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Why Iran may steer clear of joining the Israel-Hamas war

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has become a pivotal figure during the Israel-Hamas war

As Gaza plunges into another communications snap, the blackout of internet and cellular services points towards an escalation in armed confrontation between the Israel Defence Forces and Hamas, the Palestinian armed group that launched a major terror strike inside Israel on October 7.

The call for a regional conference by Ankara and Tehran, aimed at averting regional spillovers  due to everyday escalation in the Israel-Hamas war, brings the spotlight back on Iran, as the central figure in the on-going war.

That said, Iran is not only Israel’s arch adversary in the region but also a leading state actor promoting various armed and ideologically aligned non-state actors affiliated with  Hezbollah and Hamas, with Houthi fighters in Yemen also joining this list. Taking note of Iran’s centrality in the on-going war in the Middle East, why would Tehran call for a regional conference to prevent the war spilling over, regionally? Furthermore, taking note of statements issued by Tehran since the October 7 attack, its response seems to further fuel the conflict, escalating at best, not calling for dialogue. Like all stakeholders of the war, Tehran appears to re-calibrate its decisions based on Israel’s military response in Gaza, rather than external pressure, if any, influenced by regional economies of the neighbourhood.

As the war intensifies, there are two undeniable facts emerging from Gaza:

Tehran has no intention of engaging the US in a direct military confrontation until Washington decides to put boots on the ground. This is a much riskier move for the Raisi government, in the light of its shakier reputation within its staunchest supporters, in less than two years. Calling for a peace conference with Ankara, Tehran is in a perfect position to demonstrate its vision for the region laid under the principle of the Axis of Resistance. If that seems to be true, Tehran’s vision will negate the concept of Abraham accords, forfeiting Israel’s integration and its existence in the ethno-demographic composition of the Middle East.

For Washington, and most of its European Union allies, not much can be done to derail Tehran’s agenda, if they fail to bring an end to the Israel-Hamas war with a diplomatic solution, acceptable to both Jews and Muslims. That said, the solution majorly rests on the significance of the Abraham accords and no stakeholder would be as delighted to see it fail as Tehran.

A shadow war for decades?

An insight into the leadeship’s mind can be gleaned from the  statement made by Ali Khamenei on October 17, on the Israel Hamas war.  Standing  in front of a wall with pictures of seven Iranian nuclear scientists assassinated in early 2010, the Iranian Supreme Leader maintained that  Israeli intelligence had been responsible for assassinating these nuclear scientists on its soil. One may argue that the stage was well choreographed. Interpreting Ali Khomeini’s message to people, he had apparently stated that Iran — with the support of Hamas — had hit Israel on its home soil. He partly claimed vengeance for the killing of Iranian nationals inside Iran, reminding Israel of its ability to retaliate with even greater intensity.

Was Ali Khamenei hinting to Tel Aviv to the extent Tehran may conduct this shadow war? That might very well be the intention. But, since the Hamas attack on October 7, Khamenei has been proactively and repeatedly denying Tehran’s role. He might probe American strategic calculations, at best anticipate their ability to support Israel in terms of means and materials, or at best condemn boots on the ground in the Middle East, or probably mock Washington’s apprehension about engaging in a regional war, but under no circumstance undermine/underestimate the wrath of US military if unleashed in the region.

In that context, by calling for a peace conference, does Khamenei aim to drag the US into the region while it proposes a peace deal, hoping to bait Washington into a regional war in the Middle East? This could be one probability, reflecting Tehran’s experience in engaging with Russia or China and regional rivals. Putting regional rivals aside, none of the powers enjoys greater engagement than Iran. Taking note of the Islamic Republic’s denial of orchestrating the attack and a proposal calling for a regional peace conference, why compromise its political survival and risk annihilation by aiding Hamas and escalating to a greater/regional war forcing the US to involve? Why would it contradict its own ideology of the so famously quoted ‘Axis of Resistance’ reinforced by the military doctrine of ‘forward defense’ which is based on one simple theory: Iran’s security rests principally on fighting adversaries through Tehran based-proxies which share similar ideology outside its soil.

