Iran’s regional strategy is raising the stakes of Hamas-Israel war

While Iran has denied involvement in the Hamas attacks on Israel, its backing of a regional ‘axis of resistance’ means it will have a major influence on whether the conflict spreads.

Expert comment
Published 10 November 2023 4 minute READ

Since the 7 October attacks on Israel, Iran’s support for Hamas and its broader regional goals – most importantly, its long-standing hostility towards Israel – have come into sharp focus.

Questions over Tehran’s direct role in the attacks were quickly quashed by US and Israeli officials as well as Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah.

These denials are a stark reminder that Iran’s regional strategy and broader objectives are a key destabilizing force that requires a coordinated regional and international response.

Understanding Iran’s often contradictory objectives and the operational capacity of its proxies is crucial to envisaging how the conflict may develop.

Iran-backed groups across the Middle East – what Tehran calls the ‘axis of resistance’ – have threatened and attacked Israel, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and groups in Syria and Iraq, signalling their intent to join a transnational fight and raising the stakes of Israel’s war.

Recognizing the real escalatory risks, US President Joe Biden swiftly deployed two aircraft carriers to the east Mediterranean and special forces to the area, and is responding to attacks against US troops with strikes in Syria. With the possibility of a wider regional conflict looming, understanding Iran’s often contradictory objectives and the operational capacity of its proxies is crucial to envisaging how the conflict may develop.

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Tehran has pivoted towards an ideologically oppositional stance against Israel. Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, saw Israel as an occupying power and colonial project of the West that was undermining Palestinian and broader Muslim sovereignty.

Containing Israel’s regional influence while defending the Palestinians provided Iran with an opening to defend an important Arab and Muslim cause and bid for regional influence over other Arab states.

But Tehran’s regional goals are above all driven by its quest for regime security, shaped by its experience in the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88) when Iran was attacked and invaded by its neighbour, which also received support from regional and Western states. The Islamic Republic survived, but it instilled a paranoid and defensive mindset among Iran’s leadership that has driven its approach and support for proxy groups ever since.

Building its network has taken time, with Iran opportunistically striking deals, providing regular support and developing cross-border networks in weak and fractured states such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories.

Despite Israel’s – and specifically Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s – efforts to contain Iran, Iranian-backed groups are strategically positioned around Israel’s border, on Saudi Arabia’s border and the Bab-el-Mandeb. Israeli efforts to reverse Iran’s advancing nuclear programme have also failed. From Tehran’s perspective, it has succeeded in checkmating regional opponents and protecting its territory.

While attacks have continued at the Lebanon-Israel border, it is unlikely that Iran or Hezbollah will seek to go further at this time.

Iran’s support for groups fighting Israel began during Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon in the early 1980s when Hezbollah, Iran’s closest partner, became the first of many non-state actors to receive Iranian funding, training, capacity-building and weapons.

But over time, Hezbollah ­– like Hamas also considered a terrorist organization by the UK and US ­– also became a political player in Lebanon, a move that would give it greater power, but also required some degree of accountability.

Hezbollah’s military power was put on display during its 2006 war with Israel, showcasing its ability to inflict damage. Above all, Hezbollah’s position on Israel’s border proved that Iran’s strategy could deter attacks in and around Iran. This period was also the apogee of Iran’s and Hezbollah’s soft-power support across the Middle East, which Tehran is eager to recover in the current crisis.

Over time, the Hezbollah-Iran relationship has evolved into more of a partnership. The influential Quds force commander, Qasem Soleimani – assassinated by a US drone strike in 2020 – was the key architect and manager of Iran’s axis of resistance. Since his death, Tehran has come to depend on Hezbollah to manage and coordinate unity among its proxies.

During the Syrian war, Hezbollah played an instrumental role alongside Iran in supporting Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Despite significant criticism – including from Hamas – for their part in suppressing a popular uprising and the decade-long massacre and displacement of Syrians, they succeeded in setting up militias and positioning in the Golan area, now another potential front on Israel’s border.

While Hezbollah remains resilient and the strongest of the Iran-backed groups, it also faces constraints and economic pressure. While attacks have continued at the Lebanon-Israel border, it is unlikely that Iran or Hezbollah will seek to go further at this time.

The great irony is that few Iranians support Tehran’s regional strategy.

Iran’s support for Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups grew speculatively in the 1990s. While Iran’s support for regional groups is often reductively described as a Shia crescent, this over-emphasizes the sectarian nature of their relationship. Instead, the ideological common ground is opposition to Israel and the US.

The axis also has strong roots in Iraq, developed and nurtured since the 2003 US invasion. Iran-backed militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, were behind attacks on US troops but then cooperated with the US in the fight against ISIS. Over time, they too have developed important political and economic bases of power that have given Iran outsized influence within the Iraqi state.

Last but not least are the Houthis in Yemen. The group became a robust force during the 2012 protests that overthrew Yemen’s longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. With low-cost backing and support from Tehran, the Houthis have extended power in north Yemen, taking control of Sanaa and proving resilient against the Saudi-led coalition. While primarily focused on Yemeni interests, the Houthi role in the axis of resistance has been made clear by three thwarted attacks against Israel.

content

The local autonomy of the axis of resistance allows groups to operate as independent actors. Iran does not necessarily green-light or support every military or political act and, in a number of cases, has even cautioned groups against taking action only to be ignored. In the past, this has invited blowback for Iran but has also provided it with a cover of plausible deniability that its leaders have tried to exploit.

Iran’s empowerment of local partners also makes unravelling the axis more of a challenge, despite growing opposition to Iran and its predatory practices in Lebanon and Iraq.

This time though, the plausible deniability card is a harder one for Iran to play as it attempts to reap soft-power gains and showcase Israeli vulnerabilities. As the patron of the resistance axis, Tehran is ultimately trying to exploit sentiment against Israel, while staving off a broader Israeli response.

The great irony is that few Iranians support Tehran’s regional strategy. A common chant at Iranian protests has been ‘not Gaza, not Lebanon, I give my life for Iran’. But growing domestic opposition is not going to be factored into Iran’s foreign and security policy. Iran will continue to channel money and support for its axis of resistance, while playing its cards close to its chest.

A version of this article was originally published in the Independent: Could Iran tip the Middle East into all-out war?