Iran balancing deterrence and the risk of escalation

Iran balancing deterrence and the risk of escalation

An Israeli tank firing towards the Palestinian territory amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas.
An Israeli tank firing towards the Palestinian territory amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas.
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Since Oct. 7, Iran has been torn between its revolutionary ambition to capitalize on the Palestinian issue at a time of military confrontation and the risk of an uncontrolled military escalation. This difficulty explains why Iran is trying to distance itself from any direct implication in the war, while supporting its proxies from the so-called axis of resistance in deterring Israel and the US from extending the conflict. Based on the strategy of forward defense, Iran’s regional policy aims to avoid the weakening of its networks of influence as an unintended consequence of the war between Israel and Hamas.
If the official purpose of Iran’s partnership with nonstate actors in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen is Israel’s elimination, this ideological dimension can be temporarily pushed aside for the sake of more pragmatic objectives, such as the survival of the Iranian state. The objective of the forward defense strategy is to deter the US or Israel from engaging in a military confrontation with Iran. Nevertheless, there is an ideological dimension in the Iranian discourse that is shaping its military approach; this is best seen in the official discourse regarding the “axis of resistance.” This ideological dimension is key to understanding the risk of military escalation based on Iran’s ideological imperatives, which could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy toward a regional confrontation.
The day after Oct. 7, Iranian officials, while reaffirming their support for Palestine, denied the involvement of Iran in this attack. In a speech given two days later at a military academy, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also rejected accusations of Iranian involvement in the preparation of the Hamas attack. He said: “The supporters of the Zionist regime (Israel) and some people in the usurping regime (the US) have been spreading rumors over the past two or three days, including that Iran was behind this action. They are wrong.”
There are several reasons for this extremely cautious attitude of the Iranian head of state, even though it is public knowledge that, for many years, Tehran has defended and supported Hamas in multiple ways, including the supply of arms, transfer of technology, logistics, training and finance. The first reason is obvious, which is not to provide a pretext for Israel or the US to launch military operations against Iran and to drag it into an armed conflict that would endanger the future of the regime.
The second reason is found in the unpopularity of the Iranian support to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Iranian authorities are fully aware that, except among the insiders of the regime, Iranians generally do not support the expansionist regional policy. According to a September 2021 GAMAAN survey, 65 percent of Iranians (literate and aged over 19) disagreed with the slogan “death to Israel,” while about 23 percent supported it. On the other hand, 64 percent approved of the slogan “neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran,” while 24 percent were opposed to it.
In a country where the economic situation is deteriorating further every year, the priority given by the Iranian government to providing financial and military support to nonstate actors outside the country is deeply unpopular. Indeed, the majority of the population considers that these ideological imperatives are pursued to the detriment of the priority that should be given to protecting the standard of living of Iranian society.

The Iranian authorities are fully aware that Iranians generally do not support the expansionist regional policy.

For more than a year, since September 2022, the regime has had to face an unprecedented popular challenge, to which it has, until now, only responded with repression. Moreover, according to a study just published by the World Bank, during a “lost decade” of the Iranian economy between 2011 and 2020, close to 10 million Iranians fell into poverty.
The risk of military escalation is therefore limited by the state of the Iranian economy and the high level of popular discontent regarding Tehran’s official strategy toward the Palestinian issue. Another reason is the geopolitical convergence between Western states and Iran, with the two sides possibly finding common ground on the question of widening the scope of the conflict.
The expansion of the conflict could take one of two different but related routes. On the one hand, it could be the result of a massive intervention by Hezbollah, which has more well-trained men and far greater resources than Hamas. It could open a new front and encircle the Israeli forces. In this case, the US, as it has already indicated, would probably intervene. The other route of a possible extension could be an Israeli attack on Iran, which would in turn push Hezbollah and Tehran’s other regional proxies to intervene.
Such a generalized and uncontrolled conflict would not be in the interest of anyone; either of the West, which is already heavily involved in the war between Russia and Ukraine, or of Iran, which cannot take the risk of being directly involved in an open war while the regime is already weakened internally. The economic cost of the regime’s commitment to Hamas removes the prospect of short-term economic improvement, as shown by the weakening of the national currency against the dollar since the start of the conflict.
Finally, it appears that the risk of unwanted escalation remains. Iran must keep mentioning the threat of escalation to preserve its military and ideological credibility with its proxies in Gaza, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. This explains the mobilization of Iraqi Shiite militias on the Syria-Israel border and the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. On the other hand, Israel appears keen to reestablish a balance of power with the so-called axis of resistance to reduce the likelihood of a future attack within its borders.
This dynamic of escalation could be further fueled by the local agenda of Iranian proxies such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shiite militias and the Houthis. In other words, even if regional and international powers have no interest in an extension of the conflict, local events could have unintended military consequences for the preservation of regional and international stability.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). X: @mohalsulami



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