On 30 October 2023, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies organized a panel titled “Iran and Israel’s War on Gaza: Options and Scenarios.” The panel included Marwan Kabalan, Director of the Political Studies Unit, and Mehran Kamrava, Professor of Government at Georgetown University Qatar and Director of the Iranian Studies Unit. The event was moderated by Abdelfattah Mady, Director of the State and Political Systems Studies Unit.
Kamrava began by discussing Iran’s political-diplomatic and military position in relation to Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza. He emphasized that Iran, like everyone else, was surprised by the October 7 Hamas attack. According to Kamrava, neither Iran’s Intelligence Ministry nor the Revolutionary Guards knew about the attack. The US intelligence’s initial assessment also suggested that Iran was surprised by Hamas’s operation against Israel. “This surprise resulted in an initial volley of contradictory and often confused statements coming out of Tehran”. Kamrava highlighted some of the statements made by Iranian officials to demonstrate how Iran changed its tone from its initial provocative remarks, which suggested that it might intervene in response to heightened Israeli aggression on Gaza, to a more moderate stance. Kamrava claimed that Iranian Foreign Minister Amirabdolahian advised Hamas to release Israeli hostages during the meeting with the Hamas leadership in Doha. This became the official position of the Islamic Republic, as Amirabdolahian made clear in a recent interview with Bloomberg TV on October 27. Iran has also distanced itself from both Hamas and Hezbollah and has referred to them as independent agents. Iran has indicated that it supports an immediate cease-fire and de-escalation.
On the military aspect of Iran’s response, Kamrava stated that “both Iran and Hezbollah prefer a low-intensity war of attrition against Israel rather than full-scale military confrontation”. Kamrava argued that neither Hezbollah nor Iran can currently afford to wage a war with Israel. Because of its domestic standing, Hezbollah would incur heavy costs in the case of war. Iran, on the other hand, would rather engage in military confrontation on its own terms. Direct Iranian intervention is also thwarted by domestic challenges such as the recent protests and the government’s lack of legitimacy. Therefore, Kamrava mentioned that the Islamic Republic has employed a defensive rather than an offensive military strategy over the last 44 years. However, Kamrava maintains that “Iranian retaliation will be massive, and will most likely draw in the US and its bases around the region if Israel attacks Iran.”
Kabalan concurred with Kamrava and further explained why Iran would not engage in direct intervention. Historical precedent supports this claim as Iran refrained from intervening in previous wars between resistance groups in Gaza against Israel. According to Kabalan, another important factor that has shaped Iranian domestic and foreign policies is the survival of the Islamic Republic, which may be endangered if it does not take calculated measures. To understand Iran’s response to the war on Gaza, Kabalan believes that we have to go back to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. At that time, Iran’s defense doctrine changed so that it would not engage in direct war with any party stronger or equal to its power and it would instead engage in proxy wars. Therefore, Kabalan contended that Israel, not Iran, would decide whether or not Iran would engage in this war, because Iran would only intervene if Israel directly attacked it.
Kabalan made four observations about Iran and the Gaza war. To begin, he agreed with Kamrava that neither Iran nor Hezbollah were aware of the Hamas attack. Second, he examined the Iranian official response, noting that an important observation that could be made in this regard is that it was the Supreme Leader himself who came out to deny Iran’s involvement. This is because in the early days of Israel’s war on Gaza, there were worries in Iran that something similar to what happened to Iraq in 2003 might happen to them due to the US narrative against Iran that followed the attack. Third, he analyzed Iran’s losses and gains from the war in Gaza. Kabalan claimed that one of the gains is that the war halted the Saudi-Israeli normalization process, which Iran saw as a strategic threat. Iran attempted to use the circumstances to its advantage in order to avoid being perceived as a threat and instead position itself as a mediator in the hostage issue. As for the loss, the Hamas attack also halted the Iran-US reconciliation process, which was supposed to proceed following the prisoner exchange.
On Iran’s options, Kabalan stated that if Israel was successful in its mission of regime change in Gaza, it would be a major blow to Iran since it would lose a key ally, Hamas, and not have a window opportunity for the Palestinian cause. More importantly, according to Kabalan, if Israel was successful in Gaza, the next target would be Hezbollah as it poses a bigger threat than Hamas, which would be an even bigger blow to Iran. Kabalan maintained that Iran and Hezbollah are in agreement to preserve the current state of low-intensity conflict. Lastly, he claimed that “Iran’s proxy war strategy against Israel and the United States in an attempt to lessen the pressure on Gaza at some point will lead to opposite results if it leads to American and Israeli losses, which in turn will result in major escalation that the Iranians do not want.”
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