Iran and Hezbollah Avoid Blaming Israel for Terrorist Commander’s Death

Image: Children at a ceremony honoring Mustafa Badreddine. Tasnim News Agency/Foad Ashtari, CC BY 4.0.

It sure looks like Israel killed Mustafa Badreddine—you just won't hear it from Israel's enemies.

Mustafa Badreddine, the head of Hezbollah’s military operations in Syria, was recently killed in an explosion near Damascus International Airport. Although the assassination bears some signatures of an Israeli operation, the Shiite militia has blamed Sunni jihadists. Bogged down in Syria, Hezbollah and its Iranian patron have every reason to downplay Israeli responsibility, thereby lifting pressure to retaliate in kind and risk a war with the Jewish state.

Announcing Badreddine’s assassination on Thursday, Hezbollah media outlets initially blamed Israel. And in Tehran, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force and minister of defense who now heads the armed forces’ think tank, the Center for Strategic Defense Research, said Friday, “The Zionists will receive the necessary answer at the right time.” When Hezbollah issued the results of its investigation into Badreddine’s assassination on Saturday, however, it claimed he was killed by artillery fire from unnamed Sunni jihadists. But attributing blame to the “takfiris” rather than the Israelis should be taken with a grain of salt.

Previously, when Hezbollah military leaders have been killed, the group immediately pointed the finger at Israel, threatening revenge and retaliating shortly afterwards. That was its response after both the January 2015 strike that killed Jihad Mughniyeh (the son of Badreddine’s predecessor Imad Mughniyeh) and the strike in December that killed arch-terrorist Samir Quntar. Though both had military roles, their importance to the organization was primarily symbolic. As a result, the organization’s need to save face within Lebanon could be satisfied with a relatively minor retaliation against Israel in the contested Shebaa Farms border area.

Badreddine, however, was different. His leadership role and storied career within the organization—arguably paralleling only that of his predecessor—necessitated a deadly response. He was also important to the Iranians, as his death prompted condolences from Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and a visit from Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani to the slain commander’s family in Beirut on Sunday. According to several sources, Soleimani may have even been spotted beside Badreddine in Syria shortly before his death.

The chief of Iran’s Armed Forces, Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, also praised Badreddine as “a capable and model commander,” promising that “we the comrades of that mujahed commander” would continue his path. He fell short, however, of blaming the Israelis, as he knows that amid full-blown war in Syria, Hezbollah can ill afford a repeat of its devastating thirty-four-day conflict with Israel a decade ago.