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Opinion: What Iran wants — and fears

Editor’s note: Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. His most recent book is What’s Wrong With the One-State Agenda? Why Ending the Occupation and Peace With Israel is Still the Palestinian National Goal.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more CNN Opinion.

The crises wracking the Middle East are simultaneously independent flashpoints and also a relatively integrated regionwide offensive by Iranian-backed armed gangs.

Hussein Ibish - Courtesy of Hussein Ibish
Hussein Ibish - Courtesy of Hussein Ibish

It’s sometimes unclear how much control Iran has over these militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen and elsewhere.

Although Iran’s influence operates just beneath the earthquakes and tremors shaking the region, much like the Biden administration, Iran is serious about wanting to avoid a broader war.

Both are like Goldilocks, needing just enough but not too much.

But there are key differences. The United States is a status quo power — upholding security and stability is its regional brand. The 2003 invasion of Iraq devastated US credibility partly because it was such an irrational deviation from a traditional commitment to order.

Iran, conversely, is a quintessential revisionist actor, opposing the regional and global balance of power.

The United States and Saudi Arabia, also a regional status quo power, are strongly drawn together, while Iran consistently partners with other revisionist powers such as Russia and China.

This puts Washington at a tactical disadvantage since its partners have to behave with relative caution or put US interests at risk — as with the Saudi-led Arab intervention in Yemen that began in 2015 and Israel’s ongoing war of vengeance in Gaza.

That’s why the Biden administration is trying to quietly contain and restrain Israel in Gaza and prevent it from acting on its threats against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Conversely, Iran typically isn’t threatened when its clients sow chaos. For Iran, even the Hamas-led killing spree on October 7 has been useful by bleeding Israel in a battle against its on-again, off-again Hamas allies.

Yet Iran must be careful about what its proxies do. When one of Iran’s collection of Iraqi Shiite militias, Kataib Hezbollah, earlier this year launched a drone attack on a US logistics center in Jordan, killing three US soldiers, it had gone too far. Iranian leaders rushed to insist they don’t want a broader war, especially with the United States. Kataib Hezbollah announced that it was suspending all military operations while complaining Iran ”does not know the nature our jihad,” meaning it was standing down on Iranian orders.

Iran has backed Hezbollah’s efforts to avoid an all-out war with Israel despite consistent Israeli escalation and threats. When Israel assassinated a key Hamas leader, Saleh Al-Arouri, this year with a drone strike in Hezbollah’s primary area of Beirut, Hezbollah responded with a largely symbolic rocket attack on an Israeli radar station that caused no injuries and little damage.

Israel responded by assassinating the deputy commander of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan Force, Wissam Tawil, which has essentially gone unavenged, though intense skirmishing near the border persists.

Israel is now demanding Hezbollah remove its forces 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from the border or face an all-out attack, with some 80,000 Israelis and 70,000 Lebanese evacuated on either side. Hezbollah refuses, and Washington’s negotiator, Amos Hochstein, has proposed a 7-kilometer (4.3-mile) Hezbollah pullback. Hezbollah doesn’t want a war with Israel and Iran agrees.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has said that Tehran is not looking for war but would respond forcefully to any country that threatens it. - Shannon Stapleton/Reuters/FILE
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has said that Tehran is not looking for war but would respond forcefully to any country that threatens it. - Shannon Stapleton/Reuters/FILE

Tehran is loath to waste a trump card — Hezbollah’s 150,000, often precision-guided, missile and rocket arsenal on Gaza or Hamas. Hezbollah, arguably the most powerful nonstate military in history, is meant to deter Israeli or American attacks against Iran, especially its nuclear facilities.

The potential for such US or Israeli airstrikes is among the most significant reasons Iran wants to avoid a broader conflict. As global attention is focused on the immediate crises spawned by the October 7 attack, Tehran has been making stealthy but significant progress toward nuclear weapons power status by enriching ever-more near-weapons grade uranium.

The last thing Iran needs is anything that could reverse this progress and threaten other core national interests.

The wild card for Iran is the Yemeni Houthi militants and their Red Sea piracy. This piracy has reiterated and emphasized two long-standing Iranian diplomatic points: that Iran and its “axis of resistance” network must be included in any de facto maritime security arrangement, and that if Iran cannot freely ship its oil due to sanctions, no one can be assured of unmolested maritime commerce either.

Since three of the eight major global maritime chokepoints — the Suez Canal, Strait of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab Strait — encircle the Arabian Peninsula and are vulnerable to attacks from Iran and the “axis,” this global economic vulnerability provides Iran compelling international leverage.

Yet the Houthis may well prove the most troublesome “axis” member for Iran. Like Hamas, but unlike almost all other axis groups, neither are creations of Iran but clients. Both have shown a capability and willingness to act alone, as Hamas almost certainly did on October 7.

So, Iran has a great deal at stake in a set of conflicts that have to be carefully contained and controlled if it is going to avoid paying a significant, and possibly huge, price.

Tehran has already restrained its Iraqi proxies, is working to help Hezbollah climb down and avoid a devastating Israeli attack. They may even both, either formally or informally, accept the American proposal for a more modest pullback from the border with Israel. And Iran is probably urging the Houthis to take great care not to kill Americans or otherwise go too far.

It’s not just Washington that must play a careful balancing game in the Middle East morass. Despite Iran’s hostility to the status quo and gains from the current conflict at virtually no cost to itself, it clearly recognizes intensifying significant potential risks.

Tehran surely realizes it must get better control of its Arab proxies or they could end up dragging it into a conflict that’s disastrous for Iranian national interests — and possibly even the future of the regime.

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