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Is Iran afraid of war? It is time to separate the Iranian octopus from its tentacles

By Aviram Bellaishe
web posted January 8, 2024

Soon after Hamas' October 7, 2023, attack on Israel, the Iranian regime emphatically denied its involvement. It similarly denied any involvement in the Houthis' attacks on shipping in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait—and even in the attack, attributed to Iran itself, on an Israel-related ship, the MV Sai Baba, off the coast of India.

Notwithstanding Iran's denials, which are part of its proxy strategy, the Pentagon said Iran was "deeply involved" in the Houthis' activity and directly involved in the attack on the abovementioned ship.

Can the Ayatollah regime avoid being drawn into an all-out war? Is it ready for war? How should Israel respond to these threats?

Threats and Denial: Iran's Rhetoric since October 7

In the months since the 10/7 attack, we are witness to the familiar Iranian rhetoric of sweeping denial of its involvement alongside baseless threats.

In his speech on October 10, Khamenei staunchly denied that Iran was behind Hamas' murderous attack on October 7 and claimed that Hamas had not even informed the Iranian regime of its intention to carry out a terror onslaught.

A Houthi hijacker stands on the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea. (Houthi Military Media/Handout)
A Houthi hijacker stands on the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea. (Houthi Military Media/Handout)

Beyond Iran's empty threats, the regime has offered many excuses for its failure to intervene in the Gaza war —from lack of prior notice of the Hamas attack to the claim that Iranian involvement would be in Israeli, not Palestinian, interest and would likely salvage the Zionist entity.

On November 19, 2023, the Houthis of Yemen seized the ship Galaxy Leader, which Israeli businessman Rami Ungar partly owns.The Iranians denied involvement in this act.

After the American declaration on efforts to form a maritime coalition in response to the Houthis' naval attacks in the Bab el-Mandeb region, the U.S. defense secretary threatened that the emerging maritime coalition would take extraordinary measures.

A week earlier, the Iranian representative to the United Nations sent a letter to the Security Council in which he denied the U.S. representative's claim that Iran was responsible for the Houthis' actions and claimed that Iran had not taken part in any action or attack against U.S. forces.

According to a December 22, 2023, Wall Street Journal report based on Western intelligence sources, an Iranian spy ship was guiding the Houthis' attacks since they themselves have no such guiding technology. The Journal quoted the White House as saying Iran was deeply involved in the attacks on the vessels.

A denial by Iran's deputy foreign minister was not long in coming.

On December 23, 2023, the Pentagon reported that the drone that had attacked the "Israel-related" ship off the coast of India had been launched by Iran. Israel gave the same assessment, while the spokesman of the Iranian Foreign Ministry vehemently denied Iran's involvement and those assessments.

These denials were an integral, ongoing part of the Iranian proxy strategy of denying its involvement. Iran is trying to balance the multi-arena strategy of its warfare against Israel and the fear that it will be dragged into war.

The escalation to a direct attack on an Israel-related vessel stemmed from the fact that Iran is under pressure from Israel's progress in Gaza toward toppling Hamas and is trying to generate pressure that will cause an end of the fighting, though not at the price of an all-out war.

The December 25, 2023, killing of the IRGC commander in Syria, Reza Mousavi, attributed to Israel, can be seen as Israel's response to Iran's escalation or as an escalation intended to warn what Israel sees as the head of the octopus while dealing with one of its tentacles.

Despite the threats by Iranian senior officials of an imminent response to the assassination an informational film issued by the IRGC's news agency Tasnim bears out the assessment that Iran is afraid of all-out war and will not act directly in a way that would pull it into one. Hence, they claim that the assassination was carried out to drag Iran into a direct conflict with Israel, whereby Israel would gain U.S. support and draw the United States itself into the war. Instead, they say, Iran will respond with the continued backing for the resistance in such a way that Israel will regret the assassination. In other words, it is not a full-scale war.

Does Iran Fear an All-Out War?

Iran is in the midst of a severe economic crisis, as evidenced, among other things, by poverty and shortages in most strata of the society. The crisis stems, first, from a foreign policy that invests funds in the proxy armies instead of using these monies to enable an economic recovery from the sanctions, and second, from the corrosive corruption of the regime's leadership. Indeed, on December 1, 2023, the worst case of corruption in Iranian history was revealed, involving the theft of $3.7 billion from the state treasury.

Iran is beset with problems of both domestic and foreign migration. It is trying to cope, on the one hand, with an unprecedented brain drain of intellectuals and professionals to foreign countries and, on the other, with a massive immigration wave of Afghani refugees who, according to Iran's foreign minister, number at least five million.

