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Source: Foreign Policy

Nov 3, 2023

Iran Can’t Afford a Regional War

Leaders in Tehran can either seize the diplomatic opportunity—or face a potential threat to their own power.

By Alex Vatanka

As the Israel-Hamas war rages on, Iran’s role will continue to be a pivotal question. While Tehran no doubt feels vindicated in its model of armed campaign against Israel, it will likely not seek escalation by confronting Israel and the United States militarily. Instead, Iranian officials seem to consider the war as a moment to elevate Tehran’s image in the Islamic world—and in the global south generally.

In this sense, Iran is faced with an opportunity. During the last decade, the Iran-led so-called Axis of Resistance took a major hit in the Islamic world as Tehran rescued the autocratic regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria from a popular uprising. Now, by capitalizing on the Palestinian cause, Tehran is looking to rehabilitate its image among Muslims globally.

What Iran wants now is not a regional war but rather to undercut Israel—and more importantly, the United States—on the diplomatic front. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been blunt in conveying two key messages: that the United States is complicit in Israel’s war against Hamas and that Islamic countries should cut ties with Israel.

To this end, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, on visit to Turkey this week, called for a Muslim economic boycott of Israel. If Tehran manages to come out of this latest round of conflict diplomatically stronger, then the regime might even have a better chance at solving its key foreign-policy challenge: namely, a final resolution of the decades-long nuclear standoff with the West and the lifting of the hugely costly sanctions regime put on Iran as a result.

The reason why Iran is far less certain to act kinetically is not only to do with its doubts, still significant, regarding its military preparedness to confront Israel and the United States. It is also because the concept of the Axis of Resistance—and with it, Tehran’s regional game plan—is resented by the Iranian public. If leaders in Tehran overplay their hands in this latest regional war, they face a potential threat to domestic political balance of power. Khamenei and the bosses in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have no choice but to factor public opinion into their calculations as Iran decides its next move in the Israel-Hamas war.

At the heart of Iran’s role in this latest crisis in the Middle East is its patronage of the Axis of Resistance. This slogan refers to Iran’s proxy warfare strategy, which has evolved since the early years of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, of using regional nonstate militant groups to further the state’s aims. This project began with the Quds Force, the expeditionary branch of the IRGC. Under the leadership of Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force would in time become the command center of a multibranch regional web of militant groups.

What would make the Quds Force stand out was its use of Shiite Islamist rallying cries, but it always kept the door open to Sunni Islamist militants such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. To appeal to the latter group and expand its power base, Tehran’s core message was one of urging a unified front to combat the U.S. presence in the Islamic world and for an armed campaign against Israel.

The official narrative in Tehran is that Washington’s decision to assassinate Suleimani in January 2020 was designed to decapitate Iran’s strategy of proxy warfare against the United States and Israel in the Middle East and that the Americans failed in this mission while Iran stayed the course. Tehran is, after all, still the éminence grise in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen even as Suleimani’s successor, Esmail Qaani, is hardly a spellbinding figure. But Iran’s Axis of Resistance model has faced its own limitations, both as a concept and as a practical remedy to everyday problems.

On a conceptual level, the Abraham Accords and the idea of integrating Israel into the regional fabric as a path to peace has been a serious test for Tehran since the accords were first struck in 2020. Meanwhile, the fact that those countries in Iran’s zone of influence are all suffering from one form of political or economic malady suggests that Tehran’s capacity to turn security turmoil into sustained stability is, at best, a case yet to be proved. Just ask Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis, or Yemenis.

In the midst of this regional introspection, Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. Tehran’s fundamental stance has been hard to miss. Khamenei welcomed the attack, but he also strongly pressed the point that this was a Hamas operation and Iran had no involvement in it.

Given Tehran’s years of military and financial support for Hamas, Khamenei’s claim could at best be a half-truth: Iran had no direct hand in the Oct. 7 attack, as far as we know, but Tehran’s role as an enabler is beyond dispute. One just has to listen to Hamas’s repeated public thanks to Iran over the years.

For now, though, the Iranian regime is interested not in a military entanglement but scoring diplomatic points. Talk by Iranian officials of creating an “Islamic army” to confront Israel or an economic boycott of it are just catchy sound bites and nothing more. These are aimed at putting Tehran back in as a regional kingpin since its rescue of the Assad regime. The Iranians are elated that U.S. and Western support for Israel has gone down badly in the Islamic world and much of the global south.

The Western stance is described as one-sided, which Tehran claims repudiates any future Western assertations about defending such novel ideals as human rights, rule of law, or a just international order. In this mission, Iran’s most important fellow travelers are China and Russia, which are equally excited about undermining Western powers in the Middle Eastern theater.

Khamenei has often predicted Israel’s end—as in 2015, when he pontificated that Israel will disappear in 25 years—but he has maintained that it will be at the hands of the Palestinians or the Israelis themselves, not Iranians. Besides, no one seriously thinks Israel is on the edge of collapse now. Is it any wonder that the 84-year-old Khamenei is not willing to risk the survival of his regime—which is at the cusp of a power transition—by taking a historic gamble and entering the war, even if it is unprecedented in terms of its magnitude?

But while Khamenei’s basic choice is clear, there is still much trepidation in Tehran that hubris might get the better of him as the Israel-Hamas war endures. Both the so-called hard-liners and moderates in the regime welcome the Hamas attack as a major blow to Israel’s image of invincibility, but the moderates still fear that hard-liners can inadvertently drag the country to war.

The Israeli press has reported that Qaani has spent much of his time in Beirut in the last three weeks consulting with Hezbollah leadership about the possibility of widening the war. Meanwhile, beside Hezbollah potshots from the north, Iran-backed Houthis have launched missile attacks on Israel from the south.

If this trend of attacks by members of the Axis of Resistance continues, Tehran’s space for deniability will rapidly shrink. The scale of policy coordination among Iran’s proxy allies is very difficult to penetrate—some sources even claim that a “joint operations chamber” is in place. Still, the identity of the mothership is hardly in doubt, and that will put Tehran in the firing line if Washington decides to push back against the Axis of Resistance and its regional limbs. Some in Tehran don’t see this scenario as a faint prospect but a strong probability.

Former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has gone so far as to claim Israel wants to entrap Iran into war with the United States.

The arguments of the moderates inside the regime against Tehran’s costly and open-ended regional interventions and for restraint in the Israel-Hamas war tally with most commentary in the media. These moderates reason that sanctions on Iran are not only due to its nuclear program but also because of its support for groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which Western states have largely classified as terrorist organizations.

As one prominent Iranian commentator put it, Tehran made a strategic mistake in 2022 when it backed Russia after its invasion of Ukraine because that decision basically helped end the possibility of a new nuclear agreement between Tehran and Western powers. Iran should not make the same mistake this time, the commentator argued, and instead play its cards in such a way that will enhance its reputation worldwide.

The regime in Tehran does not allow for public opinion surveys regarding attitudes toward the Israel-Hamas war, but the picture painted by the free press in the Iranian diaspora suggests that the average Iranian sees a direct link between Tehran’s sponsorship of the Axis of Resistance and Iran’s pariah standing. In contrast, the pro-regime media outlets like to pretend that Iranian hostility toward Israel has been a historic constant; this effort is hardly convincing.

Iran is enduring a time of great hardship. The economy is dire; there is a sense of general disillusionment reflected in trends such as record emigration. Khamenei and the IRGC generals who execute Tehran’s regional strategy must therefore take into account public opinion. Accidental war with Israel and the United States has the potential to remobilize the Iranian protest movement and also create new splits in the ranks of the regime. It might even subvert Khamenei’s plans for an orderly succession process.

No one knows how protracted a regional war involving Iran and the United States could be, and such a conflict could last years. Despite Khamenei’s deep commitment to fight both Israel and the United States, he is hardly suicidal.

Performing cost-benefit analysis has helped him stay in power for 34 years. For sure, he has made policy blunders over the years but nothing that would equal strategically sleepwalking into war with the United States. He would risk the survival of the Islamic Republic in doing so.

Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute. His most recent book is The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy, and Political Rivalry Since 1979. Twitter: @AlexVatanka

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