Israel’s war against Hamas risks drawing regional players into a wider conflict with repercussions far beyond the Middle East, security experts have warned.
With Israel expected to send ground troops into Gaza in response to Saturday’s deadly attacks on its territory and people, the issue now is how the confrontation escalates, said Miri Eisin, a retired colonel who worked in military intelligence and now runs a counter-terrorism institute at Reichman University in Israel. “Whether this will lead to a bigger war is the $64,000 question,” she told Fortune. “If Iran has a finger in this, do we now preempt against the next stage”?
The conflict comes with geopolitical tensions already running high, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and US-China relations at their worst for decades. Analysts at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute warned this summer that the world was “drifting into one of the most dangerous periods in human history”, with the number of operational nuclear warheads owned by major military powers rising in the past year to an estimated 12,512.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “spent the past three decades sounding the alarm about Iran’s nuclear programme” and he has threatened to attack the country numerous times, but after Hamas’s assault on 7 October he “may finally be able to act on his threats”, said Al Jazeera
Netanyahu and his ministers “may have something very different in mind for the US deployment, that goes beyond military deterrence and political posturing”, said Al Jazeera. “He may try to widen the scope of the war to include Iran.”
Speaking to the Express in May, Brandon Weichert, geopolitical analyst and author of “The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy”, warned that the threat of a new world war was most likely to come from the Middle East.
“It will emanate from an Iran that is empowered by its allies in Beijing and Moscow,” he said, warning the US risks getting dragged into a new war at “precisely the moment it does not have the capability, resources, or will… to achieve victory in such a conflict”.
Pushed into a corner and potentially in open conflict with an Israel backed by the US would put an even greater spotlight on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
After talks aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal collapsed last year, fears have continued to grow that Iran’s “aggressive expansion” of its nuclear programme “risks triggering a regional war”, reported the Financial Times(FT).
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022, has been described as “more dangerous than anything Europe has seen since the end of World War II”, said Politico.
Since then, Vladimir Putin’s losses have only “increased the chances” that the Russian president will “lash out and expand” the conflict, said The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
In July Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and now deputy secretary of its Security Council, warned against Nato members pledging further military aid to Kyiv. “The completely crazy West could not come up with anything else,” Medvedev wrote on Telegram. “In fact, it’s a dead end. World War Three is getting closer.”
Hamas’s attack on Israel has added yet another element to an already unstable picture. “It doesn’t take much strategic insight to join the dots between Gaza, Tehran and Moscow,” said The Telegraph. “The Russia-Iran axis, so horrifically manifested in this devastating assault against Israel as well as repeated war crimes against the Ukrainian population, symbolises a growing challenge for the West as emerging totalitarian alliances work to undermine the democratic order.”
The greatest threat to geopolitical stability has long been assumed to be the growing tensions between China and the US, who are “locked in an increasingly intense rivalry”, said The New York Times. The “rapid growth and modernisation” of China’s military has worried American onlookers, said the paper, with the US now having fewer military personnel and naval vessels.
Relations “dramatically escalated” last year after the then US House speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, said CNN, souring further after China flew a giant balloon into US airspace.
It is the disputed island nation of Taiwan, which China claims sovereignty over, that is by the far the most dangerous flashpoint in a future regional conflict that could draw in the likes of the US.
In recent months there has been an attempt, led by Washington, to cool the hostile rhetoric and find common ground. However, analysts believe relations are so fraught that “re-establishing a semblance of stability and balance will take much more effort and political will”, said NPR, and will be “tested” by presidential elections in the US and Taiwan. “Mutual trust is running thin.”
“Security dynamics in Northeast Asia have become increasingly volatile with China’s growing military threats and in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” said The Washington Post. North Korea has “drawn closer to Russia, while Japan’s relations with Russia have deteriorated”.
In July, North Korea detained a young US army soldier, Travis King, who crossed the border from South Korea without permission. The crisis came “during a particularly tense time with the North”, said BBC News.
The same month, the US sent a submarine with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles to South Korea for the first time in decades, prompting North Korea’s defence minister to warn that this could meet its legal conditions for use of nuclear weapons.
Recent high-profile advances in artificial intelligence have led to increased fears that AI could accidentally cause a global conflict.
A leading academic at the University of Cambridge told the i news site in March that the technology could, in an extreme case, “mistake a bird as an incoming threat and trigger a nuclear launch if no human override is in place to assess alerts from an AI-assisted early-warning system”.
Although no state is openly attempting to automate its nuclear weapons systems, “integrating AI with command systems seems promising and even unavoidable”, said Peter Rautenbach from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.