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Iran: Threatening in Rhetoric, Cautious in Action?

Haleh Esfandiari headhsot

Iran is escalating rhetoric against Israel. Its leaders issued ominous warnings, and its proxies attacked US bases in Syria and Iraq. Yet, for now, Iran appears to be carefully avoiding direct conflict with the US or widening the war. Events may upset this precarious balancing act.

Three weeks into the Israel-Hamas war, Iran is ratcheting up its rhetoric against Israel and warning of what might befall the entire region should Israel continue its bombing of Gaza. President Ebrahim Raissi accused Israel of "crossing the red lines" and warned that this may force others to take action. He didn't elaborate, in his tweet, what "action" might entail. He accused Washington of asking Iran "not to do anything while it continues to give widespread support to Israel." 

Iran's foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, who gave a series of interviews to the American media in New York in the last week of October, was more precise and ominous in his language. In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, he said Hamas was sufficiently well armed to stand up to Israel and added that he had met "with leaders of the resistance in Lebanon and Palestinian groups in recent weeks and heard of plans that are more powerful and deeper than what you've witnessed." 

For Iran, its investment of billions in funding, training and arming Hamas over the years must appear to have paid off in the assault last month by Hamas and Islamic Jihad on Israeli border towns and villages.

He went on to say that the Axis of Resistance, the loose group of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, put together by Iran, is ready to take action if necessary. For decades, Iran has been arming, training and financing these militias. For Iran, its investment of billions in funding, training and arming Hamas over the years must appear to have paid off in the assault last month by Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters on Israeli border towns and villages.

Iran's Delicate Tightrope

Iran's president and foreign minister, of course, speaks for the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei initially confined himself to praising Hamas for its assault on Israel and claiming Israel had suffered a humiliating defeat. "No matter what the Zionist regime does, it cannot make up for the scandalous failure it suffered," he commented. But in recent days, he too has warned darkly of the response Israel can expect from the 'resistance forces' and 'Muslim forces.' "If the crimes of the Zionist regime continue, Muslim and resistance forces will become impatient, and no one can stop them," he warned. "Bombardments should be immediately stopped. Muslim nations are angry."

Iran, through its proxies, has engaged in more than just harsh rhetoric. Militias it sponsors have staged attacks on US bases in Syria and Iraq. The US has responded with strikes on the militias' weapons and ammunition storage facilities. In an article in the New York Times last week, David Sanger and Julian Barnes described this "finely-tuned" US response as sending a twin message to Iran: that continued attacks on US forces could lead to a direct confrontation between the US and Iran, but also that the US was not looking for a conflict with Iran, that if the attacks stopped US strikes would stop as well. US intelligence agencies, according to the article, believe that Iran's Supreme Leader also does not desire a wider war with the US or Israel.

If this assessment of Khamenei is accurate, then Iran is walking a fine line: engaging in dangerous-sounding rhetoric while remaining cautious in action.

If this assessment of Khamenei is accurate, then Iran is walking a fine line: engaging in dangerous-sounding rhetoric while remaining cautious in action. But will this balancing act be sustained? 

The situation remains fraught with dangers. According to some analysts, hardliners in Iran, led by the Revolutionary Guards Corps, might press for a wider regional war. Or, if it appears that Israel is succeeding in dealing Hamas a finishing blow and ending its control over Gaza or its military threat to Israel, might Iran, which has invested so heavily in funding, training and arming Hamas, be tempted to use its influence with its proxies in Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon to widen the war and open up a second front against Israel? 

To the Israel-Hamas war's many uncertainties, Iran's ambiguous posture adds yet another troublesome one. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not express the official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

Haleh Esfandiari headhsot

Haleh Esfandiari

Distinguished Fellow; Director Emerita, Middle East Program 
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more