By scuppering Saudi-Israeli accord for now, Hamas does Iran a favour

New Delhi: The shocking Hamas assault on Israel has precipitated a beginning and an end for the Middle East.

What has begun, almost inexorably, is the next war– one that will be bloody, costly, and agonizingly unpredictable in its course and outcome, writes Suzanne Maloney, Vice President of the Brookings Institution and Director of its Foreign Policy program, in Foreign Affairs.

What has ended, for anyone who cares to admit it, is the illusion that the US can extricate itself from a region that has dominated the American national security agenda for the past half century, the article said.

The White House devised a creative exit strategy, attempting to broker a new balance of power in the Middle East that would allow Washington to downsize its presence and attention while also ensuring that Beijing did not fill the void.

A historic bid to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia promised to formally align Washington’s two most important regional partners against their common foe, Iran, and anchor the Saudis beyond the perimeter of China’s strategic orbit, it added.

It was never plausible that informal understandings and a dribble of sanctions relief would be sufficient to pacify the Islamic Republic and its proxies, who have a keen and time-tested appreciation for the utility of escalation in advancing their strategic and economic interests.

Iranian leaders had every incentive to try to block an Israeli-Saudi breakthrough, particularly one that would have extended American security guarantees to Riyadh and allowed the Saudis to develop a civilian nuclear energy program, Maloney wrote.

At this time, it is not known whether Iran had any specific role in the carnage in Israel.

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Tehran was directly involved in planning the assault, citing unnamed senior members of Hamas and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group.

That report has not been confirmed by Israeli or US officials, who have only gone so far as to suggest that Iran was “broadly complicit,” in the words of Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser.

At the very least, the operation “bore hallmarks of Iranian support,” as a report in The Washington Post put it, citing former and current senior Israeli and US officials, Maloney said.

“And even if the Islamic Republic did not pull the trigger, its hands are hardly clean. Iran has funded, trained, and equipped Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups and has coordinated closely on strategy, as well as operations, especially during the past decade.

It is inconceivable that Hamas undertook an attack of this magnitude and complexity without some foreknowledge and affirmative support from Iran’s leadership”, the article said.

And now Iranian officials and media are exulting in the brutality unleashed on Israeli civilians and embracing the expectation that the Hamas offensive will bring about Israel’s demise, it added.

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, however, the Islamic Republic has used escalation as a policy tool of choice. When the regime is under pressure, the revolutionary playbook calls for a counterattack to unnerve its adversaries and achieve a tactical advantage.

And the war in Gaza advances the long-cherished goal of the Islamic Republic’s leadership to cripple its most formidable regional foe. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has never wavered in his feverish antagonism toward Israel and the US, the article said.

“He and those around him are profoundly convinced of American immorality, greed, and wickedness; they revile Israel and clamor for its destruction, as part of the ultimate triumph of the Islamic world over what they see as a declining West and an illegitimate “Zionist entity”, Maloney said.

Closer bonds among China, Iran, and Russia have encouraged a more aggressive Iranian posture, since a crisis in the Middle East that distracts Washington and European capitals will produce some strategic and economic benefits for Moscow and Beijing, the article said.

Finally, the prospect of a public Israeli-Saudi entente surely provided an additional accelerant to Iran, as it would have shifted the regional balance firmly back in Washington’s favor. In a speech he delivered just days before the Hamas attack, Khamenei warned that “the firm view of the Islamic Republic is that the governments that are gambling on normalising relations with the Zionist regime will suffer losses.

Defeat awaits them. They are making a mistake”, Maloney wrote.

For now, therefore, although the threat of a wider war remains real, that outcome is hardly inevitable. The Iranian government has made an art of avoiding direct conflict with Israel, and it suits Tehran’s purposes, as well as those of its regional proxies and patrons in Moscow, to light the fire but stand back from the flames, the article said.

Some in Israel may advocate for hitting Iranian targets, if only to send a signal, but the country’s security forces have their hands full now, and senior officials seem determined to stay focused on the fight at hand.

Most likely, as the conflict evolves, Israel will at some point hit Iranian assets in Syria, but not in Iran itself. To date, Tehran has absorbed such strikes in Syria without feeling the need to retaliate directly, it added.

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