December 21, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

Israel-Hamas war: Will Iran escalate or manage the Gaza war?

Iran has already keyed in most of its proxies, so the question for Tehran is what to do next.
December 21, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

Israel-Hamas war: Will Iran escalate or manage the Gaza war?

Iran has already keyed in most of its proxies, so the question for Tehran is what to do next.

In the aftermath of the Hamas massacre on October 7, Iran was quick to mobilize its proxies across the region to launch a combined attack on Israel and US forces in Iraq and Syria.

Hezbollah, for example, quickly intervened, though with limited attacks, targeting Israel with rockets, small-arms fire, mortars, and drones.

The Houthis in Yemen also have joined the attack, targeting Eilat and shipping in the Red Sea, while in Iraq and Syria, the Iran-backed militias have attacked US forces more than 100 times so far.

Now, Iran may be settling into the conflict, having sought over the last several years to “unify the arenas” against Israel, which means being able to key in different groups around Israel to threaten it. Iran could rely on Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and others to mobilize at the snap of its fingers.

The arrival of the Houthis as a player on the battlefield is interesting, to say the least, because the emerging threat from Yemen has been known for years. The Houthis’ official slogan is: “Death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews.”

United against Israel 

Previously, the group was busy fighting the Saudi-backed Yemen government, but now it can focus on Israel. It has been employing Iranian-style Shahed 136 drones in Yemen since 2021; its attacks on ships are a new phenomenon.For Iran, however, the question must now be at a crossroads. Either Iran can escalate, or it can seek to “manage” the conflict.

There is an irony in Iran’s seeking to turn the tables on Israel. Israel had been investing in managing the conflict in Gaza over the last decade, and it was focused on the broader Iranian threat in the region.

This was characterized as a “third circle” threat. Iran was far away, in a sense, from the immediate circle of threats. The threat was larger, however, because of the mullahs’ nuclear program. Iran has tried to push its proxies, like so many pawns, closer to Israel.

Iran now may seek to “manage” the conflict, and Israel will need to respond to how it keys in its various proxies. Iran has already keyed most of them in, so the question facing Tehran now is what to do next.

Hezbollah has lost more than 115 of its members since October 7, and Hamas has lost thousands of its terrorist fighters; yet the Houthis are unscathed, as are the Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad has suffered some losses in the West Bank and Gaza, but it was never a very large organization to begin with.

For Tehran, there are questions to be asked about its next phase. Iranian pro-regime media may reflect some of this thinking, having toned down its coverage of Gaza, which may indicate a calm before the next storm.

It could also indicate a very real decision to move away from too much coverage, as Iran senses that it won’t have much more success in Gaza. Tehran and Hamas may be suffering from diminishing returns.

Iran will be asking itself who benefits from a war of attrition; one optional benefactor is Hamas, the way Hezbollah benefited from the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Tehran thinks Hamas can benefit from a ceasefire and international pressure on Israel, after which it would leverage its claims of “winning” in Gaza to grow its already strong influence in the West Bank and prepare for the next phase.

Towards that end, Iranian regime media has accused Israel of prolonging the conflict by not accepting a ceasefire.

That Iran’s Fars News Agency, considered to be close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, ran a main headline on Thursday about Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi “solving problems, fixing the holes” would appear to mean Iran is focused a lot on domestic issues.

It has distracted the region and the world by backing Hamas and fostering warfare around the region. Now, with the world distracted, Iran can focus domestically.

Of course, that could be media reporting that is just for domestic consumption, while Iran prepares another surprise for the region. The only issue facing Tehran in this regard is that it has already tried to use its proxies to do its worst, and they haven’t succeeded. 

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Israel at War