That said, why is Iran willingly compromising the survival of its most cherished ideology of ‘Axis of Resistance’ through a peace conference, which would most certainly force Washington to engage in the region? Does that mean, Tehran is actually disinclined in the regional war even at the cost of Hezbollah’s future, an example of a perfect proxy for middle east states, tarnishing its reputation and regional support, all for regional peace? This came with a great surprise. To this author, Iran’s anti-Israel agenda reflects long-term planning, with an intent to weaken Israel militarily, economically and diplomatically, isolating the country in the Middle East over decades.

In that context, in 2015, Ali Khamenei had predicted Israel will disappear from the face of this earth in the next 25 years, then. By that logic, Khamenei wouldn’t be around to witness his prediction coming true but, it is absolutely certain, he will not compromise Tehran’s future — and much deliberated/anticipated power of succession — by engaging in a direct military confrontation that would result in too many disastrous consequences for the state and for the region. That said, for Ali Khamenei, October 7 Hamas attack was at best a strategic victory against Israel.

What should we expect from Tehran?

Tehran’s armed proxies will continue to engage Israeli Defence Forces in Gaza, and U.S. forces in Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq, but Tehran will not compromise its dream for Axis of Resistance, even if it means restricting Hezbollah from using arsenal with 150,000 missiles and rockets aimed at Israel. Iran has tightened its grip around the proxy elements, and may loosen its leash in case of an imminent U.S. attack directed against Iran, which is nowhere on the horizon at the moment and is far from likely. At best, Tehran will — unleashing rocket attacks in Israel’s north (via Hezbollah) — overwhelm Israel’s strategic calculus and prevent an ‘all-out assault’ approach against Hamas.

In the context of a long-term strategy, Tehran may hope to bring Gaza under Hamas control, reinforcing Tehran’s strategy to encircle Tel Aviv. If push does come to shove and Tel Aviv retains the momentum of annihilating Hamas, Tehran may sacrifice the latter in the interest of preserving Hezbollah resources and a proxy as a whole. Hezbollah is Tehran’s only strategic deterrence against Israel, a perspective weapon in case the US and its allies do take the battle to its shore.

With war engulfing Gaza, Tehran may use its energy on the diplomatic front, regionally and through its remaining allies in international platforms such as the UN. Tehran will exercise greater pressure, not just vindicating through its idea of the Axis of Resistance but primarily on Arab states that intent to normalise relations with Israel. Tehran deems this initiative as effective, resulting in an unusual decision by the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to make a phone call and speak with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This could be one of the objectives Iran aims to achieve diplomatically: putting pressure using Arab states on moderates supporting the U.S. and Israel, before Washington gathers significant support in the region (of moderate states).

Globally, in the near coming weeks we may witness Russia and China displacing Washington as the sole hegemon in the region. As a regional power broker and prospective mediator, Washington’s image could be potentially challenged and undermined by the two states. Washington may be painted as a sole benefactor of regional instability by Russia and China, who may portray as neutral spectators/responsible states to broker peace.

Interestingly, since the Hamas attack of October 7, both Moscow and Beijing, (which had close ties with Tel Aviv), have either expressed pro-Palestinian sentiments or largely remained silent. This cannot be referred to as a new anti-Israel approach. Their stance is directed towards Washington’s failed policy in the Middle East and how the two powerful nations can broker peace, alternate actors to Washington in the region.

That said, what do we make of Hamas? Since its foundation in 1987, it has directly participated in no less than eight conflicts, none of which took a regional form, as we witness today. And no Middle Eastern power, including Iran, would gain from an unstable, militarily volatile and politically vulnerable neighbourhood. It is a political hedging between Tehran and Washington, not just to manage the war politically, but regionally, and diplomatically on the international stage, also diplomatically in the global arena. If Washington fails, Russia and China will remain uncontested in the region for decades, playing on Washington’s commitment to regional stability, setting the stage for Tehran to make a successful case of Axis of Resistance, portraying armed confrontation (justifying resistance) as the only viable path against greater evil, setting a dangerous precedence with weak political structure and a constitution based on violence.

Also Read: Why Iran is avoiding war with Israel despite Gaza crisis