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Iran vows revenge on Israel after an airstrike on the Iranian consulate in Syria

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Iran is vowing some kind of revenge on Israel after an airstrike on the Iranian Consulate in Syria. We say an airstrike because Israel has not claimed responsibility. Some Iranian military officers were killed in that strike, and an Iranian military adviser has now warned that Israel's embassies are not safe from attack. Trita Parsi joins us now to discuss this. He is executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, which advocates for what it calls a less militaristic American foreign policy, and pertinent here, he is a specialist on Iran. He's in our studio, Studio 31. Good morning.

TRITA PARSI: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by. Is Iran making a serious threat here?

PARSI: I think it is making a very serious threat, and the speech that the supreme leader gave just a couple of hours ago confirmed that the Iranians view the attack on the consulate as an attack on Iranian territory, which had been one of their red lines. The Israelis have responded by saying that an attack by Iranian - from Iranian soil will be responded to by Israel with an attack on Iranian soil, so this is an extremely tense moment. The question, though, is Iran actually doesn't have many good options on how to retaliate.

INSKEEP: Yeah, let's talk about that because this - if we presume that Israel is behind this attack, it would not be the first time that Israel is thought to have conducted attacks directly on Iranian soil. There have been explosions and assassinations within Iran itself, which has not led to a wider war. Why not?

PARSI: Well, the Iranians have held back quite extensively. They've taken a lot of hits in Lebanon and Syria, but they've treated those attacks as attacks on Syria and Lebanon, not on Iran itself. This time around, not only could they not pretend that it wasn't, they have now explicitly embraced it, and that has now increased the likelihood, as well as the pressure from inside the regime, that they have to respond. There's been a lot of critique inside the regime from hard-liners who believe that by not having responded earlier - and as you know, just a couple of months ago, there was another strike that killed a senior Iranian military official in Lebanon - that they have given up on their deterrence. They've weakened their deterrence against Israel, which has then led to Israel expanding its attacks. And as a result, there's pressure on them to do something now in order to restore that deterrence, but that can then, of course, risk sparking a much wider war.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure I'm following what you're saying. Ever since the October attack by Hamas, which has been supported by Iran, there's been this fear of a wider war. The United States has been urging Iran to stay out of it, with maybe some success, although Iran's proxies have been active around the region, but Iran itself has not weighed in. I would think that Iran's interests would be the same, that Iran would make the same calculations of its interests today that it did on October 8 or October 15 or whenever. You're telling me there is a debate within Iran, and that debate seems perhaps to be moving toward more direct action by Iran.

PARSI: Yes. I think it's quite clear - and the U.S. government sees it this way as well - that the Iranians are not looking for a war, for good reason. They know that they are much weaker than Israel. However, because the Israelis have increased and intensified their attacks on Iran, the argument amongst the hard-liners is that precisely because Iran hasn't responded earlier on, this has essentially enabled the Israelis to increase and intensify their attacks and now violating a major red line, which is an attack on an embassy.

INSKEEP: But you just said Iran is much weaker than Israel. If we're talking about a long-distance war, Iran may be a bigger country, but Israel has better weapons. What could Iran do to Israel?

PARSI: So they could go and attack Israeli Consulate or embassies in the region. That will carry a tremendous amount of risk because the Iranians are right now prioritizing improving their relations with Arab neighbors. And it's interesting 'cause if Iran actually was more isolated, it would actually have had more options. It would have been easier, less politically costly, for it to attack some of those embassies.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning they would lose allies, basically.

PARSI: They would lose allies. I mean, for instance, they could strike the Israeli Consulate or embassy in Bahrain, but that could jeopardize a very important detente that they currently have with the Saudis that is more important to them. This may lead to them actually attacking Israeli soil proper and attacking Israel. And that would be extremely tricky because they do have quite extensive ballistic missiles capabilities, but they have not tested the Israeli air defenses yet, and this creates a very challenging moment for them. If they attack several - with several - a barrage of missiles, they have to calculate it in such a way that the response is proportionate, because if it's disproportionate and it goes beyond what the Israelis did...

INSKEEP: Then the Israelis can fire back.

PARSI: ...Then it gives a pretext for the Israelis to expand further. If they miss, they will have embarrassed themselves and lost further deterrence.

INSKEEP: Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute, thanks very much for your insights. Glad you came by this morning.

PARSI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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