There is already spillover. Israel and Hezbollah are firing on each other's positions in the northern border with Lebanon. In addition to the thousands of Palestinians killed and wounded in Gaza, dozens more have been killed by settlers and Israeli forces in the West Bank. U. S. forces in Iraq and Syria have come under attack, and the United States has ordered all non-emergency personnel to leave Iraq. Iranian backed Houthi forces in Yemen fired missiles, apparently aimed at Israel.

The red line for Hezbollah has been, especially recently, is that the intervention, they will intervene if they assess that Hamas is about to be eradicated. And by Hamas military infrastructure, Hamas political infrastructure, and the ability of Hamas to reconstitute itself in Gaza.

As the war rages on between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the role of Iran will remain a central factor. Tehran is not only Israel’s top regional foe but also the leading provider of military aid and training for Hamas. Given the centrality of Iran in this latest Middle Eastern war, what is Tehran’s endgame? Based on Iranian statements since Hamas’ deadly attack on Oct. 7, that endgame does not seem to be set in stone. As with all stakeholders in this war, Tehran’s calculations are evolving and shaped by events on the ground in Gaza. 

But two basic realities are clear: Iran has no intention of directly engaging militarily in the war against Israel or the U.S. should Washington decide to get involved. Doing so would simply be too risky for the Islamic Republic and its 84-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose regime’s scaffolding has been shaky in recent years. Instead, Tehran sees this moment as a golden opportunity to vindicate its vision for the region based on the concept of the “Axis of Resistance.”

Would Khamenei want to see the U.S. dragged into a new, costly, and open-ended war in the region? That is very plausible, and probably a yearning he shares with Russia, China, and other American rivals. But none of those other states are as close to Hamas as Iran is. The Islamic Republic’s tiny space for deniability makes it improbable that it would want to risk its own political survival merely to aid Hamas in a broader war that involves the U.S. After all, all of Iran’s investments in the so-called Axis of Resistance and the military doctrine of “forward defense” rest on a simple idea: that Iran is better off fighting its adversaries outside of its borders through pro-Iran militant proxies and not on its own soil.

But even Iran’s willingness to risk the survival of its cherished Axis of Resistance has to be questioned. Not only does Iran seem disinclined to enter the war, it is also disinclined to risk the future of Hezbollah, the crown jewel among its Arab proxies. This should not be a surprise. Iran’s anti-Israel agenda is a long-term game plan, meant to weaken Israel militarily, diplomatically, and psychologically over years and perhaps even decades to come.

Iran’s proxy allies will likely take pots shots at Israel, and at U.S. forces, from and in Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq, but Tehran will refrain from risking the future of its Axis of Resistance, including Hezbollah’s reported arsenal of 150,000 missiles and rockets that are aimed at Israel. Iran will let loose its proxy forces only if the U.S. attacks the Iranian homeland, which is hardly in the cards at the moment. In fact, Tehran will at most — through Hezbollah’s limited strikes on Israel in the north — attempt to shape Israel’s calculations and convince it not to go for a “kill” against Hamas.

In the long run, Iran wants to keep Hamas in Gaza as part of Tehran’s strategy of encircling Israel. But if Iran had to choose, it will accept the elimination of Hamas to keep Hezbollah unharmed and whole. Again, that is because Tehran needs to retain Hezbollah as a strategic deterrent against Israel and the U.S. in the long term.

As is the case already, Tehran’s energies will now be focused on the diplomatic arena, in the region and globally. The Iranians will use the war in Gaza to not only vindicate the concept of the Axis of Resistance but also to put pressure on those Arab states that have or are exploring the idea of normalizing relations with Israel. Tehran is so keen on this objective that last week Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took the unusual step of calling Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The basic fault line is hard to miss: Iran’s game plan is to pull the moderate Arab states away from the U.S. and Israel, while the Americans are doing the exact opposite, although with mixed results at best so far.

Finally, as reported by Iranian sources, the Americans have warned Iran not to miscalculate on two fronts, which might result in U.S. military action. First, Tehran should avoid any direct military assistance to Hamas during this war. Second, Tehran should not see the war as a cover to expand its nuclear program.  

On the global level, the war in Gaza comes as Russia and China seek to dislodge the U.S. as the hegemon in the Middle East. They will, together with Iran and its allies, question the credibility and competence of Washington as a powerbroker and mediator. The U.S. will be presented as a source of instability and Russia and China will promote themselves as neutral arbiters as the Middle East looks for a political solution to the war. 

Since Oct. 7, Moscow and Beijing, both of which have had close ties with Israel, have decided to remain mostly silent or express pro-Palestinian sentiment. This is not due to a new anti-Israel stance as such. It is simply an opportunistic move by Russia and China to use this moment to show that U.S. policies in the Middle East have failed. What all third-party stakeholders — Iran, the U.S., the Europeans, Russia, and China — would agree is that the Oct. 7 attacks within Israel’s borders have upended the decades-old status quo and rules of engagement.

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