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Preventing a Wider Middle East War
How a single spark could ignite a region-wide conflict no one wants.
After twenty days of airstrikes and limited raids to weaken Hamas’s infrastructure, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched a ground offensive into Gaza last week. While on the offensive against Hamas in Gaza, Israel still must defend against attacks from other Iranian-backed groups, including the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah, which last went to war with Israel in 2006, and the Houthis, who recently displayed the breadth of the drone and missile capabilities when firing at southern Israel from Yemen. These defensive responsibilities prevent the IDF from bringing its full power to bear against Hamas.
America’s support for Israel—its right to exist and defend itself—and the U.S. military aid arriving in Israel on a near-daily basis has also put American troops based in the region within the crosshairs of Iranian-backed groups. No one in Washington wants the United States pulled into another war in the Middle East, and keeping American involvement in the Israel-Hamas war (which includes troops advising the IDF) separate from Iranian proxy activities has been paramount. But U.S. troops would be under threat regardless, given previous attack patterns targeting U.S. forces.
No one in the region—including Iran—has an interest in a broader war, as Ken Pollack smartly outlines. But while all of the incentives to contain and de-escalate this conflict exist, one spark could ignite the Middle East tinderbox.
Israel vs. Hamas… and Iran?
The scale and complexity of the horrific October 7 attack—Hamas’s preparedness for Israeli defenses, its organization on the battlefield, and the air, land, and sea capabilities on display—has raised questions about Iran’s role. Tehran’s relationship with Hamas is no secret; as a senior U.S. official noted in the immediate aftermath of the attack, “Hamas is funded, equipped, armed by Iran and others.” But both Israeli and U.S. officials have stopped short of accusing Iranian officials of direct involvement in this attack. While it’s possible Iranian officials did not know the specifics, there’s no denying that Iranian support made this attack possible. No one arms, funds, and trains a terrorist group with the expectation that the capabilities will not be put to use.
Iranian support is crucial to Hamas operations. If it weren’t, Hamas would have had little incentive to repair its relations with Tehran after it publicly broke ties with the Assad regime in 2012. Its leadership relocated from Syria to Qatar, where it remains today, while Iran cut Hamas’s funding over this issue. This breach didn’t last long: Hamas repaired relations with Tehran and by summer 2014 the band was back together. By 2017, Hamas publicly acknowledged Iran as the “largest supporter” of its military wing.
It remains unknown whether any Iranian officials had direct knowledge of or involvement in planning for the October 7 attack. (Iran denies it.) The Wall Street Journal reported that senior Hamas and Hezbollah members said Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officers helped plan the assault and worked with Hamas in Beirut to refine the details. But no official U.S. sources have confirmed that report or Iran’s alleged green-lighting of the attack on October 2 in Beirut. U.S. intelligence cited by the New York Times revealed certain Iranian leaders who typically knew in advance of IRGC Quds Force operations were surprised by the Hamas attack. Without knowing which Iranian officials, however, it is impossible to rule out that the Quds Force—the IRGC’s special operations division—played a role in planning.
However, preliminary U.S. intelligence assessments also point to Iranian officials having foreknowledge that Hamas was planning an attack. Iran had something to gain from Hamas’s attack, which has thrown a wrench in diplomatic efforts between Saudi Arabia and Israel and among the signatories to the Abraham Accords. If Tehran wanted the ceasefire to hold, it undoubtedly could have leveraged its role as Hamas’s primary sponsor to bring the group to heel.
Containing the conflict
Iran, Israel, and the United States all want to contain the conflict to Gaza—but that’s where the overlap ends. Iran likely seeks to avoid regional war but has incited its proxies to conduct low-level attacks to fix IDF forces in place. It’s one thing for Hamas to weather punishing Israeli airstrikes behind Palestinian civilian shields, moreover, and quite another for the group to be routed from its Gaza stronghold. The October 7 attack changed Israeli calculus from managing Hamas to destroying it. And though the United States ultimately backs Israel against Hamas, Washington has made clear it seek a rapid resolution to this round of unrest to return its focus to Asia.
Iran and members of its so-called Axis of Resistance—a loose and informal alliance of like-minded state and non-state actors—initially set out to dissuade Israel from conducting a ground operation and limit U.S. involvement. Notably, Iran’s redlines have little to do with Israel, Hamas, or the Palestinians. Iran threatened proxy attacks on U.S. forces should the U.S. refreeze the $6 billion released to Qatar for Iran and to respond to an Israeli attack on Iran with force. But groups like Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) immediately launched now daily small-scale attacks from Lebanon into northern Israel. Hezbollah threatened to enter the war should the IDF enter Gaza, but few analysts believe Iran would risk Hezbollah, which faces troubles at home in Lebanon, for Hamas. And even though Hezbollah redeployed forces to the Israeli border, its use of lower-end munitions from its arsenal suggests a reticence to actually go to war. Iraq-based groups like the Badr Organization and Kataib Hezbollah are attacking U.S. military positions, and the Yemen-based Houthi movement has now launched three drone and missile barrages at Israel. (See the handy chart from the Critical Threats/Institute for the Study of War team.)
