The peril now facing us: Israel invades, Iran intervenes – and this war goes global

Calls for restraint are right but unlikely to be heeded. A conflict setting Israel and the US against Iran has rarely seemed closer

The foremost concern of western governments as the Israel-Hamas war enters a murderous second week is not the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. It is the alarming prospect of a swiftly spreading conflict pitting Israeli and US forces against Iran and its militia proxies. Recent, ominous signs suggest a rapid deterioration. Iran holds the key.

The two issues are intimately connected. Arab leaders told Antony Blinken, the visiting US secretary of state, that unless Israel’s mass casualty attacks on Gaza cease, the war may escalate uncontrollably. “If the Zionist aggressions do not stop, the hands of all parties in the region are on the trigger,” warned Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

But Israel will not be stopped. A high-risk, full-scale ground offensive into northern Gaza is imminent. Most western leaders surely wish it wasn’t happening. Even James Cleverly, Britain’s seriously clueless foreign secretary, has belatedly urged restraint. But amid continuing aftershocks from Black Saturday, they feel unable to prevent it.

Escalation begets escalation. The US says its decision to deploy a second aircraft carrier group in the eastern Mediterranean is intended to bolster Israel’s security and “deter any state or non-state actor” from widening the conflict. That vague wording conceals a world of anxiety about a possible head-on collision with Iran.

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Iran is the “state actor” that controls and coordinates the “non-state actors” – Hamas and the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza; Tehran-affiliated militias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen; and the most powerful of them all, Lebanon’s Hezbollah (the “Party of God”). This is what Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calls the “axis of resistance”.

Iran undoubtedly views the additional deployment as an American escalation. It appears to be placing its militias on notice that new war fronts may soon open up. Israel is already fending off daily, limited Hezbollah cross-border attacks in the north, and is warning of the “destruction of Lebanon” if the militia joins Hamas’s war.

The West Bank is another potential flashpoint amid rising levels of violence in the past week. In a further heightening of tensions, Israel is accusing Iran of deploying new weapons in or through Syria to create a second front. Syria claims Israel bombed Damascus and Aleppo last week.

What is Iran’s plan, assuming it has one? What does it want? These questions hold the key to the war. In the immediate aftermath of 7 October, US and Israeli officials were quick to say that there was no evidence, at present, to indicate Iran’s direct involvement. Too quick, perhaps. The suspicion was they wanted to avoid full-on confrontation at that very fraught juncture.

Subsequent reports suggest senior Iranian officials were in close touch with Hamas in the run-up to the attack. Gen Esmail Ghaani, head of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds force with responsibility for extraterritorial clandestine military operations, is said to have repeatedly met Hamas and Hezbollah leaders.

Specifically, it is claimed that Hamas members discussed their plan to mount simultaneous air, land and sea incursions into southern Israel with IRGC officers in Beirut on 2 October, five days before the attack – and were given the green light. Hamas insists it acted of its own volition. Iran welcomed the attack – but denies involvement in it.

Throughout the lengthy “shadow war” with Israel, Iran has typically operated at arm’s length, acting through proxies such as the Houthis in Yemen. The idea that Tehran, which funds, trains and arms Hamas, was not aware of, and was not involved in planning Black Saturday’s large-scale operation is very hard to believe.

Like a man suspected of murder, Iran has previous form and a strong motive for wanting to take a swipe at Israel now – in addition, that is, to its fundamental objection to the Jewish state’s very existence. Khamenei and Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s hardline president, sense weakness as they watch an Israel convulsed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s anti-democratic, hard-right policies.

Strategically speaking, the Biden administration’s preoccupation with Ukraine and tilt to Asia look like opportunities, when viewed from Tehran. The Afghan and Iraq withdrawals, and the Syrian regime’s rehabilitation, reinforce the perception that the US is losing leverage, and losing interest, in the Middle East.

Iran’s increased belligerence also stems from strengthened ties with China and especially Russia, now a big arms customer. Meanwhile, the prospect of a revived nuclear arms control deal with the west has reduced appeal, even if one could be agreed. Khamenei has always argued against a nuclear compromise, saying Iran should ignore US sanctions, become more self-sufficient, and look east.

Hamas’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, when trying to justify the 7 October attack, cited offensive transgressions near the site of the revered al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, chronic Jewish settler violence and land-grabs in the West Bank, and the 16-year blockade of Gaza.

Iran’s leaders are not so crazy as to support Haniyeh’s extreme call for international jihad and a wider war with the west. After recent turmoil at home, Khamenei is no fan of popular uprisings. But he did have another urgent reason to act.

The trend towards normalisation of relations between Arab states and Israel is anathema to Tehran. It especially hates the prospect – thought to be imminent – of an Israel-Saudi deal backed by US security guarantees. Normalisation has the potential to isolate Tehran politically and economically, unravelling its dreams of regional hegemony.

The 7 October attack has shifted the balance back in Tehran’s favour. Public opinion in the Arab world is furious about Gaza. Sensing the mood, the Saudis have put the Israel deal on ice. Significantly, Raisi and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, held their first-ever talks last week. This turnabout represents a tangible war dividend for Tehran.

All these factors combine to suggest a bullish Iran feels it has the wind at its back right now. Whether this newfound confidence, combined with a dangerous under-estimation of Israeli and American resolve, will induce Tehran to recklessly up the ante in the coming days is now the central question in this mega-crisis.

A confrontation setting Israel and the US directly against Iran has rarely appeared closer. As Netanyahu keeps saying, this is just the beginning. The war with Hamas could be about to go global.

 Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator. He has been a foreign leader writer, foreign editor and US editor for the Guardian

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