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Source: Foreign Policy

Mar 28, 2024

America, Iran, and the Patron’s Dilemma

The Backers of Israel and Hamas Didn’t Start the War in Gaza—but They Can End It


By Joost Hiltermann


As has been widely noted, Israeli security officials were caught completely off guard by Hamas’s shocking October 7 attack, a lapse that allowed the rampage to go on for hours before Israeli forces could regain control. But the Israelis were not the only ones unprepared. So, too, were Hamas’s own allies, including its chief patron, Iran. As Iran and other members of its so-called axis of resistance made clear, Hamas had failed to seek approval for—or give them prior notice of—its plans.


But Iranian officials decided they could ill afford to let Hamas struggle for itself, particularly once Israel’s devastating military campaign in the Gaza Strip began to spark outrage across the Middle East. Still, they were wary of provoking a wider war. As a result, Iran, through its axis clients—including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria—has tried to walk a fine line between responding to the demand for action and preventing axis responses to the Israeli offensive from spinning out of control. In essence, by acting without coordination with its ostensible overlord, Hamas precipitated a dangerous crisis that has threatened to engulf Tehran, as well.


After five months of war in Gaza, the United States is facing an analogous problem. As Israel’s chief patron and ally, the United States has staunchly backed Israel in its determination to root out Hamas in Gaza. Yet the Israeli government has continually defied U.S. demands to act with restraint, causing a humanitarian catastrophe that has already cost more than 30,000 Palestinian lives. Now, Israeli leaders are threatening to go ahead with a major offensive in Rafah, an area in southern Gaza containing more than one million civilians, even as the Biden administration repeatedly states that it opposes such a move.


In its unwillingness to heed Washington’s counsel, Israel risks undermining the U.S. position in the Middle East, exposing the Biden administration to accusations of double standards at a moment when it wants to rally global support for Ukraine. It could even end up drawing the United States itself into a broader military conflict in the region. Such is the fissure between U.S. and Israeli leaders that the United States took the rare step on March 25 of abstaining from, rather than vetoing, a UN Security Council resolution demanding a cease-fire in Gaza.


Although they differ in nature, both of these cases illustrate what might be called the patron’s dilemma. For decades, major global and regional powers ranging from the United States and Russia to Iran and Saudi Arabia have sought local allies and clients to extend their influence and project power in the Middle East. In theory, such patron-client relationships help provide a buffer between major powers, providing plausible deniability for operations that could otherwise escalate. But in arming and supporting these regional dependents, patrons also have to give them significant leeway to pursue their own policies. And amid an armed conflict on the scale of the current war in Gaza, the lack of direct control can lead to incidents that harm the interests of the patrons or even threaten to drag them into direct confrontation with their rivals. As international leaders press for an endgame in Gaza, they will need to unravel the particular risks—and opportunities—that this dynamic has created.


SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE

Perhaps the most complicated patron relationship in today’s Middle East is the one between Iran and its various local allies. For Iran, supporting an array of regional groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas constitutes what it calls its “forward defense strategy.” The aim is to allow Iran to respond militarily on multiple fronts to any attack or threat against it without necessarily involving Iranian forces. The Israeli government’s awareness, for example, that Hezbollah’s large arsenal of rockets can reach targets throughout Israel has provided Iran with an important insurance policy. But the success of this strategy still requires Iran to decide when and where to activate its clients.

Iran and the axis members are committed to getting the U.S. military to leave the Middle East. But Tehran sees that as a long-term goal, to be accomplished by incrementally making it more difficult—and more locally unpopular—for the United States to maintain its military footprint in the region. Rash actions by Iran’s local allies could upset these dual objectives by creating unpredictable situations, as Hamas’s October 7 attack has vividly shown.


Among the axis groups, Hezbollah is particularly close to Iran: just as Iran needs the group as its forward defense on the Israeli border, so Hezbollah needs Iran’s funding and military support to ensure its dominance in Lebanon. As a result, Hezbollah is unlikely to carry out a full-scale attack on Israel without Iranian approval. Compared with Hamas’s liaison, Hezbollah’s relationship with its patron is more symbiotic. Yet it is doubtful that even Hezbollah would declare unquestioned fealty to Tehran if the latter were to prevent it from operating as it sees fit within the Lebanese environment, whether as a political party that participates in the parliament and in the government or as a military force.


