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Source: FT

Oct 16, 2023

Gaza war highlights Iran’s links with region’s militant groups

Western states see Tehran as pivotal to whether Israel’s fight against Hamas escalates into broader conflict

By Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Bita Ghaffari in Tehran

As Israeli forces pound Gaza, Iran has been pursuing its own diplomatic mission: rallying the region behind the Palestinians and the Hamas militant group responsible for the October 7 deadly assault. With stops in Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad, Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian spent the past week locked in talks with the powerful Shia militant forces his regime backs with arms, training and money.

Amirabdollahian also met the Hamas leader in the Qatari capital Doha, greeting the militant whose group masterminded the single most deadly attack on the Jewish state with a warm embrace. The tour underscored Iran’s muscular influence — and why Israel and western states believe the Islamic republic’s role could be crucial amid fears Israel’s war with Hamas could escalate into a broader regional conflict.

Fearful of what is at stake, the US has already used a back-channel with Tehran to emphasise the risks of the Islamic republic or its armed proxies escalating the conflict. Washington’s announcement at the weekend that it was sending a second aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean was intended as a message of deterrence to Iran and Hizbollah, the powerful Lebanese militant group that Tehran backs.

What remains unclear to western capitals are Iran’s true calculations about the crisis. During his trip Amirabdollahian underlined Iran’s public stance: Tehran wants Israel to halt its campaign in Gaza, where at least 2,300 people have been killed so far by air strikes and artillery, according to Palestinian health officials. An Arab official and western diplomats in Tehran said they believed Iran did not want the Israel-Hamas war to escalate into a regional conflict. But they added that it was unclear how the Islamic republic and its regional proxies would react if Israel pursued a massive military offensive on Gaza.

Israeli armoured formations near the border with Lebanon © Amir Levy/Getty Images

And Amirabdollahian ’s travels showcased Iran’s significant influence over the region’s most powerful militant groups. To varying degrees Iran backs Hizbollah, Shia militant groups in Iraq and Syria, and Houthi rebels fighting in Yemen. Alongside Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Iran has styled the groups as an “Axis of Resistance” against Israel.

Amirabdollahian warned that those forces had “their fingers on the trigger”, and their involvement could “change the current map of occupied lands”, a reference to Palestinian territories. Iran has made enmity towards Israel and the US the centrepiece of its ideology since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Iranian analysts say that while the Islamic republic had sought to position itself as a champion of Palestinian rights, it does not stand to benefit from a widespread regional conflict, which is one reason Tehran has been quick to deny any involvement in the Hamas attacks.

Tehran supports Hamas, but the Sunni organisation has ideological differences with Shia Iran. “Iran has no intention to enter into this war,” said Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, a former reformist Iranian vice-president. Even if Israel launched a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza, as expected in Israel, and Hizbollah decided to open a new front, “Iran will still not directly intervene”, he added. It came as a relief in Iran’s political circles when US officials said last week there was no evidence to suggest the Islamic republic had a direct role in the assault.

Yet western diplomats fear the longer any more destructive Israeli campaign in Gaza goes on — the military’s aim is to “destroy Hamas” — the more risk Iran’s proxies will feel compelled to enter the conflict. That is a step Israel and its allies might blame on Tehran. French president Emmanuel Macron spoke to his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi on Sunday, urging him to use Tehran’s influence to contain the conflict.

Raisi said the “resistance groups make their decisions”, according to Iranian news agencies. One person was killed on Sunday when Hizbollah fired missiles at an Israeli military outpost, the latest attack across the increasingly volatile border.

President Ebrahim Raisi, pictured in April, has said ‘resistance groups make their decisions’ © Abedin

Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE Ahmad Dastmalchian, Iran’s former ambassador to Lebanon, said the involvement of anti-Israel militant groups would depend on “how far and on what scale the Israeli regime will continue its crimes”.

He added: “The popular outrage in the region has become like a fireball that could explode and turn out of control any minute.” So far, some of the fallout from October 7 has aligned with Iran’s interests. The idea of a “normalisation” of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia had been taken “totally off the table”, according to Iran’s foreign minister.

The plight of the Palestinians has also been thrust to the front of the political agenda in the Muslim world. “Arab states, which are now under huge public opinion pressure, have to distance themselves from Israel and they might become closer to Iran, which benefits us — at least in the short term,” said one Iranian analyst.

“Regional countries, unwillingly, now find themselves in the same pro-Palestine line that Iran has long been standing.” Tehran also has economic interests to protect. Any escalation could see Iran targeted by the US and Israel, and lead to the collapse of the agreement under which the Biden administration agreed to unfreeze $6bn of Tehran’s oil money as part of a prisoner-swap deal.

For now, any increased role for Hizbollah would depend on the severity of Israel’s actions in Gaza, analysts said. “The more savage the Israeli approach is, the more intense will be the reaction by Iran and the axis of resistance,” said Mohammad Mohajeri, a conservative analyst. “Now everything depends on Israelis and how far they are ready to go.”

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