Iran-Israel Tensions: From Being Allies To Foes, A Brief History Of The Conflict

The attack in Damascus was a dramatic turn in the long-running shadow war between Israel and Iran.

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Debris after Israeli attack on Iranian consulate in which the commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Reza Zahedi, was killed in Damascus, Syria on April 01, 2024. Photo: Getty Images

After a deadly bombing of an Iranian consulate building in Damascus, which Israel claims is linked to threats against its interests, Iranian officials have publicly warned of revenge, sparking fears of the conflict widening in the Middle East. Late night on Saturday, Iran launched a retaliatory attack with over two hundred missiles and explosive drones targeting Israel.

Although this is not the first of such tensions between the two countries, the attack in Damascus was a dramatic turn in the long-running shadow war between Israel and Iran. Although Israel is yet to publicly acknowledge the attack, US President Joe Biden has vowed “ironclad” support for the country and its’ right to ‘defend itself’ – a statement US has also made in the context of the ongoing war on Gaza.

For decades now, both Iran and Israel have engaged in operations against each other in both the physical and virtual worlds. Here is a brief history of the attacks between the two countries.

Origins of conflict

The origins of this conflict between the two countries has roots in the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent Arab-Israeli wars. Initially, Iran had amicable relations with Israel and even recognised it as a sovereign state – becoming the second Muslim-majority country to do so after Turkey

However, following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which brought about the Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran cut all diplomatic ties with Israel. Several factors played a role in this: the aggressive posture adopted by the Israeli government against Iran; Iran’s support and funding for organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah. The new Iranian leadership was henceforth fueled by anti-Israel sentiments, and found support in Palestinian liberation movements, including the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. 

What are some points of contention between the two countries?

Nuclear weapons: Benjamin Netanyahu, premier of a state with its own secret nuclear weapons program, has long accused Iran of seeking nuclear weapons, whereas the latter has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful. Meanwhile, Tehran believes Israel and the U.S. introduced the Stuxnet computer virus in the early 2000s to target the centrifuges enriching uranium for Iran's nuclear program, according to a report by NPR.

Support for groups like Hamas, Hezbollah: Iran has for long supported militant groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, which have engaged in armed conflict with Israel, which has in turn exacerbated tensions between the two nations. These network of organisations have been called “resistance axis”. The Quds Force, a paramilitary and intelligence wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG), is Iran’s unconventional warfare wing that has supported Tehran’s proxies and regional partners with money, weapons and equipment for decades. 

The recent Damascus attack killed two generals and five other officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force.  In the history of the Quds Force, it had never lost that many officers in one operation by its adversaries. Even the significant US attack against former Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 did not kill other senior members of the organisation. Mohammad Zahedi, one of the generals killed, was directly responsible for managing relationships with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Syrian government and Shia militias in that country, and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Iran accuses Israel of backing those groups that it designates as ‘terrorist organisations’ including the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a Europe-based organisation.

Iran and Israel’s proxy wars

Iran has often used its proxies to strike Israel’s interests while the latter has targeted Iran’s nuclear scientists and military leaders.

January 2024: After the death of Hamas leader Saleh-al-Arouri in Baghdad (in context of Israel’s war on Gaza), Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, stepped up its attacks on Israel. Hezbollah said its drones had hit the Israeli army headquarters in Safed, northern Israel, as part of retaliation for the assassination of Arouri, and in response to killing of Hezbollah commander Wissam Tawil, the most senior Hezbollah officer to die in the fighting, according to a report by Reuters. In retaliation, Israel's military said it killed the southern Lebanon commander of Hezbollah's aerial unit, who it said led the attack but Hezbollah rejected the statement, saying it had "no truth whatsoever".

November 2023: Iran-backed Yemen’s Houthi rebels seized an Israeli-linked cargo ship in a crucial Red Sea shipping route and took its 25 crew members hostage. Netanyahu’s office condemned the seizure as an “Iranian act of terror.” 

May 2022: Israel assassinated Revolutionary Guards commander, Col. Sayad Khodayee, who they described as a 'defender of the sanctuary' -- anyone who works on behalf of Iran in Syria or Iraq. Iran then promised to avenge the killing.

November 2020: Israel killed Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who, Western officials believed, played a key role in devising the means to assemble a nuclear warhead in Iran in the past under the guise of civilian uranium enrichment programme.