Many observers suggest that an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, in response to the Hamas terrorist attack would inevitably draw Iran and Hezbollah into the conflict. But what if Iran and Hezbollah were actually more likely to sit this one out?
On October 7, Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group, alongside other terrorist group, the Islamic Jihad (PIJ), carried out a coordinated attack against Israel which resulted in the death of around 1,400 Israelis. The vast majority of victims were civilians, subjected to a barrage of rockets and other forms of violence. This unprecedented attack has left Israel in a state of shock but also with the resolve to end Hamas ability to threaten Israel again. In response, Israeli leaders have been planning a major ground incursion into Gaza aimed at eliminating the entire terror infrastructure of Hamas and removing it from power.
This raises the question of whether a potential Israeli large-scale ground invasion of Gaza will trigger a response from Iran and its terror proxy, Hezbollah in Lebanon.
To be sure, a large-scale ground offensive of Gaza to destroy Hamas will be bloody. But Israeli decision makers believe that the potential costs of a ground invasion are outweighed by the need to avoid a next devastating war with Hamas.
A more troubling concern is that a ground invasion of Gaza may draw Hezbollah in the north, and other Islamic Republic’s proxies such as Houthis in Yemen and those in Syria to the conflict. A multi-front conflict could lead to a prolonged conflict with substantial impacts on Israel’s population and economy.
Concerns about a multi-front war against Israel have not developed in a vacuum. In the post Israel-Hamas war outbreak, low scale exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel have amplified. Several border clashes, and Hezbollah’s destruction of Israeli surveillance cameras along the border are few notable cases. Many observers have interpreted these developments as signals that Hezbollah is gearing up to escalate the conflict into a multi-front war.
— Israel War Room (@IsraelWarRoom) October 29, 2023
While the possibility of miscalculation should not be ruled out, there are stronger indications that the Islamic Republic is not ready to enter the fight, either directly or indirectly, through its proxies.
Firstly, a pragmatic assessment of Islamic Republic’s leaders’ stance post-Hamas attack suggests the regime’s reluctance to engage in the conflict. For example, Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the regime, despite appreciating the damages inflicted upon Israel, has denied Iran’s participation in the war with Israel. His denial indicates he is not interested in engaging in the conflict. Kayhan Newspaper, the mouthpiece of Khamenei wrote “the narrative surrounding the Islamic revolution centers on the awakening of nations…but it does not engage in war on behalf of any nation.” Similarly, the regime’s representative in the UN has assured the global community that Iran’s military forces will abstain from conflicts, unless there’s a direct attack on Iranian interests or nationals by Israel. Vahid Jalalzadeh, who heads the National Security Committee of the Islamic Majlis, mentioned that they are “in contact with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah, and the position of these groups is that they don’t want us joining military operations.” Furthermore, Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of Hezbollah, renowned for his rhetoric against Israel, has remained publicly silent since the war erupted.
Second, and the most compelling reason is that Iran needs to preserve Hezbollah’s capabilities, even amidst other regional conflicts like the one in Gaza. During the last two decades, Iran has reconstructed Hezbollah to serve as a deterrent against a possible pre-emptive strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities. To this end, Iran has supplied Hezbollah with a significant number of missiles and rockets—estimated by intelligence organizations to be over 150,000 rockets. A full-scale war with Israel would deplete Hezbollah arsenal and weaken its military force and likely result in a failure to achieve victory.
In 2006, when Hassan Nasrallah and Emad Mughniyeh triggered a war with Israel, there were indications that the Islamic Republic leaders were displeased with their reckless actions. A documented complaint from the Iranian Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) stated that Hezbollah “wasted” Iran’s military investment. The war imposed a severe financial cost on the regime, and Iran also bore the cost of replenishing most of the military arsenal that Israel destroyed during the war.
Moreover, public support would dwindle as no one in Iran and Lebanon, including their constituency, desires a war amidst the financial crises in both countries. Iran and Lebanon are already in dire situation, lack the budget for a war or post-war reconstruction. In 2006, Iran bore the financial burden of reconstructing the destroyed civilian infrastructures in southern Lebanon. Estimates suggest that the overall cost of the 2006 war to the Lebanese economy exceeded $5 billion. Hezbollah’s civilian infrastructure was heavily ravaged, around 10,000 private homes were destroyed, 22,500 severely damaged, and 73,000 partially damaged. The cost of rebuilding the Shiite regions of the country was staggering. With assistance from Iran, Hezbollah shouldered much of the reconstruction project through its construction company, Jihad al Bina, in addition to disbursing vouchers ranging from $10,000 to $12,000 for temporary housing. Facing US sanctions and multiple domestic crises, Iran might be unable to assist Hezbollah in rebuilding Lebanon if it were to be destroyed by Israel once again. Financial constraints would also make replenishing Hezbollah’s arsenal a challenging endeavor.
Furthermore, Hezbollah is keen on maintaining its stronghold in Lebanon, where they already find themselves quite isolated. Currently, Lebanon is grappling with multiple crises: it’s without a functioning president and prime minister, its banking system is in disarray, and the economy is in shamble. People are enduring electricity shortages, uncollected trash, a lack of medicine, and insufficient money to purchase food. In the public’s perception, Hezbollah bears the blame for these issues. In such a situation, engaging in another war with Israel, which could potentially devastate the entire country, is not an attractive option for Hezbollah.
Finally, Iran has already achieved its objective from the current conflict by thwarting the normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel. A normalization of relations between these two nations would have further marginalized the Islamic Republic. The region was shifting away from Iran’s influence, moving towards greater economic progress. However, the attack by Hamas has halted this emerging trend, potentially alleviating the isolation Iran is experiencing.
In sum, it is likely that Iran might dissuade Hezbollah from opening a new front if Israel initiates a ground invasion of Gaza. This is because Iran needs Hezbollah’s massive arsenal as a retaliatory measure against any potential Israeli attacks on its nuclear sites. They wouldn’t want to expend this asset on a different conflict. For Iran, the intimidation factor of Hezbollah’s military arsenal holds more value than the actual use of the weapons. The regime aims to maintain this edge of threat without having to deplete the arsenal.
Farhad Rezaei is a senior fellow at the Philos Project.