While the Biden administration has secured a deal with Israel and Hamas for a combat “pause,” it remains to be seen if this leads to a formal cease fire or only allows for a brief respite before Israel resumes its bid to destroy Hamas.
But what is clear is that Hamas’s October 7 assault has shaken the assumptions of every player in the Middle East including Iran. Tehran’s number one worry is that the assault could invite a regional war for which it was not prepared. Ground zero for such a conflict is the Lebanon-Israel theater. While Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah telegraphed in his November 3 speech that he wants to avoid war with Israel, he also insisted that “when we do receive the order to…take sides with Hamas against the Israelis, you will see the difference.” Thus, he warned, “whoever wants to prevent a regional war, and I am talking to the Americans, must quickly halt the aggression in Gaza.”
If the Biden administration has been listening, so have Iran’s leaders. They may yearn for Israel’s destruction. But the last thing Tehran wants is for the “axis of resistance” that it has forged to be weakened by a regional conflagration that Iran did not seek. The purpose of Iran’s alliances with militant groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen is not Israel’s elimination but rather the survival of the regime. Thus, Iran will have to find ways to support a pummeled Hamas as it contends with what could eventually be a wider global effort to rebuild Gaza as part of a new diplomatic initiative on the Palestinian-Israeli issue. To resist, while skirting the potential perils of resistance, is a dilemma that Hamas’s “Al-Aksa Storm” has only deepened for Iran, and for Hezbollah.
Deterrence and the paradox of “resistance”
Lacking a powerful conventional military, Iran has deployed a “forward defense” strategy via alliances with armed non-state groups which have one primary mission: to deter the U.S. or Israel from attacking Iran. Beyond subcontracting Iran’s defense to regional actors, this strategy gives Iran plausible deniability even as its allies periodically harass, intimidate or threaten Tehran’s foes. This blurring of the lines between defense and offense carries risks, the most obvious of which is the possibility of spiraling escalation between Iran and its enemies. But a second risk is that Iran’s regional allies might “go rogue” by taking on Israel or the U.S. in ways that could damage the deterrent architecture provided by the axis of resistance. Such a possibility has been ever-present in the Israel-Lebanon theater but has loomed even larger in the Gaza-Israel arena.
For Tehran, Hezbollah’s most important role is to deter an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Thus, it has provided Hezbollah with some 100,000 rockets, while Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard has helped transform Hezbollah’s army—which includes some 22,000 fighters and an equivalent number of reserves—into a potent fighting force. Even with Israel’s “Iron Dome” anti-missile system, by launching multiple rockets, experts argue that Hamas could hit all of Israel’s main cities and inflict immense damage on refineries, water desalination plants, and industrial infrastructure. But, because Israel is capable of inflicting similar costs on Lebanon, the ultimate obstacle to a full-fledged Hezbollah-Israel war is the real prospect of “Mutually Assured Catastrophe,” or MAC, for both countries. Knowing this, Hezbollah’s role in the axis of resistance is to preserve its deterrent capacity (and that of Iran) by avoiding a full-fledged war with Israel.
As for Hamas, while it has not received the kind of advanced armaments that Iran has given Hezbollah, it has used Iran’s missiles, drones, training and funding to cause pain and draw Israel into costly military incursions -- but without posing an existential threat. Indeed, this situation facilitated Israel’s efforts to divide Gaza from the West Bank. While Gaza’s people have paid a high price for this modus vivendi, the Israel-Hamas stand-off has benifitted Iran. By giving its regional allies the means to harass Israel, Iran has kept the flame of “resistance” burning, but without risking a regional explosion that might prove costly for Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran’s forward defense strategy has depended on walking this tricky path.
October 7: Hamas goes quasi-rogue?
Hamas’ October 7 “Al Aksa Mosque Storm” has complicated Iran’s forward defense strategy in two closely related ways:
First, it underscored the risk that one or more of its allies might go rogue. After all, the attack hinged on an elaborate artifice of deception that not only surprised Israel but was also kept from both Hezbollah and Iran. Thus, Iran and Hezbollah responded to events as they unfolded while their leaders held that they had no forewarning of the attack. U.S. intelligence sources substantiated such claims, while Hezbollah’s decision to move it forces to southern Lebanon following the Hamas attack suggested the improvised nature of its response. When Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian insisted that Hamas “is not receiving orders from us” and is acting in its “own interests,” he was probably not prevaricating. Instead, Abdollahian stated unambiguously that “we don’t want this war to spread out.”
