The US intelligence community believes – for now – that Iran and its proxies are calibrating their response to Israel’s military intervention in Gaza to avoid direct conflict with Israel or the US while still exacting costs on its adversaries.
But the US is also keenly aware that Iran does not maintain perfect control of its umbrella of proxies – in particular over Lebanese Hezbollah, the largest and most capable of the various groups. Hezbollah is an ally of Hamas, the group that attacked Israel on October 7, and has long positioned itself as fighting against Israel. US officials are deeply concerned that the group’s internal politics may cause Hezbollah to escalate simmering tensions.
The US also does not always have perfect visibility into the communications between Iran and its various proxies, according to sources familiar with US intelligence in the region.
“The problem is the proxies are not all equally deferential to Tehran – lumping them together is a mistake,” said Jonathan Panikoff, a former senior intelligence analyst specializing in the region. “The question is, if Hamas really looks like it’s in trouble, will Hezbollah and Iran agree on Hezbollah launching a full-scale attack to save Hamas or are they going to disagree – and I don’t think we know that yet.”
Tehran knows that if Hezbollah escalates the conflict with Israel or the United States it would likely provoke direct counterattacks against Iran that could be devastating to it, said one US official, who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity. The kind of lower-level attacks that different proxy groups have launched against Israel and the US since October 7 have caused the US to deploy significant military assets, forced Israel to spread out its forces and munitions, and allowed Iran to be seen as “doing something” about the killing of Palestinians in Gaza, this person said – all while avoiding direct conflict.
US officials believe it’s a coordinated strategy. The Iranian military general in charge of managing Iran’s web of proxies has been in and out of Beirut since October 7, according to local media, where he has been in meetings with members of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Iranian-supported groups. All consider themselves part of the “Axis of Resistance” against Israel.
Walking a fine line
But that strategy could backfire in ways that cause the conflict to spread – even if none of the parties want it to, multiple US officials warn.
“This is a very fine line to walk,” Christy Abizaid, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a Senate committee on Tuesday. “And in the present regional context, their actions carry the potential for miscalculation.”
Senior Biden administration officials have repeatedly and publicly warned Iran and its proxies not to escalate the conflict. The president in the days after the attack said his message to Iran and Hezbollah was: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.”
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is scheduled to give a major a speech on Friday that intelligence officials will be watching closely for signals about the group’s intentions, one official said. A series of dramatic teaser videos released on social media appeared to signal that the group was preparing to escalate the fight against Israel.
Nasrallah has issued dire warnings about the risk of war in the past that the group did not follow through on – including as recently as April – and US officials have said for weeks they believe Hezbollah is reluctant to become directly involved. The group is a major political power in Lebanon and US officials broadly believe there is little appetite for war among the general public there.
But as Israel continues to pound Gaza from the air – including two massive blasts on a refugee camp – the group may be pulled between competing political imperatives: maintaining legitimacy as a bastion of resistance against Israel while not sucking Lebanon into a likely devastating war.
So far, Hezbollah has acted with some restraint. Despite possessing an arsenal of as many as 150,000 rockets as well as precision guided munitions, it has done little more than trade rocket and artillery fire with Israel across the border. Still, those clashes have been more intense than any since the group last went to war with Israel in 2006.
“The question folks are trying to figure out is how much is Hezbollah going to be driven by its own ideology – it has told its members for years that it is vanguard of resistance to Israel – versus how much is it going to be driven by Iranian desires and its own domestic political considerations,” Panikoff said.
Iran is publicly stating it does not the war to widen
Tehran itself faces a similar dilemma, analysts say. Iran has praised the October 7 attack on Israel, but officials are now saying publicly that they do not seek a widening of the war and warning that the situation risks spiraling.
“We don’t want this war to spread out,” Iran’s foreign minister told CNN earlier this week. Any attack that is carried out in the region and if the US interests are targeted by any group, you know, linking it to the Republic of Iran without offering any piece of proof is totally wrong… They are not receiving orders from us. They act according to their own interests.”
Iran for years has provided funding, arms and training to the various proxy groups across the region, relationships that it uses to counter Israel and the United States and wield influence across the Middle East — all while maintaining a degree of deniability about its involvement. Hamas, the group that carried out the October attack on Israel is among those groups.
Although the US assesses that Iran was not directly involved in planning the attack, US and Israeli officials have said that Tehran is culpable because of its longstanding support for Hamas.
But Iran, by virtue of the money and sophisticated arms that it provides, does has significant leverage.
“Since the Houthis and Lebanese Hezbollah get all their most advanced weapons (drones, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, etc.) from Iran, that’s always a strong incentive to continue following [Iran’s] guidance,” noted a US official.
But the groups do maintain varying degrees of autonomy.
The Houthis, in Yemen, are particularly independent from Tehran. But in Iraq and Syria, where Iran provides the bulk of the support for a series of groups, all of whom are focused on ejecting the United States’ military, Iran’s authority is more robust.
The Houthis have launched multiple missile and drone attacks since October 7, including the use of medium-range ballistic missiles broadly believed to have been targeting Israel — a major escalation.
In Iraq and Syria, Iran-aligned militant groups have launched dozens of attacks against US forces there since October 7.
“The president’s been clear and I have been clear right here, that if that if this doesn’t stop, then we will respond,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a Senate committee on Tuesday.