As Israeli ground forces expand operations in Gaza, Iran’s proxies are steadily ramping up their military involvement. At the heart of their strategy — or more aptly, Tehran’s — is the hope that shows of force will deter Israel from destroying Hamas, while simultaneously preventing the U.S. from more forcefully intervening on Israel’s behalf.
On its face, the plan is as shrewd as it is lethal. Tehran wants elements of the “Axis of Resistance,” a term it uses to describe the constellation of terror groups it has created or co-opted, to bail out others. But the strategy could also contain the seeds of its own demise.
For example, if Hezbollah, Iran’s oldest and most successful proxy in the Levant, more overtly enters the conflict, it would ignite a new northern front. That could significantly degrade Hezbollah, a force whose arsenal Tehran has been strengthening to serve as a deterrent against potential Israeli strikes on its nuclear program. What’s more, escalation, however graduated, could lead Israel to connect the dots more overtly between patron and proxy and hold Tehran directly accountable for the October 7 attacks.
On Friday, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah will deliver an important address on the nature of the terror group’s involvement in the war against Israel. In so doing, Nasrallah is likely to give an insight about Tehran’s intentions. In advance of the address, it is imperative to understand what Iran has been up to, and why.
Diplomatically, Iranian officials have been keen to show that they cannot be marginalized. They intend to create a political bloc that will buy breathing room for Hamas by calling for an immediate cease-fire. Iran’s foreign minister has met Turkish, Qatari, and Hamas officials. The chief of Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff has been working the phones, consulting with Russia, Qatar, and Turkey. All these efforts aim to politically arrest Israel’s military operation and deny America access to Middle Eastern basing.
On the kinetic side, a recent Reuters report citing three unnamed Iranian security officials alleged that Tehran has greenlighted limited cross-border strikes by Hezbollah and low-level attacks on U.S. positions in the region. Already, on Oct. 18-19, Iran-backed Shiite militia groups thrice struck U.S. positions in Iraq, and once in Syria, with drones and rockets. Attacks continued well past that weekend, and to date, there have been 24 reported rocket and drone attacks against the U.S. since Oct. 7.
Rather than improve its response ratio, Washington has thus far opted to strengthen its force posture in the region, bringing in an additional aircraft carrier, activating regional air and missile defenses, and increasing troop readiness for deployment if it is needed. U.S. President Joe Biden has also attempted to draw a red line regarding the use of force to deter more attacks. However, the response ratio remains heavily slanted in Iran and its proxies’ favor: Only once did the U.S. return fire, at an arms depot in Syria on Oct. 26. This came after 21 injuries, including 19 traumatic brain injuries, were sustained by U.S. personnel.
As the Middle East’s longest-serving autocrat still in power, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has seen and studied changes in U.S. military power — and most importantly, in its willingness to use it. By targeting U.S. forces via proxy, Khamenei is trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Jerusalem and raise the cost to America for standing by its regional partner.
Only one day before the multi-directional attacks, Khamenei declared that if Israel continued against Hamas, “the Resistance forces will lose their patience. No one will be able to stop them at that point.” Khamenei appears to be betting on U.S. risk-aversion and concerns over escalation to save Hamas. This is a fear Khamenei’s lieutenants, like Iran’s president and its foreign minister, have also tried to exploit.
To let Tehran leverage this threat would be to misread the proxy problem as static, when it is not. In addition to long having armed militants in Iraq to target U.S. forces — as well as supporting others in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza — the Islamic Republic has recently sought inroads where it traditionally lacked them, like in the West Bank, through arms smuggling and intelligence collection operations.
Further complicating the outlook is the activation of the Houthis in Yemen, which were delisted in 2021 by the Biden administration as a foreign terrorist organization. The Houthis declared as early as 2017 their interest in intervening in an Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. Since then, Tehran has armed and equipped the group with long-range strike capabilities no other proxy has in its possession. On Oct. 19 the Houthis used these assets, firing several land-attack cruise missiles and drones towards the Jewish state that a U.S. destroyer in the Red Sea intercepted. It was not a one-off. More cruise missiles, and even medium-range ballistic missiles, have been fired toward Israel, which intercepted them.
Over the years, Khamenei has also witnessed the inability of Washington and Jerusalem to achieve political aims through military means. Conversely, that is where Tehran has excelled. The more the focus on Israel and the Palestinians, the less the focus on contesting Iran, or so the thinking goes. Therefore, by helping Hamas train for and plan the October 7 attacks, the Islamic Republic has found a way to advance its overall strategy of death by a thousand cuts against Israel. It has also frozen or impeded, for the time being, Saudi-Israeli normalization.
Tehran was ready to ride the wave from the barbarous terror attack straight into the military challenges and media confusion emanating from Israel’s kinetic response. Already, the fallout from Israel’s aerial campaign has ignited the Arab street and reintroduced the Palestinian question as a potential sticking point between Washington and Arab capitals. With regional discontent at a peak, Tehran is counting on images from Israel’s evolving military operation to give resonance to its anti-American and anti-Israeli message.
Khamenei’s demonstrated capability and intent to threaten an escalation spiral is precisely why his strategy must fail, and his gambit must be exposed. To do this, Washington will need to make sure that Tehran understands through sustained action, and not just words, that every jurisdiction featuring an Iranian proxy can and will be held at risk if the war continues to widen.
Until that happens, the Islamic Republic and its Axis of Resistance will continue to gamble their way ahead, at the expense of innocent lives across the region.
About the Authors
Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow. They both contribute to FDD’s Iran Program. The views expressed are their own.