Iran’s shifting political calculus for Hamas and Hezbollah

A fiery speech hails the pre-war Arab-Israeli rapprochement as dead, showing how Tehran sees the Middle East eight months after Hamas attacked Israel, while Hezbollah is also hoping to gain.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses a crowd on 3 June during a ceremony marking the 35th death anniversary of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at his mausoleum in Tehran.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses a crowd on 3 June during a ceremony marking the 35th death anniversary of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at his mausoleum in Tehran.

Iran’s shifting political calculus for Hamas and Hezbollah

Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's comments last week about the Hamas attack on southern Israel on 7 October have informed the world’s understanding of how Tehran views the changes in the Middle East ever since. At a ceremony marking the 35th anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death on Monday, Khamenei said the operation was timely.

The region was “very much in need of it”, he said, referring to the Arab world’s pre-war normalising of relations with Israel. He said this was part of an Israeli-US scheme to shift the balance in the region but said Israel’s assault had ended the chances of that continuing. “Given the situation over the past eight months, there is no hope for reviving such a plan.”

That is a shift in position if only a subtle one. Back in November, at a private meeting in Tehran, he told senior Hamas officials—including Ismail Haniyeh, chair of its politburo—that Iran would not enter the war alongside it, noting how Hamas had not informed Iran of the operation beforehand. Khamenei felt blindsided and angry. Citing three senior officials from Iran and Hamas, Reuters reported Khamenei’s annoyance. Although Tehran denied this at the time, subsequent events have proven it to be accurate: the Iranians held to their doctrine of ‘strategic patience’.

The view from Tehran

Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza does seem to have frozen the normalising of relations between the Arab world and Israel that had been underway since 2020. Some think that an Israel-Saudi deal is now on ice. It seems to have led to Khamenei’s latest strident comments. “The Zionist regime is melting before the eyes of the world,” he said. “They have, by their own actions, entered a dead-end corridor... from which they will not be able to escape.”

From the private rebuke in November to Khamenei’s indication last week that its timing was apt, it represents a gentle pivot from the Islamic Republic and may reflect the wider geopolitical shifts ever since Hamas attacked Israel. Yet in the aftermath of the Hamas attack, when 1,200 Israelis were killed and another 200 taken hostage into Gaza, Iran’s top priority was to stop the conflict from spreading and avoid being drawn into a direct confrontation with Israel and the United States.

This was a clear red line that Iran communicated both privately and publicly, its UN envoy in New York being a central figure. It employed its full range of political, diplomatic, and media resources to make clear that it had no wish to escalate. Crucial to this was its messaging to the United States.

Happily, the White House also had no desire to see Israel’s retaliation go beyond the confines of Gaza and Hamas. Even after directly launching 330 missiles and drones at Israel in April, Iran used all available channels to reaffirm its commitment to the rules of engagement that have so far contained its conflict with Israel to a proxy war.

An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel, April 14, 2024.

Read more: Lessons learned from Iran's drone barrage into Israel

Confirming non-escalation

Weeks later, reports emerged of secret negotiations between the US and Iran in Oman, allegedly aimed at solidifying agreements on non-escalation in the region and addressing understandings over nuclear weapons. Once Khamenei had a tacit understanding that the war would be limited to Gaza and the other proxy battlegrounds, with established rules of engagement, his narrative on the 7 October operation shifted.

Listening to Khamenei, he failed to mention more than 36,000 Palestinians killed since October—mostly women and children. For some, this gives credence to the Palestinian president’s accusation that Iran is sacrificing Palestinian lives. Khamenei also seemed to gloss over the war’s devastation, instead focusing on politically expedient points, even if they were also unrealistic.

The US-backed peace plan, which Hamas initially welcomed, proposes two parallel tracks: reviving the two-state solution and integrating Israel into the region. The question now is whether Hamas will still be standing when the time comes.

Planning Gaza’s future

After eight months of war, a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, staggering civilian casualties, and widespread destruction of infrastructure and homes caused by Israeli bombings, the group’s survival is far from assured. Even if the international reaction to Israel’s retaliation has weakened it on the world stage and made its far-right coalition government hugely unpopular domestically, the fallout from the Palestinian side is immense.

