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Why Iran is avoiding war with Israel despite Gaza crisis

Tehran will surely embolden Hezbollah, its Lebanese arm. But, a full-scale war is not a possibility, says Professor Sujata Ashwarya of Jamia Millia Islamia.

Iran, one of the key supporters of Palestinian armed group Hamas, has been the most active on the diplomatic front to drum up support for the Palestinian cause and even take on Israel-US might if all “Muslim countries unite to raise an Islamic army”. However, despite Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian still touring Muslim capitals, Iran has demurred to go on the back foot, and  restricted itself to using proxies alone for freeing Al Quds (Palestine).

Iranian proxies, even though on a subdued scale, have been attacking American military installations in Iraq, Syria, the Mediterranean and even firing occasional barrages of projectiles into Israel. US forces in Iraq and Syria have been attacked with drones or rockets in recent days by these Iranian proxies.

Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” that is said to be active on various fronts since the onset of the recent conflict comprises famed Hezbollah, Houthis, Quds Force (led by late Qasim Soleimani’s successor Esmail Ghaani), Fitimiyoun Brigade, and few other groups operating in Iraq and Syria.

Concerned over the continued attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a surprise visit to Iraq on Sunday to seek help of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, an Iran-tilting Shia leader, in preventing Iranian proxy strikes.

Al-Sudani pledged to pursue the perpetrators of rocket attacks on three military bases in Iraq hosting international coalition advisers, including Ain al-Asad in western Iraq, a military base near Baghdad’s international airport and Harir in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil.

Al-Sudani however made a hasty visit to Tehran on Monday. In some reports on his meeting with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Iranian official media reported that the US would not be spared from the embers of the current conflict. “Resistance (as Iranians call their proxies) is no different with what was put up to German occupying forces in World War II after occupation of France. It’s the same resistance in Palestine,” said Tehran Times editor in his scathing piece on Monday.

Rhetorics apart, expert appraisal of the Iranian position vis a vis the Gaza war paints a different picture. Professor Sujata Ashwarya of the Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, says that Iran will never opt for a full-scale war with either Israel or the US. “The US has deployed its warships specifically as a “deterrent” measure to contain Iranian engagement in the ongoing conflict. Yes, Iran may keep its proxies on the front and they are already gingerly attacking the US bases and even occasionally targeting Israel. Tehran will surely embolden Hezbollah, its Lebanese arm. But, a full-scale war is not a possibility,” she told Indian Narrative.

Prof Ashwarya revealed an interesting aspect of Iranian policy on the current crisis. “They haven’t withdrawn their ambassadors from European countries that are siding with Israel. This was the minimum and a significant diplomatic measure they could have taken. It is indicative of their intent of being not interested in escalating the conflict and suffering not only from the destruction of the war but international isolation that may follow any such move,” she said.

Prof Ashwarya said that the military capacity of Iran is too limited as compared to the might of Israel-US that if Tehran enters the direct war theatre “it might face annihilation.”

Prof Ashwarya’s estimate is shared by Pervez Bilgrami, a West Asia expert. He says that the strength of the Iranian weaponry has been overstated for public consumption and that even the proxies of the regime, despite putting up a fight, have demonstrated limited range of capacity. “Plus, Iran is still entangled in Syria to save the Bashar al-Assad regime. In Iraq, the US is too strong to be easily maneuvered. And above it all, why would Iran lose its recently received international heft for Hamas? Hamas is not Hezbollah,” said Bilgrami.

West Asia watcher and renowned Muslim activist Navaid Hamid too agrees that Iran doesn’t want to get a bloody nose by going all guns into the war with Israel. “It has backed Hamas like no other country. This is firmly true. However, the initial strong statements of teaching lessons to Israel and the US have largely been war-mongering by Tehran. In Gaza, it’s not only Israel, but five “monsters” of geopolitics – US, UK, France, Germany, EU – that are together on the front. Iran knows it well,” he said.

However, both Hamid and Ashwarya see one hope that the current crisis may help the two-state solution – the root remedy of the regional conflict – see the light of the day. It is possible despite any regional game plan of any power.