Though it officially denies any role behind the attacks on Israel by Hamas, Iran does not seem to have ruled out its involvement in a broad war against its number one enemy in the Middle East if Tel Aviv sends its troops to Gaza.
“If the measures aimed at immediately stopping the Israeli attacks that are killing children in the Gaza Strip end in a deadlock, it is highly probable that many other fronts will be opened.
“This option is not ruled out, and this is becoming increasingly more probable,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told Al Jazeera on October 15. “If the Zionist entity [Israel] decides to enter Gaza, the resistance leaders will turn it into a graveyard of the occupation soldiers,” he added.
If war is one of the instruments of realizing a particular national objective, then Iran has already achieved that without directly entering into a war against Israel. The attack by Hamas on Israel and the latter’s threat of occupying Gaza in response have greatly facilitated Iran realizing that particular national objective of preventing the US-brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which, if achieved, would have significantly diminished Iran’s clout in the Middle East.
In other words, Iran has attained its objective without direct participation in the war against Israel. Hamas, Iran’s proxy, has done that for all practical purposes. Of course, there are reports that Iranian security officials partnered with Hamas for weeks to plan the latest land, sea, and air strikes against Israel.
The Wall Street Journal reported that officials from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had partnered with Hamas since August to prepare for the breach of Israel’s borders.
Based on the Iranian sources, the report said that details of the operation were refined during several meetings in Beirut attended by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC officers) and representatives of four Iran-backed militant groups, including Hamas, which holds power in Gaza, and Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group and political faction in Lebanon.
Iran does not believe in Israel’s existence, let alone peaceful coexistence with the Arab neighbors. As Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi said at last month’s UN General Assembly, Israel, or rather “the Zionist regime,” is “the only government based on apartheid and racial discrimination remaining in the world, which is founded based on war, occupation, terrorism, and violation of the rights of nations and continues to live on this basis and method, cannot be a partner of peace.”
Iran is said to have “four fronts” or proxies to fight against Israel.
The “First Front ” is the Hezbollah in Lebanon. In 1982, the IRGC sent 5,000 troops to Lebanon through Syria to be ready to fight against Iraq, which had invaded Iran in 1980. They were based in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, where they trained Shia Lebanese youth who went on to form Hezbollah, one of Israel’s primary adversaries in the region and the first Iranian front against Israel.
It is believed to be Iran’s “Primary Front,” which is provided with Tehran’s “annual financial aid ranging from US$100 million to as much as US$800 million, an extensive arsenal of weapons – from missiles and rockets to small arms – as well as military training and intelligence”.
In return, Hezbollah actively engages in every regional conflict in which Iran has taken a side, whether in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or Israel.
Iran’s “Second Front” against Israel is Hamas, officially named the Islamic Resistance Movement. It was formed in 1987 during the first Palestinian intifada (uprising). Israel initially tolerated the group as it was fighting to weaken the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), then headed by Yasser Arafat.
But, when the PLO made peace with Israel through the Oslo Accords in 1993, Iran started promoting Hamas by offering it military and economic assistance, which over the years has only increased.
“The Third Front” emerged in Syria after the 2011 uprising against the Assad regime. Iran has reportedly more than 13 military bases across Syria and has five divisions of troops stationed there.
The “Imam Ali base” in Abu-Kamal, close to the Iraq border, is strategically significant because it is the IRGC’s primary conduit for moving troops and supplies between Iraq and Syria.
This front has also sought to position the Iraqi Kata’ib Hezbollah militia in Syria and simultaneously form a new pan-Shia group called the al-Imam Hussein division. This division is said to have 6,000 members from several countries, including Nigeria, Mali, Lebanon, and Afghanistan.
The Hussein division’s Lebanese contingent is considered integral and unique, accounting for a unit of approximately 1,000 members equipped with sophisticated Iranian arms. It is believed to play a substantial role in smuggling weapons to Palestine militants, particularly those who believe in “Islamic Jihad” in the West Bank, the “Fourth Front.” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quoted to have said in 2020 that “The West Bank must be armed, just as Gaza.”
