In September 2023, only a week before Hamas attack on Israel, United States National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stated that the Middle East ‘is quieter today than it has been in two decades.’ By January 2024, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had to take a very different stance, calling it ‘an incredibly volatile time in the Middle East’.  He argued that a situation as dangerous as the one currently seen across the region has not been experienced ‘since at least 1973, and arguably even before that.’

While intense fighting has been taking place in Gaza since Hamas’ attack on Israel in October 2023, members of Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’ have also increased their attacks. US military installations in the Middle East have been attacked regularly by various Iranian-backed groups, with a drone strike on January 28th, 2024, marking the first time US soldiers were killed since the Israel-Hamas war broke out. Iran insists that these groups are ‘independent’ in decision and action and has repeatedly declared that it was not seeking an ‘expansion’ of conflict in the Middle East, while also warning that it will respond ‘forcefully’ to any attack inside its borders. Nevertheless, Iran has for decades been funding, arming, and training its proxy groups and its direct or indirect involvement is at the heart of geopolitical instability in the Middle East.

Iran’s proxy warfare through its ‘Axis of Resistance’

Iran has felt isolated and besieged ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, when the country became a Shia Muslim theocracy. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran since 1989, has repeatedly defined the Islamic Republic’s government as a ‘resistance government’ against Western and Israeli influence. From the early 1980s onwards, Iran’s regime developed an approach they call ‘forward defence strategy,’ arguing that to defend itself, the country must act outside its borders. This has meant that, to counter the perceived threats, the country has been building a network of like-minded militant groups in the Middle East, calling itself and these groups the ‘Axis of Resistance.’ This ‘axis’ includes groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, as well as Kataib Hezbollah, a member of a network of pro-Iranian militias known as the Islamic Resistance of Iraq (IRI), that claimed responsibility for the January attack. It allows Iran to project force in the region, striking its adversaries without using its own forces or endangering its territory, all the while maintaining a level of ‘plausible deniability.’

Iran considers supporting what it calls ‘resistance groups’ in the region its duty, with its relationships being fraught with strategic rivalries and religious sectarianism. Iran has long aspired to establish itself as the regional power, which contributes to its rivalry with Saudi Arabia, and its often-hostile relations with other predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab neighbours. Experts on Iran suggest that the country’s leadership considers Iran to be the only ‘truly righteous’ Muslim country that is divinely ordained to assert its hegemony over the Middle East and lead over the Muslims of the world.

Enemies of the Islamic Republic

The regime sees Israel and the US, Israel’s main ally, as their biggest enemies and main obstacles to its hegemony in the region. It considers the ‘Axis of Resistance’ a core element of its strategy to deter the two countries, alongside Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, a country viewed by Iran as one of its main regional adversaries because of their competing interests in the fight for dominance. The leaders of Iran and its ‘axis’ believe that Israel needs to, and will be, destroyed. When exactly they expect this to happen is not clear, but there is no sign that any of these leaders have any doubt in this. Hamas official Ghazi Hamad told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation in November 2023 that they will repeat the October 7th, 2023, attack ‘again and again until Israel is annihilated.’ Iran and its proxy groups view every conflict that Israel is drawn into as a step toward this end, draining Israel’s resources and driving a wedge between Israel and the rest of the world, including its supporters. This is also evidenced with the recent Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, which they claim to be in support of the Palestinians after Israel invaded Gaza. The actions are a significant departure from their previous attacks, with the Houthis having mostly been engaged in irregular warfare against Saudi Arabia since 2015. However, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March 2023 might have opened the avenue for the Houthis to focus on other enemies of Iran.

Iran’s leadership is confident that time is on their side. Their position can be described as one of strategic patience; they believe that Israel will eventually disappear, like the so-called ‘crusader states’ that did not last more than 200 years, because, according to them, it is divinely ordained. The regime considers it their duty to facilitate this, but without provoking a regional conflict that could lead to a major US-Israeli attack on key Iranian assets in the region, or on Iran itself. In this sense, Iran and its proxies are ready to make tactical withdrawals where necessary, but without sacrificing its goal of seeing Israel destroyed.

Religion’s role in Iran’s politics

Western policymaking and diplomacy are, as a rule, secular and based on rationality. The same secular rationality has been projected onto Iran, even after the 1979 revolution that turned the country into a theocracy. The West appears to believe that, although the Islamic Republic may have initially been an expansionist country, hoping to ‘export’ the revolution and using religion as a disguise to mask its nationalist ambitions, this drive ended sometime in the mid-1980s when the regime began to realise the limits of its power. Since then, Iran has been seen as a country that is prepared to act rationally, in line with a regional political system – if they were offered the right incentives. 

