Policymakers in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East are rightly focused on where the current crisis in Gaza is headed. The humanitarian disaster hovering over the region since Hamas’ October 7 attacks on Israel has resulted in countless lives lost and now threatens regional and global security. Among many of the issues occupying policymakers is the concern that new fronts in the war will open, potentially involving the West Bank, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and even Iran.
But policymakers need to think even further ahead about the fact that the Middle East will, in some ways, be a different region when the fighting in Gaza winds down. Two significant questions will shape whether the region is less or more secure than before: how to resurrect deterrence and hence maintain stability among key regional actors, and what to do with the progress made prior to October 7 toward normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and between Saudi Arabia and Israel. In many ways, these two issues are intimately related, with deterrence established through military buildups sufficient to temper enemy plans and normalization agreements created through diplomacy, which add a layer of political reassurance that pure military deterrence fails to provide.
The Risk of Failed Deterrence
The race to reestablish deterrence after the Gaza war could create a dangerous threat to regional stability. Before the October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, an uneasy equilibrium had settled over the Middle East. The belief was that a web of deterrence kept direct hostilities between states and even non-states to a minimum and that, instead, the conflict played out indirectly through proxy wars inside the broken states of Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Israeli leaders calculated that their overwhelming military strength deterred Hezbollah despite the group’s massive arsenal of missiles aimed at major Israeli cities. Hezbollah believed Israel was similarly deterred by the specter of these missiles and the risk of a broader conflict.
Israel also learned to accept the dangers posed by Hamas on the belief that the leadership in Gaza didn’t really want an all-out war. Jerusalem also believed that its nuclear weaponry and superior military would deter Tehran, and Iran surmised its network of militias strewn across the region would dissuade Israel and the United States from attacking. While leaders in each of these cases knew their enemies possessed the capability to inflict considerable harm, they believed that deterrence disincentivized the use of that capacity.
The attacks of October 7 represented a collapse of deterrence for Israel and possibly beyond. When the fighting stops, all protagonists will struggle to revise their security doctrines, reestablish deterrence, and communicate redlines to friends and foes. Until a new balance of deterrence is established, the danger of regional conflict will remain high.
The risk is exceptionally high with Israel and Iran, given Tehran’s ties to Hamas. Depending on the degree of success in meeting its goals in Gaza, Israel will be driven to double down hard on its efforts to fortify deterrence vis-à-vis Iran and Hezbollah. After Israel’s stunning failure to properly detect or interpret Hamas’s intentions prior to October 7, the risk is that Israeli leaders believe deterrence can’t be ensured against Hezbollah without inflicting punishing damage on the group’s assets in Lebanon. This will be particularly true if the skirmishes on the Lebanese border that broke out after October 7 persist. And if Hezbollah believes that after Gaza, Israel intends to turn its military machine against it, there is also a risk of preemptive actions on its part.
The danger is that both parties believe preemption is a less risky path than restraint. Concerns that an angry, vengeful Israel could become more aggressive might give Iran an added incentive to race toward building a nuclear weapon. Also, domestic politics can enter the picture here. It doesn’t require much of an imagination stretch to think that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could stoke further regional tensions with Iran to cling to power or stay out of prison.
But even without any intentional provocation, a regional deterrence crisis post-Gaza could lead to accidental escalation. Any actors could launch limited kinetic actions as probes to test their adversaries’ redlines and deterrence systems. The risk is that these probes get misconstrued or inadvertently cross the redlines of the other actors.
The Opportunity for Diplomacy
The dangers of collapsed deterrence could be mitigated through diplomatic initiatives already afoot before October 7, namely those between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Iran and Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic relations this year after a seven-year hiatus. Because Iran supports Hamas, there may be pressure from Israel and the United States on Saudi Arabia to walk back its normalization process with Tehran. This would be a mistake, given that the normalization process with Riyadh could compel Iran to make difficult decisions about its strategic direction after the Gaza conflict.
On the one hand, Iran will feel pressure to preserve its reputation as head of the “axis of resistance” against the United States and its regional allies. Despite a possible total or partial defeat of Hamas by Israel by the end of the Gaza war, Iran will likely believe that what it gained from the Gaza conflict is an affirmation of its message about the plight of the Palestinians and a more isolated Israel. Also, a dismantled or weakened Hamas could incentivize Iran to double down on its support for other militias in its regional portfolio, such as Hezbollah, the Houthis, and related groups in Syria and Iraq.
But normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt could create countervailing pressure. Tehran will require circumspection in managing its “axis of resistance,” lest it risk undermining the headway it made in repairing relations with these two Arab countries. With no real prospects for improving relations with Washington and perhaps a more hostile United States and Israel after Gaza, improved relations with Riyadh and Cairo give Iran some comfort that these two U.S. allies will be reluctant to do Washington’s bidding as part of an anti-Iran front.
Prior to October 7, Iran could more efficiently manage the tensions between its leadership of “the resistance front” and its rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, arguing these two tracks were part of a single strategy. After the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and imposed the “maximum pressure” policy, Iran could claim that its “axis of resistance” was a defensive arrangement and that there wasn’t any inconsistency between it and Tehran’s efforts to repair relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
But the attacks of October 7 blew a hole in the notion that the resistance front was defensive. Even though there is no evidence suggesting Iran was directly complicit in the attacks on Israel, through Israeli and some American eyes, it was Iran’s axis of resistance that waged war on Israel. Fear that Israel could lash out at Iran or its proxies could subtly shift Tehran’s strategy more in the direction of building on its diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. It would be foolhardy to think that Iran would give up its support for Hezbollah, Hamas (if it still is intact), and the Houthis. But it isn’t implausible to suggest that Iran could rebalance its foreign policy, maintain its proxies while imposing some constraints on their activities and scope, and prioritize its regional rapprochement efforts. We saw a hint of this rebalancing during Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi’s visit on November 11 to Saudi Arabia. Raisi’s arrival photo symbolized Iran’s efforts to reconcile the two strands of its approach. He was seen shaking hands with Saudi officials in Riyadh for the first time since normalization while donning the Palestinian keffiyeh as a symbol of resistance. Also, although Raisi opposed language about a two-state solution at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit in Riyadh, he didn’t try to scuttle the event either.
How this normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran plays out could depend on the United States. Treating Saudi normalization with Iran as incompatible with U.S. interests would be an error for Washington. Having Iran feeling squeezed between the competing priorities of resistance to the United States and normalization with Saudi Arabia could serve U.S. interests and advance regional stability. If relations with Riyadh get Tehran to merely refrain from actively opposing diplomatic efforts toward a two-state solution, this could be a win.
The other normalization agreement the United States will eventually try to revitalize is between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But this time, Washington needs to support a Saudi position conditioning normalization on serious concessions from Israel toward enabling a two-state solution as part of an overall Israel-Arab peace opening. While progress toward creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel will be politically and logistically implausible in the short term, Saudi Arabia can use its considerable political and economic leverage to make this a more probable longer-term reality. Washington should support and encourage such efforts.
One outcome of the fighting in Gaza is clear: an unresolved Palestinian issue will tear at the fabric of the region going forward. If there is no political horizon for Palestinians after the Gaza War, then both the existing Iran-Saudi and prospective Israeli-Saudi normalization initiatives will be at risk. Saudi Arabia could be the regional linchpin for a two-state solution. Deft diplomacy by Riyadh holds out the possibility of applying pressure on both Iran and Israel, using the leverage created by the prospects for further normalization to advance progress toward a two-state solution. In addition to helping support peace between Israel and the Palestinians, this could also ensure that diplomacy, and not just deterrence, prevents another war.