Second, Hamas’s massacre of 1200 Israeli and foreign nationals and its seizure of at least 240 hostages has galvanizedmany Israelis behind a “war of destiny” the likes of which the Islamist organization has never witnessed. This, of course, may be exactly what Hamas envisioned. Indeed, at the very most, some of its forces were prepared to move towards the West Bank in the hope that Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem — and in Israel — would rebel en masse. At the very least, Hamas’s leaders hoped that their attack would shake up the entire region, even if this meant absorbing a terrible military blow and sacrificing thousands of civilian lives. But the prospect of a wider war that could burn its own regional assets was not something that Iran or Hezbollah sought.
Dilemmas for Iran and Hezbollah
The potential for a wider war has created a dilemma for Iran and Hezbollah. Neither can afford to let up on the pressure along the Lebanese border and in other arenas such as Syria, lest they be seen as failing to support Hamas. But, as the pace of deadly tit-for-tat attacks has escalated, the danger for Israel and Lebanon has increased. Quite apart from the lethal prospect of MAC is the possibility that Israel could refocus its military might on Lebanon and thus deliver a severe blow to Hezbollah. But if, as one expert has noted, it is unlikely that “Iranians want to sacrifice Hezbollah on the altar of Hamas,” Tehran cannot risk signaling that it is ready to sacrifice Hamas on the altar of the axis of resistance. Iran’s leaders face a conundrum for which there is no simple solution.
Still, given their long-term interests, Iran’s leaders must find a way forward that ensures that their regional allies can survive and project deterrence. For this purpose, they are resorting to their familiar carrot-and-stick approach. The stick is being wielded by Tehran’s allies in Yemen and especially Iraq. Apart from demonstrating solidarity with Palestinians, the recent missile attacks on U.S. forces in Syria are meant to send the signal that U.S. forces will suffer a cost if Washington doesn’t push for a formal cease-fire. The U.S. has retaliated after each assault in the hope that it can deter Iran’s allies from escalating, but the potential for a widening confrontation between U.S. and pro-Iranian forces could increase dramatically if Israel resumes its assault in Gaza. As for the carrot, based on his early November talks with Qatar and Hamas, Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian set out the outlines of a deal, including a prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel, an immediate halt to attacks, and the provision of humanitarian aid to Gaza. But, he added, “It is the American side that must decide whether it wants to escalate the war.”
This, of course, was the very question that the Biden White House had to address. Now that it has backed a truce, the White House might welcome an international efforts to press for a wider cease-fire. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that military operations will continue. But with the recent release of hostages, the pressure in Israel and abroad to expand the truce will increase, thus lessening the chances of a U.S.-Iran military confrontation that Washington and Tehran both want to avoid.
Iran wants no war and no peace
Whatever the outcome of the Gaza conflict, two things are clear. First, Iran’s leaders must rethink how to ensure that its allies do not use the umbrella of “deterrence” to pursue goals that could harm the axis of resistance. This will not be easy because the foot soldiers of Hamas and Hezbollah have long expected that the ultimate purpose of resistance is to crush Israel rather than to protect Iran’s rulers. As one Hezbollah fighter put it, my “main fear is to die without liberating Palestine – but we can see it getting closer.” Such hopes will be delt a further blow if a diplomatic process –backed by Iran-- opens up.
Second, while the Gaza war has exposed the failures of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy, the international community might still look to Washington to build on the November 24 truce in the hope that it can provide the basis for a wider effort to rebuild Gaza and, as Biden himself has proposed, to refocus U.S. policy on the issue of Palestinian statehood. In fact, the White House might try to recast the “Abraham Accords” in a manner designed to tackle, rather than circumvent, the Palestinian issue. Such an effort could have the support of European states and the blessings of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, including Qatar, which has emerged as a vital Gulf Arab ally of the United States.
With U.S. elections looming on the horizon and a Middle East seizing with anger over Israel’s devastation of Gaza, the window of opportunity for such an initiative will be very short. It is possible that Iran might activate the axis of resistance to sabotage any wider diplomatic process, especially if, as is likely, it excludes Hamas. But any bid by Iran to act as a spoiler could also again expose the fault lines in the axis of resistance. Indeed, having pushed for a cease-fire, Tehran must tread carefully. After all, Russia and especially China — which are effectively associate members of the axis of resistance — will probably back rather than undercut a broader diplomatic process.
Such a possibility has prompted a debate in Iran regarding the costs and benefits of working with Russia and China, particularly given Beijing’s role in securing a renewal of Saudi-Iranian relations earlier this year. One analyst has argued that “we operate within the framework of China and Russia’s interests, without little to gain for ourselves.” However exaggerated, this warning speaks to the contending interests that are at play in a widening axis of states and non-state groups, some of which will not automatically toe Tehran’s line of no peace and no war.
This article has been abridged from a previous version published by the Arab Center Washington DC.
Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). From 2008 through 2015 he also served as a Special Adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.
Photo credit: Hamas militants take part in an anti-Israel military march in 2019. (Anas Mohammed/ Shutterstock)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.