Iranian leaders have warned the world is closer to a regional war in the Middle East and that Israel has crossed red lines, which, in the words of President Ebrahim Raisi, “may force everyone to take action”.
But Iran is walking a tightrope, keen to avoid a direct confrontation and therefore blurring its red lines to avoid walking into a trap. Instead, it leans on proxy militias around the region from its “axis of resistance” to launch limited strikes aimed at Israel and US military bases in Iraq and Syria.
The use of proxy forces, chief among them Hezbollah in Lebanon but also Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, has been a trademark of Iranian foreign policy. Iran says that while it supports such “resistance forces”, they act independently.
How much autonomy from Iran do the “resistance forces” have in practice?
Emile Hokayem, from the International Institute of Strategic Studies, has made a life’s work tracing the relationship between Iran and its proxies. “This debate will go on for ever, but we have learned quite a lot about how Iran operates with its network of partners,” he said recently. “It empowers, it supports, it guides, but it rarely orders. Westerners have a problem because of how they conceptualise these chains-of-command. Iran’s partners are like junior but trusted brothers in arms. Hamas (and even Hezbollah) do not expect direct and sustained Iranian help during a conflict. Iran’s partners make their decision and seek Iranian consent. I suspect they won’t do something Iran opposes, but they have a large margin of manoeuvre”.
How dependent is Hamas on Iran?
Hamas’s origins lie in the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Muslim group, and those roots have in the past acted as a constraint on the relationship with Iran. The outbreak of the Syria war in 2011, for instance, soured Hamas-Iran relations, since Shia-led Tehran supported the Assad regime and Hamas backed the majority Sunni opposition.
By the time of the 2012 Gaza conflict, Hamas was launching long-range Iranian Fajr-5 rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. After the 2021 Gaza crisis, Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh praised Iran for enabling an intense bombardment, noting that Tehran “did not hold back with money, weapons, and technical support”. Hamas itself has said a general from the leading branch of the Iranian armed forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), had “armed them and guided them”. In January 2021, IRGC aerospace force commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh stated: “All the missiles you might see in Gaza and Lebanon were created with Iran’s support.”
The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Iran of providing 90% of the funds to Hamas.
Is there any evidence that Iran plotted the 7 October attacks?
The US has been assiduous in denying it has intelligence to support this claim. A report by the Wall Street Journal claimed the attacks were planned at meetings in Beirut attended by Hamas and Hezbollah, and that these regular meetings were attended twice by Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. But Iran had itself publicised the minister’s visit to Beirut, and it seems unlikely that Iranian news agencies would make public a meeting at which the attack on Israel was being discussed.
Who are Tehran’s proxies
Hezbollah is often described as the jewel in the crown, with its longtime spiritual leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah has both a political party and a military force that has, over three decades, built a relationship with Iran founded on trust and mutual interest. Its campaign of attacks, bombings, hijackings and direct military confrontations with Israel in the 1990s and 2000s has served Tehran’s strategic objectives in the Middle East without any direct military confrontations with Israel. Since 7 October the rocket fire from southern Lebanon has increased, and Hezbollah fighters have been killed. But Iran would be reluctant to commit to a second war such as the one in 2006 that devastated Lebanon.
At little cost to itself, Iran has been providing weapons to the Shia Houthi rebel forces known as “Ansar Allah” that have for years tied down Saudi Arabia – and to a lesser extent, the United Arab Emirates.
Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, owes his survival to Iran since Tehran supplied the ground forces – as many as 80,000 men, many from Hezbollah – that in conjunction with the Russian air force crushed the uprising. A study by the Joosor Centre showed Iran had 98 military sites in eastern Syria.
The powerful Iran-backed Shia paramilitary Nujaba Movement has criticised the opposition of the Iraqi prime minister, Muhammad Shia’ Al-Sudani, to attacks on US military bases in the country – claiming there “is sufficient legal and religious authorisation for resistance”. But there is a strong constituency inside Iraq – mainly a younger generation – that want Iranian influence to end.
Is the “axis of resistance” interested in all-out war?
It would mark a total break in strategy. Michael Knights from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the two sides have played a deadly game since about 2019 when Iraqi Shia militias were provided with drones by Tehran, so long as they did not kill too many Americans. “What the Iranians have done is perfect a way of prodding the Americans and demonstrating resistance to their regional presence without drawing heavy US military retaliation.” All-out war would end this strategy.
How does Iran think Hamas can win?
The former Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, in a talk last week said Israel had in a sense already lost since the myth of the country’s invincibility has been destroyed. With Iran aligned with the previously divided Arab world, Iran is in a stronger position than before, claiming it is the US and Israel that have lost popular support. Whether it was the intention, or a by-product, the planned normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel is on hold. Zarif thinks Israel’s number one priority now is trying to lure the US into a war against Iran, but the US does not want this.
Is Iran aligned with the powerful monarchies in the Gulf?
Not until the last few weeks. Many of the Sunni Gulf monarchies regard Shia Iran with a mixture of fear and suspicion. They do not share Iran’s desire to expel all US forces from the region. But US efforts to persuade the Gulf Cooperation Council to become a more cohesive security force have failed. Although the Arab states press a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Iran leans towards a single Palestinian state.
Do all Iranians view Israel the same way as the leadership?
No. State-led efforts to wave Palestinian flags at a recent football match led to widespread booing. The exiled son of the toppled Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, caused controversy by travelling to Jerusalem six months ago. That has angered veteran critics of the regime such as Sadegh Zibakalam, who asked why modern opponents of the Iranian regime had changed their attitude to Israel. “Many of the opposition figures, especially the royalists and supporters of His Excellency the Prince, are so influenced by hatred and hatred of the Iranian regime that they do not see the pain and suffering of millions of Palestinians and are more Zionist than Zionists,” he said.
Source » theguardian