Founder & CEO of South Australian geopolitical think tank, SAGE International.
He is also
The rapid pace of the Israeli-Hamas War and the heightened emotionalism attached to this conflict from both sides, while entirely understandable, overwhelm any form of common sense. From Russell Brand to numerous anonymous observers on social media, discussions of war are ubiquitous. However, we are not discussing the war between Israel and Hamas; we are talking about the notion of World War III. This is a meme that has spread rapidly and is challenging to dismantle.
Let’s examine whether this escalation of World War III talk is justified.
In an infinite universe, anything is possible. But in the real world, we should base our considerations on the available evidence.
The available evidence strongly suggests that the 2023 Israel-Hamas War will not escalate into a broader conflict involving Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran on one side and Israel and the US Navy on the other.
Iran has and continues to maintain ties with the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah. For Iran, a deeply isolated state in a predominantly Sunni Arab Middle East context, and on the international stage, the country struggles to maintain international relevance due to its autocratic Shiite theocracy, which few outside Iran can relate to or sympathize with. Since the 1979 Revolution overturned the rule of the Pahlavi Imperial dynasty, the Iranian Ayatollahs, initially led by the charismatic and stern Ayatollah Khomeini, reversed Shah Reza Pahlavi’s attempts at modernising Iran and Iranian society. For many average Iranians during the Revolution, some claimed that the Shah had pushed Iran too rapidly down the path of Western modernity. The Shah’s internal security service, the Savak, was an oppressive institution that routinely persecuted and tortured domestic political activists, opposition figures, and ethnic and sectarian minorities. Ayatollah Khomeini’s return from 15 years of exile (initially in Iraq, then France) on February 1, 1979, was welcomed by many Iranians with the idea that he would bring back traditional Shiite values. With Khomeini’s return to Iran and America’s overt support for the Shah, steps were taken to prevent the return of the Pahlavi dynasty through American political interference, ultimately leading to the American Embassy Hostage Crisis (November 1979-January 1981). This incident was crucial in isolating contemporary Iran from the rest of the world. The Washington elite never forgave the Ayatollahs for this blatant violation of diplomatic norms and the harm caused to those caught up in the crisis. Due to the Iran Hostage Crisis, the U.S. officially cut off diplomatic relations with the country.
Khomeini and his inner circle transformed Iran into an economically insular country with a revolutionary agenda. This agenda sought to usher in an international Shiite revival throughout the Middle East and any area with a viable Shiite minority that could be supported. This revolutionary position even included some Sunni groups that saw Iran as a valuable benefactor to serve their local interests. For instance, in 1979, shortly after the Revolution, the Sunni Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) led a delegation to Tehran to seek Iranian support. As the PLO was an anti-American and anti-Israeli group, the new Iranian leadership’s support for Yasser Arafat shifted Iran from being a close partner with Israel (under the Shah) to being a declared enemy of the state of Israel.
Hopes for a renewed Iran were dashed as Khomeini and the Ayatollahs became as repressive as the former Shah. Their attempts to export revolution in a Sunni Arab Middle East already paranoid about internal threats to established regimes won them few regional friends. The eight-year-long Iraq-Iran War (1980-88) largely stemmed from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s and the Gulf Arab’s paranoia about their much larger and revolutionary neighbour. If Iran had been isolated from the international community before this destructive war, it became even more isolated afterwards. Iraq and Iran lost a generation of men to this intense conventional war, making both countries poorer and blunting their conventional military capabilities.
Iran has consistently supported the idea of a Palestinian state and the groups fighting for it. Initially, Iran supported the secular PLO, but this terrorist group became ‘normalised’ and integrated into Palestinian civilian politics through Fatah during the 1993-95 Oslo Peace Accords after it renounced terrorism and accepted Israel’s right to exist. Tehran’s support shifted to the more radicalised, newer religious-based terrorist groups of Hamas and Palestinian Jihad, primarily based in Gaza. Iran supported these groups during the early 2000s Intifada. After the Israelis withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Iran provided financial and technical assistance to Hamas to help it take control of the territory from Fatah in 2006. For Iran, using the Gaza Strip as a thorn in Israel’s side became one of its few successful asymmetric strategies. Supplying Hamas with rockets, ammunition, guns, and the means to manufacture rudimentary ones from local resources ensured that a radicalised Hamas would continue to fight Israel. However, Iranian ties to Hamas had limitations. Hamas is a Sunni group, not a fellow co-religionist of the Iranians.
