Mastering Chess Strategies: Playing with Iran’s Deterrence

The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, was a surprise by a Palestinian terrorist group, disrupting the White House’s anticipated normalization of Israel-Saudi Arabia relations. President Joe Biden’s administration aimed to secure US interests and manage those of Israel and the Arab-Sunni states. Hamas, a close ally of Tehran, aimed to disrupt the American plan to normalize Saudi-Israeli relations by kidnapping 250 hostages.

The Iranian government also gave Hamas the green light to attack Israel, allowing its regional allies, including Hizballah guerrillas in Lebanon, to launch attacks on northern Israel. Shiite groups in Syria and Iraq and Yemen’s Houthi rebels also carried out attacks. Policymakers in Washington were concerned that Israel’s military response could transform into a major regional military conflagration involving Israel and Iran, especially if the Israel Defense Forces were to attack Hizballah’s bases in Lebanon. The US would be forced to support Israel in the event of a conflict between Israel and Iran, involving its military forces in the Middle East conflict.

Biden’s decision to provide security to Israel’s ally, Hamas, led to the US sending military and diplomatic support to deter Iran and Hizballah from attacking Israel. He flew to Israel to demonstrate support and dispatched American aircraft carriers and Marine units to the Middle East. Biden’s initial “bear-hug” to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu successfully pressed him to refrain from attacking Hizballah’s sites in Lebanon and allow humanitarian aid into the besieged Gaza Strip. The US government expressed reservations about Israel’s military operations in Gaza, including the use of airstrikes that resulted in the killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians and the destruction of entire neighborhoods. The Israeli approach was condemned by the majority of UN members, particularly those from the Global South, and some European governments. Left-leaning Democratic lawmakers, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, called for a ceasefire in Gaza, but this idea was rejected by those who would not end the fighting without the destruction of Hamas. The Israeli government agreed to suspend fighting for a few days on November 30, 2023, to release around 100 hostages.

The Biden administration has expressed a desire for the Palestinian Authority to take over control of the Gaza Strip after Hamas is removed from power. Washington also plans to launch a diplomatic initiative supporting Saudi Arabia and other Arab-Sunni governments, aiming to establish an independent Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Netanyahu, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, has rejected this idea and expressed opposition to establishing an independent Palestinian state. Israel’s dependency on American military and diplomatic support has forced the government to change tactics in the Gaza Strip, shifting to a new phase that relies less on airpower, narrow targets, and results in fewer civilian casualties. Despite killing hundreds of Hamas fighters, there are no indications that the movement’s top leaders have been affected. Around 130 people, including several Americans, were abducted from Israel on October 7, and Hamas has ruled out further hostage releases until Israel agrees to a “full cessation of aggression.”

The Gaza conflict could be seen as a continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the potential for regionalization could lead to a military confrontation between Israel, a nuclear power, and Iran, which has a near-complete nuclear military capability. The Hamas attack has shifted the Middle East’s power balance in Iran’s direction, weakening the US and its partners. Reports suggest that Tehran has increased its uranium production, reviving fears of Iran constructing nuclear weapons. A failure to obstruct Iran’s drive for regional supremacy would result in a geopolitical loss for the US and undermine its global position relative to China and Russia. The nightmare scenario involves Iran and its proxies establishing a new Middle Eastern balance of power, leaving Israel damaged, Hamas un destroyed, and relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia stalled. While this may not necessarily be an Iranian victory, it would give Tehran more influence.

Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen have been targeting Israeli targets and providing intelligence and weaponry to their proxies. The Biden administration initially refrained from responding to Iran’s strikes against American forces in Syria and Iraq, or the Houthis’ threat to international shipping, due to concerns about potential direct US military intervention. This could lead to war with Iran at a time when the US is confronting Russia in Ukraine and is worried about the threat of a Chinese attack against Taiwan.

Iran recognized that the US does not have the military resources to fight on three fronts and does not want to be drawn into a new quagmire in the Middle East. In mid-January, the US and the UK responded with Tomahawk cruise missiles and laser-guided Paveway bombs, giving some credibility to the warning that the Houthis would face consequences if they continued their piracy. However, it is unclear whether they did, as the Houthis continue their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and the Iranians arm them and provide them with real-time targeting intelligence.

Irani officials believe that an escalating conflict in the Middle East will increase costs to the United States and the West without risking a wider war. From their perspective, continuing escalation of the conflict would be cost-effective, as the United States would never take steps that risk war with Iran and would do everything to minimize those already existing.

American policies during the Gaza war have been driven by an interest in averting a war with Iran, aiming to pressure Israel to avoid a full-blown military confrontation with Hizballah, restrict its military operations in the Gaza Strip, and avoid civilian casualties. The US wants Israel to destroy the military power of Hamas and erode the power of Hizballah, but this is preventing Israel from taking the steps to do so, as it could escalate the conflict and make it more likely for Iran to exert its influence.

Biden administration officials believe that the most effective way to return to the pre-October 7 balance of power in the Middle East is by reaching a ceasefire in the Gaza War and launching a diplomatic initiative. Under this plan, Israel and Saudi Arabia would normalize their relationship, agree to establish an independent Palestinian State, and commit to rebuild Gaza’s economy.

However, this plan assumes many things that are not necessarily going to happen, such as disarmament of Hamas, the Palestinians developing a new leadership that would work with Israel, and the Israeli government agreeing to establish an independent Palestinian state on their borders. The geo-strategic chess game between Washington and Tehran is also a concern, as continuing actions against the US by Iran and its proxies could force a more decisive retaliation and a broader regional war. National security advisor Jake Sullivan emphasizes the need to guard against escalation rather than de-escalation.

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