Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas conflict, numerous officials from Iran and Hezbollah have warned that the Middle East’s preeminent Shia powers cannot remain passive in the conflict. Indeed, leaders in Tehran and Beirut have suggested that they may intervene in the Gaza war in support of the Palestinian side. In this context, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian went so far as to threaten Israel with a preemptive war. Additionally, Iran’s embassy in Damascus posted a message in Hebrew on Twitter, warning Israelis that “time is up.” Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, stated in virtual speeches that his fighters may enter the battle, even at the cost of their lives.
As verbal and diplomatic tensions escalate, the situation on the ground has also intensified, with frequent exchanges of fire across Lebanon’s border with Israel. Despite diatribes from Iranian and Hezbollah officials and half-hearted promises to deliver a forceful response against Israel, little kinetic action has been taken. Indeed, the Axis of Resistance has remained on the sidelines even in the face of direct challenges from Israel itself. Since October 7, Israel has been linked to the killing of Sayyed Razi Mousavi, the top Iranian IRGC general in Damascus, Saleh al-Aouri, Hamas’s second-in-command in Beirut, and Wissam Tawil, the commander of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan force. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have also killed more than 140 Hezbollah militants—a significant loss of life that has been met with muted response.
It could be argued that, contrary to their vitriolic public statements, the leaders of the Axis of Resistance have adhered to a policy of “strategic patience,” in effect tolerating short-term hardship in pursuit of conditions that would enable victory in the long term. This begs the question: why has the Axis of Resistance avoided all-out war with Israel? The answer to this question hinges on two motivations of state behavior: survival and the appeal of limited gains over decisive losses.
Refusing to Bet it All
The Islamic Republic is a survivalist regime, driven by an overriding desire to endure in the face of external and internal pressures. This is not mere speculation—the Iranian leadership has been explicit. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder and figurehead of the Islamic Revolution, clearly stated, “Protecting the Nezam [political system] is the highest mandate [of the Iranian government]…and the regime must be protected even if it requires the suspension of standard practices of Sharia, including Salat [prayer].” In this context, Iran’s lack of desire to engage in a total war with Israel is reasonable, as Iranian leaders recognize that any war with Israel would result in military confrontation that would not only engulf the Middle East, but draw in Israel’s powerful backer, the United States. The U.S. has already signaled its intent to support Israel, deploying two aircraft carriers and an Ohio-class nuclear submarine to the region. These platforms—among Washington’s most expensive and powerful—clearly demonstrate the United States’ willingness to wage war if the Islamic Republic were to directly attack Israel.
While Iran’s reluctance to engage Israel directly is understandable, its hesitation to involve Hezbollah in Hamas’s conflict with the IDF is more questionable. After all, one of the primary reasons for the establishment of Hezbollah was to confront Israel and assist Palestinian militias. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to expel the PLO, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) deployed a division of 5,000 men, named the Prophet Mohammad Corps, to Syria. This contingent was then transferred to Lebanon and deployed against the IDF, marking the birth of Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s foundational purpose raises the question: why has the militant group thus far avoided confrontation? The brief answer is that Hezbollah is too valuable an asset to be deployed recklessly. Since its inception, Hezbollah has transformed from a guerrilla group of young men in Southern Beirut into one of the most sophisticated and well-equipped non-state armed organizations operating across the Middle East, possessing over 130,000 rockets aimed at Israel. As Hezbollah’s capabilities have evolved, its role and purpose for Iran has also expanded. In the 1980s, Hezbollah was primarily a local actor in Lebanon, with the relatively limited objective of expelling Franco-American and Israeli forces from the country. However, over the last four decades, the scope of Hezbollah’s activities has significantly expanded. First, it solidified its position as the main Shia actor in Lebanon, challenging the Syria-backed Amal movement. This competition led to a series of armed clashes between Hezbollah and Syrian forces under Hafez al-Assad during the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, Hezbollah emerged as the dominant force. In the early 2000s, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Hezbollah’s role further evolved under Iran’s direction. Leveraging its longstanding relations with Iraq’s al-Dawa Party, Hezbollah extended its influence into Iraq. In 2003, at the request of General Qasem Soleimani, then the commander of Iran’s IRGC Quds Force, Hezbollah established Unit 3800, also known as its “Iraq Bureau.” This unit, comprising experienced Hezbollah fighters, was sent to Iraq to train hundreds of Iraqi Shia militia members. The training included skills in hostage-taking, tactical operations, and the use of sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The scope of Hezbollah’s activities indeed extended beyond Iraq. In 2011, with the onset of the Syrian uprising, Hezbollah began to play a significant role by supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Starting in 2012, Hezbollah commenced the deployment of troops to Syria, leading to its full engagement across the country by 2014. Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria was marked by participation in key battles, showcasing its expanded regional role and military capabilities.