Iran is clearly coordinating the multi-front escalation against Israel and the United States to try to shift their calculus. Tehran has spent years building and investing in the members of its Axis of Resistance precisely for moments like this one. Its echo chambers have also sought to spread the narrative that Israel and the United States will be responsible for any expansion of the war even as the Axis of Resistance prepares to open new fronts. Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Quds Force commander and Qassem Soleimani’s successor, is purportedly in Syria preparing to open a second front against Israel from the Golan Heights. He undoubtedly came with instructions for Hezbollah and others, which would have been conveyed by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to Hamas and PIJ in a meeting just days later.
At what point does this escalation, aimed at limiting the damage to Hamas and U.S. support to Israel, undermine Iran’s probable interest in avoiding a wider war?
Israel has ramped up its ground invasion of Gaza while trying to defend its other borders from attacks. The IDF’s approach inside Gaza appears to differ from past operations, slow-rolling ground forces and limiting the flow of information. Israel has been under immense external pressure to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza and to accept unrealistic ceasefire terms, as TLP’s Peter Juul lays out. Meanwhile, its own security concerns will drive Israel to press on against Hamas even at a high cost.
Outside of Gaza, the IDF has sought to respond to threats without expanding the war. It has conducted limited strikes, such as those against Syria’s Damascus and Aleppo airports, and skirmished with Hezbollah and PIJ militants along the northern border. Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system has been firing nearly nonstop, and Israel’s U.S.-developed long-range Arrow defense system was used for the first time to shoot down projectiles fired from Yemen. The IDF might feel compelled to strike defensively farther afield to respond to this widening range of threats.
The United States, meanwhile, rushed weapons and equipment to Israel and moved military personnel and capabilities into the Middle East. The Biden administration has framed the increased U.S. military presence in the Middle East to deter Iranian-backed escalation and defend U.S. troops already in the region. The United States went from zero carriers in the Middle East to two: sending first the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group to the Eastern Mediterranean and then the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower to the region. It also deployed additional fighter squadrons, a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, and additional Patriot air defense systems.
At the same time, these deployments have put additional U.S. forces in the region at a time when local armed groups are rattling their sabers. In a likely effort to reduce the risk of escalation, the Pentagon has treated the 23 attacks to date as individual, small-scale incidents—but they’re not. While additional U.S. forces may improve defenses, they remain unlikely to shift Iran’s or its proxies’ calculations. The United States threatened to respond to attacks at the time and place of its choosing, and after a U.S. contractor died from a heart attack during an attack, U.S. fighter jets struck IRGC-linked bases in Syria. But Iranian-backed groups and their Quds Force masters almost certainly had already accepted these potential losses.
How it could go wrong
Preventing the expansion of this war remains in the interest of nearly all actors, but their actions have made escalation more likely. Tensions and stakes are high; more forces equals more potential targets. And although a regional conflict is not in the interest of any actor, mistakes and misperceptions could light the Middle East on fire.
Misattribution and misinformation. Poor reporting in a complex information environment combined with intentional misinformation campaigns on the blast at al Ahli Hospital in Gaza rapidly attributed responsibility to the wrong actor, Israel. Arab partners canceled a scheduled summit with President Biden in the hours that followed and massive, violent protests occurred outside of U.S. and Israeli embassies. It’s an easy example of the importance of getting it right.
Israel, the United States, and others face imperfect information when making decisions over who to hold responsible for what. Holding the wrong actor accountable could be read as an act of aggression, eliciting an additional response. Let’s not forget that groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State still lurk in the background and stand to gain from a wider war. They could attempt to stoke the fire by intentionally striking certain targets to cause misattribution.
Miscalculations. As low-level conflict expands out from Israel to include Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, the possibility that an attack or a response crosses a threshold and accelerates the spread of conflict grows. Take recent U.S. strikes in Syria. Scenarios exist wherein the U.S. military conducts such a strike not knowing that key Iranian leaders or even Russians, who operate in Syria, are present. Sudden, it’s not just a tit-for-tat response. What had been deemed by both sides as deterrent in nature is now escalatory.
Misfirings. Not all missiles, rockets, and drones strike their intended targets. Just recently, drones attributed to the Houthis injured six Egyptian civilians in towns near the Israeli border. As projectiles are launched over various populations, it’s possible that actors unintentionally strike neutral actors in such a way that to remain on the sidelines is impossible. Egypt and Jordan have sought to stay out of the way, but can they if they’re caught in the crossfire?
Many other possible flashpoints exist related to the Israel-Hamas war, and even more exist when considering how Iranian proxy behaviors also play locally. Take Yemen: the Houthis have joined the fray and linked their war with Gaza. Negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have stalled, putting a tenuous ceasefire at risk. A Houthi leader has now laid the groundwork for the resumption of substantial cross-border attacks. He portrayed the Saudi and Emirati rejection of Houthi calls to lift the partial blockade on Yemen in support of Gaza as indicative that the Gulf states are against Gaza. Now that the Houthis have targeted Israel, they will have an easier time painting any Saudi actions against the Houthis as pro-Israel.
The complex web of relations that stretches across the Middle East ties conflicts together. Iran has carefully woven its Axis of Resistance throughout in an effort to gain advantage over Israel and the United States. Pulling at one thread of the web could change what is happening elsewhere. With all of the interlinkages and potential for missteps, the potential for war in the Middle East is as high as it’s ever been.
The author thanks Dylan Meyer Kassin for his research contributions and the Critical Threats analysts Nicholas Carl and Brian Carter for their support.
Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and adviser to AEI's Critical Threats Project. Follow her on Twitter @KatieZimmerman.