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The savagery of Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel could have outcomes far beyond Gaza, turning a dusty, densely populated piece of land about a quarter the size of Greater London into a war among multiple nations.
It’s already scuppered US President Joe Biden’s trip to Jordan and caused anti-Israel protests from the West Bank to Turkey after Hamas and Hezbollah called for another “Day of Rage” after Gaza City hospital was struck, killing between 300 and 500 people.
Israel denies its missiles hit the Anglican Church-run hospital, saying a failed rocket launch by a third group, Islamic Jihad, caused the explosion. Hamas and Islamic Jihad reject Israel’s claim.
Still, while Day of Rage protests in Iran’s capital, Tehran, have little effect on Biden’s peace-making plans, protests in countries like Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey, with relatively calm and good diplomatic relations with America, show the potential for widening regional conflict – and a return to Israel’s isolation in the region.
At its core, Hamas is beholden to Iran. So are Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and various “rebel groups’’ across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls these groups his “axis of resistance”.
They’re resisting America specifically and the liberal West in general. Rhetoric aside, these aren’t Islamic wars pitched against Christendom. The idea is farcical. These are wars of division, an attempt to create, like Putin in Ukraine, a second pole of power to counter the West’s supremacy.
This also means that the war in Gaza is but one of several fronts being backed by Iran. It is a new front, the latest of many. And it could well push Lebanon’s Hezbollah into opening yet another front. The fact that Israel is involved makes it momentous because Israel is allied to the West – and newsworthy. Television cameras won’t, and often can’t, cover Iran’s other wars with the same intensity.
This also drives Khamenei’s intense desire to acquire nukes and ever-more far-reaching ballistic missiles. It’s a worry that’s plagued the US since at least the first Bush presidency, with both the State and Defense Departments warning presidents and Congress not to bomb it into regime change. So far, the career civil servants have managed to temper their politicians and political appointees, even the war-crazed, draft-dodging John Bolton.
The US has now sent two aircraft carriers to the region, one of them the world’s largest. It has enough firepower to raze the entire Middle East, but it won’t – and Iran knows it won’t. Dictators from China’s Xi Jinping to Khamenei believe with intense conviction that America and the wider Western world are weak, perhaps mistaking morality for prostration before electorates. Electorates that dictators don’t have to fret about.
The US could, though, be drawn into the Gaza conflict, and its allies with it. Americans and Britons are among the victim’s of Hamas’ villainous terror. No doubt the West will add further punishing sanctions on Iran, but like all sanctioned nations, Iran has a back-up plan. China, Russia, and a host of smaller nations already defy those sanctions. America knows how easily this can happen because it watched North Korea acquire nuclear tech from China, which in turn upgraded its own capacity with technology stolen from Pakistan. China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, these are all countries working to end Western supremacy – and they’re all allies even when they deny it steadfastly.
Iran itself is a proxy of the West’s main opponents. It’s already beholden to China and Russia, though its relationship with Russia is slightly altered by Putin’s dependence on Iranian weaponry. Nonetheless, they’re all working to create a bipolar world that resembles the old Cold War, when the Soviet Union was pitched against the West. That China has usurped Russia is inconsequential in their eyes because what matters is that the U.S., and democracy, is weakened.
All this will have Vladimir Putin and Xi rubbing their hands in glee, “divide and conquer” being their stated aim. If that seems cynical, consider how dictators treat their own citizens. Iran will continue to receive support and aid and it will often be hidden. So will Israel of course, from the West, and that will result in protest and criticism across a swathe of Western cities, which is more grist to Xi and Putin’s mill, more “divide and conquer.”
For Washington, though, its decisions are arguably even more fraught than any decision Benjamin Netanyahu has to make. America’s decisions are, quite literally, nuclear, and adding Iran to the rest of its nuclear-ready opponents would be catastrophic. No doubt there are hawks wandering the corridors of Congress pushing to rain fire and fury down on Tehran – or at least upon its leaders and the notorious Quds group. After all, Iran’s hawkish foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian laid down the gauntlet when he said that unless Israel ends its Gaza invasion, “the hands of all parties in the region are on the trigger.” Iran has also said Israel will have to fight on “many fronts”, not just Gaza before this is over.
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It’s a threat that’s hard to ignore, so Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, for all his skill, will struggle to find middle ground between such implacable enemies. Saudi Arabia has frozen negotiations towards normalising relations with Israel, and those countries that have normalised relations are facing protests that could see them revert to the old status quo. Even Jordan, liberal by the standards of the Middle East, snubbed Biden and Blinken’s shuttle diplomacy efforts.
Given the choice between bad outcomes and catastrophic outcomes, catastrophe may be what happens.