Since the October 7th Hamas attacks, this has largely been a one-front war for Israel: Israel is relentlessly pounding Gaza and has launched a ground incursion, while Hamas fires rockets indiscriminately towards Israel.
This conflict is escalating terribly for Palestinians trapped in Gaza. But thus far, war has not spread in any major way across the region.
We kick off discussing Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian proxy militia in Southern Lebanon that has been engaged in limited skirmishes with Israel since the October 7th. We then discuss why restraint is the most logical course for Israel and Iran — and yet despite compelling reasons not to expand this conflict, a wider regional war is very much in the realm of possibility.
The podcast episode is freely available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. This link will take you to the episode. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation, edited for clarity.
Mark Leon Goldberg While logic and rationality would suggest restraint, we are in such a volatile moment right now — anything can happen, and very quickly. What are some of the scenarios that might lead to regional escalation and what might that escalation look like?
Dalia Dassa Kaye I think as a rule of thumb, the longer the conflict in Gaza goes on, the higher the death toll gets and the worse the images get coming out from this ground war, the more pressure there will be on some of the Iranian aligned groups. We also have the danger that they could start competing against each other, trying to showcase who is touting the Palestinian line better than the other. And here Hezbollah would be the most critical actor to look at. But we’re also seeing Iranian aligned groups in Iraq and Syria attacking U.S. forces. This isn’t hypothetical. It’s already happening. There’s actually been attacks on U.S. forces every day, at least 20 so far, with no major casualties. But if one of those attacks leads to a major death toll of American forces, that’s going to force a different calculus in Washington about how tolerable this situation is.
And if Hezbollah launches an attack again — the other day they hit Kiryat Shmona, that’s a major city in northern Israel that was largely evacuated. But if it goes further and hits Haifa and there are mass civilian casualties, Israeli calculations about not being able to afford a second front could very, very quickly change.
And then on top of all of that, you have another scenario, stemming from pressure within Israel. [The October 7 attacks] was such a traumatic event for the country. For the leadership, it was such a catastrophic failure. There will be voices calling for really changing the status quo in an irreversible way. There is the question about whether they’ll want to really change the status quo when it comes to Iran and Iranian aligned groups in the region. And so you have the question of whether the Israelis will feel that this is the moment that they need to preempt and degrade Hezbollah capabilities and Iranian capabilities — especially because they may be concerned the Iranians see this as a very opportunistic window when Israel is bogged down, when it has global opinion against it, when it already has shown operational and intelligence failures, when it has the entire Arab region on its side (which is unusual because many Arab states [are generally unhappy with Iran]).
So the Israelis could be worried the Iranians are going to capitalize on this and they’re playing with fire. There may be voices in Israel calling for a more preemptive and intentional strike against Hezbollah, either in Syria, in Lebanon, and possibly even attacks within Iran itself. That is in the realm of possibility.
Mark Leon Goldberg From Iran’s perspective, what’s the incentive structure look like to not escalate on the one hand, or to escalate on the other hand?
Dalia Dassa Kaye Well, I think here is where the United States factors in, in a very major way…