. And that would mean that the Israeli attack on Iran actually puts a target on the backs of American troops in the Middle East,” Trita Parsi, executive vice president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told CNN.

Since the outbreak of war in Gaza, Iran’s proxies have launched attacks on Israel and its allies, while demanding a ceasefire in the Palestinian enclave.

Iran-backed forces in Iraq and Syria have launched dozens of attacks aimed at US military positions in those countries — in January, three US troops were killed in a drone attack on a US outpost in Jordan, near the border with Syria.

In retaliation, the US carried out strikes on dozens of Iran-backed targets in Iraq and Syria.

Meanwhile, Houthi rebels have launched a series of attacks on commercial ships and Western military vessels in the Red Sea, a major artery for international trade.

“It’s very clear that these escalations by the Iraqi militias who are supported by Iran, no doubt, are coming as a response to what is happening in Gaza,” Parsi said.

Increasing pressure

As the Middle East braces for a potential Iranian response, Tehran is under pressure to show strength in the wake of the consulate attack while not drawing the region into a wider war.

Iran’s most powerful paramilitary ally, Hezbollah could be the most likely tool.

The Lebanese Shia militant group has been embroiled in daily crossfire with Israeli forces for nearly six months. It has walked a fine line between trying to limit its field of militant operations to the border area, while trying to enforce tit-for-tat rules of engagement.

Its involvement has also increased fears that Israel’s war in Gaza could spill over into a wider regional conflict.

Hezbollah on Tuesday warned that Israel would pay for the consulate attack and hailed Zahedi and others killed as “great martyrs.”

In a statement, the group said the assassination would not stop the “roaring tide of people’s resistance” and that the enemy would face “punishment and revenge.”

In Israel, Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu is also facing significant pressure domestically to secure the release of all the hostages taken captive during the October 7 terror attack.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over the weekend in the largest protests the country has seen since the start of the war against Hamas, with banners calling on the prime minister to resign and for Israel to hold new elections.

However, Israeli military spokesman Hagari blamed Iran for escalating tensions in the region.

“I’m not going to comment on that strike but I want to tell you that in the last six months, Iran is making this region escalate. She’s the main actor,” he told CNN.

“[Iran] is the main actor that makes atrocities in this region using the proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen.”

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Jim Sciutto and team, Arlette Saenz Lauren Kent, Hande Atay Alam, Adam Pourahmadi, Tara John, and Allegra Goodwin contributed reporting.

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