Furthermore, it is an Arab group, not Persian. These distinctions matter in the Middle East and affect the strength of relationships. Therefore, Hamas’ utility for Iran was always more transactional. Useful but expendable. Moreover, the significant geographic distance between the Gaza Strip and Iran imposed limits on how many weapons could be covertly smuggled into Gaza, especially under the watchful eye of Israeli intelligence. This is not a trivial consideration.
A similar but distinct story involves southern Lebanese Hezbollah. As a highly organised militant group and political party, Hezbollah influences Shiite Arab Lebanon, primarily in the southern region. Lebanon is divided by ethnic and sectarian loyalties, and Hezbollah is the country’s most powerful faction. Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah began in the early 1980s when members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) began training Hezbollah fighters in guerrilla warfare. Hezbollah saw this relationship as a means for Iran to strengthen them primarily against domestic Lebanese opposition and against Israel. In the 1980s, Israeli observers generally considered the quality of Hezbollah fighters poor. Still, their tactics evolved from suicide bombings and human wave attacks to more sophisticated and coordinated strikes against Israelis and other opposing forces within Lebanon. By the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, Hezbollah’s tactics and weapon choices led to a technical stalemate. Israeli airpower ultimately determined the outcome of this war, a fact recognised by both Israel and Hezbollah. The build-up of Hezbollah’s rocket forces has become a significant concern for Israel.
Nonetheless, Israel’s investment in the Iron Dome anti-ballistic missile system can intercept many volleys of incoming Hezbollah rockets before they reach their targets. Iran has close and enduring ties to Hezbollah as co-religionists. Hezbollah fighters have been used to support Iran’s ally, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, during the ongoing Syrian civil war. However, similar to the situation with Hamas, there are limits to how far Iran would go to support Hezbollah. Hezbollah is an Arab group, not Persian. Also, like Hamas, Hezbollah’s territory is not contiguous with Iran, making it challenging to transport large quantities of heavy military equipment to southern Lebanon over that distance. This situation has been somewhat alleviated by Iraq becoming a majoritarian Shiite state, post-Saddam Hussein, deeply infiltrated by Iranian intelligence services. This means that land routes from Iran to Syria and into Lebanon now exist, easing logistical problems for Iran.
Nonetheless, we must ask whether Iran would go to great lengths to support Hamas or Hezbollah. Since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Iran has invested considerable time, money, and effort in projecting strategic influence into the Levant. Further south on the Arabian Peninsula, Iranian support for the Houthis in Yemen has given Iran access to southern Arabia and possibly even the Horn of Africa. Iran can consolidate this position if relative stability prevails in the Middle East.
It is essential to remember that Iran is not an economic powerhouse; its economy has been heavily sanctioned by much of the West and Israel. This means that the technology at its disposal is either acquired from Russia or China or produced by its modest industrial capacities. A significant regional war would expose Iran’s strategic weaknesses and reduce its broader footprint. Its military forces are divided between an antiquated and poorly trained conventional Army, Navy, and Air Force. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is better trained and equipped but not decisively so. The Quds Force, one of the five branches of the IRGC, specialises in gathering military intelligence and conducting unconventional warfare. It is the Iranian equivalent of Western Special Forces. Lightly armed unconventional forces can pull off surprising and daring missions during relative peace. But these missions will be proscribed by who they come up against and in what number.