They are changing the fabric of the population and fostering a rise in crime.

Another problem is failing municipal management. For example, at present, schools in many provinces have had to close because of extreme air pollution, with the government helpless to address the matter and simply waiting for the rains to come.

This situation produces instability, as evidenced by demonstrations against the economic hardship. Demonstrators are again denouncing the investment of state funds in Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon, and surveys indicate that in the upcoming March 2024 elections, only 15 percent of the population will participate.

Foreign and Security Policy

On the military level, Iran understands that it does not have the upper hand at this stage in many military sectors; any technological advantage over Israel or the United States is not decisive at the moment. (Hadi Kasimi of the Iranian Basij claimed regarding Lebanon, for example, that the war is not a classic war because Israel is a technological superpower and is exploiting its superiority in this arena.)

The manpower of Iran's conventional army does not ensure victory, certainly not in light of its varied ethnic composition.

Notwithstanding the acceleration of Iran's nuclear program, it does not yet have nuclear weapons.

As an Iranian proxy in the current war, Hamas is not achieving its objectives, and it is clear to all that the military stranglehold that helped Hamas build in Gaza will be dismantled. Iran was surprised by the intensity of Israel's reaction, and particularly by the cohesion of its army. Iran had viewed unity as a weak point for Israel in light of the rift that had formed in Israeli society in the months before October 7, as Iran closely followed the demonstrations and covered them extensively in its regime-affiliated media. This could explain why the Iranians have supported a ceasefire or any measure that would leave Hamas, even battered, with a possibility of rehabilitation.

So far, the activity against Israel by the armed Shiite organizations in Iraq has not been significant, nor that of the pro-Iranian organizations in Syria. Attempts to open a West Bank front have failed.

Hizbullah, which is undoubtedly the superior force among the Iranian proxy organizations and constitutes the most substantial threat among the terror groups on Israel's borders, has launched attacks against Israel. Lebanon as a country, however, is sunk in a severe economic crisis. Its citizens and non-Hizbullah representatives oppose a war with Israel, thereby restricting Hizbullah to limited responses—something the Iranians also understand. As former Lebanese foreign minister Kamal Hirazi remarked on December 4, 2023, Hizbullah shows great wisdom in limiting its attacks on Israel because its main task is the defense of Lebanon."

As for the Houthis, Yemen is ranked almost at the bottom of the world's poverty-stricken countries, and its GDP has kept declining in 2023.

The Houthis are very dependent on economic growth for civilian infrastructure, particularly the Al-Hudaydah port, and they understand that a maritime conflict in which it is damaged or destroyed would be a significant blow to their economy.

The intensity of the U.S. involvement on Israel's side was a surprise to the Ayatollah regime, especially the deployment of two aircraft carrier strike forces to the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, its ongoing weapons supply to Israel, and formation of a maritime coalition on December 18 against the Houthi naval aggression. The Biden administration's actions did not align with the Iranian leadership's view of a feckless U.S. leadership.

From the Octopus's Arms to Its Head

Like a pyromaniac, Iran derives its power in the Middle East from lighting fires that put Israel in a constant state of war. In activating Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizbullah, and others, the "arms of the octopus," Iran maintains a condition of military conflict – and not to benefit the Palestinian or Lebanese people.

Hence, the dismantling of Hamas' military capability in the Gaza Strip, to which the Israeli government has committed itself, signals to Iran—beyond the necessary objective of achieving security for the residents of both the Gaza belt and the interior—that Hamas' attack on October 7 changed Israel's approach to security. The concept of "relative quiet" no longer exists, and Israel is serious in its intention to destroy the proxy organizations or distance them from its borders. The disarming of Hamas points to a change of approach toward Hizbullah.

Israel needs to take a proactive, not just reactive, posture toward Hizbullah. (Of course, the preferred timing is after finishing the work in Gaza, but it depends on the intensity of Hizbullah's aggression.) It is doubtful that any diplomatic process can push Hizbullah's forces beyond the Litani River, 30 km from Israel's northern border, a mission of which the UNIFIL force was never capable.

In this context, while UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (in 2006) has not been upheld for a long time, it can serve to a certain extent as a basis of legitimacy for Israel in the international arena.

Hizbullah is a well-trained force equipped with quality weapons, and a war against it would be more difficult than one against Hamas. Hizbullah's weak point is its servitude to Iran's command. In light of Lebanon's economic plight, such a war would be devastating to Lebanese interests and is opposed by its residents and by non-Hizbullah elements of the government.

