Hamas’s “Al-Aqsa Flood” Challenges Iran’s Axis of Resistance

While the Biden administration, with Qatar’s support, has succeeded in securing a deal with Israel and Hamas for a combat “pause,” it remains to be seen if this leads to a formal ceasefire or only allows for a brief respite before Israel resumes its bid to destroy Hamas. But what is clear is that Hamas’s October 7 assault has shaken the entire region in ways that have undercut or upended the assumptions of all the key players. Shocked by Hamas’s surprise attack and its killing of some 1,200 Israelis, Israel has retaliated with a ground and air war that has killed almost 15,000 Palestinians, at least 5,000 of whom are children. Gulf Arab states, especially those that joined the “Abraham Accords,” have suddenly shown a newfound interest in the fate of Palestinians, while many Arab leaders are facing a rising tide of anger provoked by the carnage in Gaza.

If the Biden administration has been listening, so have Iran’s leaders. They may yearn for Israel’s destruction, but the last thing Tehran wants is for the “axis of resistance” that it has forged to collapse under the weight of a regional conflagration it did not seek. Indeed, because the purpose of Iran’s alliances with militant forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen is not Israel’s elimination but rather the survival of the regime, the Islamic Republic might back diplomatic initiatives that may include concessions from Hamas. In short, Hamas’s October 7 “Al-Aqsa Flood” is reverberating through the Middle East, thus posing vexing challenges for both Iran and Hezbollah.

Deterrence and the Paradox of Resistance

Lacking a powerful conventional military, Iran has deployed a “forward defense” strategy via alliances with non-state actors. Funded and armed by Iran, these groups have one primary mission, and that is to deter the United States or Israel from attacking the Islamic Republic. This strategy not only sub-contracts Iran’s defense to regional allies, it does so in ways that give it plausible deniability even as Tehran’s allies periodically harass, intimidate, or threaten its foes. This blurring of the lines between defense and offense carries risks, the most obvious of which is the possibility of a process of uncontrolled escalation between Iran and its detractors. But a second risk is that Iran’s regional allies might “go rogue” by taking on Israel or the United States in ways that could severely damage the deterrent architecture provided by the axis of resistance. Such a possibility has been ever present in the Israel-Lebanon theater but has loomed even larger in the Gaza-Israel arena.

For Tehran, Hezbollah plays one crucial role: it serves as a deterrent against a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

For Tehran, Hezbollah plays one crucial role: it serves as a deterrent against a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. For Iran, ensuring Hezbollah’s capacity to launch a retaliatory or preemptive attack on Israel is absolutely essential. Thus, it has provided Hezbollah with some 100,000 rockets, while Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has played a key role in transforming Hezbollah’s army—which includes some 22,000 fighters and an equivalent number of reservists—into a potent force, one that Israel is loath to confront via a ground invasion. Indeed, any such invasion and/or major air attack would provoke massive retaliation. Even with Israel’s “Iron Dome” anti-missile system, by launching multiple rockets, experts argue that Hezbollah could hit all of Israel’s main cities and inflict immense damage on refineries, water desalination plants, communication systems, and industrial infrastructure. And because Israel is capable of inflicting similar costs on Lebanon, it might be said that the ultimate obstacle to a full-fledged war between Hezbollah and Israel is the very real prospect of “mutually assured catastrophe” for both countries. Knowing this, Hezbollah’s role in the axis of resistance is to preserve its deterrent capacity (and that of Iran) by avoiding an all-out war with Israel.

Hamas’s role in the axis of resistance is somewhat different, yet echoes the logic of deterrence. Because it claims to speak for some 2 million Palestinians, Hamas plays a political and symbolic role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that Hezbollah cannot possibly match. But since it has not received the kind of advanced armaments that Iran has given Hezbollah, Hamas has not posed the same level of threat that Hezbollah is capable of inflicting on Israel. Instead, Hamas has used Iran’s missiles, drones, training, and funding to cause pain and draw Israel into costly military incursions –but without posing an existential threat (at least until recently). Indeed, this situation facilitated Israel’s efforts to divide Gaza from the West Bank. While Gaza’s people have paid a high price for this dangerous arrangement, in point of fact the Israel-Hamas stand-off has also worked well for Iran. By giving its regional allies the means to harass Israel from the north and the south, Iran has kept the flame of “resistance” burning—but without risking a regional explosion that might prove costly for Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran’s outward defense strategy has hinged on walking this tricky path.

