Iran has several allies in the Middle East. Geographically, the closest is its former nemesis, Iraq, which has been under heavy Iranian influence. Iraq might become an Iranian province, particularly the Shiite part of Iraq, because that artificial state might be split following the sectarian violence there. It is doubtful whether Iraq’s security units would be able to hold the country together and guard its borders. They certainly could not send an expeditionary force to fight Israel, as Iraq did in the past, mostly in the 1973 war. Iraq assists Iran in Syria but would not contribute much in the struggle against Israel.
The Hamas was supported by Iran, although it was not as vital for Iran as the Hezbollah has been. The latter disappointed its patron in 2006 when it got entangled in a war against Israel at the wrong time, but Hamas did the same in 2008-2009. However, whereas Hezbollah obeyed its Iranian master and assisted Assad in the Syrian civil war, the Hamas refused to do that. This caused a rift between Iran and Hamas, which reduced the chances of Hamas joining Iran in a fight against Israel.
Preventing as much as possible the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip from Iran would delay the arming of Palestinian groups, which would help postpone the next confrontation with Israel. The Gaza Strip is like the West Bank, surrounded on most sides by Israel, including by air. The only access from the Gaza Strip to an Arab state, Egypt, might continue to be blocked as far as the delivery of weapons, like rockets. Therefore the Gaza Strip might not be the fire base Iran wants it to be, serving Iran in case of a war between Israel and Iran. In any case Hamas, which strives to keep its rockets for its own use rather than serving Iran, might well ignore Iran’s demands to join it in the battlefield.
The Hamas has opposition inside the Gaza Strip, terror and guerrilla organizations like the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad. The latter might be encouraged by its Iranian patron, particularly if Iran is at war with Israel, to launch rockets and mortar shells from the Gaza Strip, with or without approval or participation of the Hamas. This would ratchet up the likelihood that Hamas, against its will, might be dragged into the war not to look weak or, even worse, as supporting Israel.
Iran and Syria have a long relationship.38 In Syria the IRGC particularly its Quds Force, “have been instrumental in training the pro-government militia and paramilitary forces that have been so indispensable in bolstering the Syrian military’s ability to fight back against a determined opposition.”39 Hezbollah was also heavily involved. Since September 2012 and until early 2016, more than 850 Hezbollah fighters were killed in Syria.40 This contribution to the survival of Assad demonstrated both the importance of the alliance among Iran, Hezbollah and Assad and the value of Hezbollah to Iran.
Iran, Assad, Hezbollah and their allies in Syria all oppose Israel and could conduct assaults on the border with Israel in the Golan Heights and/or Lebanon, as they already did. This might create an escalation that might end in a war, like between Israel and the Hezbollah, against the will of both of them.41 The 2006 war proved the Hezbollah did not anticipate Israeli steps. Hezbollah and Iran for that matter wish to avoid another miscalculation. This approach was tested during periods when there was tension on the border, like in late January 2015, following an Israeli strike inside Syria that killed a high-ranking commander of the Hezbollah.
If Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear sites and the latter pressures Assad to assist Iran in its retaliation, Israel would warn Assad not to intervene. Since 2011 the latter sought not to open a second front, let alone against a powerful foe such as Israel. The question is whom Assad fears more, Israel’s threats to bring him down or Iran. The latter could threaten to leave Assad to his fate, facing the rebels on his own if he does not join Iran against Israel. Yet since Israel and particularly Iran would not want to topple Assad, Assad might demonstrate a symbolic solidarity with Iran, such that Israel could tolerate and thus avoid his downfall.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot said on 18 January 2016 that “Hezbollah is funded, trained and even led by Iran.”42 Ideologically Hezbollah follows Islamic order, which calls for Jihad against “local and foreign oppressors and for the liberation of Jerusalem and the spread of social justice.”43 Yet in Syria the Hezbollah has been helping the oppressor, and as to Jerusalem, the Hezbollah has been focusing more on another capital city, the one in Lebanon, as part of its effort to tighten its grip on that country. The best chance the Hezbollah has to allow Muslims to get a hold on Jerusalem or any other territory Israel controls would be to support the PA in its talks with Israel, which might end in surrendering areas Israel possesses to the PA.
Following the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, a UN agreed-upon border officially separates Israel and Lebanon. The Hezbollah has border disputes with Israel, but they don’t get much attention in the Arab world. The Hezbollah has been aware it could not conquer any part of Israel due to the latter’s military superiority. Hezbollah has between 20,000 and 50,000 “part-time reserves.”44 The IDF has “well-trained reserves totaling some 465,000 troops, many of which have had extensive practical experience in asymmetric warfare since 2000.”45 Therefore Hezbollah had concentrated on preparations to strike Israel from Lebanon with 150,000 rockets.46 In early December 2016 the IDF released a previously classified map that shows the location of Hezbollah positions in south Lebanon, including its rocket launchers; all of them were in or near civilian areas.47
The Hezbollah could instead divert its energy to strengthening its status inside Lebanon. Israel might accept this, for lack of better options, just as it has been willing to allow the Hamas to rule the Gaza Strip. From Israel’s perspective both Hamas and Hezbollah could be lightly armed, that is, without major weapons such as rockets that could hit Israel. It is possible of course that in such a case, those organizations could send armed details to infiltrate into Israel, but the latter has vast experience in dealing with such a problem, particularly with ground incursions. Assaults from the sea by robber boats and from the air with powered paragliding are much less common, but Israel could handle them with its navy and antiaircraft batteries.
Iran relies on Hezbollah’s rockets to hit Israel more efficiently than missiles fired from Iran as Hezbollah’s arsenal is bigger and could inflict more casualties and damages. Iran seeks to control the decision when to throw Hezbollah into combat, the timing being when Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. This explains Iran’s opposition to the 2006 war, which started following a provocation by its Lebanese proxy, providing Israel with an excuse to endanger an Iranian base in Lebanon. The Hezbollah has been restraining itself since 2006, and this policy might continue even if Iran demands Hezbollah to fire at Israel. The Hezbollah might hesitate whether to assist Iran in a war against Israel, fearing the ramifications in Lebanon on both its position inside the Shiite community and its relations with the rest of the population. The cost of the war in Syria for Hezbollah might bring the latter to rethink going to another war, again because of Iranian interest, this time against Israel, which would be much more destructive for both Lebanon and Hezbollah than the Syrian civil war has ever been. Iran itself might not want to expose the Hezbollah to a possible defeat by Israel due to its value in keeping the Iranian grip not only in Lebanon but in Syria as well. Even if Assad falls, Iran would try to hold as much land as possible inside Syria by depending on groups like the Hezbollah.
If Israel bombs Iran the latter together with its allies might launch terror attacks worldwide. Israel might not know for sure which of them to blame: Iran, Assad or the Hezbollah, because each of them would have an interest to carry out such an operation. Israel would have to figure out which of them is the most responsible as they might all deny their involvement to prevent an escalation with Israel. A wrong estimation by Israel could lead it to retaliate against the one that played the smallest part, which might cause a deterioration neither side would want.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman visited the Israeli northern border on 7 June 2016 and said, ‘[W]e don’t have any other plans other than maintaining the quiet and I hope that everyone understands that well, including our neighbors. But in any case, I don’t recommend that anyone test us.”48 This statement expressed Israel’s desire to keep the status quo.