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Source: Foreign Policy

Dec 4, 2023

The 7 Reasons Iran Won’t Fight for Hamas
A close look at Tehran’s thinking about escalating the war in Gaza.

By Arash Reisinezhad

Since its start, the war in Gaza has been thought of as potentially foreshadowing a direct conflict between Iran and Israel. Hezbollah continues to threaten to open a new front in the war, and Iranian hard-liners have welcomed their country’s direct intervention. Last month, Iran’s former foreign minister, Javad Zarif, mentioned a letter written by hard-line officials to Iran’s supreme leader attempting to persuade him to engage in the conflict with Israel on behalf of Hamas.

The likelihood of an expanded regional war, however, is low. Despite the slogans echoed by Iranian hard-liners, the reality of Iran’s strategic thinking is more circumspect. There are at least seven reasons Tehran is likely to avoid starting a war with Israel on behalf of Hamas.

First, the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot rally society to engage in a new war as it did during the war with Iraq in the 1980s. It was the relentless mobilization of human waves, among other factors, that resisted the Iraqi army and forced Baghdad to withdraw from Iran’s territory. However, several decades later, society’s support for the political system has significantly declined. Following last year’s protests, coupled with the economic crisis caused, in part, by U.S.-led sanctions, discontent among the youth and the urban middle class has surged.

Second, the moderate faction in the Iranian government has been warning against Iran’s direct intervention in the war. Indeed, the war in Gaza has deepened political cleavages in Tehran. In the threat assessment of Iranian hard-liners, the destruction of Hamas is automatically associated with the subsequent collapse of Hezbollah and, ultimately, a military attack on Iran. That is why they support targeting American bases in Iraq and Syria by Iran’s Shiite proxies.

This view stands in stark contrast with that of moderate officials, particularly Zarif, who has consistently warned about the destructive consequence of Iran’s potential involvement in a war with the U.S. According to Zarif, if Iran takes a more radical stance on Gaza, it could trigger a deadly conflict with the U.S., which Israel would welcome. And despite being marginalized by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s government, Zarif still holds significant influence among the political elites of the Islamic Republic and even its society. 

Third, Israel’s apparent failure in deterring Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7 does not alter Tehran’s strategic calculation toward Israel. Despite Israel’s reliance on high-tech defense technology like the Iron Dome missile defense system, Hamas inflicted a significant military and intelligence blow against it, thereby shattering its deterrence policy.

But that does not shift Iran’s perspective on Israel or the power dynamics in the region. Though the Hamas operation rattled Israel’s long-standing credible deterrence strategy, it does not provide Iran with the opportunity to challenge Israel using missile power. Conversely, Iran may believe that Israel feels that reestablishing deterrence is an existential priority for which it’s worth taking extraordinary military or political risks.

Fourth, contrary to the conventional wisdom, neither Hamas nor even Hezbollah is Iran’s proxy; it would be more accurate to think of them as Iran’s nonstate allies. There is no top-down relationship between Tehran and Hamas. Even as Hamas aligns its actions with Iran, its approaches could diverge, as they notably did during the Syrian civil war when Hamas supported the Sunni anti-Assad rebels.

American and Israeli intelligence has suggested that Iran’s top officials were not aware of the Hamas operation. In mid-November, Reuters claimed that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, that because the Iranian government was given no warning of the attack on Israel, it will not enter the war on the Palestinian group’s behalf.

Fifth, Iran’s strategic partners in Moscow and Beijing have not declared their full support for Hamas. Iran has sought alignment with China and Russia under its Look East policy and would be loath to spoil its relationships with those countries. Tehran is, in fact, following a similar policy in Gaza to the one it adopted after observing the Sino-Russian wait-and-see approach to the capture of Kabul by the Taliban two years ago. The goal for Iran is to avoid being isolated in major international crises.

Sixth, there exists a deep belief among influential decision-makers in Iran that the Arab sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf would welcome a large-scale war between Iran and Israel. Iran may hope that Arab countries would sever their ties with Israel as a result of a wider war, but that is unlikely. Arab public opinion holds little sway over their countries’ foreign policies. And Arab leaders have long perceived Hamas as a disruptive Iranian proxy that they would be happy to see Israel dismantle once for all. 

The last and the most significant factor influencing Iran’s apparent reluctance to engage in war is Khamenei’s specific point of view toward regional conflicts. Contrary to the mainstream view in the West, Iran’s supreme leader approaches responses to regional conflicts from a realist standpoint rather than an ideological one. Having served as the president of the Islamic Republic during the devastating war with Iraq, he is acutely aware of the consequences of war, especially with the U.S. This awareness led Iran to choose a relatively measured response following the assassination by the United States of Gen.

Qassem Suleimani, the former leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. Such behavior aligns with his overall strategy in handling regional crises. More than two decades earlier, when Iranian diplomats in northern Afghanistan were killed by the first Taliban emirate and public sentiment in Iran leaned heavily toward a major intervention, Khamenei and Hassan Rouhani, head of the Supreme National Security Council at the time, helped prevent escalation.

These seven interconnected reasons explain the Islamic Republic’s reluctance to involve itself in the war on behalf of Hamas. The war in Gaza may, however, accelerate Iran’s nuclear program. There are strong voices in Iran, predominantly in the hard-liner camp, arguing that the country’s most significant tool to prevent the destruction of Hamas hinges on its decision to fully pursue nuclear capabilities.

They believe that Iran’s trump card lies in its threat to develop nuclear weapons, showcasing vital support for its allies—similar to its past support for the Assad government of Syria. This reasoning gained substantial momentum when Israeli ultranationalist Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu advocated for the dropping of “some kind of atomic bomb” on the Gaza Strip “to kill everyone” as “an option.”

None of this implies that Iran is willing to abandon Hamas, its strategic asset in Gaza. Rather than standing idly by, Tehran is likely to continue applying pressure on both Israel and the U.S.—through Hezbollah and its Shiite proxies in Iraq and Syria—without escalating the conflict to a full-scale regional war.

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