What’s in It for Iran?

What’s in It for Iran?

Although there is no direct evidence of Iran’s involvement in the recent Hamas attacks, Tehran has definite interests in humbling Israel. However, it has less interest in a wider war. 

No sooner had Hamas conducted its spectacular raid against Israel than the eyes of the whole world turned to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The shock of the incursion into Israeli territory and the scale and sophistication of the operation led many specialists to doubt whether it could have been entirely planned and coordinated by Hamas alone without external intervention. While the Iranian authorities applauded the attacks carried out by Palestinian commandos, some speculated that Iran could be behind this terrorist action. Beyond the degree of involvement of the Iranian regime in “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood,” it is also worth raising the following questions: to what extent have the Iranians an interest in this sudden outbreak of violence in the Near East, and what could be the longer-term consequences of a renewed tension with Israel and its allies? 

Suspicions of direct involvement

The level of planning and expertise required for Hamas’s airborne, amphibious, ground, and subterranean attack has raised the question of whether the Palestinian movement acted alone—and whether it received logistical assistance from Iran. As the first images of the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation flashed across screens around the world, the Wall Street Journal promptly asserted that officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the ideological army of the Islamic Republic, had prepared, with Hamas, the incursions on Israeli territory. During the fateful weekend, on the sidelines of a Franco-German meeting in Hamburg, President Emmanuel Macron considered it “likely” that Hamas had benefited from “external aid.” 

Tehran was one of the very first capitals to praise the operation launched by Hamas, a movement that the Islamic Republic has openly financed since its inception in 1988. “Iran supports the legitimate defense of the Palestinian nation,” President Ebrahim Raisi declared the day after the attack. A week before the attack, the Iranian Supreme Leader and the President of the Republic jointly urged Arab countries not to make a pact with Israel to ensure their security, adding that to do so would amount to “betting on the losing horse.” 

During a visit to Lebanon at the beginning of September, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met with officials from Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The head of the Iranian diplomacy then reiterated to these forces of the “axis of resistance”—an informal anti-Western, anti-Israeli, anti-Saudi, and pro-Iranian political and military alliance—the promise of Tehran’s unwavering support. In April, the senior political leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, had already gone to Beirut to meet Hassan Nasrallah, a long-time ally of Tehran and secretary general of the Shiite organization Hezbollah, himself armed and financed since 1982 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. 

Denial and Caution 

Nevertheless, at the time of writing, there is no tangible proof of Iran’s direct involvement in the conduct of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood. American and Israeli military officials quickly reached that same conclusion. “What role did Iran play? We don’t know,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute: “I don’t think anyone knows.” 

Despite their declarations of support for Hamas, the Iranian authorities have also formally denied playing an active role in the October 7 offensive. “Iran does not intervene in the decision-making of other nations, including Palestine,” said Iranian diplomatic spokesperson Nasser Kanani. In a separate statement, the Islamic regime’s mission to the United Nations called the attack “fiercely autonomous and resolutely aligned with the legitimate interests of the Palestinian people.” Three days after the tragic Gaza events, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected accusations that his country was behind the massive attack. “Supporters of the Zionist regime have been circulating rumors over the past two or three days, including that Islamic Iran is behind this action. They are false,” declared the Supreme Leader in a speech to a military academy, during which he reaffirmed Iranian support “for Palestine.”

Iran as a “Big Brother”

While rejecting accusations of its direct responsibility for triggering Al-Aqsa Flood, Iran does not hide its total solidarity with Hamas. A backing explicitly illustrated the day after the Gaza events by two giant banners displayed in the center of Tehran: “The great liberation has begun,” proclaimed one of them. Beyond symbols, Iran’s ties to Hamas have long been documented. Western intelligence services estimate that Iran contributes $100 million to Hamas’s $500 million annual budget. A 2021 report by the U.S. State Department established that the group has received funding, weapons, and substantial technical training from Iran and its various organizations like the IRGC and the Quds Force.

