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Is Iran really willing to 'intervene' in Israel's war against Hamas, or are these empty threats?

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Hamas politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh meet in Qatar, 14 October 2023
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Hamas politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh meet in Qatar, 14 October 2023 Copyright AP/Iranian Foreign Ministry
Copyright AP/Iranian Foreign Ministry
By Ilaria FedericoMihhail Salenkov
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This article was originally published in Russian

Iran has threatened to 'intervene in the conflict' if Israel launches a ground operation in the Gaza Strip. Euronews spoke to experts about what this 'intervention' might be and its consequences.

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Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that a political settlement of the situation in the Gaza Strip is becoming increasingly unlikely, and Tehran warned it may take "preemptive action" against Israel.

At the same time, the minister said the Islamic republic did not intend to engage in a military conflict with Tel Aviv, if Israel did not strike Iranian territory.

"We cannot rule out that Iran will decide to intervene directly," said Jake Sullivan, US Assistant to the President for National Security in Tehran.

Israel itself reacted harshly to the Iranian warnings.

"Iran and Hezbollah, don't test us in the north. The price you will have to pay will be much higher. I am telling you in Hebrew what the president of the United States said in English: don't do it," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

The Wall Street Journal earlier quoted unnamed "senior members of Hamas and Hezbollah" as saying Iran had helped the militants plan an attack on Israel, but the Islamic republic's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected the speculation.

"Master of proxy warfare."

Experts said that Tehran has long maintained close ties with Hamas.

In the case of the 7 October attack on Israel, there are points that indicate there was outside help, says Sara Bazoobandi, a researcher at the German Institute for Global and Regional Studies.

"Iran is one of the long-time sponsors of Hamas. It is one of the group's main aides in terms of organising training and logistics, smuggling weapons. In terms of the attack on Israel, there are points that raise the question of whether Iran was directly involved in its preparation," the expert points out. "One example: the infiltration of militants into Israeli territory. One cannot learn to fly paragliders in the tunnels of Gaza or in an area that is under the watchful eye of the Israeli military. They practised and developed these skills elsewhere.

She believes there will be no direct Iranian involvement in the fighting. Instead Tehran is likely to use the non-state organisations it supports.

"Iran is a master of creating and conducting proxy wars. They invest financially, militarily, technologically in the development of the so-called 'axis of resistance' in the region,"said Bazoobandi. "The reason for investing in its creation and expansion is that Iran has been trying to avoid direct confrontation with anyone since the end of the Iran-Iraq war. In his statements, the Iranian foreign minister mentions precisely the 'resistance axis reaction',

Iran supports not only Hamas, but also other groups based on anti-Israeli ideology - from the Shiite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon to the Sunni Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and Syria.

As a Lebanese Hamas spokesman told the Financial Times in a recent interview, the objectives of the "resistance axis" are to destroy Israel and counter American influence in the Middle East.

"The main risk is that Iran could push its allies in Lebanon, particularly Hezbollah, to open a new front against Israel in the north," notes Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director at the International Crisis Group.

Hezbollah fighters are better armed and trained than Hamas, according to Barbara Slavin, head of the Middle East programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington.

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"They have 150,000 rockets in their arsenal that they can use against major Israeli cities. There are reports that members of the movement are disabling surveillance cameras installed by Israel along the border.

"I think this is an alarming indicator that if Israel launches a ground operation in Gaza, Hezbollah will be forced to respond in some way, perhaps to open a second front in northern Israel," Slavin said.

Experts note that the main goal of Tehran's defence policy is to prevent a direct attack on Iranian territory.

After Hamas militants invaded Israel, Tel Aviv's allies, the US and Britain, sent warships and aircraft to the region as a deterrent measure.

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"Tehran will not send its military into the war zone to help Hamas," Slavin said.

Vaez said he  believes that if Iran becomes directly involved in the conflict, there was a risk of countries such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon also becoming involved.

"The consequences could be catastrophic not only for the region, but for the whole world," said Vaez.

Is the Middle East on the verge of a new big war?

"I think we may actually be on the verge of a major war in the Middle East. Who is ready to escalate after the Israeli ground operation in Gaza? It could be Iran, Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis. We are at a very dangerous stage in the modern history of the Middle East region," said Bazoobandi.

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The expert said Iran itself has the potential to launch a direct attack on Israel. Long-range missiles produced by Tehran, as the Iranian military said a year ago, "could flatten Tel Aviv". The Islamic republic is actively developing missile technology and unmanned systems.

Bazoobandi said no one wanted another major crisis in the region, but the situation was not simple and could change at any moment.

"The Iranians, despite their fiery rhetoric, probably don't want a regional conflict. It's a very difficult balance for everyone between taking enough action to not lose face, but at the same time not crossing borders or losing your head," said Vaez.

In addition, Vaez noted that a major new conflict could result in Tehran losing its nuclear programme.

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"If we go into a full-scale war, the US and Israel will probably see this as an opportunity to destroy Iran's nuclear programme, which is closer than ever to developing nuclear weapons. This will come at a huge cost, military capabilities, and possibly huge human casualties," he warned.

According to Slavin, diplomats are now focused on reducing the likelihood of an escalation of the conflict.

"This is already the bloodiest war between Israel and its adversaries in decades," Slavin said.

"But Israel cannot bomb its way to peace. At some point, a serious effort must be made to try to solve the Palestinians' problems."

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In this, Slavin said, Israel's Arab partners and friends can play a role.

"A practical and just resolution of this conflict is in the interest of all humanity. But it is very, very difficult to achieve this." 

The war between Israel and Hamas is the main topic of the extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation countries, which is taking place in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia on 18 October.

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