October 7: Hamas Goes Quasi-Rogue?

If Hamas’s October 7 “Al-Aqsa Flood” assault has not upended Iran’s forward defense strategy it has complicated it in two closely related ways. First, the attack reportedly hinged on an elaborate artifice of deception that not only surprised Israel but was also not revealed to Hezbollah or Iran. Tehran’s military and technological support helped make the assault possible. But only a small number of Hamas’s military leaders seem to have had a comprehensive view of the plan. Thus, Iran and Hezbollah responded to events as they unfolded while their leaders held that they had no forewarning of the attack. US intelligence sources have effectively backed such claims, while Hezbollah’s decision to move forces to south Lebanon following the attack suggested the improvised nature of its response. When Iran’s Foreign Minister Amir Hossein-Abdollahian insisted that “we don’t want this war to spread out,” and that Hamas “is not receiving orders from us” and is acting in its “own interests” he was probably not prevaricating. Instead, he seems to have telegraphed Tehran’s worries about a war it had not expected.

The scope, ambition, and indiscriminate nature of the violence that Hamas unleashed has opened the door to a wider military confrontation for which none of the key players were prepared.

Second, and speaking of war, the scope, ambition, and indiscriminate nature of the violence that Hamas unleashed as its forces attacked both military targets and civilian towns and kibbutzim, has opened the door to a wider military confrontation for which none of the key regional and global players were prepared. From the vantage point of Israel’s leaders—and the country’s wider population—the war is about the determination of Israel’s foes to threaten the entire country. These fears were fed by Hamas’s killing of some 1,200 Israeli civilians, and amplified by widely viewed videos of Hamas atrocities, thus creating a kind of collective trauma that seems even deeper and more keenly felt than the trauma suffered during the 1973 war. And this may be exactly what Hamas envisioned. Beyond its border assault, it appears that Hamas’s forces were prepared to extend their attacks toward the West Bank in the hope Palestinians in the occupied territories –and in Israel itself—would rise up in rebellion.

If the worst nightmares of Israel’s leaders or grandiose ambitions of their foes have not materialized, the displacement of some 200,000 Israelis, Hezbollah rocket attacks, escalating violence in the West Bank—prompted in part by Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians—and an expanding unemployment crisis, all suggest that Hamas’ actions have shaken Israeli society to the core. Israel’s assault in Gaza is thus not simply about revenge. Rather, it is fueled by the belief of both elites and the wider populace that Israel must destroy Hamas even at the risk of provoking a two-front war whose tremors could reverberate throughout the Middle East. Such a prospect is something that Iran’s leaders want to avoid. But it may become very real if Israel’s assault expands following the current temporary truce, and with such a resumption of hostilities, the death of more Palestinian civilians.

Dilemmas for Iran and Hezbollah

This potential for a wider war has created a dilemma for Iran and Hezbollah. Neither can afford to let up on the pressure along the Lebanese border, lest they be seen as failing to back Hamas. But as the pace of deadly tit-for-tat attacks escalates, the dangers for Israel and Lebanon have increased. Quite apart from the prospect of a mutually assured catastrophe is the possibility that Israel could refocus its military might on Lebanon and thus deliver a severe blow to Hezbollah.  But if, as one expert has noted, it is unlikely that “Iranians want to sacrifice Hezbollah on the altar of Hamas,” Tehran cannot risk signaling that it is ready to sacrifice Hamas on the altar of the axis of resistance. Iran’s leaders face a conundrum for which there is no simple solution.

Iran’s leaders must find a way forward that ensures that their regional allies can survive and project deterrence.

