Israel had struck Iranian interests in recent months without significant reprisals. Meanwhile, Iran is growing impatient that nuclear talks in Vienna are stalling, and may have turned to the Palestinian groups it arms to provoke the violence.
LONDON — Heavy rocket fire on Israel from Gaza began four days after Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared in a speech on Quds Day that "fighting the Zionist regime is a general duty." He was addressing the youth of the Muslim world, and told them to "build suitable weapons and strengthen the line of holy war and martyrdom."
Khamenei reacted to the rocket attacks at another gathering in Tehran, saying "force is the only language the Zionists understand," and the best way for Palestinians to "force the criminals to surrender and stop their savagery."
Israel has dealt Iran's clerical regime several blows in recent years, both inside the country and against its allies and positions in Syria, each time with Iran unable to retaliate. Furthermore, while the suspect deaths of two Revolutionary Guards generals (Mohammad Hossein-Zadeh Hejazi and Mohammad Ali Haqbin) cannot be directly attributed to Israel, reactions by senior Iranian officials suggest they suspect Israel's hand. Some regional reports on Hejazi's death have suggested he was poisoned.
Revolutionary Guards commander Hossein Salami said at his funeral that "I heard Israel is rejoicing, but it will disappear." The latest violence in Gaza seems, at the very least, to be a consolation to Iranian officials, after months of helpless resentment against Israel. But Iran may have had a more direct hand.
The Iranian ayatollahs are telling Israel its attacks and sabotage in Vienna will not go unanswered.
Talks have stalled to revive a nuclear pact between Iran and the West, as Israel and Saudi Arabia pressure the administration of President Joe Biden to prevent its waltzing into a any-old deal with Tehran, and dashed Tehran's hopes of dealing with an "Obama-style" administration. Iranian officials have repeatedly accused Israel in past weeks of blocking the talks. With the country heaving under economic pressures, the regime has few bargaining chips with the West, besides threatening to rev up uranium enrichment or fueling regional violence.
It seems that speaking through the rocket fire of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the Iranian ayatollahs are telling Israel its attacks and sabotage in Vienna will not go unanswered. Khamenei thus likely gave the green light for strikes on Israel. He had to take this dangerous step to show Iran's sway over the groups it arms, and how closely they listen to Tehran.
Ayatollah Ali Khameini condemns Israel in a May 11 speech — Photo : Iranian Supreme Leader's Office
Salami, the Revolutionary Guards chief, told an interviewer that Israel was "in decline" and "this time the Zionist regime may even collapse internally." He was one of several personalities in Iran and Lebanon who have claimed this violence is not unrelated to the U.S. strike that killed the Guards general Qasem Soleimani in early 2020. One Iranian legislator, Mohsen Dehnavi, had already threatened a "shower of missiles' on Israel, after a recent strike near its Dimona installation.
The other factor inside Iran is the presidential election slated for late June, with the attacks also bearing a message to the candidates in Tehran, that "real" revolutionaries don't negotiate — they strike.
The attacks may have sought to ruin the Abraham Accords, between Israel and Sunni countries in the Gulf. as Israel's predictably crushing response puts Arab countries on the defensive as regional media and opinion will be sure to blame Israel for civilian deaths rather than Hamas, which regularly uses human shields.
Iran is well practiced at using proxies to strike at the West. And Israel must respond, knowing that failure to do so will only embolden its foes. Right now, the Islamic Republic of Iran is in a hurry to have sanctions lifted, which can only happen if negotiations get moving in Vienna. Will their gamble pay off? It depends largely on how Israel reacts in the coming days. But the West should not ignore the triangular link between Iran's weakened position, talks in Vienna and the rockets flying between Gaza and Israel.