Before a military offensive that proves Israel's intentions, Israel needs to convey the message to Lebanon, through all the diplomatic and other channels, that a withdrawal of Hizbullah's forces north of the Litani River will save Lebanon's civilian infrastructure from the wrath of Israel's air force. (Messages with images of the bombed-out Dahiya quarter of Beirut in the Second Lebanon War would warn of the consequences of Hizbullah's aggression and rejectionism.)

Indeed, the assassination of Hamas official Salah al-Arouri in the Dahiya quarter sends a dual message to both Hamas and Hizbullah. Firstly, Israel is fulfilling its commitments to eliminate senior Hamas figures implicated in the events of October 7th. Secondly, Israel can eliminate high-ranking Hamas operatives in the heart of the Dahiya region in Lebanon or others designated for elimination; it's simply a matter of decision regarding any response beyond the anticipated reaction from Hizbullah.

In this context, when the proposals are made for assembling a multinational force, including contingents from moderate Arab countries, for serving as a buffer between Israel and Gaza on "the day after," Israel should add the issue of a force on the Lebanese border since UNIFIL is incapable of fulfilling that role.

As for the Houthis, Israel has succeeded in making clear that they constitute an international problem. The American formation of the maritime coalition may have surprised the Iranians. Beyond the threats of the regime officials, would Iran directly join in the Houthis' fray? It is likely that Iran is aware of the implications of an all-out war and will do everything possible to avoid one.

The attack on the "Israel-related" vessel off the coast of India with a drone launched from Iran, according to both the Pentagon and Israel, alongside the Iranians' denial, may reflect the pressures Iranians are feeling by Israel's progress toward toppling Hamas. While the ship that was attacked was Israeli and not American, Israel should make use of the Americans' awareness of Iran's involvement.

Iran's many threats against the Americans should serve Israel's diplomatic efforts to convince the Americans to put a halt to Iran's nuclear program and upgrade the surveillance of the sanctions (conveying the message that a nuclear Iran would be less anxious about an all-out conflict and the IAEA report that Iran has "increased its production of highly enriched uranium, reversing a previous output reduction from mid-2023).

The issue of the Houthis (including their reported alliances with the Al-Shabab in Somalia and the Dhulbahante militia in Somaliland) constitutes a window of opportunity for Israeli diplomatic efforts (if they do not already exist) toward countries like Eritrea, Somaliland, Somalia, and the anti-Houthi bloc in Yemen, in the vein of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

The Iranian frustration, in the context of the Iranian response to the assassination of Gen. Razi Musawi in an Israeli airstrike in Syria, along with the concern that it could lead to war, is evident in the statement of the Revolutionary Guard spokesman. He asserted that the operation on October 7 against Israel was a response to Qassem Soleimani's assassination four years ago, a statement met with categorical denial by Hamas and by the IRGC commander.

Further to the Iranian frustration, which is recognizable in the official Iranian responses accusing Israel regarding the January 3, 2024, explosion in Kerman and the death of more than 200 Iranians on the memorial day for Qassem Soleimani, the Iranians know that this was not an Israeli operation. It was not consistent with the typical Israeli modus operandi and the fact that civilians, not military targets, were affected. The actual list of suspects in the bombing involves numerous opposition groups, such as the Baluchis, Kurds, Afghans, and others.

Without a doubt, Iranians aim to convey a threat. However, it can be argued that Khamenei's statements were nuanced and did not explicitly point to the guilty party, possibly to prevent an all-encompassing war or a potential Israeli attack.

In this regard, Nasrallah's January 3, 2024, speech can be linked to the same rhetoric of threats and warnings. In practice, he enumerated all the reasons why there is no intention to initiate an all-encompassing war (blaming Israel for its own self-destruction). So, Hizbullah's response will continue along a line that does not create a new threshold leading to war.

Considering the intricate nature of Iranian sentiments, balancing honor, religious extremism, and the fear of direct war, the Revolutionary Guard is unlikely to desire war, especially since they have not yet secured a nuclear weapon (while increasing the production of highly enriched uranium).

Therefore, it is time to separate the octopus from its arms. Israel should undermine and disarm Hamas while taking action against Hizbullah. ESR

Aviram Bellaishe is VP, Strategy, Security, and Communications at the Jerusalem Center. For over twenty-five years, Aviram Bellaishe served in senior government positions as a business intelligence and Middle East specialist, negotiation expert, and international cooperation manager. Aviram was an Israeli director in a regional initiative for business and economic cooperation dialogue in the regions of the Middle East and North Africa, and is presently a member of the executive committee of MENA 2050.

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