Still, given their long-term interests, Iran’s leaders must find a way forward that ensures that their regional allies can survive and project deterrence. For this purpose, they are resorting to their familiar carrot and stick approach. The stick is being wielded by Tehran’s allies in Yemen and especially Iraq. Apart from demonstrating solidarity with Palestinians, the recent missile attacks on US forces in Syria are meant to send signals that they will suffer a cost if the United States does not push for a formal ceasefire. The US has retaliated after each assault in the hope that it can deter Iran’s allies from escalating, but the potential for a widening confrontation between US and pro-Iranian forces could increase dramatically if Israel expands its assault in Gaza.

As for the carrot, based on his talks with Qatar and Hamas, Iran’s Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian has set out the outlines of a negotiated deal that he suggests would involve a prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel, an immediate halt of attacks, and the provision of humanitarian aid to Gaza. But, he added, “It is the American side that must decide whether it wants to escalate the war.” This is not an unreasonable expectation given that any prospects for a diplomacy will depend partly on the readiness of the Biden White House to pressure Israel to accept some kind of truce.

Now that it has demonstrated its willingness to back such a truce, the White House might face—or even welcome—efforts by the international community to press for a wider ceasefire and a process of international talks that will make it hard for Israel to resume its assault on Hamas. Determined to prevent this scenario, Prime Minister Netanyahu has insisted that military operations will continue after the current pause. But if a substantial number of hostages are released, as now seems possible, the pressure in Israel and abroad to build on the truce will surely increase, thus perhaps lessening the chances for a United States-Iran military confrontation that both Washington and Tehran want to avoid.

Iran Wants No War and No Peace

Whatever the outcome of the Gaza conflict, two things now appear clear. First, Iran’s leaders will have to rethink how to ensure that its regional allies do not use the umbrella of “deterrence” to pursue goals that could undercut the axis of resistance. This will not be easy because the foot soldiers of Hamas and Hezbollah have long expected that the ultimate purpose of resistance is to crush Israel rather than to protect Iran’s rulers. One Hezbollah fighter asserted that his “main fear is to die without liberating Palestine – but we can see it getting closer.” Such hopes will be dealt a further blow if, as now seems possible, a diplomatic process—backed by Iran—opens up that will somehow include a pummeled version of Hamas.

While the Gaza conflict has exposed the failures of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy, the international community might nevertheless look to Washington to build on the November 24 truce.

Second, while the Gaza conflict has exposed the failures of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy, the international community might nevertheless look to Washington to build on the November 24 truce, in the hope that it can provide the basis for a wider effort to rebuild Gaza and, as Biden himself has proposed, to refocus US policy on the issue of Palestinian statehood. As he contends with an Israeli government that rejects giving Palestinians any political rights much less statehood, the White House might try to recast the “Abraham Accords” in a manner designed to tackle, rather than circumvent, the Palestinian issue. Such an effort could have the support of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states including Qatar, which by serving as an intermediary between the United States and Hamas, has emerged as a vital Gulf Arab ally of the United States.

With US elections on the horizon and a Middle East seething with anger over Israel’s devastation of Gaza, the window of opportunity for such an effort will be very short. It is likely that Iran will try to activate the axis of resistance to sabotage any wider diplomatic process. But any bid by Iran to act as a spoiler could also expose the fault lines in the axis of resistance. Indeed, having pushed for a ceasefire and thus associated itself with a global diplomatic initiative that could prevent the total destruction of Hamas, when it comes to Palestinian interests, Tehran must tread carefully. After all, it is likely that Russia and especially China—that are effectively associate members of the axis of resistance—will back rather than undercut a wider diplomatic process.

Such a possibility has prompted a lively debate in Iran regarding the costs and benefits of working with Russia and China, particularly given the latter’s role in securing a renewal of Saudi Arabian-Iranian relations. One Iranian analyst has argued that “we should recognize that in many cases, we operate within the framework of China and Russia’s interests, without little to gain for ourselves.” While exaggerated, this warning speaks to the contending interests that are at play in a widening axis of states and non-state groups that will not automatically follow the Tehran line of no peace and no war.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Foreign Ministry of Iran