Few conflicts involve just two actors, and the Israel-Hamas war is no exception. From Iran and its proxies to the Palestinians’ Arab backers, as well as Turkey, governments throughout the Middle East are carefully calculating how to respond to the conflict.
In this Big Question, we ask Comfort Ero, Negar Mortazavi, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, and Sinan Ülgen to weigh in on the incentives and constraints shaping regional dynamics since October 7.
There is a grave risk that the war could spread beyond Gaza. Three potential flash points deserve particular attention. First, the Lebanese Shia militia and political party Hezbollah, which is closely aligned with Iran, could end up facing off with Israel.
Hezbollah is the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon, and it is already clashing with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) along the countries’ shared border. So far, the exchanges appear to be calibrated to manage the risk of escalation. But if the tit-for-tat strikes result in significant civilian casualties, the situation could spiral out of control, with a Hezbollah-Israel war potentially pulling in Iran and the United States.
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Second, strikes by other Iranian-backed groups against US forces in Syria and Iraq could escalate into a war that again pits Iran and the US against each other. Groups known collectively as the Islamic Resistance (Muqawama Islamiya) have claimed responsibility for drone and rocket attacks on bases in Iraq where US forces are stationed.
On October 26 and November 8, the US struck back at facilities in Syria. Again, neither side appears to want escalation, but significant casualties could change the equation and raise the risk of regional war. Third, another battlefront could open in Israeli-occupied territory.
The trigger would be continued attacks by Jewish settlers in the West Bank, who are being given increasingly free rein by the Israeli government. The most obvious way to reduce the likelihood of a wider war is to achieve de-escalation in Gaza. For now, neither Israel nor Hamas appears likely to agree to a permanent ceasefire.
But agreement by Hamas to release some Israeli hostages in exchange for a pause in the fighting might at least buy some time for diplomacy. There is no good answer to the question of what to do about Hamas in the longer term. It is far from clear that Israel’s operations can destroy the group’s military capabilities, and the cost in civilian lives is already too high.
Levelling swaths of the Gaza Strip, killing thousands – or even tens of thousands – of innocent Palestinians, and risking regional war will not make Israel safer in the long run.
According to Negar Mortazavi
Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza, have rapidly and dramatically shifted regional dynamics across the Middle East. The conflict has already claimed more than 11,000 lives on both sides, nearly half of them children, and the war could easily spread to other countries and pull in various state and non-state actors in the region.
The war has also put the Abraham Accords on ice at a critical moment, when the US was trying to broker diplomatic normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The ongoing war has widened the gap between Arab monarchs and the wider Arab populations, placing the future of the entire Arab-Israeli reconciliation project in doubt. As a major regional player, Iran’s position in this new environment is multi-layered.
While Iran’s government is a long-time supporter of Hamas, and Iranian leaders have praised the group’s October 7 attack, the Islamic Republic has no interest in getting pulled into a devastating war in the Middle East. And it certainly is not interested in a direct confrontation with the US, Israel’s strongest ally.
Iran is thus maneuvering carefully on both the military and diplomatic fronts. And the militia groups it backs in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, despite having recently had skirmishes with Israel, appear to be calibrating their actions to avoid opening new fronts and turning the conflict into a full-blown regional war.
Their cautious approach has been reflected in official statements by Iranian leaders and echoed again in last week’s speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Although Iran and the US do not want a major war in the Middle East, however, developments on the ground have the potential to escalate quickly, making the unthinkable unavoidable.
Another writer DJAVAD SALEHI-ISFAHANI
The most likely development that would expand the conflict beyond Gaza would be a decision by Iran that Hezbollah should enter the war.
The most convincing indication that this is quite unlikely came in Nasrallah’s November 3 speech, in which he praised Hamas for its ability to confront Israel on its own, and applauded Hezbollah for having distracted Israel from its Gaza campaign by engaging the IDF in southern Lebanon.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has also denied involvement in planning the Hamas attack, though Iranian leaders are happy to take credit for training and supplying arms to Hamas fighters. There are good reasons to believe that Iran has decided not to enter the conflict directly. For starters, the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance” (which includes Hezbollah and Syria) is a critical part of Iran’s long game, and must be preserved.
Moreover, Iran believes that the conflict – especially Israel’s brutal response to the Hamas attack, and America’s support for it – has vindicated its strategic opposition to Israel and the US in the eyes of Muslim people, and embarrassed the Arab leaders who had allowed the US to lead them toward normalizing ties with Israel.
At the same time, Iran does not want to jeopardize its own recent progress in repairing relations with Arab countries, exemplified by the China-brokered rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, or damage its deepening ties with Russia and China. (At the start of 2024, Iran, along with five other countries, will join the BRICS grouping, comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.) If Iran decided to expand the war, while its new friends attempt to contain it, its efforts to escape international isolation could be wasted.
Finally, staying out of the war is essential for the regime’s domestic agenda. Since President Ebrahim Raisi’s election two years ago, his conservative cohort has been struggling to fulfil its promise to fix the economy. Despite nearly 9% GDP growth and significant improvements in incomes, inflation is running at 30%, and the country is still weighed down by international sanctions.
The recent increase in oil exports, which fueled the modest recovery, may not last if the US or the United Nations tighten sanctions. Iran’s conservative leaders need sustained robust growth to placate a young, restive population. A regional war is not the way to bring it about.
There are plenty of reasons to think that the war will spread, from the scale of the human tragedy unfolding in Gaza to the volatility of regional relations to the capabilities of militant groups like Hezbollah.
But such an escalation has yet to materialize. This might be partly because the US has been working hard to limit the disruption to the regional order, and Turkey has directly engaged with the Iranian leadership to pre-empt regional escalation. But even more important than these diplomatic initiatives have been the calculations in Gaza, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Tehran, and beyond.
Despite having conflicting objectives, relevant state and non-state actors tend to believe that escalation would not serve their national interests, though the current non-stable equilibrium can end abruptly.
This fragility reflects institutional failure. In contrast to other regions, the Middle East has no multilateral security architecture or institution that can contain or manage crises.
The region needs its own version of the Helsinki Accords during the Cold War, under which the Soviet and Western blocs officially accepted the post-World War II status quo in Europe. Such an arrangement could, among other things, offer Palestine a multilateral guarantee, as Turkey has advocated.
Without such an arrangement, the Middle East depends significantly on external actors like the US to manage regional crises, leaving it vulnerable to the vagaries of these actors’ politics and national interests. Ultimately, the goal should be the creation of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in the Middle East.
The Israel-Hamas war – which raises the very real risk of a catastrophic regional conflagration – is all the impetus such an effort should need.