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Iran and the Repercussions of the Gaza War

12 Mar 2024
By Professor Pierre Pahlavi
On March 5, 2014, IDF forces intercepted an Iranian weapons shipment to Gaza terrorists. Source: Israel Defense Forces /

As the Israel-Hamas conflict rages in Gaza, Iran has been less forthright in their support for the terrorist group. Israel should also consider the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Although the full consequences of the 7 October attacks are yet to be seen, there’s already a heated debate on their potential impact on Iran. Some argue that Tehran stands to gain most, possibly derailing Israeli-Arab reconciliation and bolstering its image as a Palestinian champion. Others, however, argue that Iran has everything to lose from an open crisis with Israel, capable of destabilising the Middle East, even leading to regional escalation, which could weaken the Iranian regime itself. Beyond the degree of involvement of the Iranian regime in the “Al-Aqsa Deluge” operation, it is pertinent to ask the following questions: to what extent do Iran’s Mullahs and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have an interest in this surge of violence in the Middle East, and what could be its short, medium, and longer-term consequences for the regime?

Positing that Tehran is the net beneficiary of the Gaza War, many analysts argue that Iranian strategists have achieved a masterstroke – a “geopolitical master class,” to borrow the words of a Western diplomat: “Without being directly involved, the Iranians have managed to challenge the normalisation process between Israel and Saudi Arabia, to reignite anti-Semitism in the world, and to present themselves as the true leaders of the Axis of Resistance.” The day after the 7 October attacks, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that Iranian encouragement for the outbreak of hostilities between the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and the Palestinian movement, whether direct or indirect, was motivated by a desire to disrupt the diplomatic rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf countries.

Analysts agree that Hamas, and the Iranian regime, had a common interest in torpedoing the extension of the Abraham Accords. For Hamas’ political leader Ismail Haniyeh, the progress made in this direction through US diplomacy risked leading to the establishment of peaceful coexistence between Israel and the Gulf monarchies – synonymous with a marginalisation of the Palestinian cause. For the Islamic Republic of Iran, a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement could ultimately produce an anti-Iran regional bloc. As a French diplomat pointed out, Tehran had “therefore a double interest in derailing this rapprochement,” which could lead to its geopolitical isolation in the Middle East.

In the immediate future, the gamble appears to have been successful. The renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict has put a damper on the Abraham Accords. The IDF’s military intervention in Gaza, resulting in civilian casualties and widespread destruction, has caused significant discomfort in Arab capitals, forcing them to distance themselves from the Netanyahu government – even though it remains uncertain whether this distancing will be prolonged or temporary. Moreover, the severity of the Israeli operation, and its resulting humanitarian crisis, has tarnished its reputation both regionally and internationally. This in turn has bolstered the Islamic Republic’s image as a champion of the Arab street, further solidifying its position as the sole state actor openly advocating for the Palestinian cause.

In addition to putting the Palestinian issue back at the centre of the debate, the 7 October attacks have galvanized the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance” (including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen), while challenging Israel’s purported technological invincibility and military supremacy. Ismail Haniyeh and his Iranian sponsors did not hesitate to denounce the Jewish state as both “thirsty for Palestinian blood,” and “incapable of protecting itself.” Among the geopolitical fallout is the acceleration of both de-Americanisation and de-Westernisation of the Middle East.

In the longer term: a Pyrrhic victory?

Without denying these immediate gains, some observers argue that Iran could, in the long run, pay the price for the extremism of some of its proxies, starting with Hamas and the Houthis of Yemen. Adopting this perspective, Frédéric Encel believes that Tehran could, in its best-case scenario, have won a temporary victory but be faced with a harbinger of future setbacks: “some of the most pragmatic leaders of the Islamic Republic,” he emphasises, “are extremely annoyed […], depending on the result of the Israeli response, Iran’s ‘success’ could turn into a geopolitical ‘defeat’.”

Concretely, Israeli-Western reprisals can harm Iranian interests by weakening the system of proxy actors patiently built over the last four decades. Iran could pay the price for a destruction of Hamas, which would begin a dismantling and a notable weakening of Iran’s forward defence structure. According to this logic, Iran could suffer from a disorganisation of other proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. Taking these out of the game, even if only temporarily, would disrupt Tehran’s strategic system of pressure against Israel, based on four simultaneous fronts: Gaza, Lebanon, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank.

Beyond the Gaza Strip and the Levant, Iran might be forced to distance itself from the hard-line stances of some of its non-state allies. Since 7 October, these “Axis” actors, whether the Houthis of Yemen or the Islamic Resistance units in Iraq, indulged in an escalation of violence that the Iranians only followed in a very pusillanimous manner. Tehran has shown great restraint in the face of Israeli and American strikes in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. While President Ebrahim Raisi assured that “the continuation of such terrorist and criminal acts […] would not go unanswered,” in fact, Iran was limiting its actions to its immediate periphery – to its Syrian, Iraqi, and Pakistani borders – without ever engaging directly alongside its partners.

The consequences of this relative restraint could prove disastrous for Iran, despite its insistence on drawing red lines, they have been consistently disregarded without eliciting significant reactions. In fact, the Islamic regime is rhetorically audible but almost invisible on the battlefield. When Iranian leaders speak out, it is to reiterate their refusal to be directly involved in an open conflict with the Israelis and the Americans. So much so that some Iranian ultraconservatives are worried: “we are the big losers of the crisis, we are exposing our weaknesses.” The limited strikes in Kurdistan and Baluchistan, intended to demonstrate Tehran’s military capabilities, are insufficient to conceal the Iranian regime’s reluctance to engage in escalation.

The Islamic Republic has no appetite for friction, even of low intensity, which could lead to direct conflict with its adversaries after all. A regional conflagration would probably not only damage its network of influence but also weaken the Islamic regime itself, to the point of even calling its very existence into question. Such risks, of which the Iranian leaders are perfectly aware, explain their restrained involvement.

Similar to the Balkans in the early 20th century, the Middle East is a volatile region where alliances and miscalculation could potentially trigger a global conflict. However, all the parties involved understand the risks of direct confrontation and the devastating consequences it could entail. Thus far, Iran has avoided direct conflict, resorting instead to proxies and indirect tactics. Despite bellicose rhetoric, Iranians, Israelis, and Westerners are reluctant to engage in a conflict that might escalate into a Third World War.

By urging the United States and Israel to reinvigorate a strategy of “maximum pressure,” aimed at undermining the Iranian regime by dismantling its proxy network, the Gaza conflict might, however, trigger a hitherto overlooked consequence: it could compel Tehran to focus inward and pursue alternative measures to ensure the regime survival. Iranians are strategising with a wider perspective, foreseeing increased Israeli aggression beyond the Gaza conflict, and thus gearing up for a potential direct confrontation. Some suggest that if Israel persists in degrading Iran’s regional proxies, Iran could be pushed to compensate for by developing its nuclear deterrent. In such a scenario, Israel would trade the relatively controllable threat posed by non-state actors, such as Hamas, for a much more serious menace, that of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Pierre Pahlavi is a full professor at the Royal Military College of Canada in the Department of Defence Studies, co-located with the Canadian Forces College, Canada’s Staff and War College.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.