A day after Palestinian militant group Hamas launched its brutal attack on Israel, a curious video emerged out of Tehran’s Azadi stadium. Hundreds of soccer fans, gathered to watch a match between Perspolis FC and Gol Gohar Sirjan FC, chanted in unison: “Shove the Palestinian flag up your a**.”
The vulgar protest came in response to officials attempting to raise a Palestinian flag in the stadium to show support for the October 7 attack. But for the fans, it was another unwelcome mixing of politics and soccer, and a stark reminder of the Iranian government’s involvement in proxy battles in far-flung arenas.
Hamas’ attack, which killed 1,400 people according to Israeli authorities, prompted a fierce aerial campaign on Gaza that has so far killed more than 7,000 people, according to the health ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza. And there are now concerns that more fronts will open in the war, including one with Iran.
Experts say that while Iran is wary of being dragged into the Israel-Hamas war, it may not be in full control if the militias it backs in the region independently intervene as Hamas suffers heavy blows and the death toll in Gaza continues to mount.
“What connects all these groups to Iran is their anti-Israel policies,” said Sima Shine, head of the Iran program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, noting that while Iran has varying levels of influence over the groups, it doesn’t dictate all their actions.
Despite its denial, however, Iran has ramped up its rhetoric against its arch enemy.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has warned that Israel’s bombardment of Gaza could have far-reaching consequences, saying that if Israel does not halt its airstrikes, “it is highly probable that many other fronts will be opened.”
“This option is not ruled out and this is becoming increasingly more probable,” he told Al Jazeera last week.
On Monday Abdollahian said the US has sent Iran two messages regarding escalation in the region.
“The first message said that the United States is not interested in expanding the war, and the second message asked Iran to have self-restraint and insisted that Iran should also ask other countries and other sides to have self-restraint,” Abdollahian said during a news conference in Tehran Monday, without saying how and when the messages were delivered.
He added that while the US says it wants to de-escalate, it has contradicted itself by continuing to support Israel.
Proxies have ‘their own strategic calculations’
Trita Parsi, vice-president of the Quincy Institute in Washington, DC, said there is no appetite or desire from either Iran, the US or Israel for a wider war, but that Washington’s failure to restrain Israel may inadvertently drive the region towards escalation.
US President Joe Biden last week pledged continued support for Israel, which has hardened Arab sentiment across the region and translated to mass protests against Israeli and American policies.
“The only actor that has a clear interest in (a wider conflict) is Hamas, given that an enlargement of the war could change the dynamics in a favorable way for them,” Parsi said. In the absence of US efforts to rein in Israel, “many (regional) actors are going to feel compelled to step in… because of their own strategic calculations.”
“When Israel is mobilizing 300,000 (troops), it is not likely that Hezbollah is going to sit there and assume that this is done only to go after Hamas,” he said, adding that it will factor in the risk of Israel going after the Lebanese group as well.
An Iran-backed armed group and powerful regional force, Hezbollah has been trading fire with Israel’s military since the October 7 attack by Hamas. The fighting has been the worst since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, but it has so far been restricted to the border between Lebanon and Israel.
Israel’s defense minister last week said that Israel was not interested in another war with Hezbollah. Israel has nonetheless turned the area of 4-kilometer radius near its border into a closed military zone, and evacuated residents from 28 communities within 2 kilometers of the Lebanese border.
Hezbollah’s influence spans beyond Lebanon, however. It also operates alongside Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria, where the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights separates Israel from Tehran-aligned fighters.
The Lebanese group also has its own channels with Hamas. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah met Wednesday with top officials from Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, it said in a statement, without revealing where the meeting took place.
“An assessment was made of…what the parties of the resistance axis must do at this sensitive stage to achieve a real victory for the resistance in Gaza and Palestine and to stop the treacherous and brutal aggression against our people,” it said.
The US continues to warn Tehran against taking advantage of the current situation or encouraging its proxies to escalate. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the United Nations Security Council to warn Iran against any further involvement.
“Tell Iran, tell its proxies in public, in private, through every means: Do not open another front against Israel in this conflict. Do not attack Israel’s partners,” Blinken said, noting that a “broader conflict would be devastating, not only for Palestinians and Israelis, but for people across the region, and indeed, around the world.”
The US on Thursday carried out airstrikes targeting two facilities linked to Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria, according to a statement from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The strikes came after a series of drone and rocket attacks against US forces in the region. The statement said the targeted facilities have been used by Iran’s IRGC and affiliated groups.
Shine, of the INSS, said that Iran does not want a direct war with Israel because that would mean a direct war with the US. “It is very obvious that Iran does not want to be directly involved, and would prefer that (only) the proxies are involved.”
But that may not play out exactly how Iran wants, added Shine, who previously served in the Israeli intelligence community for most of her career.
Parsi of the Quincy Institute said that the Iranian government is nonetheless preparing its population for war.
Iranian media has been brimming with news of the Gaza war, with officials across Iran’s political spectrum expressing solidarity with Palestinians.
“They’re already preparing the public opinion for this eventuality by essentially trying to make the argument that this is something that is brought to their doorstep because of what the Israelis are doing and because of the American support for it,” Parsi said.
This shows there are already concerns in the Iranian government about how citizens will react to a war in which Iran is directly involved, he added.
Even if there is a widener war that is still “below the threshold of a direct US-Iran engagement” – where it is restricted to Iranian proxies fighting Israel – it would still be an extremely unstable situation, he said. “No one can even control the current situation and make sure it doesn’t escalate.”