As Gaza Gets More Dire, Escalation May Be Iran’s Only Option
Iran this week has reaffirmed its full support for Hamas, issuing new threats to escalate with more attacks like Oct. 7. This came after some in the region had criticized Iran for now joining the fray directly. With the rising rhetoric, Iran can't stay passive forever.
CAIRO — It was just hours after the deadly October 7 Hamas assault that Iranian leaders sent an effusive congratulatory message to the Palestinian militant group it has long supported with funds and weapons.
But in the intervening five weeks, Tehran has mostly kept a low profile, and even take some distance from the Hamas attack in southern Israel that killed 1,200 and triggered the Israeli military’s assault in Gaza that has killed more than 12,000.
But now, Tehran is making it clear that escalation is by no means off the table.
Renewed contract with Hamas
In what may be its clearest threat to Israel since Oct. 7, Iran’s military renewed its alliance with Hamas with a public letter sent Thursday to Mohammed Deif, the shadowy leader of the military arm of the Palestinian militant group.
Esmail Ghaani, commander of Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force, declared that Tehran would continue its support to the Palestinian militants with whatever it takes to win their weeks-long war with Israel, according to Al-Manar, a Lebanese satellite television station close to Hezbollah militia.
There's an inevitable tension facing Iran
“You clearly showed the weakness and fragility of the usurping Zionist regime, and you showed in a practical and decisive way that it is weaker than a spider's web," Ghaani wrote in Arabic. “We assure you that we will do whatever is necessary in this historic battle.”
The remarks appear to be an effort to respond to recent criticism that Iran and its proxies haven’t joined the conflict in full force. But it may also reflect an inevitable tension facing Iran, which so far has focused on verbal threats and limited attacks on Israel and the U.S. forces in the region. Analysts say Tehran may be forced to accelerate attacks on Israel as pressure continues on the Palestinian militants in Gaza.
October 27, 2023, Iran: The Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army visits before a ground force drill.
Iranian Army Office/ZUMA
A regional conflict
Quds Force, the foreign arm of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, is responsible for Tehran’s proxies across the Middle East. Such proxies include Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is the most powerful militia in the region, the Houthis in Yemen and an array of armed groups in Iraq, Syria, and the Palestinian territories.
Ghaani succeeded Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike outside Baghdad's airport in Iraq in Jan. 2020.
Revolutionary Guard chief, Gen. Hossein Salami, also warned Israel there would be more attacks like Hamas’s unprecedented, wide-scale attack on 7 Oct, according to the London-based Asharq Al Awsat daily.
“Just as the al-Aqsa Storm came from a place the enemy did not calculate, they must wait for other storms that will reach them from where they do not think,” the daily quoted Salami as saying.
Already Iranian-backed militias accelerated their attacks on Israel and U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq.
The Iranian commanders’ comments came on the heels of a Reuters news agency report that Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had been pressuring Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ exiled leader, to silence voices in the Palestinian group publicly calling for Iran and Hezbollah to join the battle against Israel in full force.
Hamas dismissed Reuters’ report as baseless.
The comments are raising concerns that war in Gaza is inevitably bound to expand into a regional conflict, drawing other Iranian-backed militias into the fighting against Israel, particularly Hezbollah which has for now refrained from launching large-scale attacks on northern Israel.
Already Iranian-backed militias accelerated their attacks on Israel and U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. responded by airstrikes against such militias, according to the Pentagon. The Houthi rebels, who control Yemen’s capital of Sanaa, have also launched missile and drone attacks on Israel.
Crisis Group International wrote earlier this month that despite expanding the scope of attacks carrying major risks for Tehran, the Iranian government could take significant escalatory risks given that staying out of the council “would expose the limits” of Iran’s and its allies.
France’s top diplomat said she has issued a new warning to her Iranian counterpart against the expansion of the war in Gaza. Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that such expansion “will not benefit anyone and that Iran would have a grave responsibility.”
The U.S. has taken measures to deter Iran and its proxies, increasing its military assets in the region as Israel continued its military campaign against Hamas. The Pentagon has said it deployed aircraft carriers to the region and shipped billions of dollars of weapons and ammunition to Israel since the start of the war.
Haniyeh, Hamas’ exiled leader, meanwhile, said his group was prepared for a long war against Israel, dismissing Israel and the U.S. comments in which both countries said they aim at ending Hamas’ presence in the coastal strip, according to al- Shorouk, a Cairo-based daily.
“After 41 days of the barbaric aggression, the enemy won’t be able to achieve any of its targets or return its captives without paying the price determined by the resistance,” he said in a speech.
He called for exerting pressure on Israel to stop the war, reopen the border crossings and allow the delivery of aid to the strip, including northern Gaza.
He also dismissed efforts to remove Hamas from power in Gaza, saying that the decades-old group is rooted in the strip, and Israel and its allies “can’t change the status quo.”
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