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Why the War in Gaza Makes a Nuclear Iran More Likely

Since the start of the war in the Gaza Strip, Iran’s government has sounded bullish, even triumphalist notes. “The Zionist regime’s defeat in this event is not just the defeat of the Zionist regime,” contended Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in a speech last month, referencing Israeli setbacks on the battlefield. “It is also the defeat of the U.S.” At the beginning of January, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi boasted that his country’s enemies “can see Iran’s power, and the whole world knows its strength and capabilities.” And a few days later, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson declared that the so-called axis of resistance—the network of partners and proxies Iran backs across the region—is more “coherent, resilient and united than ever.”

It is easy to see why Tehran seems pleased. The war has bogged down its chief regional foe, Israel, in a protracted and perhaps unwinnable conflict. And it has forced Iran’s main global adversary, the United States, to focus on preventing that conflict from escalating, even as it fights off threats from Iran’s allied militias.

Yet for Tehran, the ongoing conflict may not end in anything like the clear-cut victory it has already claimed. Iran wants to be the Middle East’s dominant power, but it has not been willing to capitalize on the war in Gaza by having the axis of resistance open major new fronts against Israel or the United States. Hezbollah—Tehran’s most capable ally—has lobbed missiles at Israel, but it has not sparked an all-out war on the country’s northern border. The Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen have repeatedly menaced international shipping and targeted Israel with their missiles and drones, but these attacks have done little to pull Israel out of Gaza. The overall message is clear: Iran can cause chaos, but it is not strong enough to go on a real offensive. It still needs its regional allies primarily to defend its own territory. Tehran may therefore conclude that this conflict has made it look weaker, rather than stronger. It may, accordingly, feel more vulnerable. 

The full article can be read in Foreign Affairs.