If you’ve seen an alarming headline about the prospect of a Third World War erupting in the past couple of years, the chances are that it’s focused on threats from Moscow. The risks of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine sparking a wider conflict have caused serious concerns around the world.
Now, Iran has suddenly taken centre stage as the biggest geopolitical domino for the West to worry about.
US and European leaders including Rishi Sunak have been vocal in supporting Israel after the atrocity carried out by Hamas a fortnight ago, saying the country has a right to defend itself, while also calling for Palestinian civilians to be protected.
But they have been just as keen to underline why the crisis cannot be allowed to escalate and spread. And their warnings – backed by two US aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean – have been aimed squarely at Iran, which has long been blamed for supplying Hamas with weapons to fight a proxy battle against Israel.
Accusing the regime in Tehran of driving the 7 October attack, Israel believes that Iran “has tentacles everywhere,” in the words of its military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht.
Tehran seems to enjoy having its clout talked up like this by old adversaries.
While Joe Biden’s secretary of state Anthony Blinken has been flying around the Middle East to urge caution, Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian met Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Qatar last weekend and has held talks in Lebanon with the militant group Hezbollah, another sworn enemy of Israel. He has also travelled to Syria.
Publicly, he has done nothing to dissuade his allies of piling in, especially if Israel launches a widely expected ground assault on Gaza to “eliminate” Hamas.
Amirabdollahian, who can’t bring himself to mention Israel by name, said on Monday that Hezbollah “will not allow the Zionist regime to take any action in Gaza” and that “any pre-emptive measure is imaginable”.
But behind the rhetoric coming from both sides, how influential politically and militarily really is Iran in the Middle East and around the world, and what might it be seeking to achieve from the current crisis?
This can be hard to gauge because Iran generally “likes to take credit for things that it doesn’t have a huge amount to do with,” according to Professor Ali Ansari, founding director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St Andrews University.
However, while he believes that Iran did not specifically plan or direct the Hamas attack, he tells i that it’s “nonsense” for anyone to suggest that Tehran bore no underlying responsibility.
With proxy attacks like this, Ansari explains: “They give the people the means, the finance, the inspiration, but then they say, ‘You do it when you want to’, because they seek plausible deniability.
“It’s also to make sure there’s no communication traffic revealing what’s going on for people to intercept. They cover their tracks.”
He adds: “Iran likes the role that it’s playing at the moment, swanning around the region and looking like the arbiter. But it’s also a paper tiger in some respects. They might get Hezbollah and others involved, but it doesn’t have the capacity to take on America.” Any warning from Iran that it may strike Israel with missiles is “bluff,” though he accepts the mood is dark.
The former British foreign secretary Jack Straw agrees. “The Iranians are not going to be stupid enough to launch attacks on Israel. That would draw in the US and the rest of the West,” he tells i.
Straw suspects that Iran’s unpopular government – under supreme leader Ali Khamenei, president Ebrahim Raisi and Revolutionary Guard commander Hossein Salami – has inflated its role in the Gaza crisis to try and bolster support at home.
“Khamenei and Raisi have got 20 per cent support amongst the population at the very best, with 75 per cent actively hostile. That’s why flexing their muscles internationally makes sense from their point of view. It’s the old story: if you’re weak internally, start a war.”
This may backfire on them: many analysts think the Iranian people have become apathetic over Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories while they’re so angry at their oppressive government.
Nevertheless, Straw is troubled by Tehran’s alliance with Moscow. “There’s a deep, historic enmity between the two countries – but of late, Russia has been the big brother over Iran’s shoulder. On the basis of having mutual enemies, they have been collaborating quite a lot – as they have with China.”
Fears of what some commentators term a new “axis of evil”, deepening another volatile Cold War, are growing. Ukraine has already paid the price, with Russia using hundreds of Iranian-built “suicide drones” to civilian targets during Putin’s invasion, leading to more US sanctions this week.
For some time, diplomats have been wary of Iran moving closer to having the ability to develop nuclear weapons, after Donald Trump’s destruction of a carefully negotiated 2015 deal. The UK’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dame Barbara Woodward, told i earlier this year that the issue was “very much at the top of our agenda here”.
The country’s security services are another of its “tentacles”. A former MI6 intelligence officer, Matthew Dunn, spoke out this week about Iranian hit squads, which he says are threatening to kidnap, torture and kill expatriates in the UK and elsewhere if they speak out against the state’s hardline Islamic regime.
This fits with reports of staff from the BBC’s Persian language team being harassed in London. MI5 director-general Ken McCallum said on Tuesday that “the last 18 months or so have been a particularly intensive phase of Iran-generated threat on UK soil”. The Gaza crisis may cause it to shift its targets, he warned.
Prominent members of the UK’s Jewish community are worried. i reported in March how one religious leader was warned by counter-terror police of an alleged plot to kill him.
Overall, the situation is so volatile that perhaps the biggest risk comes not from what Iran intends to do over Gaza, but from what might happen if an accident happens, or if its agents or military make a miscalculation.
“Iran constantly likes to push the boundaries,” says Ansari. “The danger for you and me and everyone else is if they cross the boundaries, and then we’re forced to take action against them. The question is: when will the Americans and the Europeans and others decide that enough is enough and show them where the boundaries are?”
Source » inews