The Houthis, who are embroiled in their own war in Yemen, have a more elastic relationship with their Iranian patrons. As political outcasts for many years in Yemen, they have long looked to Iran for support. On more than one occasion, however, the Houthis have flatly ignored Iran’s strategic guidance. In 2015, for example, after the Houthis seized Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, Tehran advised them against rushing south toward Aden to try to take full control of the country. But they went ahead anyway, getting stranded in the south and eventually forced to withdraw. As Tareq Saleh, commander of Yemen’s Red Sea forces and deputy chairman of the country’s Presidential Leadership Council, told a colleague and me in January at his military headquarters in the Red Sea town of Mokha: “Iran is strategic: it moves step by step. But the Houthis are impatient. They want to move—now.” Such impetuousness can get Iran in trouble.

A Houthi rally in support of Palestinians in Gaza, Sanaa, Yemen, March 2024

Khaled Abdullah / Reuters


In this case, the Houthis were rewarded for their impulsivity. Notably, it was after the Aden offensive that Iran began to provide military aid to the Houthis, allowing them to defend themselves against a Saudi-Emirati intervention while preserving Iran’s influence in Yemen. Moreover, the utter fragmentation of the Houthis’ adversaries—the Saudi-backed forces of the internationally recognized Yemeni government—ensured that the Houthis could maintain control of a large part of Yemen and that Iran could reap steadily growing influence there. Support from Iran grew as Yemen’s war ground on, enabling the Houthis to send drones and missiles into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This provided a clear pressure point for Tehran against its regional rivals.


After Iran and Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic relations a year ago, regional tensions receded. The Gaza war has offered the Houthis the chance to up their domestic leverage, this time by launching sustained attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In doing so, they have been acting in concert with the other members of the Iranian-backed alliance.


As a Sunni Islamist group, Hamas has had an even looser relationship with Iran. Beginning in 2012, when a popular uprising in Syria began to threaten the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Hamas broke with the Syrian government and its patron Iran because they were attacking Sunni rebel groups. As a result, Hamas’s leaders were forced to leave Damascus and Iran reduced funding for the group. Hamas’s relations with Tehran were repaired only a few years before the October 7 attacks, after Hamas’s military leaders in Gaza gained preeminence within the group. These leaders renewed Hamas’s relationship with Iran, which began supplying them with funds, weapons, and military training.


For Tehran, the addition of Hamas to the axis meant that it could now exert pressure on Israel from two directions—Lebanon and Gaza—and theoretically even force Israel to fight a two-front war. The tacit understanding, however, was that Hamas would continue to confront Israel in the comparatively limited way it had during the various wars waged in Gaza since the group took control of the territory in 2007. On October 7, it violated that understanding when it decided unilaterally to go for broke, apparently hoping that its axis allies would rush to its aid. Instead, the attack put Iran and Hezbollah in a delicate position: both have struggled to demonstrate support for Hamas and the Palestinians while distancing themselves from Hamas’s actions and avoiding escalation.


CRIMES AND PUNISHMENT

As the war in Gaza has shown, patrons must take special care to keep their clients, be they states like Israel or nonstate groups like Iran’s local allies, from getting out of control. Consider the January attack on a U.S. military outpost in eastern Jordan by Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi paramilitary group backed by Iran. As was widely reported, on January 28, the group sent an armed drone into the outpost, killing three U.S. soldiers. Although the incident may have been due to a miscalculation rather than intentional, it was the first time in years that U.S. soldiers have been killed by Iranian-backed groups. The United States struck back, bombing a number of paramilitary facilities in Syria and Iraq and killing over 40 fighters belonging to other Iraqi paramilitary groups (including some not directly supported by Iran), as well as the senior Kataib Hezbollah commander responsible for its Syria operations, Abu Baqir al-Saadi.


In fact, both Iranian and Kataib Hezbollah commanders immediately recognized that the Tower 22 attack had crossed a U.S. red line. Within hours of the incident, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, flew into Baghdad to exhort Iran’s client groups in Iraq to halt attacks on U.S. forces. Kataib Hezbollah promptly announced that it was suspending its military operations and, along with like-minded Iraqi groups, withdrew from its positions in Syria. Ghaani’s swift response signaled to Washington that Iran had no desire to escalate the situation; Iran sent a similar message to the Biden administration via Saudi Arabia and likely through other channels, as well. Moreover, even as the U.S. killing of Saadi, the Kataib Hezbollah commander, provoked fury in Iraq, axis groups refrained from any retaliation, although Kataib Hezbollah later reversed its earlier decision to suspend operations. Since then, Iraqi groups have resumed attacks in Syria but have clearly observed a red line of not killing Americans.


But this was not the first time that Iran felt compelled to slap Kataib Hezbollah on the wrist. In late 2019, after American forces retaliated against the group for the death of one of their contractors (apparently at the hands of the Islamic State), killing a number of Kataib Hezbollah fighters, the group directed an angry mob of supporters to storm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Although they failed to penetrate the compound beyond the reception area, the assault persuaded the Trump administration to kill Qasem Soleimani, Ghaani’s predecessor as axis manager. The drone that killed him at Baghdad International Airport in early 2020 also took the life of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Kataib Hezbollah’s leader and the deputy coordinator of Iranian-backed paramilitary groups in Iraq.


Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh at a press conference in Tehran, March 2024

Majid Asgaripour / WANA / Reuters


Significantly, although Iran retaliated against U.S. forces in Iraq for the Soleimani killing, it also expressed its displeasure with Kataib Hezbollah for the unauthorized embassy attack by cutting off the group’s direct access to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. This access matters to Shiite Islamist groups like Kataib Hezbollah because, as an Iraqi journalist explained last December to a colleague and me in Baghdad, access to Khamenei, the groups’ murshid, Arabic for spiritual guide, is a rare honor that suggests the importance Tehran attaches to such partnerships.

Iran could take further steps to rein in its clients, including suspending military support. But most of the axis members seem to be well aware of the red lines Iran expects them to observe. In their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, for example, the Houthis have been careful not to kill U.S. sailors, though this may also be a matter of luck, given the tremendous amount of ordnance they have been firing. Moreover, judging from the persistence of their attacks, it seems clear that the Houthis are not being significantly deterred by U.S. and British strikes. The more plausible explanation for why the Houthis have not targeted U.S. personnel even as they step up their attacks is that Tehran has ordered them not to.


With its October 7 attack, Hamas has gone much further than any other axis group in defying the unspoken rules of its patron. By igniting a ferocious war with Israel, the attack has created a significant rift between Hamas and the axis. Iran and Hezbollah have signaled their dismay at Hamas for failing to alert them of its plan—a reaction no doubt amplified by how badly Hamas appears to have miscalculated the response it would draw from Israel. For their part, Hamas leaders have expressed deep disappointment about the lack of stronger support from the axis, even suggesting that Iran is not interested in achieving real change for the Palestinians. “Iran supports Palestinians morally and spiritually, but not according to Palestinian aspirations,” a Hamas political leader told me in Doha in December. “This reinforces the idea that Palestinians should stand up for themselves.”


The Gaza war has thus landed Tehran in a predicament that is partly of its own making. By arming Hamas to the point that it can launch a powerful military assault on Israel, Iran has lost control of a group it needs for its forward defense strategy. The war’s outcome is uncertain and may not end in the kind of permanent cease-fire that axis members say would be required for them to stand down. The risk of a wider war therefore remains and is only likely to increase as the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza grows.


THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE

Iran is not the only power that must cope with unruly local allies. So must the United States, which has found the current Israeli leadership to be a most obstinate partner. Both the United States and Israel agree on the objective of eliminating Hamas’s ability to threaten Israel, but they diverge sharply on the means. After months of an Israeli air and ground offensive that has laid waste to large parts of Gaza, killed and injured tens of thousands of civilians, and displaced nearly two million people—almost the entire population of the territory—Biden vowed he would have a “come to Jesus” moment with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the Israeli leader, whose precarious hold on power depends on the continued support of his right-wing coalition partners, has defiantly dismissed U.S. concerns and strategic guidance, even as his country remains heavily dependent on American weapons and ammunition.


This strained relationship has come to a head over Israel’s threatened offensive on Rafah. Situated in southern Gaza and now swollen with more than one million Palestinians uprooted from other parts of the territory, Rafah is already facing a humanitarian crisis, and for Biden, an Israeli assault on it has become a red line. To demand that Israel take steps to limit harm to the civilian population in Rafah, Biden summoned Israeli officials to Washington to discuss their planned offensive. In theory, this should have been an opportunity for the patron to discipline its client. In reality, however, U.S.-Israeli relations have become much more complicated. 


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arriving in Israel for talks, Tel Aviv, March 2024

Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters


Following the United States’ abstention on the UN Security Council cease-fire resolution on March 25—a rare departure from Washington’s usual protection of Israel in this forum—Netanyahu responded by canceling the Israeli delegation’s trip to Washington. It is unclear whether Netanyahu is simply using the threat of an offensive to force Hamas into a cease-fire on Israel’s terms, or indeed intends to send the IDF into Rafah to pursue remaining Hamas battalions that are allegedly dug in there. Either way, the Israeli leader has staunchly defied Biden’s strongly expressed desire for a cease-fire.