Despite the damage, Hamas remains deeply intertwined with Gaza’s plight, which will influence what happens next, not least in terms of Palestinian politics. Hamas hopes Washington will reluctantly accept it having a limited role in any post-war arrangements, but this is highly unlikely, given that Israel’s principal war aim has been the group’s destruction, an aim the US supported. According to leaks from Cairo, Hamas may agree to a political review for a new approach to Palestinian politics—an initiative backed by Egypt—as a means to survive.

Read more: Hamas after Gaza

Meanwhile, Iran and its allies continue to obscure their true intentions while seeking to counter US and Israeli dominance in the Middle East. Tehran is currently performing a delicate balancing act between pushing for Israel’s diminishment and avoiding a direct war. Those who bear the brunt of these political machinations are Palestinian civilians who are still being killed in the dozens—and sometimes hundreds—every day.

The Palestinian Authority’s response to Khamenei’s statements made it clear that stopping the war in Gaza is not primarily an Israeli need. It is something for Hamas and Palestinians, too. The PA suspects that Khamenei is quite happy for there to be a perpetual yet limited conflict between the remnants of Hamas, the militants of Hezbollah, and the Israeli army in Gaza and southern Lebanon as long as war does not reach Iran.

Smoke rises during the Israeli bombing of the village of Khiam in southern Lebanon, February 8, 2024

Lebanon and the war

Hezbollah’s interests remain more focused on the politics within Lebanon than on Israel or Gaza. It sees the war in terms of the political gains it can make, much like the short July 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel in southern Lebanon. This led to the vast destruction of Lebanese infrastructure, including its international airport, and more than 1,000 Lebanese were killed, but Hezbollah used it to adapt domestic political conditions in its favour after the assassination of popular Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri a year earlier.

Some think a US-mediated non-escalation agreement between Israel and Hezbollah will come into effect in the coming months, flowing from the wider US-Iran talks. In May, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah outlined objectives, including gains related to Lebanese national security and sovereignty, addressing the border issue with Israel, and decoupling Lebanon’s presidential elections from the fighting in Gaza or in the south. In parallel with Khamenei’s changed direction, this seemed to represent a shift in Nasrallah’s rhetoric, with a new clarity over demands, such as fixed borders with Israel along the lines established in 1923.

Read more: An all-out Israel-Hezbollah war looks increasingly likely

Hochstein’s proposal

Washington’s diplomatic tone also shifted when US envoy Amos Hochstein revealed ongoing efforts to broker an agreement between Israel and Hezbollah. Tens of thousands of Israelis living close to Lebanon fled their homes in the days after Hamas attacked from Gaza and have not yet felt able to return. A US-mediated ceasefire would let them do so.

Iran and its allies continue to obscure their true intentions while seeking to counter US and Israeli dominance in the Middle East.

The negotiators want security guarantees to prevent cross-border attacks by Hezbollah, as per UN Security Council Resolution 1701, with an ongoing role for the Lebanese army in the borderlands. Likewise, those displaced from Lebanese border villages also want to return, with an economic development programme for southern Lebanon initiated. In essence, Hochstein's proposal couples security for Israel with financing for Lebanon.

If delivered, that would amount to a significant gain for Hezbollah, letting it establish a new reality in the south, capitalising on Lebanon's economic collapse. Hochstein seemed confident that both parties would consider the deal, having been reassured of Hezbollah's willingness to compromise. The timing is noteworthy, as Israel's military operations in Gaza seem to be reaching their end.

Treading a new path

The envoy is navigating a new war landscape akin to partial Israeli occupation, where Tel Aviv maintains control over security and freedom of movement. He is also dealing with a Lebanese state whose delicate sectarian balance is teetering. Any long-term ceasefire agreement in exchange for economic support could further marginalise aggrieved Lebanese communities—especially Christians, who see themselves as integral to Lebanon's identity despite their diminishing influence.

Lebanon's Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, is backing the reshaped US-Iran understanding. Gebran Bassil of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement—a Hezbollah ally since 2006—may do the same. At this rate, Lebanon's Sunnis could feel left out.

The repercussions of the Gaza war continue to reshape the politics in the Middle East, often in contradictory and complicated ways. The concern now is not just for Gaza but for Lebanon, too. As French envoy Jean-Yves Le Drian warned: Lebanon's political disintegration may yet lead to its territorial disintegration.

The peace may yet be more dangerous than the war.

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