Against this background, let us see what Iran has achieved through its second front, Hamas. There is no doubt that Iran has gained geopolitically. Iran was certainly not happy with the Middle Eastern region achieving some semblance of stability with the movement towards the peaceful co-existence between the Arab regimes and Israel, thanks to the US mediation.
The US–brokered Abraham Accords had forged once-unthinkable alliances between the Jewish state and several Arab states under Sunni regimes who have never been comfortable with a Shia–Iran. The historical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia to claim the leadership of the Muslim world is too evident for an explanation.
Iran was particularly disturbed by the developments of Saudi Arabia, the leading Arab state in the Gulf, talking to Israel via US President Joe Biden, who has been tirelessly trying for the hitherto impossible spectacle of Riyadh and Tel Aviv recognizing one another.
Iran had every interest to make sure that did not happen. Having assumed the role of the principal opponent of Israel in the region, arming militias aiming at the destruction of Israel and engaging in inflammatory language against it, Iran could never tolerate the end of Israel’s isolation in the Arab world.
Speaking geopolitically, the Abraham Accords contain Iran’s maritime power like never before. They, particularly the planned Saudi-Israeli peace agreement, would mean the creation of a US-centred ring of alliances controlling the maritime choke points of the Straits of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, and the Straits of Bab Al Mandab.
As Bernard Siman, Senior Associate Fellow at the Brssels-based Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations, argues, “This would hem Iran in, and effectively confine it to its continental reach into Afghanistan, Iraq and, through its Road Bridge in Iraq, into Syria and Lebanon, reaching the Eastern Mediterranean through its proxy, Hezbollah.
“In effect, both Iran and Hamas (would) have failed strategically. Their tactical successes did not add up to changing their relative strategic position in the pecking order of regional players. Having failed to secure their positions through political and diplomatic means when the wind was in their sails, we now see the recourse to extreme violence and potentially regional war”.
Moreover, ultimately, Iran calculated that the damage to its relative strategic interests caused by the strategic shifts mentioned above would fundamentally and irrevocably weaken it.
In other words, realizing the damage to its relative geopolitical interests caused by the strategic shifts mentioned above, Iran has every reason to be extremely happy with Hamas’ attack on Israel. The Israeli retaliation in Gaza and threats to occupy it have not only paused the Saudi Arabia–Israel rapprochement but also unified the otherwise quarrelsome Arab regimes. It has also brought all its regional proxies—including Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad—under a single unified command.
Sean Yom, Associate Professor of Political Science at Temple University and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, argues that “Supporting Hamas has long been a part of Iran’s regional ambitions to subvert a regional order headlined by American hegemony and its Arab alliances, and it mirrors its support for Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthi movement, and Shi’a militias in Iraq—all of which, like Hamas, are non-state actors.
“But…Iran’s willingness to support such proxy actors is girded by the rational assumption that neither the US nor Israel, nor their Arab Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are willing to wage a full-scale battle against Tehran so long as Iran does not initiate a formal interstate war.”
Of course, it is hard to predict how long Iran’s strategy against Israel will last. But suppose Israel’s retaliations in Gaza expand to be a regional war with the involvement of Hezbollah from Lebanon and in the process. In that case, Israel gets isolated diplomatically in many parts of the world, and the United Nations (China and the UN Secretary-General have already warned Israel against misadventures in Gaza), Iran’s gains will be further consolidated.
In a way, such gains will cause severe setbacks for US diplomacy. The US is in a very tricky situation despite all its promises to stand behind Israel.
Already engaged deeply in the conflict in Ukraine and greatly perturbed over the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, President Biden would never like to be dragged into a major war in the Middle East.
In CBS’ “60 Minutes” interview aired on Sunday, Biden said it would be a “big mistake” for Israel to occupy Gaza. In sum, Iran is the biggest gainer in the Middle East today.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
- CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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