In peace time and even in war, ambiguity has real value. Keeping an adversary guessing about your plans and objectives can be extremely useful. But it can also backfire, leading an adversary to miscalculate or to act precipitously against a threat that was not really there. The American position before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was vague and may have encouraged Russia. On Taiwan, the Americans have been similarly vague, with President Biden saying that the United States would defend that island nation while the State Department assuring China that U.S. policy has not changed. No one is quite sure.
But it is not just the Americans who have to deal with ambiguity. Over the past years, Iran has created powerful regional tools to implement its "uniting the fronts" doctrine, which sees it as fighting Israel (and the United States) indirectly through a proxy network of terrorist groups, militias, and satellite states in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The idea is that such a broad network, coupled with Iranian success in acquiring a nuclear bomb and other strategic weapons, would be a powerful deterrent against its adversaries.
Now many, but not all, of Iran's proxies are involved in the Hamas War with Israel. Both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), of course, are fully engaged in that war. The Houthis in Yemen are also aiming both attack drones and medium-range ballistic missiles at Israel. And while some missiles have also been aimed at Israel from Syrian soil, the focus for Iran's proxies in Syria and Iraq have so far been American bases in those countries and not Israel itself.
Iran's most powerful surrogate, Hezbollah in Lebanon, has been trying to thread a military needle, making numerous low-intensity attacks along the Israeli border – that have provoked an effective Israeli response – without fully unleashing all its power. Is Hezbollah's most important role to serve as Iran's forward base against Israel in case of a coming direct war between Iran and Israel or to "liberate Palestine" along with its allies in Gaza? Hezbollah is obviously in favor of both, but to go to war now means that Hezbollah would be of little use to Iran later when the bigger conflict comes. Part of the group's strength then is akin to the naval doctrine of "a fleet in being," that by existing and doing little or nothing, it serves as a deterrent against Israel, a powerful potential threat that needs to be considered in war planning.
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But once fully in use, Hezbollah would no longer be a deterrent as its adversary would wear it down over time. It is this ambiguity that has led Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to keep a low profile since the war began before deciding to finally make a speech on November 3 on the conflict almost four weeks after it began.
The anticipated speech has been getting major media buildup in pro-Iranian Arab media. Many expect his speech will enunciate a willingness to sit this war out (while no doubt wrapped in bellicose rhetoric), comparing the early "success" of Hamas in 2023 with Hezbollah's steadfastness in the 2006 War against Israel, calling it a victory and going home to fight another day.
So, while Israel, surrounded by Iran's proxies, faces an existential threat in responding to the unprecedented slaughter of October 7, Iran and Hezbollah also confront a challenge in the face of Hamas's initial "catastrophic success." Hamas wants to pocket its winnings and secure a ceasefire in order to be able to survive and repeat another October 7 at some point in the future, an eventuality that Israel will do all in its power to prevent. If the war were to end today, Hamas would hope to use its sky-high profile to replace the PLO as the dominant Palestinian force everywhere. For Turkey and Qatar, the two main Sunni ideological patrons of Hamas, the group's survival is likely even more important than it is to Iran.
Iran very likely would be delighted with Hamas's survival through an early ceasefire after having bloodied its Zionist adversary. There are useful lessons to be absorbed in Tehran about Hamas's performance and Israel's response. But if Israel is too successful in Gaza and the war does not end, Iran faces the question – is this the big one it has always planned and schemed for? Or was that to come later? Are the fronts uniting too soon?
Many are familiar with "the Guns of August," how a confrontation in the summer of 1914 between Austro-Hungary and Serbia spiraled out of control into an all-out global conflict. While few realists expect a global conflict to rise out of the Hamas-Israel War, it does seem that constant war in one place is driving wars elsewhere.
There was a time not so long ago (seems hard to believe now) when the United States counted on Russia to intercede for them with Iran and North Korea. That time is now gone. The Ukraine War, and America's punitive actions against Russia, have driven Moscow far closer to Iran, North Korea, and China than ever before. China, which had been recently relatively ambivalent about Israel has now publicly embraced the Palestinian Cause. Iran has simultaneously benefited from the embrace of both Russia and China and, perversely, from Biden Administration laxity in enforcing sanctions.
While Iran ponders whether to fully activate "uniting the fronts" against Israel in case the war continues, China could well decide that this is the perfect opportunity to "unite its front" against Taiwan. U.S. Treasury Secretary Yellen recently said that the Americans could "certainly afford" two wars, in Ukraine and in the Middle East. But can Washington afford three of them? Both Iran and China face an exquisite temptation, are they ready or will a more favorable set of circumstances come again?
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.