However, during a declared war and facing the potential wrath of the professional, well-armed and well-equipped Israeli forces, the Iranians would likely struggle to confront such a proficient military force. The Iranian military, including the IRGC, is a defensive force and would perform better within Iranian territory than far from Iran. Iran’s feared rocket forces cannot deliver substantial payloads into Israel in numbers that would pose a significant threat. Geography plays a role here: the further a rocket is fired, the lighter the warhead, and assuming the warhead bypasses Israeli defences, the damage, whether direct or collateral, from such an Iranian attack would be limited. But, having said that, the sight of any Iranian missile falling onto Haifa or Tel Aviv would be psychologically shocking for Israelis. Iranian drones might be able to reach Israeli airspace from Iran, but would sufficient numbers be able to penetrate Israel? Lacking a modern air force, Iran would find it challenging to sustain a bombardment of Israel using its old and underpowered manned fighter fleet.
As for Iran leaning on its ‘allies’ in the Levant, Hezbollah’s rocket forces are not at Iran’s disposal. They are primarily for preserving Hezbollah as a military-political force in Lebanon.
A full-scale Hezbollah assault against Israel would only occur in response to an Israeli attack against Hezbollah, NOT in support of an Iranian war against Israel or a Hamas attack on Israel. If there had been a mutually supportive arrangement between Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, it would have been evident on October 7 with a coordinated and combined assault against Israel by all three. Such an attack could have overwhelmed Israel’s anti-ballistic missile systems and air force, potentially opening the way for a full Hamas and Hezbollah invasion of Israel. However, this did not happen then, and it is unlikely to occur in the future, especially with two U.S. Navy carrier battle groups stationed near Israel, providing additional firepower to deter such actions. Moreover, Israel has extensively targeted Hamas from the air, critically weakening one of the pillars in this alleged Iran-led ‘alliance.’ A Hezbollah attack on Israel would be suicidal, as it would face the full might of the Israeli air force alone, not in conjunction with an Iranian missile strike or an IRGC or Quds Force attack from forward bases in Syria. These forces are there to support Bashar Al Assad and are not designed to support a war on Israel.
Some might suggest that Israel is being lured into a trap.
They argue that Hamas fighters, hiding deep within their network of tunnels and bunkers in Gaza, are waiting for the Israeli Army to arrive to fight a defensive war on the IDF from the rubble of Gaza City and other urban areas in the Gaza Strip. However, this seems more like wishful thinking than reality. Many of the IDF’s bombings and artillery strikes target these tunnels and bunkers, meaning that many Hamas fighters are likely trapped and have been killed in their underground lairs. These locations are essentially Hamas tombs, not underground military staging areas. But even if some Hamas fighters survived the initial Israeli assault, their resistance to the IDF will likely be limited. With an estimated size of between 10-25,000 fighters, Hamas is not an army nor a sizeable paramilitary outfit. It has no strategic depth to take on the Israeli military and win from a defensible salient. Remnant Hamas fighters may hope to damage as much of the IDF as possible from their buried positions. Still, it is unclear whether the Netanyahu government will commit to a ground invasion of Gaza. Such an invasion will cause even more casualties among Palestinian residents, aggravating international sentiment against Israel’s revenge against Hamas for its brutal October 7 attack.
Similarly, there are claims that as soon as the IDF enters Gaza, Hezbollah will provoke the IDF into a war in southern Lebanon, splitting the IDF into two distinct groups, one in the north and the other in the south. Given Hezbollah’s greater capabilities than Hamas, it would use its rocket forces and drones to strike deep into Israel, causing considerable damage to the Jewish state. Under this scenario, Israel could resort to using its tactical nuclear weapons. The risk of Israel using nuclear weapons in defence against a multi-pronged attack is higher than that of Russia using such weapons against Ukraine. Israel’s nuclear deterrent exists to prevent a multi-pronged military attack of this nature.
In summary, the risk of the Israel-Hamas War escalating into an international conflict is lower than what mainstream and social media suggest. Nevertheless, it is a tragic and terrible event that has claimed the lives of innocent Israelis and Palestinians. Achieving lasting peace enforced by bouts of extreme violence and repression is challenging. However, suppose there is no clear alternative path other than periodic Israeli military operations against Gaza. In that case, it should not be surprising if, in the future, a revived Hamas or a similar group emerges in Gaza, leading to more violence with Israel.