Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room With Peter Bergen,” also on Apple and Spotify. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Henry Kissinger once observed that Iranian leaders must decide if Iran is a cause or a nation.
Iran seems to have decided that it’s both, exporting its militant Shia ideology to countries across the Middle East from Lebanon in the north, arming the Houthis 1,500 miles to the south in Yemen, supporting Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, propping up the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
Hamas receives funding for weapons from Iran, but Hezbollah is more like an arm of the Iranian government and has a much greater military capacity than Hamas. It has 150,000 rockets and is more militarily capable than the Lebanese army.
But neither Iran nor Hezbollah seems to have had a plan for what to do following Hamas’s massacres last month in Israel. It’s possible they had an inkling that Hamas was planning something without knowing the scale and ferocity of what the world saw on October 7.
Indeed, US intelligence sources say that senior Iranian officials appeared surprised by Hamas’s attacks.
On Friday, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, spoke publicly for the first time about the war in Gaza. Nasrallah was at pains to say that Hamas’ October 7 attacks in Israel were “100 percent” a Palestinian operation, publicly discounting that Hezbollah and Iran had anything to with the operation, as some reports have suggested.
Nasrallah became a “new icon” across the Arab world during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war after Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers, which triggered a 34-day war that ended in something of a stalemate. The conflict killed more than 1,100 Lebanese and 158 Israelis.
Hezbollah is a potent military force, but it is also a political movement. Following last year’s election in Lebanon, 58 out of 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament are in the pro-Hezbollah bloc, so Hezbollah must be somewhat responsive to Lebanese popular opinion. Given Lebanon’s ruined economy, the Lebanese people are unlikely to be eager for a repeat of the 2006 war, which caused billions of dollars of damage to their country.
Also, any decision by Hezbollah to widen the war would likely have to be cleared by Tehran, and right now, Tehran and its proxy forces in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen seem to want to keep up pressure on Israel and US forces in the region with harassing attacks, but not to instigate a wider war.
Iran itself appears to be doing nothing visible to foment further conflict, while letting its proxies do the work for it. The Houthis, who control much of Yemen and are supported and supplied by Iran, have fired missiles, which were intercepted, at Israeli targets in recent days. For the moment, both Hezbollah and Israel are exchanging tit-for-tat fire along Israel’s northern border that falls short of anything close to a full-blown war.
Meanwhile, in Iraq and Syria, US and partner military forces have come under fire from rockets and drones at least 28 times since October 17. Iranian proxies almost certainly launched those attacks. Twenty one US service members have been treated for minor injuries, according to the Pentagon.
Iran’s ayatollahs may, at least rhetorically, seek the destruction of the state of Israel because the third holiest site in Islam, the Al Aqsa Mosque compound is in Jerusalem — which is also the holiest site in Judaism known as the Temple Mount. They also know that Israel is their most powerful military foe in the region.
But Iran is unlikely to instigate a full-scale regional war with Israel, which might well also draw in the United States, which has recently moved two aircraft carrier groups to the Middle East.
Also, the leaders of Iran’s theocratic regime have faced a significant domestic protest movement over the past year largely led by women fed up with regulations requiring wearing the hijab in public, while they also have an economy that is hamstrung by significant sanctions imposed by the US and its allies. The Iranian riyal has halved in value against the dollar since the protest movement began a little over a year ago, while the Iranian inflation rate is around 40 %.
The Iranians, in short, have enough problems of their own not to start a shooting war with Israel backed by its American ally. They prefer to act through their proxies in the region, keeping up some heat on Israel and the United States, but certainly not by dialing that heat up to 11.
This article has been updated with more recent numbers about attacks on US military and partner forces.
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