These key battlefields included the 2013 Battle of Qusayr, the three-year Siege of Deir-Ezzor, the East Aleppo offensive (January–April 2017), the Battle of al-Bab, the Daraa offensive (February–June 2017), and the Beit Jinn offensive. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War cemented its status as one of Iran’s most important international proxies, operating alongside the foreign arm of the IRGC. The losses incurred in Syria did little to deter Hezbollah from extending its influence further across the Middle East. Since 2012, following the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in Yemen, Hezbollah coordinated with Iran to establish a foothold in Yemen by providing training to the Houthi forces. While the full extent of Hezbollah’s involvement in Yemen remains shrouded, there are indications that the group’s influence is significant. According to U.S. officials, Hezbollah continues to play a crucial role guiding Houthi attacks in the Red Sea area.
A Proxy of Last Resort
In light of Hezbollah’s involvement across various regional conflicts, it is reasonable to argue that the group—once simply a component of Iran’s policy in Lebanon—has become one of the primary instruments of Iran’s broader regional policy. Hezbollah today not only represents Iranian interests in Lebanon but also actively advances Iran’s regional agenda wherever necessary, be it in Syria against the remaining rebel forces, in Iraq against U.S. troops, or in Yemen against the U.S.-Arab coalition.
These involvements have been costly for Hezbollah in terms of manpower, but they reinforce the group’s commitment to realizing Iran’s strategic objectives. The militia is estimated to have lost between 2,000 to 2,500 fighters in the Syrian Civil War alone, a figure that surpasses its casualties in the 2006 war with Israel. Despite the significant toll, Hezbollah’s unwavering dedication underscores the value that Iran derives from its regional militias as a method of projecting influence and achieving strategic goals across the Middle East.
Indeed, Hezbollah plays a crucial role in Iran’s deterrence strategy. Iran recognizes the power disparity between itself and U.S.-led partnerships in the Gulf region. Tehran lacks the conventional military capabilities, such as a sophisticated air force or navy, to neutralize threats emanating from its adversaries. Without unconventional warfare capabilities like nuclear arms to serve as a security umbrella of last resort, Iran has relied on asymmetric methods of warfare to ensure its safety. These methods include guerrilla tactics and the stoking of conflicts across the region. This strategy is not aimed at winning a war against the United States and its allies outright, but rather at increasing the cost of continued conflict to a point where Iran might deter U.S. and allied aggression.
Hezbollah, as a major ally equipped with thousands of rockets aimed at Israel, plays a pivotal role in this security framework, as the militia is set to launch a full-fledged attack against Israel in the event of Israeli (or U.S.) attacks on Iran. Hezbollah itself is a hard target for Iran’s enemies, but the militant group is not an asset to throw away needlessly. Even if Hezbollah were to survive a conflict against the U.S. and its allies, the recovery would require significant time, effort, and resources. This makes Hezbollah a strategic asset that Tehran prefers to reserve for critical situations, rather than deploying it in support of groups less vital to its core national security interests, like Hamas.
Hezbollah’s foothold in Syria enables the country to serve as a land bridge for the supply of materials from Iran to Lebanon, which only adds another layer of complexity to regional strategic dynamics. In the event of an Israel-Hezbollah war, there is a likelihood that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would strike targets in Syria on a large scale, potentially weakening the network of Iranian militias across the country. Such an outcome could jeopardize years of effort and billions of dollars spent by the Axis of Resistance in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
These circumstances explain Iran’s cautious use of Hezbollah against Israel. The risk of destabilizing the hard-fought balance of power in Syria and endangering Assad’s regime is a significant deterrent, as is the potential devastation to its most important regional proxy. As a result, Iran may opt to use more expendable groups, such as the Houthis in Yemen or Iraqi militias, to exert pressure on the United States and Israel. These groups can engage in conflict without risking the strategic advantages that Hezbollah provides, thus, allowing Iran to maintain pressure on its adversaries while preserving its more valuable assets for situations where their engagement is deemed absolutely necessary.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.