Originally published under the title "Iran, Hezbollah strategy: Avoid casualties?"
During the brief exchange of fire on Sunday media that tends to be sympathetic to Hezbollah claimed that the group had refrained from firing on Israelis who were being evacuated. The decision to disclose this claim of "we could have, but didn't," is similar to Iran's claim in June that it could have downed a US P-8 surveillance plane, but chose not to.
Hezbollah's claim on Sunday was part of two assertions that it refrained from causing Israeli casualties even as it said it was "retaliating" against Israel using anti-tank missiles. In a second claim the group said it saw that one Israeli soldier was of Ethiopian origin and refrained from attacking. The claims were told to Al-Mayadeen channel.
Iran also claimed on June 21 that it could have shot down a US P-8 plane with 35 people on board after shooting down a sophisticated US drone, but that it chose not to. "With the US drone in the region there was also an American P-8 plane with 35 people on board," Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace division told Tasnim news in June.
Hezbollah claimed that it held its fire to allow Israeli soldiers to evacuate.
It's not important how true the claims are, but rather than Iran and its Hezbollah ally are sending these messages. It may well be that Iran wants to avoid causing casualties to the US and Israel because it knows that the retaliation will be severe. Iran is playing a complex, and potentially deadly, game of brinkmanship, but in that contest it may prefer to avoid a massive conflict in favor of doing what it does best: Influence peddling and slow, persistent expansion. That means Iran and its allies know that giving an adversary a casus belli or excuse to attack will harm Iran's interests. In short: Iran doesn't want to empower hardliners. This, of course, is the same model that Iran tries to sell abroad, arguing that if countries are tough on Iran then the "hardliners" will emerge. For Iran's narrative this is largely an illusion, because the whole regime is hardline. But Iran's regime actually does appear to be concerned about serious contact with the enemy. For Iran's current regime the enemy has always been the US and Israel. Iran is not afraid to strike at others, such as dissidents or even having Houthi rebels use drones and missiles against Saudi Arabia. But it is more reticent, for now, to tangle too deeply with the US and Israel, which it views as its major adversaries.
Iran's policy since the years of the first Gulf war or "tanker war" in the 1980s when the county was fighting a brutal war with Saddam Hussein, was always a tit-for-tat with the US and others. It was never afraid to back down or to try to harass and engage the US. But it never sought out a major war it knew it would lose. Instead it tried to read the US administrations, from Reagan to Trump, and gauge what they would do. In incidents where Iran did strike at US forces, whether in Lebanon, Iraq or the Gulf, it did so in a calculated manner. This resulted in many casualties and even humiliation for the US at times, but not a massive war.
With Israel, Iran also seems to understand the challenge it faces. Since 2017 Israel has admitted carrying out some airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets, eventually saying it carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes. Iran's most clear response has been a drone launched in February 2018, rockets in May 2018 and a rocket in January 2019. Iran's more clandestine response has been weapons transfers to Hezbollah or building up infrastructure in Syria. But the recent clashes with the US in June and then between Hezbollah and Israel on September 1, show that there are deeper calculations at hand. Iran, for instance, read US President Donald Trump correct in June when it downed a US drone. The US president called off a retaliatory airstrike that would have killed Iranians. Will Hezbollah's calculations continue to be the same? That is a question that is being asked in Beirut and Tehran.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen, 2019). He is the op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.