Western and Arab governments call for restraint as Iran threatens to strike Israel

Concerns grow of direct conflict between two countries following fatal Israeli strike on Iranian consulate in Damascus

Western and Arab governments are rushing to convince Iran to show restraint as the US warned allies that Tehran was close to military retaliation against Israel over an attack on its Damascus consulate.

The diplomatic push on Thursday came as concerns rose in western capitals that Iran is preparing to respond directly against Israel, rather than through proxies, to avenge the assassination of several Iranian top generals last week.

Washington has recently informed allies that Iran’s retaliation could be imminent as it urged them to put pressure on Tehran to hold back, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

A second diplomat familiar with the warning added that the US said a direct strike by Iran on Israel was possible, an action that would significantly escalate six months of hostilities in the region.


Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Thursday warned that Israel would retaliate against any attack on its interests, saying his forces were “prepared” for any external threats to the Jewish state. “Whoever harms us, we will harm them,” he said.

German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock phoned her Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian on Thursday to discuss the rapidly worsening security situation.

“Nobody can have any interest in regional escalation,” the German ministry said in a statement. “All players in the region are called upon to act responsibly and exercise restraint.”

Mr Amirabdollahian also held phone conversations with his counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar on Wednesday night, with Iran’s foreign ministry saying the consequences of Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate were among the topics discussed. He also spoke to his Turkish counterpart on Thursday.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday that the attack last week, which killed several senior Iranian commanders, was equivalent to an attack on Iranian territory, and that Israel must be “punished”. Mr Amirabdollahian echoed the message to his German counterpart on Thursday, stressing Iran’s right to “legitimate defence” against an “aggressor” that flouted international law, according to the Iran’s foreign ministry.

The strike on the Iranian consulate, which killed one of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ most senior figures in Lebanon and Syria, was a significant escalation of the hostilities that have engulfed the Middle East since the war between Hamas and Israel erupted in October.

Mr Khamenei’s language, particularly in likening the attack to a breach of Iran’s sovereignty, has raised concerns that any retaliation will potentially be directly against Israel, rather than channelled through Iran’s proxies in the region.

Responding to Khamenei’s statement, US president Joe Biden stressed his “ironclad” support for Israel, pointedly saying the US would do “all we can” to protect the security of its ally.

“Our commitment to Israel’s security against these threats from Iran and its proxies is ironclad,” he said after a meeting with Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida. “Let me say it again: ironclad.”

A senior US official said Iran had delivered a message to Washington after the Damascus strike. In response, Washington warned Tehran “to not use the strike as a pretext to further escalate in the region or attack US facilities or personnel”.

Over the past six months, Israel has exchanged cross-border fire with Iran-backed militant groups in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, while Yemeni militants have launched attacks on Red Sea shipping.

On Wednesday, Israeli forces killed three sons and three grandchildren of Hamas’s political leader Ismail Haniyeh in an air strike in Gaza, while a Lebanese man accused by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control of funnelling Iranian money to Hamas was found dead in a town near Beirut.

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack on the Iranian consulate, which was widely seen as the most serious blow to the Iranian military since the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani in 2020.

However, Iran, Syria and Hizbullah – the Iran-backed militia that dominates southern Lebanon – have all blamed Israel, and Iranian officials have repeatedly said there will be a response.

The Iranian state news agency IRNA wrote on Wednesday that “the time is ripe to punish Israel”. It claimed a final decision on how to respond to Israel had been made, adding a failure to respond would undermine Iran’s “deterrence”.

The Tasnim news agency, which is close to the Revolutionary Guards, also wrote that Iran’s “punishment” for Israel was inevitable and would be “heavy”.

But it said how and when Iran would act was confidential and that reports suggesting that Tehran would respond over the next few days or was planning a missile and drone strike were only speculation.

Israeli security analysts have said an Iranian attack could range from a strike via one of Iran’s proxies, such as Hizbullah, to a direct attack on Israel from Iran itself, which could risk an escalation of the regional conflict.

An Iranian official said last week that Israeli embassies were “no longer safe”, sparking speculation that they could be a potential target.

Amid concerns of a broader conflict, the German airline Lufthansa, one of the few international carriers flying to Tehran, suspended flights to the Iranian capital.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said on Thursday his Palestinian militant group was still seeking a deal for a ceasefire and hostage release after the Israeli strike which killed three of his sons in Gaza.

Speaking in Qatar while receiving condolences, Mr Haniyeh said “the interests of the Palestinian people are placed above everything” when asked if the strike would affect the talks on a truce and hostage release.

“We are seeking to reach a deal but the occupation is still procrastinating and evading a response to the demands,” he said.

Israeli forces carried out Wednesday’s attack without authorisation from top commanders or senior leaders, Israeli media said on Thursday, raising fears among families of hostages it would derail efforts to secure their release from Gaza. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. Additional reporting: Reuters