America has been thrust back into the maelstrom of Middle Eastern politics in a time when it already had more than enough on its plate in combatting Russia in Ukraine, containing China and dealing with the neo-nuclear menace posed by North Korea.
Just two weeks ago, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was hailing how the Middle East was quieter than it had “been in two decades”. Now Sullivan is now having to warn Iran against igniting a war across the region.
He told CBS News that the White House has “means of communicating privately” with the Islamic Republic. But he appeared to admit that verbal warnings might not be sufficient. “We have to prepare for every possible contingency,” he said. “That’s exactly what the President has done.”
Exactly what Sullivan or his emissaries are threatening Hezbollah or Iran with isn’t clear. It might range from even tighter financial penalties to air strikes against Hezbollah leadership and infrastructure, with the possible sinking of ships suspected of supplying them.
US President Joe Biden is considering a trip to Israel in the coming days. It would be a powerful symbol of sympathy and support following the brutal attack by Hamas.
But if concerns over Israel’s assault on Gaza turns to rage, a Biden trip to Israel might backfire.
Already, we have heard criticism of Israel’s military operation in Gaza from one of America’s key Arab allies in the region. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi has said that Israel’s Gaza operation has exceeded “the right of self-defence” and turned into “a collective punishment”.
How will the Arab state react if the death toll of Gazans runs into many thousands when the Israeli army goes in?
But Biden will be determined to maintain a tough approach to Iran – and domestic politics ahead of an election year demand this.
Some Republicans, particularly on the Trump wing of the party, have already accused the Biden administration of weakness in the face of Iran’s support of terrorism across the Middle East.
For the same reasons, Biden is reportedly freezing the six billion dollars Iran was supposed to receive via Qatar in exchange for the US hostages released from Iran last month.
Iran doesn’t disguise its central role in sowing discord in Israel, but delights in it.
Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian has displayed the Shia state’s support for Hamas by meeting with its political head, Ismail Haniyeh, in Doha, Qatar. He also met with Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in Beirut. Amir Abdollahian has also been on a diplomatic tour around the region to Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Qatar, countries aligned with or friendly to Iran.
We know Iran funds anti-Israel groups, but it is extremely wary of being found to have acted directly in attacks on Israel, for fear of massive Israeli or US reprisals. The biggest concern is whether it will unleash its most powerful overseas proxy, Hezbollah, thus forcing Israel to fight a war on two fronts.
Hezbollah is a more formidable opponent than Hamas, thanks to its arsenal of precision-guided missiles and thousands of experienced and well-trained fighters. It is a Shia Islamist group that has pledged loyalty to the Shia regime in Tehran. As such, Iran has more direct control over it than it does over Hamas – a Sunni group, whose ties with Tehran are based on a shared hatred of Israel.
In 2006, Hezbollah fought a 34-day war with Israel, prompted by a cross-border raid that killed eight Israeli soldiers. Israel suffered at least 157 dead in the brief, but fierce, conflict, although Hezbollah lost far more people.
It is this worrying possibility – a large-scale Hezbollah attack on Israel – that the US is trying to prevent by sending the massive strike force of two US aircraft carrier groups to the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Pentagon is also sending additional warplanes. Combined with the four squadrons of F/A-18 jets aboard each of the two carriers, the US will soon have an aerial armada of more than 100 attack planes, military officials have told the New York Times.
It is quite likely though, as i has reported, that Hezbollah will remain active in attacking Israeli positions, but at a level below the threshold of war.
Iran might be content that the attack on southern Israel by Hamas and its aftermath have already sufficiently dented prospects of closer ties between its nemeses Israel and Saudi Arabia, without sending its Hezbollah fighters into a risky, major conflict with Israel and, potentially, the US.
“I think they [Iran] have already had the effect they want – and the coming ground invasion will do further damage that may last a year or two,” says William Alberque, the Berlin-based director of strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Why throw more fuel on the flame when a land war will inflame Muslims from the Cape of Good Hope to the Moon? If Israel doesn’t (low probability), then they likely would have to do something else to escalate, but I really do think any further Israeli retaliation will prevent further talks for quite some time.”
Instead, Hezbollah could stick to ambushing Israelis with improvised explosive devices or launch mortar or rocket attacks in the Shebaa Farms, a mountainside running along Lebanon’s south-eastern border that has been occupied by Israel since 1967.
Tamir Hayman, a former head of Israeli intelligence, has suggested its main aim will be to “create distraction in order to relieve tensions over Gaza [and] creating tension in the [Israeli] Home Front Command”.
However, Hezbollah is already launching daily attacks along the border, and the intensity of these attacks appeared to be increasing.
Some Israeli pundits warn that the smallest miscalculation, by either Israel or Hezbollah, could lead to full-blown conflicts between Israel and several of its enemies – namely, to a regional war.