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An Iranian protester wearing a military uniform holds the U.S. flag and an Israeli flag before setting them on fire during an anti-Israel rally protesting the Israeli air strike on Al-Ahli hospital, in northern Tehran, October 20, 2023. Israel's military denied responsibility for the Gaza hospital attack, attributing it to a failed rocket launch by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group. MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL/NurPhoto (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via AP)

Iran: The Real Free Rider of the Gaza War

The ongoing catastrophic war in Gaza following Hamas’ October 7 attacks on Israel has once again drawn global attention to Iran’s regional deterrence strategy. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has long perceived a major threat to its territorial integrity and political system’s survival from the United States. Based on this self-assessment, Tehran established a regional deterrence strategy to ward off the perceived threat from Washington and its allies in the region. Iran’s regional deterrence strategy consists of three pillars: conventional military might, the pursuit of the nuclear capability, and the formation of a network of unofficial allies and partners known as the “Axis of Resistance.”

A Renewed Relevance

Since the onset of the conflict between Hamas and Israel, various factions within the Axis of Resistance have launched attacks on American and Israeli targets across the Middle East under the motto of “all for one.” Militant groups including Kataib Hezbollah and Al-Nujba have targeted American bases in Iraq and Jordan, while the Houthis in Yemen have launched missile strikes on cargo vessels transiting the Red Sea. Additionally, Hezbollah has engaged in frequent low-level attacks on Israeli positions along the Lebanon-Israel border. Although the ongoing conflict in Gaza has eroded Hamas’ military capabilities and infrastructure, it has inadvertently bolstered Iran’s regional deterrence strategy in three key ways.

The ongoing conflict has solidified the core rationale of the Axis of Resistance. Although they hail from diverse nations ranging from the Mediterranean to the southern Persian Gulf, these militias are united by a central core mission: opposition to the United States and its key regional ally, Israel. Iran and its militias view the United States’ military and political interventions in the post-World War II Middle East as the primary driver of regional instability and insecurity. The recent war in Gaza, coupled with Washington’s inability or unwillingness to pressure Israel into accepting a ceasefire, has further galvanized these groups in their anti-American stance and support for the Palestinian cause. Their actions in solidarity with Palestine have garnered increased support for these groups across the Arab world, with the Houthis in Yemen earning particular acclaim. Over time, this alignment may help address the challenges faced by the Axis of Resistance in expanding their influence and projecting power in the region.

Pushing Israel Into a Defensive Posture

Over the last two decades, Iran has adopted an active deterrence strategy toward Israel, aimed at encircling it from its east and north by expanding its influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. At the same time, the United States’ retrenchment from the Middle East has led to increased responsibilities for its regional allies in maintaining order. The Abraham Accords, which normalized diplomatic relations between several Middle Eastern nations and Israel, came as part of Washington’s strategy to manage regional order and stabilize the region without the need for greater U.S. involvement – a move perceived as a counter-containment policy by Tehran. As part of its strategy of creating peripheral alliances around Iran, Israel has deepened its political, economic, and military ties with Azerbaijan, which opened its embassy in Tel Aviv in March 2023. Additionally, Israel has expanded its relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, leading to Iranian accusations that Erbil played host to secret Mossad bases. In response to the Gaza conflict and the targeting of IRGC commanders, the IRGC launched a missile strike on an alleged Israeli intelligence facility in Iraqi Kurdistan in January.

While Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared after the October 7 attacks that Iran had no role in planning or facilitating them—and indeed, U.S. intelligence reports indicated that Tehran was as blindsided by them as Tel Aviv and Washington were—the events of that day underscore the vulnerability of Israel’s territorial security and Hamas’s ability to catch Israel off-guard, despite the significant disparity in military capabilities between the two sides. This reality may compel Israel to adopt a stronger defensive posture to safeguard its territorial integrity, rather than pursuing proactive measures to counterbalance Iran across the region. Moreover, the conflict in Gaza has temporarily halted diplomatic normalization efforts between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and has dramatically worsened Israel’s relations with the Arab nations that recognize it. These actions have derailed plans to integrate Israel into the region. The Gaza conflict has also dealt a significant blow to one of the key claimed objectives of the Abraham Accords, which is to seek a solution to the longstanding Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Anti-Israel sentiment among the Arab publics has surged, posing challenges for Israel in enhancing its relations with other Arab states and gaining recognition as a legitimate regional player.

The Power of Asymmetry

Furthermore, the Gaza conflict has presented Iran with a golden opportunity to display its escalation capabilities. The ongoing war in Gaza, and Israel’s subsequent targeting of Iranian bases in Syria and assassination of top IRGC commanders, have paved the way for Iran to shift away from strategic patience and assert its regional deterrence. In late January, three American soldiers were killed, and more than 40 other personnel injured, in an attack at the United States’ Tower 22 military outpost in Jordan – an attack attributed to Kataib Hezbollah, a powerful Iran-backed militia based in Iraq.  Since the October 7 attacks, Iran-allied militias have carried out more than 170 attacks on American targets in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, the Houthi rebels in Yemen have demonstrated their disruptive power by targeting ships in the Red Sea, affecting crucial shipping routes. These actions, done at relatively little cost to Tehran, underscore the asymmetric might of the Axis of Resistance and its ability to escalate tensions to exert pressure on Israel and the United States.

Iran also attributes the terrorist attacks in Kerman in January 2024 and the terrorist attacks in Rask to Israel. In response to these incidents, Iran launched a missile attack on Pakistan’s Baluchistan province on January 16. While Pakistan soon retaliated, Iran’s objective with these attacks was to redefine deterrence and demonstrate its ability to widen the conflict theater if required.

It remains to be seen how the ongoing conflict in Gaza will determine the regional balance of power. Iran has signaled its reluctance to engage in a large-scale violent conflict in the region, but is strategically leveraging its assets to expand its regional influence, weaken the United States and Israel, and strengthen its geopolitical position in the years to come.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security, Geopolitics
Country: Iran

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Zakiyeh Yazdanshenas is a Senior research fellow at Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies Center, Tehran. Twitter: @YzdZakiyeh


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