By Girish Linganna
On October 15, Iran delivered a strong public ultimatum to its longstanding adversary, Israel, cautioning that if the Israeli assault on Gaza continued, they would be compelled to respond, as stated by their foreign minister. However, a few hours later, Iran’s U.N. mission adopted a more conciliatory stance, assuring the global community that their military forces would only become involved in the conflict if Israel targeted Iranian interests or citizens.
Iran, a longtime supporter of Gaza’s rulers Hamas, finds itself in a quandary or a state of uncertainty, as it tries to manage the spiralling crisis, according to nine Iranian officials with direct knowledge of the thinking within the clerical establishment.
“Clerical establishment” typically refers to the religious leadership or clerics within a particular religious or theocratic system. In the context of Iran, it often alludes to the religious leaders and authorities who hold significant influence and decision-making power in the country, particularly within the framework of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Remaining passive or refraining from involvement in the midst of a full-scale Israeli invasion of Gaza would deal a substantial blow to Iran’s long-standing strategy for regional dominance, a plan they’ve been pursuing for more than four decades, as stated by individuals who, for security reasons, prefer to keep their identities concealed in Tehran.
However, a significant assault on a U.S.-supported Israel could result in severe consequences for Iran, potentially stirring public outrage against the religious leadership in a nation already grappling with economic difficulties. These insights were provided by officials who discussed the different considerations in terms of military, diplomatic, and internal matters currently under evaluation by the establishment.
According to information from three security officials, Iran’s highest-ranking authorities have reportedly come to an agreement, at least for the time being. This agreement involves authorizing limited cross-border operations by its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, against Israeli military objectives located over 200 km away from Gaza. It also includes permitting low-intensity assaults on U.S. targets by other allied factions in the area. The primary objective is to avert any significant escalation that might drag Iran directly into the conflict.
Vahid Jalalzadeh, the head of parliament’s National Security Committee, mentioned on Wednesday, the 18th October, according to Iranian state media, that they are in communication with their allies, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah. These groups have indicated that they do not anticipate Iran to engage in military operations.
The Iranian foreign ministry did not provide a response to an inquiry regarding the nation’s reaction to the developing crisis. Similarly, Israeli military authorities chose not to make any comments on the matter.
The loss of the power base that Hamas and its allied group, Islamic Jihad, have built over three decades in the Palestinian enclave would disrupt Iran’s plans. Iran has established a network of armed proxy groups across the Middle East, ranging from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthis in Yemen, according to the sources.
If Iran remains passive on the battlefield, it may be seen as a display of vulnerability by its proxy forces, which have served as Tehran’s primary means of exerting influence in the region for many years, as indicated by three officials. This passivity could also tarnish Iran’s reputation, as the country has historically supported the Palestinian cause against Israel, a nation it does not acknowledge and portrays as a malevolent occupier.
Iran is grappling with the dilemma of deciding whether to deploy Hezbollah to protect their influence in the Gaza Strip or potentially relinquish or maybe they are going to let go of this arm and give it up,,” explained Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official and a negotiator during the first and second intifadas.”This is the critical juncture Iran finds itself in, as they carefully weigh their risks.”
Iran’s strategic objectives are at odds with immediate military considerations. In response to a devastating attack by Hamas on October 7, which resulted in the death of 1,400 Israelis, Israel, a significant military power, launched an aerial campaign on Gaza, resulting in the loss of at least 4,300 lives.
Israel is widely believed to possess its own nuclear arsenal, although it neither confirms nor denies this, and it enjoys the support of the United States. The U.S. has deployed two aircraft carriers and fighter jets to the eastern Mediterranean, in part as a signal to Iran.
The primary concern for Iran’s top leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the survival of the Islamic Republic, as explained by a senior Iranian diplomat. This is why Iranian authorities have employed strong language against Israel in response to the attack, but they have refrained from direct military engagement, at least for the time being.
Since October 7, Hezbollah has engaged in skirmishes with Israeli forces along the Lebanon-Israel border, resulting in the deaths of 14 of the group’s fighters. Two sources familiar with Hezbollah’s strategy indicated that this low-level conflict aims to keep Israeli forces occupied without opening a significant new front, with one describing it as “small-scale conflicts.”
Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who is known for making threats against Israel in his speeches, has not made a public statement since the crisis began. Three senior Israeli security sources and a Western security source, according to Reuters, have conveyed that Israel does not seek a direct confrontation with Tehran. While it’s acknowledged that the Iranians trained and armed Hamas, there’s no indication that they had prior knowledge of the October 7 attack.
Supreme Leader Khamenei has denied Iran’s involvement in the attack, although he praised the damage inflicted on Israel. According to Israeli and Western security sources, Israel’s stance is that it would initiate an attack on Iran only in the event of a direct assault by Iranian forces from Iran. However, it was emphasized that the situation remains unpredictable, and a significant assault on Israel from Hezbollah or Iranian proxies in Syria or Iraq resulting in substantial casualties could alter this calculation. One of the Israeli sources noted that a miscalculation by Iran or one of its affiliated groups in estimating the scope of a proxy attack might prompt a change in Israel’s approach.
U.S. officials have been explicit in their objective to prevent the escalation of the conflict and discourage any attacks on American interests while maintaining a range of options for the U.S.
On his return from a visit to Israel on Wednesday, President Joe Biden straightforwardly refuted a report from Israeli media suggesting that his aides had conveyed to Israel that if Hezbollah initiated a war, the U.S. military would join Israel in combatting the group. “Not true,” Biden affirmed to reporters during a refuelling stop at Germany’s Ramstein Air Base about the Israeli report.
White House national security council spokesman John Kirby reiterated that Washington’s goal is to contain the conflict, emphasizing that there is no intention to deploy U.S. troops into combat.
Jon Alterman, a former State Department official who currently heads the Middle East program at the CSIS think-tank in Washington, noted that Iranian leaders might face pressure to provide tangible support for Hamas, not just through rhetoric. He also cautioned about the potential for events to spiral out of control. He explained that once you enter this setting, events occur, resulting in unintended repercussions. “Everyone is highly anxious.”
The crisis has additionally heightened instability in financial markets both in the United States and worldwide, increasing the desire for “safe-haven” assets such as gold, U.S. government bonds, and the Swiss franc. The market’s response has remained relatively subdued up to this point, but certain investors caution that it could undergo a significant shift if the Gaza conflict were to escalate into a more extensive regional confrontation.
The situation has become more complex for Iranian leaders, as a reconciliation brokered by China between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia could jeopardize the “fragile progress,” according to a former high-ranking official with close ties to Iran’s decision-makers. Simultaneously, the Iranian populace may influence the unfolding events throughout the region.
As Iran’s leadership grapples with mounting domestic dissent stemming from economic challenges and social restrictions, they cannot afford direct involvement in the conflict. This unrest has persisted for months, triggered by the death of a young woman in custody last year and the government’s ongoing crackdown on dissent.
The economic difficulties, primarily attributed to severe U.S. sanctions and poor governance, have prompted numerous Iranians to voice their discontent with the longstanding strategy of allocating funds to support the Islamic Republic’s influence in the Middle East through proxies.
The slogan “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran” has become a recurring chant in anti-government protests within Iran over the years. It underscores the frustration of the populace regarding the government’s distribution of resources. The nuanced stance of Iran underscores the need for a careful equilibrium between its regional concerns and domestic stability, as noted by a former senior Iranian official. (IPA Service)