Does Iran want war with Israel, or is it too big of a bite for Tehran?

Tomáš Iliev

The attack by Palestinian group Hamas on Israel carries the potential to destabilise the Middle East significantly. Specifically, the potential involvement of Iran, which has warned Israel against a ground invasion of Gaza and indicated it could result in opening a new front against the Jewish state, presents a risk. However, Tehran would likely experience more losses than gains by openly and directly engaging in the conflict with Tel Aviv.

The assault by militants from the Palestinian group Hamas on Israel, resulting in over 1,400 casualties, triggered a robust retaliation from the Israeli army. Over the past month, the Gaza Strip has been subjected to extensive airstrikes, causing more than 9,000 fatalities, including civilians. Despite international calls urging Israel to halt or diminish the intensity of the attacks, Tel Aviv persists in its efforts to quell the radical Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip, a commitment highlighted by the recent commencement of a ground offensive.

Israeli combat operations have been condemned by many countries (predominantly Arab states and Russia). Among these opponents of the Israeli response to the attacks from 7.10. the harshest criticism perhaps comes from the regime in Tehran. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that if Israel does not stop the retaliatory attack on the Gaza Strip, Tehran may open other fronts against Israel. However, with these statements, Iran is balancing on thin ice since any wrong-advised escalation poses a significant risk, even for the Islamic Republic of Iran itself.​

Iran has been openly calling for the destruction of Israel for more than four decades. At the same time, Tehran is a direct supporter of various proxy militant groups that are used to destabilise the region and as a tool to threaten Israel. The most influential of the aforementioned proxy organisations are the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas, responsible for recent attacks on Israel. In addition, Hezbollah is currently keeping Israeli armed forces on alert on the northern border, where several incidents have taken place between Hezbollah and the Israeli military. Right after the October attacks by Hamas, Iran declared that it considered them a success in the fight against Israel. Moreover, Iranian officials have said that if a ground offensive is launched in the Gaza Strip, Iran will intervene. Despite Iran’s unceasing resistance and threats to open more fronts in the fight against Israel, it is worth considering whether an open war between Iran and Israel is what Tehran wants to achieve.​

Iran is essentially already fighting Israel – indirectly. Direct involvement in the fighting is very risky for Tehran in the current situation. Iran can threaten Israel with the help of earlier mentioned proxy militias that operate in the Gaza Strip (Hamas), Lebanon (Hezbollah), Syria (the Syrian branch of Hezbollah), Iraq (Katab Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, Haraka Hezbollah, al-Nujaba and others) and Yemen (Houthi movement). Iran-backed militias are currently threatening Israel with rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, while Iranian proxy groups are also attacking US military bases in Iraq and Syria. Rocket attacks by militants from the mentioned countries prove that Iran’s involvement in the war against Israel does not have to be explicitly direct – and thus, Tehran can also threaten Israel indirectly. It is important to remember that Iran has not entered into open war with another state since the Iraq-Iran war that lasted from 1980 to 1988. Iran has long invested in its proxy militias precisely to keep open conflict away from its borders and to have sufficient military force to threaten its enemies or to maintain its influence in the region.

It should also be remembered that Iran could lose a lot by an open war against Israel. Political and religious leaders in Tehran currently have a relatively stable position. A war against Israel could undermine their position, as the Jewish state would be a tough nut to crack for the sizeable Iranian army, primarily if Israel was militarily supported by the US. So, even the leaders in Tehran are probably not interested in an open conflict. It would be too big a political risk for them, with an unclear outcome in advance. The use of proxy militias is an ideal solution for the leaders in Iran in the current situation, by which they will not endanger their positions too much. Still, at the same time, they cannot be criticised for not engaging in the “war” against Israel. The Iranian opposition has already expressed its belief that the reaction to Israel’s attacks in the Gaza Strip should be tougher. However, the extended arm of the militias is currently a convenient form of struggle against Israel for Tehran. Thus, Iran’s goal will not be to attack Israel directly but to allow its allies to threaten Israel and maintain tension in the region.

However, Tehran started a perilous game. Israel gathered a little over 300,000 soldiers to occupy the Gaza Strip or to destroy Hamas. If Hamas is defeated, Iran will likely support Lebanon’s Hezbollah to intensify attacks on Israel. If, after the defeat of Hamas, Tehran decides to attack Israel from the north with the help of Hezbollah, its efforts not to engage directly in open war may not be enough. The Biden administration has made it clear that it will act if Iranian proxy militia attacks on Israel and its troops in the region escalate. That is also why Iran is currently moving on fragile ice. Although it does not want to engage in open war, by involving proxy units in the fight against Israel (and the USA), it has exposed itself to the risk that Tel Aviv and Washington will decide to destroy Iran’s allies in other countries in the region or even carry out preventive attacks against Iran’s military infrastructure. And this is despite the claims of Israeli officials that they want to avoid a war in Lebanon. Such a scenario would weaken Iran’s position – especially its economy, ability to be a real competitor to Saudi Arabia or, in general, a force that can assert its interests in the region. On the other hand, neither Israel nor the US is likely to seek an open war with Tehran, but the situation can very quickly get out of control for both sides and escalate unpredictably. The Middle East is unstable even in times of peace, and the threat of conflict in the region is practically omnipresent.​

Iran still has a chance to avoid the risk of open conflict with Israel and the US. For that, however, he must resign himself to possible efforts to involve Hezbollah or other regional proxy militias in the current conflict. The situation has reached a point where even Tehran’s will to avoid an open war may not be enough, and the strategy of proxy militias, which is originally intended to keep the conflict away from Iran’s borders, may drag Tehran into a war it did not want. The main problem is whether Iran can continue to fully control its allies in the region in a situation where they are highly motivated to intervene against Israel.

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