Tensions and Tactics: Iran’s Dilemma in the Middle East

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In the five months since the episode of the war in Gaza, it has become apparent that Iran is increasingly concerned with the potential of further regional escalation. This escalation could potentially pull Iran into an unwanted conflict, not only with Israel but also with the US. The war has delivered Tehran with its first opportunity to execute the concept of “unification of the arenas,” aimed at improving the balance of deterrence against Israel. This strategy concerns increasing coordination and collaboration among the elements of the Resistance Axis. The integration of Hezbollah from Lebanon, the Iraqi militias, and the Houthis in Yemen into the movement against Israel and the US has revealed the pro-Iranian axis’s ability to act with strategic synchronization.

In recent years, the Palestinian theatre has been emphasized even more deeply as a central struggle of the pro-Iranian axis in the framework of this idea. From Iran’s perspective, the normalization procedure between Israel and the Arab countries constructed an opportunity for expanded coordination between the organizations Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and the other ingredients in the axis around the struggle against Israel as their shared enemy. 

As part of discovering this strategy, Tehran decided to launch a joint operations room, which will be liable for the coordination and general military, logistical, and intelligence planning among the network of members and proxies Iran founded in the region. However, the activation of the web at Iran’s initiative and at a time suitable for the Islamic Republic was intended, first and top, to serve Iranian goods—primarily, to deter Israel from striking Iran’s nuclear targets or its main ally, Hezbollah.

The beginning of the October 7, 2023 attacks by Hamas, which began a region-wide war, surprised Iran, particularly the timing of the attacks. This showed Tehran with an increasing dilemma: how to maintain the cohesion of the pro-Iranian axis without being pulled into a direct military conflict with Israel and the US. It is no wonder that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei voiced dissatisfaction with the timing of the attacks. According to a Reuters report, Khamenei described Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh during their November 2023 conference that Iran would not directly interfere in the war because it was caught off guard by October 7. He also advised to silence the voices within Hamas that publicly asked for Iran and Hezbollah to join the campaign against Israel in full force.

A major manifestation of Iran’s growing suspicion of being dragged into a direct military confrontation can be observed in the circumstances that followed the drone attack undertaken by the Iraqi militias on the US logistics backing base in northeastern Jordan on January 28. A few hours after the episode, which resulted in the demises of three US soldiers, Esmail Qaani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, reached Baghdad and urged the leaders of the Iraqi militias to discontinue their attacks against US forces in Syria and Iraq. 

According to one report, Qaani highlighted that the militias must preserve a low profile to contain US retaliatory strikes, including against Iran. He commented that the militias had crossed a red line and that Iran could not afford military activities that might provoke the United States or Israel into initiating a war. Indeed, shortly after he reached Baghdad, the secretary general of the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades militia declared the suspension of military activities against US forces in the region.

Qaani’s triumph in de-escalating tensions in the Iraqi arena may support the assessment that Iran retains the capacity to significantly influence its members and proxies throughout the Middle East. However, Tehran’s ability to guarantee complete control over the elements of the Resistance Axis should not be overrated. The axis does not work as a hierarchy with direct Iranian power and control but as a loose network of connected components driven by common welfare and a shared ideological vision. 

Furthermore, in recent years—mainly since the killing of IRGC Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani in 2020—Iran has organised its proxies in a more decentralized way than before. While it persists to have substantial influence within the network, it does not necessarily want complete control over each element. The conversion of the axis into a decentralized network has delivered Iran with greater flexibility, the capacity to deny involvement, and the option to alienate itself from provocative actions by its associates. However, it also carries risks because the weakening of Iranian control could lead to awkward actions by its partners that threaten Iranian interests.

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