The common stereotype is that Iranians are formidable chess players.
Unlike Westerners, whose policies are constrained by time and public opinion, the leaders of the Islamic Republic build their strategy over the long term, anticipating each step years, or even decades, in advance. The fact that Iran, in 40 years, despite Western sanctions, managed to establish a low-cost network of alliances in the Middle East, positioning itself as an essential player and exerting a constant threat to its adversaries, adds further credence to this perception. All the while, Tehran has developed its nuclear capabilities to the point of being very close to possessing a bomb. However, the state of decay in not only the Islamic Republic but also each of the countries in which it exercises significant influence, tends to largely attenuate this sense of formidableness.
Never has this chess-player stereotype been tested as much as these past two weeks, beginning with Hamas's attack on Israel on Saturday, Oct. 7. Even the United States’ assassination of regime strongman Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, did not mark such a pivotal moment in the history of the Islamic Republic.
The puzzle takes shape
The Hamas operation plunged everyone into the dark – except Iran.
As the days go by, the puzzle takes shape, and Iran's plan becomes clearer. While Tehran denies playing a role in the Hamas offensive and the United States and Israel, for their part, say they currently have no evidence of its direct involvement, many factors suggest that Iran has been behind the scenes from the start.
The strengthening of ties between Hamas and Hezbollah under the Iranian umbrella in recent years, the financing and military support provided by the Islamic Republic to the movement, the dramatic nature of the attack and its timing during the Israel-Saudi rapprochement, and finally, the behavior of Iran and its allies since the beginning of these events, are all indicators supporting this theory.
Why would Hamas have launched such a suicidal operation if it did not know from the outset that it could count on Iran later on? Why are Iran and its allies, who have been very cautious in recent years, now threatening to set the region ablaze if it is not part of a previously prepared plan to strengthen the Islamic Republic's position in the Middle East? Why did members of the "axis of resistance" brag to several media outlets, including L'Orient-Le Jour, about having participated in the operation's preparation from Beirut, if not to let everyone know, without publicly admitting it?
The Iranians seem to have played their move as if in a chess game. They've woven their web for 40 years to rely on their deterrent force (militias and missiles) when the time came. Things then suddenly sped up. They took advantage of the war in Iraq, the Arab Springs, and the fight against the Islamic State to strengthen their position in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, thereby enhancing their ability to strike their enemy from multiple fronts.
Once this period ended and Sunni-Shiite tensions returned to a more manageable level, they initiated reconciliation between all the movements that make up the axis of resistance, gradually integrating Hamas into their regional strategy. This led to at least a year of Hamas consolidating its presence in Lebanon with operations carried out (but not claimed) by the movement from the south of the country and the official statement by Hassan Nasrallah regarding the "unity of fronts" strategy.
Was it at this time that the “Al-Aqsa Flood” offensive began to take shape in the minds of its architects? Probably.
If Iran and its allies then decided to carry out a major action against Israel, they needed a more favorable regional environment to execute it. This might explain Iran's surprising reconciliation with Saudi Arabia, under Beijing's auspices, last March. By calming its relations with the leader of the Arab and Sunni world, Iran was able to focus on the "resistance" to Israel without risking isolation when the time came.
Tehran emerges victorious
All the pieces were in place. All that remained was to strike hard on a symbolic date, half a century after the October war, perceived as an "Arab victory" in regional collective memory.
The Hamas offensive brought Israel to its knees, buried the PLO, and nipped Saudi-Israeli normalization in the bud. It enabled Iran to reaffirm its status as the main "defender" of the Palestinian cause and an essential power in all regional matters. At the end of the first round, Tehran was declared the big winner. But the battle doesn't end there. To savor its victory, the Islamic Republic needs to deter Israel from destroying Gaza and eliminating Hamas; otherwise, all the gains from the operation will go up in smoke. That's when the Iranian trap begins to close on Israel.
To reassert its deterrent force, Israel has no choice but to launch a major offensive on Gaza. However, such an operation is extremely complex in a dense and hostile environment, against a Hamas that appears much stronger than it was a few years ago and has captured over 200 Israelis.
Israel has a lot to lose in such an operation: the hostages and many soldiers, but also significant reputational damage, especially in the Arab world where the Palestinian cause remains significant, if not central. Israel would jeopardize the entire normalization process with Arab countries, especially with Saudi Arabia, for a very uncertain outcome. Even if it managed to "eliminate" Hamas – which is far from certain – it has no plan for what comes after, no political solution to break the cycle of violence it has also fueled.
And as if all that wasn't enough, the Iranian trap has another, even more dissuasive dimension. Hezbollah threatens to open the northern front if Israel enters Gaza. Iran's allies flex their muscles in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and the Islamic Republic raises the specter of a regional conflagration if Israel doesn't back down – in other words, if Israel and the US don't acknowledge its victory.
‘Show their cards’
The plan seems perfect, the trap impossible to escape. It's based on the double belief that Israel will do everything to avoid waging an open war on two fronts, and that the US will do everything to avoid regional escalation at a time when all their attention is focused on Ukraine and China. In this context, they'll have no choice but to back down and negotiate, both on the nuclear issue and concerning Iran's role in the region.
But what if the Iranian plan was more fragile than it seems? What if the Islamic Republic hadn't accurately anticipated Israel's determination and the extent of support from its American ally, which sent two aircraft carriers to the Eastern Mediterranean? In other words, what if the chess game suddenly turned into a game of poker?
That's where we are today. Iran has made a master move, but its adversaries refuse to concede victory. The Islamic Republic is then forced to raise the stakes, through its Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and then through the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Is Tehran ready for regional escalation, in which Israel and the United States can, if not destroy, at least weaken all its allies and strike directly on its territory? Aren’t the stakes too high for a regime that doesn't yet possess nuclear weapons and cannot be certain of surviving such an event?
Everything suggests that the Israeli-American duo will ask to "see the cards" of Iran. Either the Islamic Republic is bluffing and the trap might close on it. Or it goes all-in, and the entire region will be ensnared.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour