Iran's cautious calculus on Israel's ground invasion of Gaza

7 min read
30 October, 2023

On 30 October, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abollahian stridently condemned Israel’s plans for a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip and claimed that it could lead to the eruption of a regional war.

In an interview with Bloomberg Television, Abdollahian declared, “Opening of new fronts will be unavoidable and that will put Israel in a new situation that will make it regret its actions. This has reached the point of explosion. Anything is possible and any front can be opened up”.

Abdollahian’s warnings followed escalations from Iran-aligned militias against the US and Israel. Drone strikes against US bases in Iraq and Syria, which were attributed to the Islamic Resistance in Iraq umbrella organisation, injured two dozen American military personnel.

On 19 October, the USS Carney navy warship thwarted an alleged drone and missile attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Israel, and Hezbollah has exchanged cross-border fire with Israel.

"Even if Iran's hardliners see benefits in opening new fronts against Israel, reticence amongst its militia allies and pressure from Russia and China could serve as restraining forces"

But as Israel’s ground operations intensify and the Palestinian death toll crosses the 8,000 mark, Iran has refrained from a massive escalation. Instead, its military allies have carried out controlled escalations aimed at delaying Israel’s ground invasion of the Gaza Strip for as long as possible.

Despite its confidence that Israel would be unable to prevail in a multi-front war, numerous precedents and indicators suggest that Iran’s restraint will continue.

The chasm between Iran’s bellicose rhetoric and relatively restrained actions mirrors its responses to past Israeli wars in the Gaza Strip. It also reflects deep polarisations inside Iran about the merits of a multi-front regional war.

Even if Iran’s hardliners see benefits in opening new fronts against Israel, reticence amongst its militia allies and pressure from Russia and China could serve as restraining forces.  

Israel's war on Gaza and a multi-front conflict
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Iran's handling of the Gaza war aligns with historical precedents

While Iran’s partnership with Hamas has fluctuated over time, it has consistently engaged in escalatory rhetoric during periods of heightened conflict with Israel. This belligerent language has rarely converted into concrete action, as Iran wished to avoid military overextension and a potential Israeli strike on its territory.

During the 2008-09 Israel-Gaza War, which was preceded by a marked uptick in Iranian military assistance to Hamas, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s allies urged the Islamic world to unite against Israel.

When Egypt and Saudi Arabia treaded more cautiously than Iran wanted, Basij militias held raucous protests outside their embassies and Ahmadinejad-aligned clerics accused both countries of covertly aiding Israel.

A similar set of events transpired during the 2014 and 2021 Israel-Gaza Wars. In July 2014, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) air force commander, called for arms transfers to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

Israel has killed over 8,000 Palestinians in Gaza since 7 October. [Getty]

After Israeli police forces cracked down on Palestinian protesters outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem in May 2021, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the Muslim world’s resistance to Israel as a “public duty”.

The contrast between Iran’s official rhetoric and actions is even sharper in the current Gaza war. On 7 October, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi called Hamas’s attack on Israel “glorious” and declared that Iran would back the “Palestinian resistance until the liberation of Palestine and Al-Quds”.

One day after meeting with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Abdollahian declared on 17 October that a “pre-emptive measure is imaginable in the coming hours” to prevent Israel from extending its Gaza campaign to other “resistance areas”. 

Despite checked attacks from Iranian-aligned militias on the US and Israel, Iran has also accelerated its shuttle diplomacy efforts in the Islamic world. Iranian charge d’affaires to Britain Mehdi Hosseini Matin recently claimed that Iran’s priority in Gaza is a ceasefire, which broadly aligns Tehran’s official position with the Arab consensus.

"The chasm between Iran's bellicose rhetoric and relatively restrained actions mirrors its responses to past Israeli wars in the Gaza Strip"

Based on its synergistic positions, Iran has tried to corral countries in the region against Israel’s actions in Gaza. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s first-ever call with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on 17 October emphasised “Islamic unity” against Israeli “war crimes” in the Gaza Strip.