However, it is important to remember that Iran’s leadership is genuinely religious, with the grounding principle of the country’s politics being a mix of tactical pragmatism with eschatological religiousness. The speeches of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah over the past two decades have shown their absolute conviction in and a millenarian certainty of Islam’s eventual victory. They believe that the global triumph of Islam is divinely ordained and will lead to the destruction of Islam’s enemies.

Western diplomacy is also likely working on the assumption that making (tactical) concessions to Iran will buy time, and with that people might change, making it possible to negotiate a solution. However, this change in Iran has not happened. While there was a brief period of pragmatism during Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency, the ayatollahs eventually saw this pragmatism as a threat to their regime and have since been determined to prevent it from happening again. To achieve this, the Iranian regime began removing people who are ‘not committed enough’ and established a sophisticated programme of indoctrination and surveillance, with the aim of suppressing any change they might perceive as a threat.

Indirect military action aimed at preventing escalation

While Iran appears to be asserting its military strength amid the regional turmoil, its leaders have meticulously avoided direct military action against either Israel or the US. So far, Iran’s regime appears to be content to use its tested and proven strategy of proxy warfare. The US, while considering Iran responsible for many of the attacks or at least supplying the weapons used in the attacks has, as expected, carried out a series of retaliatory strikes, targeting militia leaders and facilities used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s proxy groups. Some commentators have been arguing that such a targeted response has failed in deterring further attacks and that the lack of a more forceful response has encouraged these groups. Certain Republican senators have also been calling for strikes inside Iran, arguing that the Biden administration’s strategy thus far has amounted to failed appeasement.

However, direct strikes against Iran are unlikely because in the current tense situation, the regime would likely treat even a targeted attack inside Iran the same way as a full-scale war. Any such attack could compel Iran’s regime to respond for fear of showing weakness both internally and externally, something they consider to be potentially fatal.

In addition, the latest retaliation and messages from the US appear to have had an effect. While a few months ago Iran saw themselves in a position to set preconditions over the war in Gaza, on January 30th, 2024, Kataib Hezbollah announced the suspension of all its military operations against US forces in the region. They claim the decision was taken to avoid ‘embarrassment’ of Iraq’s government, which had called for all resistance parties to de-escalate the situation. Other signs that Iran’s leaders are now more prepared than before to de-escalate are also appearing, as they realise that the regime might be facing the gravest risk to its survival in a decade. Whereas the Iranian regime may have previously felt that its regional influence and the fate of its allies was at stake, the latest attacks and retaliatory attacks likely led it to perceive the situation as a potentially existential threat.

Domestic issues influencing Iran’s foreign policy

Another reason behind Iran’s aversion to the conflict spiralling out of control are the country’s domestic issues; Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is ageing and seeks to secure his legacy by installing a like-minded successor, meaning this is not a suitable time to get dragged into a wider war. At the same time, Iran is facing an economic crisis caused by corruption, chronic fiscal mismanagement and sanctions imposed because of its nuclear ambitions. Iran’s leaders realise that decades of sanctions and embargoes have degraded Iran’s economy and that their repressive government is not popular with its people, who are frustrated with the poverty and inflation. The regime faced widespread demonstrations in 2022 after Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman of Kurdish ethnicity, died in custody, having been imprisoned for wearing the hijab improperly. The protests in Iran, which were supported by demonstrations globally, were brutally repressed, as Iran’s theocratic regime cannot show any sign of weakness and sees even unorganised protests as a threat.

And finally, striving for regional dominance and in the hope of compensating for its vulnerabilities, Iran has been developing nuclear weapons, which would put it on par with Pakistan and Israel and ahead of Saudi Arabia. So far Iran’s nuclear programme has not produced a bomb but as the world has been focused on wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the country has been getting increasingly closer. At a time when its successful development of a nuclear bomb is within reach, Ali Khamenei is unlikely to be willing to jeopardise the progress by a reckless act that might result in a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Closing thoughts

With Iran’s leadership domestically engaged in the search for Ali Khamenei’s successor and its nuclear ambitions, the regime is content, at least for now, to let its proxy militias across the Middle East do what Iran has been providing funding and weapons for. It is also likely sufficient for Iran, for time being, that Israel has been accused of war crimes and that Israel’s normalisation of relations with Saudi Arabia has suffered a significant setback, with the latter having the added value of dealing a blow to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitions to make his country a regional economic superpower.

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