December 5, 2023

IntelBrief: Iran Achieves Mixed Results in Mideast Crisis

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Iran is attempting to use the Israel-Hamas war to further its efforts to diminish U.S. influence in the region and undermine U.S. global hegemony more generally.
  • Iran has succeeded in mobilizing its “axis of resistance” partners to attack U.S. and Israeli forces and threaten global commerce, but the axis has not materially altered the course of the conflict.
  • Iran’s diplomacy and actions have not drawn major Arab states significantly closer to Iran or caused them to sever their strategic ties to Israel or the United States.
  • The crisis has drawn Tehran and Moscow closer and furthered significant arms sale exchanges between the two powers.

Global officials have closely watched Iran’s actions and responses to the Israel-Hamas war because of the Islamic Republic’s ability to cause the war to expand into a regional conflagration. With the trajectory of the conflict becoming clearer nearly two months after Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack on Israel, experts and global officials are beginning to assess the degree to which Iran’s actions have furthered Tehran’s regional and global objectives. In the aggregate, the results of Iranian policy have been mixed.  Iranian leaders have clearly advanced some of their goals, particularly in stoking opposition in the Global South to U.S. and European hegemony. Iranian media both in and outside the country have highlighted the demonstrations against Israel’s offensive against Hamas and in opposition to U.S. backing of Israel’s military operations. Iranian leaders have cited the Hamas October 7 attack on Israel as a significant victory that demonstrates the strategic wisdom of violent resistance to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

The ledger of Tehran’s successes and failures in the crisis can also be analyzed based on Iran’s threats and statements of intent. Early in the crisis, Iranian leaders issued direct threats to intervene against Israel for what Tehran and many global officials assess as a disproportionate Israeli response that has caused the deaths of many thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. According to Axios media, diplomatic sources reported that, on October 14, Iran sent a message to Israel through the United Nations that it does not want further escalation in the Hamas-Israel war but that it will have to intervene if the Israeli operation in Gaza continued. U.S. statements and military deployments have apparently deterred Iran from becoming directly involved in the war and Tehran has not undertaken any action against U.S. or Israeli forces directly from Iranian territory. But, Iran has shown that it can mobilize its regional “axis of resistance” partners in a multi-faceted and coordinated response to Israel’s actions in Gaza. Iran has illustrated that it can put into practice its “unity of fronts” doctrine that calls for pressuring Israel and its supporters on all of Israel’s borders simultaneously. A total of seventy-six times since October 17, Iran’s allies in Iraq and Syria have attacked U.S. forces deployed to various bases in both countries as part of the anti-Islamic State (ISIS) coalition. Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s closest regional ally, has tied down large numbers of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) personnel and equipment with daily cross-border rocket and artillery fire across Israel’s northern frontier. The Houthi movement in Yemen has used Iran-supplied armed drones and land attack cruise missiles to try to attack Israel as well as U.S. naval vessels in the Red Sea. Iran has provided the Houthis with weaponry to use primarily against Saudi Arabia – the leader of an Arab coalition supporting the Republic of Yemen Government against the Houthis. The group has alarmed not only the United States but also Japan, China, other Asian states, and European Union countries that depend on the free flow of commerce in the region by attacking commercial ships near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a key maritime chokepoint.

Yet, the aggregate benefits Iran has received from its diplomacy, propaganda, and axis of resistance attacks are modest, and their duration uncertain. The regional and global unrest over the Israeli offensive, which Iran has trumpeted, has not translated into any concrete changes in Israeli policy and only slight modifications to U.S. support of Israel’s goals. Arab states have echoed Tehran’s criticisms of Israel but otherwise have not broken formal or quiet ties to Israel or indicated any intent to distance themselves from their key strategic partner, the United States. Iranian leaders appear to have reconciled with themselves that Hamas – a key pillar of their regional “axis of resistance” – is likely to be removed from Tehran’s strategic arsenal. Another Iranian ally, Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), although smaller than Hamas, is a target of Israel’s operations in Gaza as well. It is far more difficult for Iran or its allies to supply West Bank militants with the type of rockets and other technology that Iran has funneled to Hamas and PIJ over the past several decades. The Iran-backed attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria have, to date, caused little damage and only minor U.S. troop injuries and provoked some U.S. retaliation on key facilities used by the militias in both countries. The Houthis’ attacks have been mostly intercepted, and U.S. Navy and maritime security coalition partner counteraction have thwarted some of their attempts to seize commercial ships. The Houthis’ attacks might also squander their potential to achieve significant gains at the bargaining table to end the Yemen conflict, and the movement is likely to be restored to the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs), cementing the Houthis as outcasts. The Secretary General of Lebanese Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has echoed his Iranian mentors in threatening to intervene in the war on Hamas’s behalf. Still, Hezbollah’s actions against Israel have been restrained, modest, and marginal to the fighting thus far. Hezbollah has been the main recipient of Iranian missile and armed drone technology over decades, and the Lebanese militia has the capability to affect the IDF’s strategy significantly were it to enter the war full force.

At the same time, Iran’s stance in the crisis has furthered the objectives of Tehran’s key strategic partner, Russian President Vladimir Putin. As have Iranian leaders, Putin has positioned himself on the side of Iran and Israel’s global critics as part of an attempt to undermine Washington’s standing in global affairs and set back U.S. policy goals. Iran and Russia have been allied since 2014 in joint efforts to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against an uprising, and their strategic relations have continued to expand. Despite risking a total break in its relations with European leaders, Iran has sold thousands of armed drones to Moscow for use against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. The Israel-Hamas war has further solidified the Moscow-Tehran axis. On November 21, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby noted that Iran has already been providing Russia with unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, guided aerial bombs, and artillery ammunition, and may be preparing “to go a step further in its support for Russia.” He highlighted a September meeting in which Iran hosted Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to show off a range of ballistic missile systems and stated to journalists: “We are therefore concerned that Iran is considering providing Russia with ballistic missiles now for use in Ukraine…In return for that support, Russia has been offering Tehran unprecedented defense cooperation, including on missiles, electronics, and air defense.” On November 28, Iran's Deputy Defense Minister Mehdi Farahi claimed that Iran had finalized arrangements for the delivery of Russian-made Su-35 fighter jets, Mil Mi-28 attack helicopters, and Yak 130 jet trainers. Russia did not confirm the Iranian assertion that the Su-35 deal had been finalized; the sale was reportedly derailed in early 2023 over payments and other disagreements. If completed, the deal would greatly augment Iran’s generally underdeveloped air force capabilities as well as solidify the wide-ranging strategic relationship between Tehran and Moscow.