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Iran and its posturing

There is a risk that anti-Israeli rhetoric could spark a regional conflict. The Iranian leaders, masters of ambiguity, are playing on the fears of their neighbors and the rest of the region

Protest against Israel in Tehran, October 20, 2023.
Protest against Israel in Tehran, October 20, 2023.WANA NEWS AGENCY (via REUTERS)
Ángeles Espinosa

Persian is a naturally very colorful language, especially suited for the art of rhetoric. In the hands of the clerics who foster the Islamic Republic of Iran, it reaches paroxysm. After the 1979 revolution (wrongly called Islamic), the United States became the “Great Satan” and Israel (which they do not recognize as a State), the “Zionist entity.” Its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, said it had to be “wiped off the face of the earth,” words sadly made famous years later by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since Hamas’s savage attack unleashed Israel’s brutal response in Gaza, the tone of Iranian spokesmen has risen to the level of war drums.

Although Tehran was quick to deny that it had anything to do with the October 7 attack, it has spared no praise for the Palestinian Islamist group, which the EU and the US consider a terrorist organization. Hamas is a seasoned pupil of the so-called “Axis of Resistance,” a network of militias financed and trained by Iran in different countries of the Middle East, whose common ideological denominator is the rejection of Israel. But in addition to praising their ally, Iranian political and military leaders have issued thinly veiled threats to come to their support, if not directly, through the intermediation of these like-minded militias.

The Iranian foreign minister made this warning a week after the crisis began. In an interview with the Al Jazeera television network, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that if Israel did not cease its aerial bombardments it was “very likely that many other fronts would open up.” His words, underscored by the initial skirmishes by Lebanese Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border, have encouraged analysis and speculation about the extent to which that group (which is better armed and more advanced than Hamas) will become involved and what it would take for Iran to intervene directly.

After the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the bombing of Gaza a “genocide”, President Ebrahim Raisi stated last Sunday on his X account (formerly Twitter) that the “Zionist regime’s crimes have crossed the red lines, which may force everyone to take action.” Days earlier, the deputy head of the Pasdaran (the regime’s ideological army), Ali Fadavi, went so far as to say that Iran would launch missiles against Haifa (an Israeli city 80 kilometers north of Tel Aviv) “if necessary.”

But, how much risk is there actually that the war between Israel and Hamas will spread to the whole region? The Iranian leadership, masters of ambiguity, are playing on this fear. Moreover, it seems that regional chaos is to their advantage. The greater the instability of their surroundings, the less visible are the cracks in their own edifice: a society exhausted by the severe economic crisis and repression, the internal struggle for the succession of the elderly Khamenei as the highest authority, and international isolation. However, theoretical possibilities are often limited by realpolitik.

In early 2009, after another Israeli offensive against Hamas, the supreme leader anointed with the aura of martyrdom all those who fell in the struggle against the “Zionist regime.” As correspondents in Tehran, we witnessed demonstrations of volunteers who, wrapped in white shrouds, declared their readiness to die for Palestine. Up to 70,000 young people signed up, according to official propaganda. There was even a sit-in at Mehrabad airport so that they would be allowed to board a plane. Not a single one left the country. As usual in Iran, the authorities defused the campaign as soon as they feared that the reaction would end up harming their interests.

Both the ayatollahs and the generals, who are the real pillars of the Islamic Republic, know that a direct confrontation with Israel/U.S. would threaten the very survival of the regime. What they would like is to weaken their arch-enemy without getting their hands dirty. Hence they target the “resistance forces”: from the Lebanese Hezbollah to the Yemeni Huthi, as well as a string of pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria.

Contradictory signals

Although Hezbollah has intensified its initial contained attacks to the point of forcing the evacuation of several towns in northern Israel, no one knows if it is ready for a new war against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) like the one it waged in 2006, and the intervention of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, on Friday, hasn’t dispelled any doubts either. With Lebanon much more impoverished than it was then and its population exhausted after decades of conflicts at home and abroad, it runs the risk of a new crisis undermining the popular support it boasts. Nor is it clear that, if left without Hamas in the ground invasion of Gaza, Iran will risk losing the Lebanese Shiite movement, a strategic element of its regional policy.

Nor is the intention of pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria clear. Washington has acknowledged an increase in attacks against its interests in both countries, but has distanced them from the Gaza war. Meanwhile, the Huthi have sought to show their solidarity with Hamas by firing missiles and sending drones towards Israel (a first attempt was intercepted by the US Navy over the Red Sea in mid-October and the most recent by Israeli anti-aircraft defenses near the coastal city of Eilat).

The coincidence of these operations gives an image of coordination of the forces under the auspices of Iran, although there are serious doubts that it actually has full control of the militias it supports. Its rhetoric (insisting that the U.S. is directing Israeli operations in Gaza) encourages “resistance” and foreshadows its eventual support in the face of an (improbable) direct intervention by the “Great Satan.” But, above all, and regardless of whether or not it had any prior knowledge of the Hamas attack on Israel, the Islamic Republic wants to take advantage of the situation created by its Palestinian protégé to show regional muscle before its neighbors and, in particular, before the U.S. (with which it is still engaged in eternal indirect talks to get out of the quagmire of sanctions for its nuclear program).

With the deployment of two aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, the Biden Administration is showing its support for Israel and also sending a warning to Iran. But beyond its symbolism, it recognizes the danger that this game of inflammatory talk may end up lighting the fuse of a conflict that is not in the interest of even the most fanatical.

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