Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian issued a threat on Sunday that the United States would see “heavy losses” and warned Israel with a deadline to end its military actions toward Gaza.
On October 7, Hamas, which the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization, led the deadliest Palestinian militant attack on Israel in history. Israel subsequently launched its heaviest ever airstrikes on Gaza. As of Sunday, more than 1,300 people had been killed in Israel, the Associated Press reported. More than 2,300 people had been killed in Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, the AP said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his country is “at war” and has cut off supplies of food, fuel, electricity and medicine into Gaza. Israel has called up 360,000 army reservists as it prepares for a likely ground offensive into the territory, which has an estimated population of around 2.3 million.
“We announced to the Zionist regime, through its supporters, that if it does not stop its crimes in Gaza, tomorrow will be too late,” Amir-Abdollahian said in an interview with Al Jazeera during a visit to Qatar on Sunday. Iran helps provide arms and funding for Hamas, and has expressed strong support for the militant Palestinian group’s actions against Israel.
The Iranian official then issued a threat directed at the U.S. “Iran cannot just watch this situation as a bystander. If the scope of the war expands, heavy losses will be inflicted on the United States,” he said.
The Israeli military declined to comment on the Iranian official’s remarks. Newsweek reached out to the White House and the State Department for comment.
Iran has denied involvement in the attack, a sensitive matter for President Joe Biden, who tried to pursue some of the rapprochement with Tehran started by the Obama administration, in which he was vice president. U.S. and Israeli officials, while accusing Iran of having a long history of supporting Hamas militarily, financially and otherwise, have not identified any clear connection between Tehran and the Hamas attacks.
Any direct Iranian involvement would create multiple headaches for Biden, potentially widening the war in the Middle East and putting an unwelcome spotlight on his diplomacy with Iran including trying to revive a nuclear non-proliferation deal scuppered by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, and a controversial decision to unfreeze some $6 billion of Iranian funds in a sanctions-bound bank account as part of deal to free American prisoners.
The Biden administration has rejected the idea that the unfrozen funds have in any way benefited Hamas. “The money held in restricted accounts in Doha remains in Doha. Not a penny has been spent, and it will never go to Iran—it can only be used for future humanitarian-related purposes. Any suggestion to the contrary is false and misleading,” a State Department spokesperson previously told Newsweek.
Meanwhile, Amir-Abdollahian issued a similar warning to Israel on Saturday during a visit to Lebanon, where he met with the leaders of Hezbollah, which the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization. The Lebanese militant group is also supported by Iran, and has repeatedly exchanged fire with Israel since the war between Hamas and Israel broke out just over week ago.
The Iranian official said that the window of opportunity for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict was closing, according to Lebanese news site Naharnet. “Maybe, in the next few hours, it will be too late,” he said.
The Iranian official warned that pro-Iranian groups, such as Hezbollah, “have designed all the scenarios and are prepared, and their finger is on the trigger to shoot.”
The U.S. State Department told Newsweek last Monday that Hezbollah and other groups should not get involved in the conflict. “Any decision by Hezbollah or other actors to drag Lebanon into this conflict would have terrible consequences for the Lebanese people. They deserve better,” a spokesperson said.
Hezbollah again on Sunday announced that it had carried out several strikes on Israel. “As part of retaliation to Israeli aggression… Unit of martyrs Ali Youssef Alaaddine and Hussein Kamal Al-Masri targeted an Israeli enemy post in Shtula settlement with guided missiles on Sunday,” the Lebanese militant group said, according to its television station Al-Manar.
Israeli media said at least one Israeli was killed while several others were injured. A previous Israeli strike targeting Lebanon on Friday left a Reuters video journalist dead and injured six other journalists. Three Hezbollah militants were killed in Israeli attacks on Monday, and Israel said that one Israeli soldier was killed in a skirmish with the Lebanese group two days later, the AP reported.
“The situation in the region is very dangerous and open to all possibilities, including direct Iranian and American involvement. Neither side wants a head on confrontation, but they might nonetheless find themselves there as we go up the escalatory ladder of tit for tat,” Firas Maksad, director of outreach at the Middle East Institute, told Newsweek in a Sunday email.
Maksad said that a “worst case scenario would see the US use its deployed naval assets to, not only defend Israel, but also engage Hezbollah directly. That could mean that US forces in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the region can come under fire from Iranian-backed militias or even Iran itself.”
Analysts have warned that Hezbollah’s involvement could significantly escalate the situation, as the militant group has much greater firepower than Hamas. However, others have noted that the group, which holds significant political power within Lebanon, also faces substantial opposition within the country.
Lebanon continues to face a severe economic crisis, and while much of the Lebanese population is sympathetic to the Palestinians’ cause, they would not be eager for their nation to be drawn into a bloody confrontation with Israel. Hezbollah and Israel fought a war in 2006 that lasted 34 days. That conflict is estimated to have left some 165 Israelis and more than 1,100 Lebanese dead.
“If Hezbollah unleashed a major rocket attack on Israel, which it would only do with the permission of Iran, there would be an enormous price to pay for Lebanese civilians,” F. Gregory Gause, III, professor of international affairs and John H. Lindsey ’44 chair at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, told Newsweek in a Sunday email.
He added: “I’m not sure that Hezbollah, whose position in Lebanese politics depends to some extent on its ability to sustain support in the Shia community and work with political forces in other communities, wants to take responsibility for that level of damage right now.”
Update: 10/15/23, at 1:15 p.m. ET: This article has been updated to include additional expert analysis.
Update: 10/15/23, at 4:59 p.m. ET: The article was updated to reflect that Israel’s military declined to comment.