On Monday, October 16, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian issued what sounded like a direct threat that Tehran's proxy Hezbollah organization in Lebanon would imminently intervene in the war against Israel.
In a statement made to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Abdollahian said that the "Axis of Resistance" (the Iran-led regional bloc's preferred term for itself) might carry out "preemptive measures" against Israel within "a matter of hours."
"All options are open, and we cannot be indifferent to the war crimes committed against the people of Gaza," the foreign minister added.
He then issued a number of apparent caveats to this seemingly stark statement, saying that unless "the limited chances given to the United Nations" were not seized, the opening of other fronts against Israel was "unavoidable."
Amir-Abdollahian concluded his statement by reminding readers (or repeating the fiction) that "We don't give orders to the forces of resistance in the region, but they take their decisions on their own."
On the same day, an article in the pro-Hezbollah newspaper al-Akhbar, authored by Ibrahim al-Amin, a Lebanese journalist closely connected to the Hezbollah leadership, noted that "While many are puzzled that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has not spoken about the course of affairs, it was noteworthy that Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian spoke at several meetings, and deliberately said that he had discussed the situation with Sayyed Nasrallah, and he said 'I reviewed his point of view, and he told me that all scenarios are on the table, and... the conflict could expand.'"
So, were the "Axis of Resistance" going to attack or not?
More than a few hours have passed since Monday. No "preemptive" measures have yet been taken.
Despite this, there is no cause for complacency. The Iran/Lebanon file remains the key component of current developments on the geopolitical level.
Israelis are naturally mainly focused on the South. A huge force remains mobilized on the border, waiting for the order to enter the Gaza Strip with the goal of destroying the Hamas authority. But war confined to Gaza, regardless of the dimensions it reaches, does not bring with it the possibility of a general regional deterioration.
Should a second front be opened up in Lebanon, by contrast, the implications would go far beyond Israel, Gaza, or indeed the Levant area.
THE TERM "Wahdat al-Saha'at" (unity of the arenas) is by now familiar to many Western ears. It is the preferred phrase of Iran and its allies for the effort to gather all armed Islamist forces arrayed against Israel under a single, Iranian leadership. The effort is at an advanced stage because of the collapse and fragmentation of a number of formerly strong, centralized Arab states over the past two decades.
Iran now possesses a contiguous area of control stretching from Syria's Quneitra Province adjoining the Golan Heights, across southern Syria and into Iraq. In Iraq, parties associated with Tehran dominate the government, hence the Iran-supported Shia militias of the Hashd al-Sha'abi, or Popular Mobilization Units, have freedom of action.
So, Iran today is in de facto power (in Iraq and Lebanon) or has freedom of operation (in Syria) across the entirety of territory between the Iraq-Iran border and the Mediterranean Sea, and between that border and Israel.
There have been reports in recent days, in media outlets based in Kurdish-controlled eastern Syria, of Iran-associated militias in Syria's Deir al Zur province moving westward toward the border with Israel. If war were to break out as a result of preemptive action by Lebanese Hezbollah, there is a reasonable chance that this conflict would then bring in Iran's militias from Syria and Iraq, possibly with the direct involvement of Iranian personnel. The stakes are thus huge.
IT IS PRECISELY in order to prevent such an eventuality that the United States has brought two aircraft carrier groups, with their massive array of firepower, into the Mediterranean. This represents the first time that the United States has intervened with the threat of military hard power to directly deter a Middle East threat against Israel.
This ought also to raise discussion and debate regarding what it means for Israel's independent military deterrent and its capacity for independent action in defense of its interests. This may be expected after the conclusion of the present war. But for now, the prospect of American Tomahawk missiles on Beirut creates a new equation with which Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah franchise must contend, in weighing their decision regarding a possible direct, large-scale intervention into the current hostilities.
As of now, despite the words of the Iranian foreign minister, it appears that Hezbollah is seeking a kind of middle way between an all-out intervention and a complete standing on the sidelines. Incidents on the border are ongoing, and clearly now initiated by Hezbollah. The fiction of Palestinian groups operating independently out of south Lebanon has been dispensed with. Hezbollah is walking an extremely fine line. The type of actions that it has been undertaking in recent days (anti-tank missiles fired at Israeli towns and civilians, with civilian fatalities and large-scale attacks on surveillance equipment on the border) would, under the "rules of engagement" usually applied to the Lebanese border, have already precipitated a major Israeli response, and probably a general conflict between Israel and the IRGC franchise in Lebanon.
As these lines are being written, Israel has continued to respond proportionately, rather than attempting a major response to Hezbollah's aggression. This may well be because of the current focus on the South, and Hezbollah and Iran may assume that this prioritizing enables them to raise the pressure on Israel a few notches more without incurring anything other than a proportionate and predictable response – that is, without triggering a second front in the current war.
The tempo of events in the North consequently seems to be picking up, with attempted incursions and firing of anti-tank missiles becoming a daily occurrence. At the moment, Israel responds with artillery and tank fire from the Israeli side of the border, at Hezbollah positions on the Lebanese side.
In the event of one of the infiltrating groups getting through, however, or a shell finding a major target and causing considerable loss of life, Israel might find itself impelled to carry out a major response, with all that this would imply. The main focus on Gaza is understandable. But the northern front may yet prove to be the most consequential.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter's Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (2018).