Many experts believe Iran has forged a robust strategic partnership with Hamas—even though the latter is a Sunni movement stemming from the Muslim Brotherhood transnational organization. For Gilles Kepel, there is no doubt that the Hamas attack “was only made possible thanks to the all-out help of Shia Iran.” For the Middle East expert, the high degree of coordination between the activities of Hamas in Gaza and those of Hezbollah in Galilee clearly shows the close complicity linking these organizations with the IRGC and al-Quds leadership. Keppel concludes that, even if there is no evidence of direct participation by the latter, the events in Gaza constitute “Israel’s 9/11.”

Although the details of Iranian-Palestinian cooperation remain shadowy, Washington maintains little doubt about the responsibility of the Islamic Republic in the October 2023 terrorist attack against Israel. Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser, expressed his convictions that Tehran is “largely accessory” to the Hamas raid. “What we can be fairly certain of is that Iran has been largely complicit in these attacks through its decades-long support of Hamas,” Finer stated in an interview on ABC, adding that U.S. intelligence services continue investigating Iran’s exact role in Gaza events.

Tehran’s Geopolitical motives

Beyond the Iran-Hamas ideological alliance, there remains the question of the strategic interest that Iran could have in a sudden outbreak of violence in the Middle East. U.S. authorities consider that Iranian encouragement, direct or indirect, is motivated by the desire to disrupt the process of diplomatic rapprochement between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf monarchies. Iranian leaders have made no secret of their staunch opposition to the process initiated by the Abraham Accords. A close adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, recently warned countries hoping to resolve their problems by normalizing relations with “Zionists” that they were seriously endangering their security and the region. 

Analysts also agree that Hamas and the Iranian regime have a common interest in torpedoing the extension of the Abraham Accords to Saudi Arabia. For Ismail Haniyeh’s Palestinian movement, any progress made in this direction by American diplomacy could—if successful—lead to the establishment of peaceful coexistence between Israel and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, synonymous with abandonment and marginalization of the Palestinian cause. For the Islamic Republic, a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement could ultimately lead to the emergence of a more robust anti-Iran regional bloc. 

By reigniting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran and Hamas seem to have already partially succeeded in derailing the extension of the Abraham Accords. The Gaza crisis is shaking up the Middle East’s political landscape. The massive bombings of the Israeli air force on the Gaza Strip with its civilian victims and devastation have forced the Arab capitals to distance themselves from the Netanyahu government. The vast majority of Arab chancelleries have formally accused Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories of being the source of the current crisis. Riyadh authorities were quick to suspend negotiations. Egypt and Jordan, pressured by their own public opinions, are also reviewing the emerging links with the Jewish state. In the longer term, the chill cast on the process of Israeli-Arab rapprochement risks calling into question the strategy of isolating Iran initiated by Washington. Unless, of course, all this results in widespread military conflagration.

Are clouds of war gathering?

Many observers now wonder whether the current crisis has the potential to lead to open conflict. At first glance, certain elements do not encourage optimism. Like the Balkans at the beginning of the 20th century, the Middle East is a veritable powder keg, and, as in 1914, the game of alliances could lead to a regional—or even global—conflict. The intensification of Hezbollah strikes on the Galilee could lead to Israeli larger-scale retaliation, which could, in turn, generate an escalation of tensions likely to result in a wider conflagration. Furthermore, the characteristic of this type of “gray zone” rivalry is the lack of clarity and communication—leaving room for miscalculated escalation

However, other elements suggest that a regional conflagration is not entirely inevitable. First, all the protagonists are perfectly aware of the dangers of a spiraling conflict and the catastrophic consequences that a direct clash could have on the conventional battlefield. This is why they have, until now, refrained from confronting each other directly, relying instead on proxies and indirect approaches. Even though Iran has threatened to “intervene in the conflict” should Israel launch a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, they are all reluctant to embark on a peer-to-peer conflict.