Iran faces dilemma in war between Israel and Hamas | ET REALITY


For more than four decades, Iran’s rulers have vowed to destroy Israel. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rarely appears in public without wearing a black-and-white checkered Palestinian kaffiyeh.

Iranian military commanders boast of training and arming groups throughout the region that are enemies of Israel, including Hezbollah and Hamas. And when Hamas carried out the October 7 terrorist attack against Israel that killed 1,400 people, Iranian officials hailed it as a momentous achievement, shattering the Jewish state’s sense of security.

Now Iran faces a dilemma as it weighs how it and its allied militias (known as the resistance axis) should respond to the Israeli invasion of Gaza. and whether to bolster its revolutionary credentials at the risk of triggering a broader regional war. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, more than 8,000 Palestinians have died.

“There is no need for Iran to get directly involved in the war and attack Israel itself because it has the resistance axis militia that follows Iran’s policies and strategies and acts on its behalf,” said Nasser Imani, an analyst close to the government, in a telephone interview from Tehran. “Right now Iran is in control mode: it is telling everyone, including Hezbollah, to keep things boiling but to exercise restraint.”

For the moment, Iranian officials are giving public signals that they do not want a full-scale war.

“I want to reiterate that we are not seeking the extension of this war,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said in a recent interview at Iran’s mission to the United Nations. He was in New York to attend UN meetings related to the war. But, he added, “the region is at a boiling point and at any moment it can explode and this may be inevitable. If this happens, all parties will lose control.”

He warned that regional militias in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria could open multiple fronts against Israel, with a high potential “that the result will be that things will not go the way the Israeli regime wants.” He did not elaborate on what would drive the groups, which he said would act independently.

Still, Iran does not want a regional war, which carries risks for the nation and its religious rulers, according to three Iranians connected to the government who are familiar with internal deliberations and insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters. The military capabilities of its allies could be significantly diminished by a prolonged battle with Israel, and even more so if the US military enters the conflict.

The Islamic Republic views militias as its extended arms of influence, capable of attacking while also offering Tehran a degree of denial. They give Iran leverage in international negotiations and a means to tilt the balance of power in the Middle East away from archenemies like Israel and the United States, and rivals like Saudi Arabia.

But if Iran does nothing, its fiery leaders risk losing credibility among their constituents and allies. Some hardline Iranian conservatives have questioned why Iran’s actions do not live up to its rhetoric to “liberate Al Quds,” or Jerusalem, from Israeli rule. Many supporters of Iran’s government have even symbolically signed up to volunteer to be sent to Gaza to fight against Israel.

“In the first scenario, Iran risks losing an arm; In the second scenario, Iran risks losing face,” said Ali Vaez, Iranian director of the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention research and advocacy group. “Iran could try to square this circle by allowing its allies to escalate their attacks against Israel and the United States in a calibrated manner.”

Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi militia in Yemen have launched recent attacks against Israel, but their scope has been limited. The goal, for now, is not an all-out war but to keep Israel’s military under pressure, possibly limiting its ability to wage war against Hamas, people familiar with Iran’s strategy said.

Hezbollah, one of Iran’s closest and most powerful allies, and Israel have exchanged artillery and small arms fire many times since October 7, but have maintained their attacks in border areas. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, is expected to deliver his first public statements since the war began on Friday, which observers anticipate will set the tone for what the group does next.

“We have said from the beginning that we are present in this war,” Hashem Safieddine, head of Hezbollah’s executive council, told Iranian media on Tuesday. Hezbollah will not discuss its plans, he added, because “we will act when necessary, we do not talk.”

The Houthis have also signaled their involvement, launching missiles and drones (including a bombing raid on Tuesday) that US and Israeli forces have shot down.

“There is full coordination at all levels between all leaders of the resistance axis,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed al-Bukhaiti told Iranian media on Tuesday.

Mehdi Mohammadi, an adviser to General Mohammad Ghalibaf, speaker of Iran’s parliament and commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, said in a post on Telegram that regional militants were being deliberately calculated. “In practice, other fronts have already been opened, but the scope of the attacks is being controlled,” Mohammadi said.

Iran-backed militant groups in Iraq and Syria have stepped up attacks on US military bases in both countries after a period of quiet. Tehran wants to put pressure on the Biden administration to rein in Israel, or at least appear to make the United States pay a price for its strong support for Israel.

In retaliation, US forces last Thursday bombed facilities in Syria that the Pentagon said were outposts of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Amir Abdollahian called the US attacks “for show.”

Imani, the analyst in Tehran, said there was no doubt that Iran had helped finance, train and arm the militants, and had provided technological know-how to build its own arsenal of drones and rockets, especially in Gaza and Yemen, where the Blockades make it almost impossible to deliver heavy weapons.

Iranians familiar with the government’s deliberations say Iran and Hezbollah are watching to see whether Hamas faces a serious existential threat from Israel, which would lead them to accelerate attacks on Israel. Top commanders of Iran’s Quds Force and Hezbollah think that if Israel manages to eliminate Hamas, it will come for them, the Iranians said. Quds Force commander Gen. Esmail Ghaani has been in Beirut for most of the past three weeks, the Iranians said.

The deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Brig. General Ali Fadavi said in a speech at a ceremony supporting Gaza on October 22 that “if necessary, Iran will fire missiles towards Haifa,” according to Iranian media. He said Iran had helped transform the military capabilities of Palestinian groups from “rocks and arrows” to “drones and missiles.”

The risk of the war spreading has alarmed the United States and Israel. The Biden administration publicly warned Iran and its proxies against expanding the conflict, noting that it does not seek war with Iran and urging Tehran to restrain its allies.

Amir Abdollahian confirmed that Iran and the United States were exchanging messages. “We told Americans clearly that when you support the Zionist regime with all its might during a war, the United States is not in a position to tell others to exercise restraint,” he said.

But for all sides, the risk of making miscalculations remains high and could send the conflict spiraling out of control.

“In addition to what Tehran can control, there is also the dangerous possibility that some of its regional partners with looser ties, or with a history of ignoring Iranian advice, could engage in uncoordinated actions that put Tehran facing a fait accompli.” said Mr. Váez. “For nearly four decades, Iran’s advanced defense policy has protected its own territory against foreign attacks. “The conflict in Gaza is testing the limits of that policy in an unprecedented way.”

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