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Iran blames Israel for blast that hit its consulate in Damascus

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Iran says Israel has killed one of its most senior commanders in the Syrian capital, Damascus. This is believed to be the highest-level assassination of an Iranian military leader since the war in Gaza began. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us from Amman. Hey, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Start with just - how big a development is this? What more do we know?

ARRAF: It's pretty big not just for Iran but because of what Iran is expected to do in retaliation. Iran has confirmed that a senior commander of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force has been killed. State media said Brigadier General Mohammed Reza Zahedi and his deputy were killed in an Israeli missile strike on the building in Damascus, along with five other Revolutionary Guard Corps members. Syrian state media says the Israeli airstrike leveled the Iranian embassy annex, resulting in deaths and injuries in the daytime attack. Iran's ambassador to the U.N. said Israeli fighter jets launched six missiles into the building. And Hamas, which has been fighting Israel in Gaza for almost six months, called it a dangerous escalation.

KELLY: OK. Tell me more about this brigadier general who has apparently been killed, how much of a blow his death would represent to Iran.

ARRAF: It's quite a big one. He would be the most senior Iranian commander known to have been assassinated since the war in Gaza began. He was the main interlocutor with the Lebanese-based armed group Hezbollah, which has been fighting Israel across the Lebanese-Israeli border. According to Iranian state media, Zahedi was in his 60s, and he was a commander of the elite Iranian force during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. It said he later served as the IRGC ground commander and air force commander - so quite a senior guy. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said the attack targeting the consular section of the embassy was a gross violation of international conventions which protect diplomatic missions, and he said Iran would take necessary action against the attackers.

KELLY: And what is Israel saying? Have they taken responsibility?

ARRAF: No. Israel doesn't normally comment on strikes against Iran, and it hasn't commented on this one. But it does say several of its own embassies have been placed on high alert. Iran could use proxy forces to attack Israel. Those include Iraq-based groups and Lebanese Hezbollah, which, we have to remember, is one of the most heavily armed non-state groups in the world. Since the start of the Gaza war, Israel has escalated airstrikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria. It's one of the developments that many countries have feared could escalate the war in Gaza into an even wider conflict.

KELLY: Well, exactly. I imagine that this will prompt questions, raise fears about something that people have feared since the beginning - that Iran would be drawn in in a more direct way. Just remind us what Iran's role has been in this war in Gaza.

ARRAF: It's been an indirect one. Iran said at the start of the Gaza war that it didn't know in advance of the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. It does run a network of armed groups in the region. And while Iran is Shia Muslim and Hamas is Sunni, the two have forged ties, and they're believed to coordinate to some extent regarding Iranian proxy attacks on Israeli targets. But Iran's most powerful affiliated militia is Lebanon's Hezbollah, which, of course, has been fighting across the two countries' borders with Israel since the start of the war. They've so far appeared reluctant to launch all-out war, but heightened Hezbollah attacks could be one means of retaliating against Israel.

KELLY: NPR's Jane Arraf. Thank you, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAMANTHA BARRON SONG, "SIN MI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.