WASHINGTON – Fears that the Israel-Hamas conflict might spread were growing Sunday, with Israeli troops poised to launch a ground offensive into Gaza, Tehran saying that if it does so "no one can guarantee control of the situation," and Washington expressing fears of possible Iranian involvement.
Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian issued the Iranian warning during an official visit Sunday to Qatar, adding that unless what he called the “barbaric attacks” on citizens and civilians in Gaza are stopped, the crisis may expand.
Warning Iran to stay out of the war, the United States voiced concern over an escalation in the conflict sparked by the surprise Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7.
“There is a real risk of an escalation of this conflict — the opening of a second front in the north and, of course, of Iran’s involvement,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CBS.
And John Kirby, spokesman for the US National Security Council, told “Fox News Sunday” that the US did not want to “see another terrorist group like Hezbollah widening this, and opening fronts to distract against the fight against Hamas.”
Clashes between the pro-Iranian militants of Hezbollah and the Israeli army have grown more intense in recent days along Israel’s border with Lebanon.
Over the past week, about a dozen deaths have been reported on the Lebanese side, most of them combatants but also a Reuters journalist and two civilians. Meantime, at least two people have been killed in Israel.
– ‘A risk’ –
In a statement Sunday, Hezbollah claimed responsibility for a new attack in northern Israel, near the Hanita kibbutz, saying it had killed or wounded several soldiers and destroyed two tanks and another military vehicle.
And the Palestinian Hamas, which has fighters in Lebanon, said it had fired several rockets into northern Israel.
Israeli fighter jets have struck several Hezbollah positions in Lebanon, according to the Israeli army.
“The situation on the border is extremely dangerous,” according to Heiko Wimmen, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
While individual clashes there may represent just “one notch up on the escalation ladder,” such details “matter hugely,” he said on X.
Sullivan, for his part, told ABC: “We see a real risk of escalation on the northern border, and that is why President Biden has been so clear and so forceful in saying that no state and no group should seek to exploit the situation to their advantage or should escalate the conflict.”
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had announced Saturday that the United States was sending a second carrier group to the eastern Mediterranean “to deter hostile actions against Israel or any efforts toward widening this war following Hamas’s attack.”
The USS Eisenhower and its escort ships will join the carrier group led by the USS Gerald R. Ford, which was deployed to the region earlier in the week.
Sullivan said Washington had private channels to communicate its concerns to Tehran — and had used them in recent days.
– ‘Complicit’ –
In Gaza, Israeli reprisal attacks have killed more than 2,670 people, including more than 700 children, while wounding more than 9,600 people, according to local authorities.
More than 1,400 people have been killed in Israel — mostly civilians, including children — and more than 120 Israelis have been taken hostage, officials in Israel say.
The bodies of more than 1,500 Hamas fighters have been found near Israel’s border with Gaza, the officials add.
“Iran cannot just watch this situation as a bystander,” Amir-Abdollahian told Al Jazeera.
The Islamic Republic has provided both financial and military support to Hamas, but has repeatedly denied any involvement in the October 7 attack.
Kirby, however, said that even if the US so far lacks specific intelligence linking Iran to the Hamas attacks, Tehran cannot escape a share of responsibility.
“Of course Iran is broadly complicit, and this has helped Hamas function and be able to conduct the terrorist attack they have conducted,” he said.
Lindsey Graham, an influential US senator known as a foreign policy hawk, issued a blunt warning to Tehran.
“Iran,” the Republican lawmaker said on NBC, “if you escalate this war, we’re coming for you.”