On 26 October, Abdollahian engaged with his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi on reviving Brazil’s UN Security Council ceasefire resolution, which the US vetoed days earlier.

Abdollahian has engaged with Islamic countries outside the Middle East, such as Malaysia and Pakistan, on creating humanitarian corridors in Gaza and lobbied for an oil embargo against Israel in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

While Iran has not advanced tangible policies to end the Gaza war, IRGC deputy commander Ali Fadavi has claimed success in thwarting future normalisation deals with Israel.

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Polarisation within Iran about the merits of a regional war

Within Iran, there are divisions about the feasibility and value of opening new fronts against Israel. Amongst Iranian hardliners, there is growing confidence in Israel’s military weaknesses and the possibility of beneficial outcomes.

On 15 October, hardline newspaper Kayhan argued that the Israelis acknowledge that their airstrikes on Gaza have not produced breakthroughs and contended that the Israelis realise that “all-out war could lead to a dramatic change in the balance of power in the Middle East”.

Hardline voices also highlight purported frictions between US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Iranian commentator Ali Bigdeli contended that the arrival of US and German military figures in Israel suggests a lack of confidence in Netanyahu, and warned, “The United States will never allow Netanyahu to endanger long-term US interests in the region with his crazy adventurism”.

This reflects the view that opening new theatres could resolve the Gaza war on more favourable terms for Iran.

Iran's military allies, such as Hezbollah, have carried out controlled escalations aimed at delaying Israel's ground invasion of the Gaza Strip for as long as possible. [Getty]

These arguments have been refuted by more moderate voices in Tehran. Qasem Mohebali, the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s former Director General for Middle East Affairs, recently warned that the war’s expansion would “endanger the security and national interests of Iran” and a US-Iran conflict would give Israel complete impunity in Gaza.

Former Iranian MP Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh warned of the extraordinarily high risk of war between the US and Iran and argued that it was not in the interests of either party. He urged the US and Iran to de-escalate tensions through “red table” talks in Muscat, Oman.

Despite Raisi’s reputation as a hardliner, his policies towards the Gaza war have straddled a balance between these two camps. A mixture of controlled escalations against Israel and US forces, and assertive Iranian diplomacy, ensures that Raisi continues to thread the needle between these rival factions.

"Within Iran, there are divisions about the feasibility and value of opening new fronts against Israel"

Why Iran might struggle to mobilise its allies against Israel

In line with their long-standing rhetoric, Iranian officials have emphasised the autonomy of their aligned militias. Mehdi Hosseini Matin recently declared that “no one can tell the Islamic resistance groups in the Middle East what to do and what not to do”.

While Matin’s statement downplays Iran’s leverage over these groups, it is essential not to overlook the local contexts in which its aligned militias operate. Despite their solidarity with Hamas, the domestic interests of Iran-aligned militias favour risk aversion.

If a major Hezbollah escalation against Israel results in large-scale civilian casualties in Lebanon, its political standing within the March 8 Alliance could wane. A degradation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF)’s capabilities in Iraq could weaken their future response to mass protests, such as the 2019-21 demonstrations against sectarianism and corruption.

The Houthis similarly do not wish to suffer losses that could embolden Saudi Arabia to intensify airstrikes.

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Russia and China could also restrain Iran from mobilising its militia allies to escalate against Israel. Russia has historically opposed cross-border attacks from Iran-aligned militias, such as the January 2022 Houthi attack on the United Arab Emirates, and fears that overtly backing Iran against Israel could lead to Iron Dome technology transfers to Ukraine.

China’s regional balancing strategy similarly hinges on maintaining positive relations with Israel and Iran, even though it has criticised Israeli military actions in Gaza. 

While Iran’s bellicose rhetoric has sparked fears of a regional proxy war with Israel, Tehran’s actions have been much more cautious. This contrast will likely continue, as Iran wishes to keep its regional network of militias intact and burnish its diplomatic standing.

Samuel Ramani is a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, where he received a doctorate in 2021. His research focuses on Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East

Follow him on Twitter: @SamRamani2