Red lines: Will Iran enter the regional war?

Farzad Ramezani Bonesh, The Cradle, February 21, 2024 —

Despite Tehran’s central role in the Axis of Resistance, which has launched regionwide operations against Israel and its US ally, the Islamic Republic refuses to rise to the enemy’s bait and make itself a central target.

On 14 October 2023, Iran issued a stern public ultimatum to Israel, cautioning that unless it ceases its genocidal assault on Gaza, significant repercussions will ensue, likening them to “a huge earthquake.”

Tehran’s envoy to the UN later clarified that the Islamic Republic would only intervene in the Gaza war if the occupation state were to jeopardize Iranian interests or citizens.

Given the events of the past four months, this raises the question: What are Iran’s red lines, and at what point would Tehran opt for direct confrontation?

The red lines

To grasp Iran’s motivations and reactions, it’s critical to understand its red lines—those non-negotiable boundaries it staunchly defends. At the heart of this lies the survival of the Islamic Republic itself, which recently celebrated its 44th anniversary. Any encroachment on Iran’s territorial integrity or vital interests triggers a defensive response to deter potential threats.

Foremost among these red lines are any broad attacks on Iran’s maritime assets, energy infrastructure, and strategic interests. Assaults on vital economic nodes like oil refineries or shipping lanes will likely prompt swift and resolute reactions from Iran’s leadership, signaling a readiness to safeguard national assets at any cost.

Previously, the Iranian government denied involvement in the Hamas-led resistance Operation Al-Aqsa Flood. While ideologically aligned with Palestinian resistance factions, Tehran insists on their autonomy, wary of direct involvement that could destabilize its domestic front. Nevertheless, support for other allies in the Axis of Resistance like Hezbollah remains unwavering, serving as a deterrent against external aggression targeting Iran’s strategic depth.


So far, Tehran has moved to influence Israel’s war in Gaza on the level of diplomacy, demanding the immediate cessation of killings, the lifting of the blockade on humanitarian aid, and the withdrawal of the Israeli military from the Gaza Strip. The key aims of the Iranians are to prevent a serious blow to the Palestinian resistance and its military capabilities and to prevent another mass displacement of Palestinians from their lands.

From Iran’s perspective, resistance against Israel and the US represents a cornerstone of the Islamic Republic’s strategic vision – part of its wider anti-imperialist struggle in West Asia, and ambition to force the US out of the region.

Many in Tehran believe the Gaza war is orchestrated in Washington, with the US serving as Israel’s primary advocate in global arenas like the UN Security Council. As such, Iran aims to undermine US influence by exacerbating divisions between Washington and Tel Aviv.

Despite Israel’s resolve to continue its campaign of ethnic cleansing, Iran’s strategy hinges on exploiting this discord, using diplomatic channels to influence US policy without resorting to direct confrontation. In essence, Tehran’s approach is to apply pressure on Washington via non-aggressive methods – without entering the war.

Israel’s covert attacks continue 

Last week, a major attack was carried out on Iran’s national gas transmission pipelines. Iranian Oil Minister Javad Oji called the pipeline explosions in three regions “sabotage and terrorist attacks” and said the enemy’s plan was to disrupt gas supply to several cities and main provinces during the winter to ignite social and political unrest across the country.

While no country has claimed responsibility, a New York Times report names Israel as the culprit, citing several western official sources. Despite the severity of the attacks, Iran’s critical gas transmission capacity was safeguarded, preventing widespread energy crises.

Yet even these attacks didn’t cross Iran’s red lines because this act of vandalism – intent on destroying about 40 percent of the country’s gas transmission capacity and creating an energy crisis – was immediately thwarted.

These incidents mark another chapter in the covert conflict between Iran and Israel, which spans air, land, sea, and cyberspace. While such attacks have become somewhat routine, the frequency, intensity, and scale of destruction in this latest round may signal a material escalation that crosses Tehran’s established red lines.

Iran’s strategic response 

As its support for Palestine is a top Iranian foreign policy priority, President Ebrahim Raisi has stated that the ongoing situation in Gaza raises the possibility of expanding the conflict to other regional fronts.

This is of great concern to the US. Since the beginning of Israel’s aggressions, the US has repeatedly warned Iran and its allies about “opening new fronts” in the war. These warnings have not had the desired impact: more than four months later, it is clear the Resistance Axis has responded proportionately from Lebanon, Syria, Iran, to Yemen with measured retaliations aimed at curbing Israel’s options.

Moreover, if Israel pushes Iran’s Palestinian allies to the limit, it appears that Tehran would pursue a relative, restrictive, short-term, and mid-term response.

In the interim, the assertive military reactions from Iranian allies – including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, factions operating in Iraq and Syria, and the Ansarallah-aligned armed forces in Yemen – serve as a stick to confront Israel’s aggressive stance autonomously, even in the absence of direct instructions from Iran.

While Washington and Tel Aviv claim they wish to avoid opening new fronts, on the ground, they are gearing up for military confrontation and have already escalated on various fronts.

In response, the Axis of Resistance refuses to remain passive, aiming to disrupt Tel Aviv’s crucial lifelines while refraining from fully engaging its forces in the conflict. The baseline is to keep pressure on the US so that it urges restraint from Israel in Gaza.

Logic is its finest weapon: protracted war in Gaza appears to be at odds with European and western interests, particularly in areas such as energy security, geoeconomics, overall regional stability, and public diplomacy.

As such, Tehran may perceive an opportunity to exploit this misalignment to further drive a wedge between the US and its European allies, potentially leading to increased pressure and sanctions against Israel.

The bigger picture 

Today, Iran’s adversarial stance seems to be more focused on the US rather than Israel. Via regional intermediaries, Tehran hopes to broker agreements with Washington to secure a ceasefire and alleviate Israel’s pressure on Gaza. A common view among Iranians is that the pursuit of “legitimate defense” is preferable to engaging in a wider regional conflict, as prolonged internal crises within Israel could ultimately work in Iran’s favor.

Drawing from past conflicts, particularly the Hezbollah–Israeli battles in south Lebanon, Iran sees potential in eroding both Israel’s internal power and external support. This strategy intends to gradually force the occupation state to retreat from its aggressive posture in the region.

Furthermore, Iran envisions leveraging the war in Gaza to bolster its reputation and influence among Arab states. Tehran hopes to capitalize on the situation to undermine existing peace agreements, such as the Camp David Accords, and halt the normalization process initiated in 2000 between Israel and Arab states. Iran also aims to rally international support against Israel through platforms like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Arab League, BRICS, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Although a “preemptive attack” has already been proposed if Israel continues its assault on Gaza, Iran’s strategic partners in Moscow and Beijing have not declared their full support for direct war. Therefore, Tehran is likely to avoid divergence with Russia and China in the event of major international crises.

Gaza gambit

When considering the possibility of direct intervention in the Gaza conflict, it’s crucial to recognize the formidable challenges Iran would confront. These include the risk of casualties, economic repercussions, and a decrease in oil exports.

The option of direct Iranian military involvement will only be on the table if Israel and the US cross Tehran’s red lines, though any military action against Iran would be a clear violation of international law. As the Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said in January, although Iran is not seeking war, it will not leave any threat unanswered. 

It must be noted that Iran sees the war in Gaza through a realist, long-term lens and not an ideological point of view. This highlights a critical reality: while Iran makes efforts to maintain a delicate balance of threats without plunging into direct warfare, the potential for direct actions and reactions to spiral out of control remains ever-present.

Iran has thus far calculated that neither Washington nor Israel would risk direct attacks on its territory. However, the mutual risk of miscalculation on both sides could lead to a gradual escalation into direct warfare.

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