By Alex Vatanka
As the war rages on between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the role of Iran will remain a central factor. Tehran is not only Israel’s top regional foe but also the leading provider of military aid and training for Hamas. Given the centrality of Iran in this latest Middle Eastern war, what is Tehran’s endgame? Based on Iranian statements since Hamas’ deadly attack on Oct. 7, that endgame does not seem to be set in stone. As with all stakeholders in this war, Tehran’s calculations are evolving and shaped by events on the ground in Gaza.
But two basic realities are clear: Iran has no intention of directly engaging militarily in the war against Israel or the U.S. should Washington decide to get involved. Doing so would simply be too risky for the Islamic Republic and its 84-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose regime’s scaffolding has been shaky in recent years. Instead, Tehran sees this moment as a golden opportunity to vindicate its vision for the region based on the concept of the “Axis of Resistance.” This in turn is a plain repudiation of Abraham Accords and the idea of Israel’s integration into the fabric of the Middle East.
The U.S., and the West in general, can do much to inadvertently advance Iran’s agenda if they fail to mediate the Israeli-Hamas conflict in a way that takes into account the demands of the Arab and Muslim publics. To put it mildly, the concept of Abraham Accords is on the line and no one wants to see its demise more than the Islamic Republic.
What Iran wants and cannot afford
On Oct. 17, Ali Khamenei sat on a stage and commented on the war. Behind him were posters with pictures of seven Iranian nuclear scientists assassinated beginning in 2010. Tehran has always blamed Israel for the assassinations and other acts of sabotage on Iranian soil. The choreography was hardly coincidental. Khamenei’s message, at least to the Iranian public, was that Iran — through its backing of Hamas over the years — had hit back at Israel. It was partly to claim successful revenge and partly to remind Israel that Iran can retaliate.
Was this Khamenei’s way of telling Israel that the two foes need to rethink the boundaries of their decade-long shadow war? That new redlines need to be established? That might have very well been the intention. Meanwhile, since the Oct. 7 attacks Khamenei has also gone out of his way to repeatedly deny a direct Iranian role. He might question American calculations in regards to the Middle East, and probably doubts Washington’s appetite to enter the fray in the Gaza war, but Khamenei does not underestimate the might of the U.S. military once it is unleashed.
Would Khamenei want to see the U.S. dragged into a new, costly, and open-ended war in the region? That is very plausible, and probably a yearning he shares with Russia, China, and other American rivals. But none of those other states are as close to Hamas as Iran is. The Islamic Republic’s tiny space for deniability makes it improbable that it would want to risk its own political survival merely to aid Hamas in a broader war that involves the U.S. After all, all of Iran’s investments in the so-called Axis of Resistance and the military doctrine of “forward defense” rest on a simple idea: that Iran is better off fighting its adversaries outside of its borders through pro-Iran militant proxies and not on its own soil.
But even Iran’s willingness to risk the survival of its cherished Axis of Resistance has to be questioned. Not only does Iran seem disinclined to enter the war, it is also disinclined to risk the future of Hezbollah, the crown jewel among its Arab proxies. This should not be a surprise. Iran’s anti-Israel agenda is a long-term game plan, meant to weaken Israel militarily, diplomatically, and psychologically over years and perhaps even decades to come.
Back in 2015, Khamenei predicted that “Israel will disappear in 25 years.” Khamenei will not be around in 2040 to find out if his prediction came true, but there is no evidence that he will risk his regime — and the much-anticipated succession process in Tehran — by entangling Iran in a direct military conflict that will invariably throw up surprises it will not be ready to tackle, both at home and in the region. Instead, Khamenei can simply claim the Oct. 7 attack as a strategic win against Israel and the moment when the region reached an inflection point.
Iran’s proxy allies will likely take pots shots at Israel, and at U.S. forces, from and in Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq, but Tehran will refrain from risking the future of its Axis of Resistance, including Hezbollah’s reported arsenal of 150,000 missiles and rockets that are aimed at Israel. Iran will let loose its proxy forces only if the U.S. attacks the Iranian homeland, which is hardly in the cards at the moment. In fact, Tehran will at most — through Hezbollah’s limited strikes on Israel in the north — attempt to shape Israel’s calculations and convince it not to go for a “kill” against Hamas.
In the long run, Iran wants to keep Hamas in Gaza as part of Tehran’s strategy of encircling Israel. But if Iran had to choose, it will accept the elimination of Hamas to keep Hezbollah unharmed and whole. Again, that is because Tehran needs to retain Hezbollah as a strategic deterrent against Israel and the U.S. in the long term.
As is the case already, Tehran’s energies will now be focused on the diplomatic arena, in the region and globally. The Iranians will use the war in Gaza to not only vindicate the concept of the Axis of Resistance but also to put pressure on those Arab states that have or are exploring the idea of normalizing relations with Israel. Tehran is so keen on this objective that last week Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took the unusual step of calling Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The basic fault line is hard to miss: Iran’s game plan is to pull the moderate Arab states away from the U.S. and Israel, while the Americans are doing the exact opposite, although with mixed results at best so far.
Finally, as reported by Iranian sources, the Americans have warned Iran not to miscalculate on two fronts, which might result in U.S. military action. First, Tehran should avoid any direct military assistance to Hamas during this war. Second, Tehran should not see the war as a cover to expand its nuclear program. The Biden administration is very sensitive to the charge that it has been soft on Iran. This basic reality will shape President Joe Biden’s Iran policy in the coming weeks and months. And Tehran will be careful not to make Biden’s case for the need for a more forceful American posture toward the Islamic Republic.
On the global level, the war in Gaza comes as Russia and China seek to dislodge the U.S. as the hegemon in the Middle East. They will, together with Iran and its allies, question the credibility and competence of Washington as a powerbroker and mediator. The U.S. will be presented as a source of instability and Russia and China will promote themselves as neutral arbiters as the Middle East looks for a political solution to the war. As the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it, “Lack of justice for the Palestinian people is at the heart of this conflict.”
Since Oct. 7, Moscow and Beijing, both of which have had close ties with Israel, have decided to remain mostly silent or express pro-Palestinian sentiment. This is not due to a new anti-Israel stance as such. It is simply an opportunistic move by Russia and China to use this moment to show that U.S. policies in the Middle East have failed. What all third-party stakeholders — Iran, the U.S., the Europeans, Russia, and China — would agree is that the Oct. 7 attacks within Israel’s borders have upended the decades-old status quo and rules of engagement.
Since Hamas was founded in 1987, it has fought Israel in eight conflicts. None of those conflicts expanded to the broader region. Today, no regional power, including Iran, wants a broader Middle Eastern war. The test for Washington is to manage this war politically at home and diplomatically on the international stage. The U.S. needs to find creative ways to reassure both Israel and the Islamic world that it can be a neutral mediator in this conflict. If U.S. does not do so, then it will provide an opening to Russia and China, and will help Iran to make its case that the Axis of Resistance and armed struggle is the only viable path forward for the Palestinians.
Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute.
Second publication by courtesy of Middle East Institute, Original-Text