Israeli and American intelligence are tracking the movements of Iranian diplomats and military officers, fearing that Tehran could spur its network of proxies and allies to support Hamas in a coordinated war against Israel.
The primary focus, Israeli and American officials told Semafor, is the activities of the Iranian-backed militia, Hezbollah, which has launched rockets into Israel from south Lebanon in recent days. But Tehran’s alliance system, which it calls the “Axis of Resistance,” stretches far wider, these officials said, and could potentially include Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the West Bank, Syria- and Iraq-based militias, and the Houthi army in Yemen, all of which could target Israeli and American interests regionally.
“We are always looking around us, in the entire Middle East,” Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, told reporters Sunday.
The Biden administration is significantly expanding its military footprint in the eastern Mediterranean, including the deployment of two aircraft carrier strike groups and a Marine Expeditionary Force, to attempt to deter Iran and its proxies. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has also issued an order to separately prepare 2,000 American soldiers for deployment to the region. The White House concurrently has communicated through Qatar and Oman, key backchannels to Iran, about Washington’s intent to avoid any direct conflict between the U.S. and Iran, according to current and former U.S. officials.
But despite these U.S. actions, senior Iranian officials continue to raise the specter of a wider regional war as they have met their allies in Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian on Monday night told Iranian state media: “The resistance leaders will not allow the Zionist regime to do whatever [it wants] in the region…Every preemptive measure is conceivable in the coming hours.”
Abdollahian had just completed his own swing through Mideast countries aligned with Iran. And commanders from Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, have visited Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in recent days, according to Mideast officials.
The IRGC and its late overseas commander, Brigadier General Qasem Soliemani, spent the past decade expanding the Axis of Resistance to the point that it now seriously threatens American regional interests and ability to respond.
Potential targets include U.S. military deployments in Iraq and Syria and oil interests in the Persian Gulf. The Biden administration must calculate this regional threat into any military action the U.S. or Israel might take in support of an expected IDF ground offensive into the Gaza Strip to eradicate Hamas.
Tehran first cultivated Hezbollah back in the early 1980s as a unit to help Lebanon’s Shiite population fight back against Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon. Hezbollah executed devastating suicide bombings against Israeli and U.S. targets, including the 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut that left 241 Americans dead. At the time, it was the largest terrorist strike ever against U.S. interests.
But the IRGC has expanded its influence, benefitting, in part, from U.S. and allied military operations in the region. The Bush administration’s toppling in 2003 of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein allowed Tehran to arm and finance a cadre of Shiite militias that are now dominant players in Iraqi politics. The IRGC has also exploited Yemen’s civil war, and Saudi Arabia’s involvement, to grow the military capabilities of the Houthi militia, which is now a close Iranian ally.
In recent years, the Pentagon has engaged in military operations against Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, including missile strikes earlier this year. The Trump administration also assassinated Gen. Soleimani in Baghdad in January 2020, a strike that Iranian officials still vow to avenge. The war in Gaza now risks fueling a direct U.S.-Iran conflict, something both countries seem eager to avoid.
Room for Disagreement
Current and former Israeli officials tracking Hezbollah aren’t certain its leaders want to enter the fray. Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel devastated Lebanon’s economy and sparked outrage among many Lebanese who believe the militia largely served Tehran’s interests rather than their own. Hezbollah’s weapons stockpile, believed to include 150,000 rockets and precision-guided missiles, is also Iran’s top military deterrent against an Israeli strike on Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure – something the IRGC risks losing.
“The most important question [is]…where stands Mr. [Hasan] Nasrallah, the secretary of Hezbollah. Will he join the game or not?” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national security advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on Monday at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. “Because for us, it’s a huge difference. From what we see, he’s tried to play within the lines.”
Iran’s efforts to build this Axis structure also poses risks to Tehran’s allies because it reduces their freedom of military action, even as it increases the threat to Israel and the U.S. “Hezbollah is caught in a trap largely of its own making,” wrote Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday. “The party’s alliances, which were designed to act as another level of deterrence, have instead exposed it to levels of military escalation that it has sought to avoid since 2006.”
- In January 2022, the U.S. and United Arab Emirates intercepted two ballistic missiles fired by the Houthi militia over the skies of Abu Dhabi.
- Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi threatened vengeance against U.S. officials for the killing of General Soleimani during his speech last month before the United Nations General Assembly.