Attacks in Lebanon, Iran inject new volatility into Middle East

The killing of a top Hamas official in Beirut and a shock explosion that killed dozens of mourners of a top Iranian general are challenging efforts to contain fighting on multiple fronts in the Middle East from exploding into a larger war. 

It’s not yet clear what connection, if any, there is between the suspected Israeli assassination against Hamas’s No. 3 official, Saleh al-Arouri, in Beirut on Tuesday, and a mass casualty bombing Wednesday at the memorial ceremony for Qassem Soleimani, the top Iranian military commander who was killed by the U.S. in 2020.

The latest attacks come amid a high-stakes aerial tit-for-tat between the U.S. and Israel on one side and Iranian proxy groups across the region on the other, which have exchanged regular fire over the three months that Israel has prosecuted its war in the Gaza Strip, since Hamas launched its brutal Oct. 7 terrorist attack. 

“This is a multiplicity of conflicts happening all at once, with of course Israel-Hamas being the central one,” said Mona Yacoubian, vice president of the Middle East and North Africa Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

“I think there are very valid concerns that it could escalate further,” she added. “While the various actors may be calibrating their responses, and calibrating their reactions as a way to forestall a significant regionwide conflict, there’s no guarantee that’s going to work.” 

The Biden administration, while supporting Israel’s right to eliminate Hamas, has sought to contain the fighting in the region from expanding into a much larger conflict involving Iran or Hezbollah’s army in southern Lebanon — a force with between 50,000 to 100,000 fighters and an arsenal of an estimated 200,000 rockets, including long-range and precision guided munitions. 

“We remain incredibly concerned, as we have been from the outset of this conflict, of the risk of this conflict spreading into other fronts,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Wednesday. 

“I wouldn’t say that our concern is any higher today than it has been from the beginning; it’s been something we’ve been intensely focused on.”

Miller rejected that the U.S. was involved in the explosions in Iran — where at least 103 people are believed to have been killed — and said the U.S. had no reason to believe Israel was involved either. But he would not make a similar statement related to the apparent assassination of Arouri and six other Hamas officials in a drone strike.

“I don’t have an assessment to make about who was responsible for that incident. I’ll leave it to the government of Israel to speak to their actions,” Miller said. 

Neomi Neumann, former head of research for Israel’s internal security agency, or Shin Bet, said that it’s unlikely Israel was involved in the bombing in Iran — suggesting opposition groups within Iran or other terrorist groups were a more likely culprit.

But the assassination of Arouri, while not publicly claimed by Israel, signals a major strategic and psychological blow to Hamas’s leadership, and an important step toward Israel’s stated goal of wiping out the U.S.-designated terrorist group.

“From the Israeli [point of view] he should die,” said Neumann, now a visiting fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He should die because in the last two years he was responsible for a lot of terrorist attacks that were carried out from the West Bank, which he was in charge of; he was part of the leadership, part of this architecture, this effort to unify all these fronts in order to weaken Israel.”

Arouri, who was 67, was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2015 for facilitating the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Hamas’s military wing for the purchase of arms and storage facilities for weapons.

In June 2014, Arouri publicly praised and announced Hamas’s responsibility for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, a terrorist attack that fueled one of the deadliest wars between Israel and Hamas until Oct. 7. 

Arouri was deputy head of political affairs for Hamas and viewed as a potential successor to Hamas’s political chief, Ismail Haniyeh, and a major rival of Hamas military head Yahya Sinwar, the architect of the Oct. 7 attacks against Israel, who is believed to be in hiding in the Gaza Strip. 

“He was very unique,” Neumann said, adding Arouri was charismatic and able to bridge gaps and tensions that had earlier taken place between Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, a contrast to the more serious and unlikeable Sinwar. 

“Sinwar is a nasty guy, people don’t like him,” Neumann said. “Arouri is the nice guy — not regarding Israel — but he can deal with everybody, he’s admired and people look at him as a leader.”

Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah honored Arouri in a speech Wednesday, saying his killing in a Beirut suburb and Hezbollah stronghold would not go unanswered. Nasrallah also marked the anniversary of the U.S. killing of Soleimani.

But even as Nasrallah has allied Hezbollah with Hamas, analysts say he is faced with a dilemma on whether to escalate fighting with Israel over targeted attacks on Palestinian leaders.

​​”Although Nasrallah has said before, if something happened on the earth of Lebanon, they will react. But I think now both Iran and Nasrallah think to themselves, it’s not worth making war with Israel because of Saleh al-Arouri,” Neumann said. 

If there is a decision to retaliate, Neumann continued, Hezbollah would likely strike outside Lebanon and wait until the situation is not as “fragile and unstable” as it is now. 

Yacoubian, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, said Hezbollah and Nasrallah are “not interested in a regionwide war or a large-scale conflict directly with Israel.”

Still, there is likely pressure on Hezbollah to respond to the alleged Israeli attack, raising pressure on all sides to avoid dangerous escalation. 

Mark Regev, a senior Israeli official, while not claiming responsibility for the Arouri killing, made a point to say that the Hamas leader’s death was not an attack against Hezbollah or Lebanon — an apparent effort to tamp down tensions.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, also doubted a link between the Arouri killing and the attack in Iran, saying that the bombing in Iran “has the hallmarks of either a Jihadist or separatist group attack on Iran, both of which have occurred in the past against the regime but never on this scale.”

Still, he pointed out Iran is attempting to widen the war in the region by encouraging attacks on U.S. positions in Iraq, Syria by its proxy militias and through the Houthis in Yemen.  

“The goal is to generate more risks associated with Israel continuing the war against Hamas,” he said, warning that an escalation in the short term may occur over efforts for Iran to “save face and respond.”

And the Biden administration has sought to counter a wider conflict by increasing its military posture in the region, while also sending warnings publicly and privately through intermediaries in the region.

“Efforts at deterrence have to be multifaceted,” Yacoubian said. “Force posture is really important, and perhaps some signaling kinetically, although I think one has to be very careful. But that must be paired — I would argue — with back-channel communications, with diplomacy.”

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