Middle EastAnalysis

Iran knows it could lose a lot if war spreads

Further attacks on US facilities or intervention in the Gaza war by Iran or its allies could prompt massive retaliation against a country that has only recently exited international isolation

The US air strike on Iran-backed militia arsenals in eastern Syria in the early hours of Friday morning was both a message to Tehran to stay out of the Gaza war and retaliation for 18 recent attacks on US bases in Syria and Iraq.

The strike followed a warning against targeting US military personnel in the region by US president Joe Biden to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who decides policy.

After Israel began bombarding Gaza in response to Hamas’s operation that killed 1,400 people in Israel on October 7th, Iran said it would act if Israel did not halt its assault. But hours later, Iran said it would not intervene unless Iranians and Iranian interests were attacked by Israel.

Earlier this week Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Tehran does not welcome the expansion of war in the region but warned if the “genocide in Gaza continues [the US] will not be spared from the fire”. He did not say who would light the fire.


Indicating that Tehran has further moderated its position, he said during Thursday’s debate at the United Nations General Assembly: “We recommend the US and the West to work for peace and security, not war, against civilians – children and women. Actually, instead of sending rockets, tanks and bombs to be used against Gaza, they should stop supporting genocide.”

He claimed that Iran had convinced Russia and China to reject a UN Security Council resolution proposed by the US calling for “humanitarian pauses” in the war and urged others to back Russia’s draft demanding a ceasefire, which was opposed by the US.

Further attacks on US facilities or intervention in the Gaza war by Iran or its regional allies could prompt massive retaliation. Iran is struggling with economic meltdown and political unrest. Clerical rule has been challenged by widespread protests mounted after Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini was detained for failing wear her headscarf as required by law and died in morality police custody in September 2022.

Having been warned off by Washington from using Arab allies to attack US troops in Syria and Iraq, Iran has avoided targeting US bases in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait as well as Saudi oilfields.

A reconciliation with Riyadh in March after six years of estrangement and the subsequent mending of relations with Gulf countries has ended Tehran’s isolation, imposed by the US and Europe. Striking back at the US would risk a return to ostracisation.

Iran has backed Palestinian resistance for decades. The first global figure invited to visit Tehran after the 1979 overthrow of the Shah was Fatah’s Yasser Arafat. During the Shah’s reign, Israeli and US intelligence agencies trained members of Savak, Iran’s notorious security agency.

Israel and the West have charged Iran with funding, training and arming Hamas and Islamic Jihad and of using Iran’s civil nuclear programme to make bombs, although international inspectors have found no proof of weaponisation.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called for a US-Israel war on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and has ordered strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites and scientists.

Israel has accused Iran of preparing Hamas for the October 7th attack but has not explained how fighters could have entered or exited Gaza, or how arms could have reached the strip, which is under tight Israeli control.