For over three months, the war in Gaza has raised the risk of regional war, pitting Tehran and its allies against Tel Aviv and Washington.
The US, which has gradually increased pressure on Israel and increased deterrent measures to avoid widespread conflagration, has no interest in being dragged into a new conflict in the Middle East.
The same goes for Iran, whose stability would also be shaken in the case of regional war.
Yet, never has the risk seemed so high. In just 24 hours, things have escalated a notch. On Saturday, five senior members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were killed in a missile strike that killed 12 people in total. Tehran blamed the attack, which targeted a house in Damascus, on Tel Aviv.
A few hours later, an Israeli drone strike killed a Hezbollah official in Sour, South Lebanon. Later that day, Iran-linked Iraqi militias fired missiles and rockets at the Ain al-Assad US air base in Iraq, wounding a member of the Iraqi Army. Several US soldiers were reportedly examined for traumatic brain injuries after the attack.
Early evening, Washington took down an anti-ship missile that the Yemeni Houthis had allegedly directed toward the Red Sea, the seventh strike against the group in 10 days.
What significance can be given to this play of events, especially amid Tehran’s efforts to avoid provoking escalation?
Since at least Friday, Iran sent out more and more signals to calm the situation. Three days earlier, Tehran attacked Pakistan’s Sistan-Baluchestan province, in response to the double attack in Kerman in early January which was claimed by the Islamic State (IS) organization in Khorasan, mainly active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afterward, Tehran and Islamabad both announced they “agreed to de-escalate the situation.”
Also on Friday, Houthi spokesman Mohamad Abdelsalam told Reuters in a rare interview that the group did not intend to extend their attacks on shipping vessels beyond their stated aims of blocking Israel and retaliating against the US and British air strikes.
It is possible that Iran requested that the group exercise restraint, although Abdelsalam categorically denied it and stressed the Houthi’s autonomy.
Israel has seemingly interpreted these signs of de-escalation as a message that Iran is not ready to join an all-out war. Israel, which may have calculated that Tehran was not going to retaliate further and directly, has thus taken the opportunity to intensify its attacks against its enemy in Syria and Lebanon.
Iran’s rather unusual direct strikes on Erbil, Syria and Pakistan earlier last week demonstrated the range of its military arsenal, yet the underlying motive was likely to send a message of deterrence.
“The Iranians decided to attack easier targets in Erbil, Idlib and Pakistan to divert attention from the domestic crisis facing the regime with the Parliament and the Assembly of Experts elections, due to be held in early March, in which it fears that a historically low turnout will tarnish its reputation,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, director of the Center for Middle East and Global Order (CMEG), Iran expert and associate researcher at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy & International Affairs at the American University of Beirut (AUB).
Through these operations, Teheran also reassured its popular base and axis of resistance allies that it was taking action in the face of the US and Israeli attacks.
In fact, over the past few hours, the Islamic Republic has once again turned the heat up on Tel Aviv and Washington through its Iraqi and Yemeni allies and auxiliaries, reactivating the concept of “plausible deniability.”
“Iran continues and will continue to rely on its auxiliaries to complicate Israel’s military operations in Gaza. It is also unlikely to have Hezbollah massively involved in the war because the Shiite party is a sort of life insurance for Tehran in the event that the Iranian regime’s stability and internal security is directly threatened,” said Fethollah Nejad.
Despite everything, the threshold of regional conflagration seems to have been crossed. In Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and around the Red Sea, fronts that seemed so far limited have opened and intensified since the start of the Gaza War. While the attacks in these theaters may not all be coordinated, they are surely complicating the transition to calm.
The Americans, who promised to protect their troops in the region at all costs, find themselves in a delicate position. While Saturday’s strikes on the US air base in Iraq forces it to retaliate, the country seeks to disengage from the region by involving fewer forces — a pressing issue for the Biden administration on the eve of the US presidential elections in November.
According to several observers, the Houthis fired so many rockets and missiles that it was almost impossible for any US personnel not to be hit. In recent months, US troops in Iraq and Syria were targeted by almost 140 missiles and rockets.
According to the Washington Post, the US administration is also drawing up plans for a sustained military campaign targeting the Houthis in Yemen. Biden admitted that strikes have not yet succeeded in deterring the rebel group.
But like Iran — which did not even mention Gaza in the Islamic Republic’s official statements claiming responsibility for its strikes in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan — Washington is dissociating from regional issues, to minimize the risk of a wider escalation, thus adopting a different strategy in Gaza and the Red Sea.
To avert this risk, however, de-escalation efforts are continuing behind the scenes. According to the Financial Times, the US and Iran are using informal communication channels, via countries like Qatar, to defuse tensions.
Brett McGurk, White House coordinator for the Middle East, is due to visit Egypt and Qatar this week to advance the negotiations for the release of the Hamas-held hostages in Gaza and to discuss the war in the enclave, Axios reported, quoting three informed sources on Sunday.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.