Avi Davidi

Iran and Hezbollah avoid direct confrontation with the Israeli-US axis

As of now, neither Iran nor Hezbollah display an inclination for a direct conflict with Israel, supported by the US. Positioned on Israel’s northern border, Hezbollah serves as a significant deterrent for Iran, especially in the event of heightened tensions arising from potential Israeli actions against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Given the waning influence of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Iran is unlikely to hastily deploy Hezbollah. Instead, Iran may utilize its allies in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, or incite global opposition against Israel. This includes advocating for attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets, particularly as tensions escalate in the Gaza Strip.

The longstanding rivalry between Iran and Israel has evolved over decades, with Iran providing substantial financial and military support to anti-Israel groups. Iran possesses missiles capable of reaching Israel and is augmenting its cyber warfare capabilities, seemingly with assistance from Russia. The crux of their dispute centers around Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Israel has actively sought international opposition to this program, keeping the option of military intervention on the table.

While many agree that Hezbollah has the capacity to launch a major offensive against Israel at any time, their support for Palestinian groups has largely remained rhetorical, with limited concrete actions taken so far.

Iran’s media narrative underscores its allegiance to the Palestinian cause, depicting Israel as the antagonist. Tehran contends that US support for Israel, especially during periods of perceived Israeli military weakness, is a clear indication of deep-seated American involvement. Following President Biden’s cautious stance, Iran’s narrative shifted to emphasize Hamas’s autonomy in decision-making, while maintaining its anti-Israel stance and heightening criticism of the US.

The unwavering US support for Israel’s security also likely serves to reinforce American deterrence against Iran’s proxies in the region, particularly in Iraq and Syria, who pose a constant threat to US forces. If the US-Israeli alliance were to retaliate against Hezbollah in Lebanon, it would necessitate the US to uphold its commitment, demonstrating to other proxies in the region the consequences of not altering their actions. The Iran-Hezbollah alliance is likely weighing American interests in this conflict, recognizing the US’s determination to restore its deterrent influence in the region.

This confrontation serves Iran in two ways: solidifying its position as a formidable force against Israel (and by extension, the US), and bolstering domestic allegiance by invoking revolutionary sentiments from 1979. Amid anti-regime protests in the last decade, notably in 2022, this confrontation aids in reaffirming regime legitimacy.

Although Iran may not immediately thrust Hezbollah into this conflict, it aims to exacerbate regional discord and expand the anti-Israeli coalition. Within Israel, Tehran is likely to rally Palestinians in the West Bank and Arab-Israeli citizens. Regionally, proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen may be mobilized, targeting not only Israel but potentially the US.

Furthermore, Iran’s criticism of Muslim nations for not strongly denouncing Israel exposes another facet of its strategy: to obstruct Saudi-Israeli normalization efforts. The timing of Hamas’s attack on Israel, aimed at halting Saudi Arabia’s normalization with Israel, serves as a reminder to the Saudis and the world that peace with Israel hinges on addressing the Palestinian issue and establishing a Palestinian state.

Iran’s opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process, driven by its strategic interests and the potential Israeli-Saudi rapprochement, could also jeopardize these interests significantly. Iran viewed Hamas’s attacks on Israel as the optimal tactic to derail Saudi-Israeli normalization, even at the cost of losing a Sunni militant group like Hamas.

This aversion to Israeli-Saudi closeness is likely shared by another key regional player, Russia, who benefits from the enduring Middle Eastern conflict, engaging most regional actors. Russia’s tolerance of Iran’s military buildup in Syria, while turning a blind eye to Israeli airstrikes on Syrian and Iranian sites, reflects a strategic interest in balancing American influence in the region. Any Saudi-Israel normalization, potentially leading to a broader Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, could jeopardize Russia’s stronghold in the region.

As a chief supporter of Hamas ideologically, militarily, and financially, Iran likely endorsed the group’s planned assault on Israel. Reports suggest that Iran facilitated the training of hundreds of Hamas militants and participated in coordination meetings with Hamas, Hezbollah, and the PIJ, likely also discussing the timing of the assaults.

However, Iran seemingly did not anticipate the success this operation might achieve and evidently lacked a post-attack strategy. This explains why Iranian officials have repeatedly stated post-conflict that subsequent steps would depend on the Israeli response, mostly referring to potential ground operations.

Some Israeli strategists propose that with strong US support, now might be an opportune moment to target Hezbollah, despite a potential temporary escalation of conflict. While this could weaken Hezbollah, the repercussions for Lebanon could be devastating, possibly enabling Iran to fill the ensuing power vacuum, much like it did in Iraq and Syria. This scenario could leave Israel encircled by yet another Iran-influenced foe.

About the Author
Dr. Avi Davidi is the editor of the Times of Israel Persian edition.