Iran and Gaza Escalation

Iran and Gaza Escalation

To mitigate the risks of a wider war, all parties involved should commit to continuous dialogue to increase the prospects of de-escalation.

The ongoing fighting in Gaza presents a significant risk for expansion into a broader war. Although Iran may or may not have orchestrated the initial Hamas terrorist attack and isn’t directly involved in the fighting, Tehran has a significant role in this conflict and a deep influence over its escalation potential.

On October 7, Israel faced one of its most significant security setbacks ever, intensifying the trust deficit between the government and its divided public. Later, other “axis of resistance” elements joined the fighting while demonstrating their expanding challenge to the region. The unprecedented launch of dozens of drones, missiles, and cruise missiles from Yemen to Israel by the Houthi rebels marks a concerning development. Although these attacks were intercepted by the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia or failed to reach their targets, they broadened the rebels’ usual range of action.

Furthermore, the ongoing border skirmishes between Israel and Hezbollah, the first since 2006, have required Israel to divide its attention across multiple fronts. Militias in Iraq have targeted American forces in the region, and like previous rounds of fighting in Gaza, there is a possibility they will launch explosive drones toward Israel.

Even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might have contributed to the fighting by allowing a drone attack from his territory toward Eilat on November 9.

These developments underscore Iran’s regional strategy, which aims to create a multi-front challenge that encircles Israel, all while maintaining an operational buffer to reduce the risk of spillover into Iranian territory. These developments also reflect Iran’s progress in establishing and sustaining a complex regional network that works toward common objectives based on shared interests.

While Iran doesn’t exert direct control over its allies or dictate their actions, its influence and goals in the current conflict are pivotal in determining whether it escalates into a regional war. Within the Iranian regime, there may be hawkish voices advocating for seizing the opportunity to intensify the fight with Israel, either bringing it closer to the brink or enhancing regional deterrence. Iran’s growing self-confidence, partly due to political support from China and Russia, Israel’s perceived reluctance to engage in a multi-front campaign, and the possible economic gain through conflict and higher oil prices could encourage such voices. 

Nevertheless, the regime is likely to favor a cautious approach that avoids endangering Hezbollah to keep it as a tool in a future conflict, especially given the severe economic crisis in Lebanon. Iran is also likely to avoid provoking Israel into a corner that might prompt countermeasures against Iran or draw greater American involvement in the region.

In this context, there have been assertions by senior figures such as Javad Zarif, claiming that the Israeli invasion of Gaza was a ploy to entangle Iran in the conflict—and, therefore, should be avoided.

This view might be influenced by recent robust power projection efforts by the United States, including the deployment of aircraft carriers, a submarine, and B-1 bombers in the region, airstrikes against militia targets, arming Israel, and explicit warnings against Iran.

Nevertheless, it also helps the Iranian regime improve its image by portraying itself as a regional patron equivalent to the United States, thereby downgrading Israel’s position to the subordinate level of  U.S. proxy.

The Iranian approach in this regard is rooted in a long-term strategic perspective, viewing conflict rounds as part of a campaign that requires patience to achieve regional goals such as weakening Israel, projecting power, and disrupting political competition. This approach is also influenced by the Iranian leader’s preference for lengthy processes and risk aversion.

Even though Iran probably would have been satisfied if the crisis stopped now, as the “axis of resistance” has already achieved many of its goals, Tehran is likely to profit even if fighting keeps on, primarily in Gaza. This scenario could undermine negotiation efforts in the Palestinian and Saudi contexts and divert international attention away from Iran, serving its interests in the domestic domain and possibly in the nuclear context.

Tehran may face a dilemma if Hamas, as the full-fighting “axis of resistance” party, faces an existential threat from Israel. However, Hamas has never been Iran’s primary ally, and their interests don’t entirely align. This raises doubts whether Iran would risk a significant escalation to come to the organization’s aid.

Regardless of the parties’ intentions, the ongoing conflict, shrouded in the fog of war, may escalate inadvertently due to high self-confidence among various elements in the “axis of resistance” or an increase in the narrative of an existential threat on Israel’s part. This presents a genuine risk of a regional war with catastrophic consequences, exacerbating the already complex geopolitical situation, which harbors a growing fear of a global conflict potentially involving nuclear weapons.

To mitigate the risks, all regional nations and international players should engage in continuous dialogue with the involved and fighting parties. Such talks should establish political, economic, and military disincentives for further escalation while fostering opportunities for de-escalation. Open discussions can, at least, help temper irresponsible actions and potentially pave the way for political processes at the end of this crisis—the only sustainable course of action. 

Now, more than ever is a crucial time for preparing negotiations for additional agreements in the Middle East, including the pact between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Boycotting talks, postponing discussions to an uncertain future, or unilaterally criticizing parties involved only diminishes the prospects of heeding and incorporating moderate voices into the dialogue.

Assaf Zoran is a research fellow with the Project on Managing the Atom and International Security Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is an attorney who has spent 25 years working with policy and operational issues in the Middle East and strategic dialogue with decision-makers in Israel and elsewhere.