Biden wants Hamas eliminated without a regional war. How does he square this circle?

A US-Iran dialogue of deterrence has restricted the conflict to Gaza, but there is so much that can go wrong

US President Joe Biden during his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv last month. Reuters
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The well-informed journalist Barak Ravid published an article on November 12 in which he reported that US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin had contacted his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, to express concern about Israel’s escalation of tensions in Lebanon with Hezbollah. Mr Austin allegedly told Mr Gallant that by doing so, Israel only made a regional war more likely.

An oddly parallel story was published by Reuters on November 16, which described a meeting in early November between Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas Political Bureau, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader. Mr Khamenei is said to have told Mr Haniyeh: “You gave us no warning of your October 7 attack on Israel and we will not enter the war on your behalf,” even if the Iranians said they would continue to support Hamas politically and morally.

One could wonder about the accuracy of both news items, of course. However, both were amply sourced and, in many regards, reflected the reality we have seen in the past month and a half: a Biden administration that has sought to avoid an Israeli overreaction to Hamas’s October 7 assault, by repeatedly reassuring and backing Israel. And an Iran and Hezbollah that have kept up the pressure on Israel and the US, but without crossing red lines in their operations against them.

Soon after October 7, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told an interviewer that the Biden administration and Iran were engaged in back-channel talks. The Americans reportedly used these to warn Tehran against an escalation. That’s why President Joe Biden sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Eastern Mediterranean to show support for Israel.

The Americans have taken a coldly hardnosed view of things, no matter how many Palestinian lives have been lost as a consequence

Critics of the Biden administration have focused on how it has supported Israel’s pitiless bombardment of Gaza, blocking all efforts to impose a ceasefire. But the reality is that the Americans have taken a coldly hardnosed view of things, no matter how many Palestinian lives have been lost as a consequence.

For Washington, there are two priorities today: to support an ally at a time when what is known as the Iran-backed Axis of Resistance feels it scored a major victory on October 7; and to embrace Israel so fully that the US retains major leverage over Israeli actions, allowing it to have a decisive say in the outcomes, especially averting a regional war in the run-up to an American election year.

While there remains room for error, and few observers are yet reassured that a Lebanon war can be avoided, to understand the dynamics of what lies ahead, it’s probably best to look at this through the prism of what the Americans and Iranians decide. In the end, it seems, they are the final reference point for their respective allies, and for now both appear to want to forestall the worst.

Twice in November, Amos Hochstein, a special US envoy, was sent by the White House, first to Beirut then later to Israel. On the face of it, he told the Lebanese and Israelis that they needed to maintain stability along their border. He may well have also sent a direct message along these lines to Hezbollah, accompanied by reassurances that the US did not intend to strike the party.

In his speech days after Mr Hochstein’s visit to Beirut, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, took a fairly restrained position on the conflict, refraining from engaging in escalatory language. According to Mr Ravid, the Americans saw this “as a sign that their messages were being heard”.

What appears to be taking place today is a “dialogue of deterrence” between the US and Iran, which encompasses their respective allies Israel and Hezbollah. Both sides want to keep away from a war that would lay waste to the region, but also seek to avoid steps that undermine perceptions of their own strength and that of their allies, which are essential to credibly deterring their enemies.

That is why questions still remain as to whether, if Israel poses an existential threat to Hamas, the Iranian and Hezbollah position will shift. While that’s possible, one must also ask why, if Hezbollah did not enter the war fully already, it might do so months into a conflict in which Gaza has suffered so dramatically?

That brings us back to Mr Khamenei’s conversation with Mr Haniyeh. If the report is accurate, it would suggest that while Iran remains committed to the alliance with Hamas, it is unwilling to pay a high price for Hamas’s timing of the attacks if this caught other members of the Axis of Resistance off guard.

In other words, Iran’s (and its allies’) interests and those of Hamas are not the same. This makes one wonder whether Hezbollah will go all the way to prevent Hamas’s defeat in Gaza, or whether the party sees a devastating war with Israel as too great a threat to its power in Lebanon to risk it. For now, no one can say.

This is where the Americans have to decide what to do. The Biden administration doesn't want a regional war, but last week Mr Biden also said that Hamas had to be eliminated. The latter objective may well be incompatible with the former. So, were the Americans merely engaging in brinkmanship?

Whatever the answer is, it will very probably emerge only from the dialogue of deterrence taking place behind the scenes between Washington and Tehran.

Published: November 22, 2023, 4:00 AM
Updated: November 26, 2023, 8:52 AM