This unusual rupture raises the question of what it would take for the United States to use the real leverage that it has on Israel: making the enormous military assistance it routinely provides—and specifically the offensive weapons being used in Gaza—conditional on Israel aligning itself with the U.S. approach to ending the war. The answer may lie partly in the extent to which U.S. support for Israel in Gaza is perceived to affect Biden’s electoral chances in November. But barring such a step, the inability of the United States and European countries to restrain Israel has already had a tangible effect on their world standing. U.S. and EU diplomats, for example, have found their trade and development partners’ open doors suddenly closing. Already, global competitors such as China and Russia have sought to exploit popular anger in Africa, Latin America, and Asia over the perceived double standard in Western responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s prolonged military occupation of Palestinian territories—potentially making it harder for the United States to maintain a unified front against Russia.


The events surrounding the Gaza war could accelerate the decline of American power, in this case aided and abetted by Israel, a recalcitrant proxy intent on pursuing a military solution to its long quest for greater security in an enduringly hostile environment. It is hard to see how Israel can realize this goal, after 76 years of failing to do so, without a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians—an approach the United States has long professed to favor.


A PATRON SOLUTION?

For Iran and the United States, the war in Gaza has raised the still more dangerous risk of direct military confrontation. Both governments have indicated they do not seek such a face-off, at least for now. That is reassuring. Yet there is no such thing as full control in patron-client relationships, and there is no foolproof way to prevent accidents or miscalculations from triggering an all-out regional war. Escalatory cycles in regional standoffs are hard to contain when hawks on both sides urge their leaders to undertake more dramatic retaliation—as when some Republican members of Congress called the Biden administration to seek reprisals against Iran after the Kataib Hezbollah incident.


In turn, the patrons’ local allies must respond to their own publics, particularly if events demand it. For example, if a Hezbollah or Palestinian rocket fired from Lebanon hits an Israeli city and causes mass casualties, Israeli leaders will almost certainly have little choice but to respond with much greater force than they have up to now. Moreover, the displacement of tens of thousands of Israelis and a roughly equal number of Lebanese from their homes on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border has created new pressures on the two countries’ leaderships. Populations on both sides demand decisive action—military if it cannot be diplomatic—that would allow those displaced to return in safety.


Awareness of these risks may in part explain the efforts by both Washington and Tehran to gain some distance from their respective partners since October 7. In so doing, both patrons have elevated plausible deniability to a high rhetorical art, signaling their disapproval of their clients’ actions while leaving the underlying relationships unchanged. (Even the United States’ unusual abstention at the UN Security Council should be understood in this way.)


Both Iran and the United States have tools to stop the war.


Given the possibility that a rash decision or escalatory act by one of their clients could trigger a regional war, the patrons should be keen to take steps that would reduce the risk of such a scenario. Both have ways to rein them in, but they will do so only if they believe they can avoid losing face in the process. This requires tacit mutual understandings, which can be achieved through quiet backdoor diplomacy. Encouragingly, senior U.S. and Iranian officials have had indirect talks on at least two occasions since October 7, and their governments have sent messages to each other in other indirect ways, as well.


For Iran, the best way forward would be for Qatar—not an ally but a country with which it maintains friendly relations—to successfully mediate the Gaza cease-fire that it has been trying to orchestrate along with the United States and Egypt. There is no indication that Iran is standing in the way of such a goal; on the contrary, Iranian officials know they must not disrupt a Gulf-backed cease-fire if they hope to benefit economically from Iran’s recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. If and when a cease-fire falls into place, however, Tehran will need to get its local allies to stand down: Hezbollah would have to cease its attacks on Israel, the Houthis to stop their attacks on shipping, and the Iraqi paramilitary groups to suspend their attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq and Syria. Iranian officials might not renounce the strategic goal of pushing the United States out of the Middle East, but it could urge its axis forces to back off for the near term.


For the United States, too, a Gaza cease-fire would be the best way out of its patron’s dilemma. For Israel to agree to one, however, the Biden administration will need to start pulling more levers. Washington needs to demand that Israel pursue its war objectives through a cease-fire and the drafting of a workable day-after plan for Gaza in close coordination with the United States, Arab governments, and Europe. And the United States needs to back up this demand with real actions. The obvious lever, when other inducements don’t work, would be to condition the continued supply of offensive weapons on progress toward ending the war. Likewise, Washington could try to reduce Israeli violence in the West Bank by halting exports of the automatic rifles used by Israeli settlers there.


One of the larger ironies in the current war may be that, as patrons of wayward clients, both the United States and Iran have more in common than they may recognize. Both would benefit from a cease-fire that ends the risk of a regional war. And both would arguably be able to take some credit behind the scenes for backing such a cease-fire and making sure it holds. Of course, it is far from certain when or even whether the patrons will be able to stop this war. But unlike other external powers, at least they have tools to do so. And if they do not use them soon, they may find that the war in Gaza is only a prelude to an even more dangerous conflagration.



  • JOOST HILTERMANN is Middle East and North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group.




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