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US sends reinforcements to Middle East as Israel on edge for Iranian retaliation

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• Fears of reprisal for attack on Damascus embassy grow
• India, France and Russia warns citizens against travel to region
• Diplomatic sources say Tehran wishes to avoid escalation, won’t act hastily

JERUSALEM: As Israel on Friday nervously awaited an attack by Iran or its proxies in retaliation for the last week strike on Iran’s embassy in Damascus, the United States said it was sending reinforcements to the Middle East.

“We are moving additional assets to the region to bolster regional deterrence efforts and increase force protection for US forces,” said a US defence official in Washington, a key ally of Israel, amid fears of retaliation for the strike.

Countries including India, France and Russia have warned their citizens against travel to the region, already on edge over the escalation in attacks on Gaza.

The Israeli military said it had not issued fresh instructions to civilians, but that its forces were on high alert and prepared for a range of scenarios.

“The revenge will come,” wrote Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth. “For the moment, the premise is that it will be very soon, in the next few days.”

Israel’s foreign ministry did not comment on reports that some Israeli diplomatic missions had been partially evacuated and security stepped up.

Israel did not claim responsibility for the April 1 strike on the embassy in Damascus where a senior commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ overseas Quds Force, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, and six other officers were killed.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Israel and said it “must be punished and shall be” for an operation he said was equivalent to an attack on Iranian soil.

“It’s going to be very difficult for Iran not to retaliate,” said Raz Zimmt, senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. Since Iran viewed the embassy attack as equivalent to an attack on its own territory, Zimmt said a direct attack on Israeli soil by Iran itself rather than a proxy was a ‘real possibility’.

Iran has missiles capable of hitting Israel directly.

However, Zimmt added, “I still believe that Iran doesn’t want to engage in full-scale, direct military confrontation against Israel, and certainly not with the United States. But it has to do something.”

Reprisal threat ‘real’: White House

Meanwhile, the US Middle East envoy has called the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Iraq to ask them to deliver a message to Iran urging it to lower tensions with Israel, a source with knowledge of the situation said, as the White House said Iran’s threats of reprisals against Israel after the strike in Syria remain ‘real’.

“We still deem the potential threat by Iran here to be real, to be viable,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told journalists.

President Biden earlier on Wednesday warned that Iran is “threatening to launch a significant attack on Israel.” He pledged “ironclad” support for Israel despite diplomatic tensions over its military conduct in Gaza.

After a meeting with the head of US Central Command, General Michael Kurilla, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav

Gallant said: “We are prepared to defend ourselves on the ground and in the air, in close cooperation with our partners, and we will know how to respond,”

‘Iran wants to avoid escalation’

However, Iranian sources and diplomats from the US, Israel’s main protector, say Tehran has signalled to Washington that it wishes to avoid escalation and will not act hastily.

But the risk remains that any response might spin out of control.

Iran’s message to Washington was conveyed by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian during a visit to the Gulf Arab state of Oman, which has often acted as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington, the sources said.

Sources said Iran believes Israel aims to draw Tehran into a war, therefore its retaliation could be a restrained one that avoids direct strikes on Israeli territory.

Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2024


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