Why Iran and Hezbollah are cautious of escalating the war with Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, knows Benjamin Netanyahu is losing international support for his war with Hamas
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At 6pm Beirut time, the world tuned in to listen to Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, the region’s foremost militant group. Would he unleash a hellfire of rockets on Israel in revenge for Tuesday’s killing of a Hamas delegation on Lebanese soil, or would he hold off?

And what of the twin explosions that ripped through a crowd in the Iranian city of Kerman on Wednesday, killing nearly 100 civilians near the grave of the slain Revolutionary Guards general Qassem Soleimani? Would that also be attributed to Israel and, if so, might Iran order its proxy Hezbollah launch a major assault on Israel?

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, did not name Israel in his response to the bombing on Wednesday but vowed a “harsh response”.

Yet if Iran intends that response to be directed at Israel and to come from Hezbollah, it was not evident from Nasrallah’s decidedly cautious speech.

Just as he took a “nothing to do with us” approach after the Oct 7 massacre, telling the world that Hamas had acted independently and without warning, he again held back.

The strike on Beirut was “a major, dangerous crime about which we cannot be silent” but he made no explicit threats, saying only that if Israel launched a war against Lebanon it “will regret it” and Hezbollah would fight “until the end”.

Iran has been manoeuvring since the Oct 7 attack to distance itself from the massacre.

It fears – probably correctly – that some in Israel would like to bounce the US into a full-blown regional war and does not want to give it any further excuse for doing so.

It worries, too, that Israel may already have resolved to turn Hezbollah, its ace card, to dust.

This is why Israeli analysts were predicting a “measured” response from Nasrallah ahead of his speech. It would not have been proofread by Iran but it may as well have been.

Tuesday’s strike in southern Beirut, which killed six, had been precise and carefully targeted, said Israeli experts. There was no collateral damage and the main target, Saleh al-Arouri, a founder of Hamas’s military wing, had long been seen as a legitimate military target.

A Hezbollah response is still expected, but is likely to be a limited strike on a military target. The killing of a group of IDF soldiers, perhaps.

That would fit within the acceptable tit-for-tat boundaries that now pass for normal in Israel’s north. A rocket strike on Tel Aviv which killed civilians, in contrast, might precipitate an overwhelming Israeli assault on Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Sima Shine, an Iran specialist who served as head of research at the Israeli intelligence division of Mossad, said she expected Nasrallah to look for something that was “different” from the daily exchange of rocket fire that has characterised fighting in the north since Oct 7, while remaining within the unwritten but established rules of limited engagement.

“If he finds a situation where he finds a group of 10 [Israeli] soldiers, that, from his point of view, will be wonderful. But he knows we are being very careful about that so perhaps he will have to wait,” she told The Telegraph.

Shine dismissed any suggestion that Israel would have had a role in the bombing of the Iranian crowd or that Iran would hit Israel directly. “They know that was not us. Israel does not do attacks like that and they know it. It is likely internal. IS or one of the terror groups like that.”

Lebanon is on its knees economically, and Hezbollah, one of the country’s leading political parties, will not be forgiven by voters if it brings the wrath of Israel down on them.

Nasrallah will also be well aware that the Benjamin Netanyahu-led coalition government in Israel is becoming increasingly fragile and may – consciously or otherwise – see a new front in Lebanon as a means to defer the domestic political reckoning to come.

An Israeli attack on Hezbollah, and perhaps even Iran, has a military logic too: Israel’s towns in the north have already been evacuated, the fighting in Gaza is slowing and the US has a naval task force in the area which could be bounced into providing help if necessary.

Why live with Hezbollah hanging like a sword of Damocles over your head while you could just get on and bomb it now to kingdom come, some in the Israeli cabinet are said to be asking.

“What we are doing in Gaza, we can do in Beirut,” Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defence minister, warned just three weeks ago on a visit to Israel’s northern border. “If we will be dragged into a violent conflict, a war, [Hezbollah] will pay a heavy price.”

Emile Hokayem, director for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said he thought Hezbollah would respond cautiously.

“I suspect Hezbollah’s (and Iran’s) preference is to refrain from responding immediately and massively,” he said on X, formerly Twitter.

“The same basic calculus holds: Hezbollah is to be engaged only if Tehran sees an existential threat to itself. Its advanced capabilities and military strength should not be wasted in an indirect and inconclusive war.”

Even if Nasrallah and his Iranian backers prefer caution, there is a significant risk that some of his fighters go it alone, or that a mundane daily exchange goes awry and escalates quickly into a full blown war.

There have already been over 100 Hezbollah fighters killed in Southern Lebanon since this war began, so tensions are high.

If he can, Nasrallah – who has experienced the power of an Israeli bombardment previously – will get Hezbollah to play the long game.

He knows that Israel is losing international support as the memory of the October massacre fades and the killing in Gaza continues unabated. He can see, too, that Israeli society and politics is horribly fractured.

If he can contain his fighters, he will wait to strike Israel at its weakest possible moment. For the same reason, Israel may decide to take out Hezbollah now.

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