Hours after the spectacular raid carried out by Hamas by crossing the Israeli border on Saturday, October 7th, the attention of many experts was already turning towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. The shock of the incursion into Israeli territory and the scale and sophistication of the operation led several of them to doubt that it could have been entirely planned and coordinated by the organization led by Ismail Haniyeh without external involvement. While Iranian authorities applauded the attacks carried out by Palestinian commandos, some experts speculated that Iran may have played a role in this unprecedented terrorist action. While it remains difficult to determine with certainty the degree of involvement of the Iranian regime in the al-Aqsa Flood operation, it is also important to consider the following questions: to what extent do the Mullahs and the Guardians have an interest in this sudden outbreak of violence in the Middle East, and what could be the long-term consequences of heightened tensions with Israel and its allies?
Suspicions of direct involvement
The level of planning and expertise required for such an attack has raised the question of whether Hamas acted alone – and whether the Palestinian movement received help from its long-standing supporter in the region, Iran. While the first images of the operation were being broadcast on screens around the world, The Wall Street Journal was quick to claim that officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the ideological army of the Islamic Republic, had prepared, along with Hamas, the air, land and sea incursions into Israeli territory and that they had personally given the go-ahead on the Monday before the operation. During the fateful weekend, on the sidelines of a Franco-German meeting in Hamburg, President Emmanuel Macron deemed it “likely” that Hamas had received “assistance” in its operation against Israel. However, he added: “I have no comment to make on direct Iranian involvement that we do not have formal evidence of.”
In fact, Tehran was one of the very first capitals to praise the bold operation launched by Hamas, a movement that the Islamic Republic has openly supported and funded for many years. “Iran supports the self-defence of the Palestinian nation,” declared President Ebrahim Raisi the day after the attack, stating, “The Zionist regime and its supporters… must be held accountable in this matter.” As for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s highest authority, he went even further, declaring that “This usurping regime is a cancer that the Palestinian people will surely eradicate.” A week before the attack, the Supreme Leader of Iran and the President of the Republic had jointly urged Arab countries not to ally with Israel to ensure their security, adding that doing so would be “backing the wrong horse.”
During his visit to Lebanon in early September, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, met with officials from Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The head of Iranian diplomacy then reiterated Tehran’s unwavering support to these groups within the “Axis of Resistance,” – an informal political and military alliance that is anti-Western, anti-Israel, anti-Saudi and pro-Iran. In April, Hamas’ top political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, had already travelled to Beirut to meet with Hassan Nasrallah, a long-standing ally of Tehran and the Secretary-General of the Shiite Hezbollah organization, which has been armed and financed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps since 1982.
Iran’s denials and experts’ caution
However, at the time this article was written, and as emphasized by Israeli military officials themselves, there is no concrete evidence of Iran’s direct involvement in the conduct of Operation al-Aqsa Flood. Despite their statements of support for Hamas, Iranian authorities have formally denied having played an active role in the October 7th offensive. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Nasser Kanani, stated, “Iran does not interfere in the decision-making of other nations, including Palestine.” Furthermore, the Islamic regime’s mission to the United Nations issued a statement describing the attack as “fiercely independent and firmly aligned with the legitimate interests of the Palestinian people.”
Three days after the events in Gaza, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected accusations that his country was behind the massive attack launched against Israel. “The supporters of the Zionist regime [a term Iranian leaders use for Israel] have spread rumours in the last two or three days, including those that claim Islamic Iran was behind this action. They are false,” said the Supreme Leader in a speech before a military academy, during which Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor reaffirmed Iran’s support “for Palestine.”
The careful denial by Iranian authorities of their involvement in the Hamas operation shows their intention to avoid being targeted by Israel. For the time being, the hypothesis that Iran did not assist in planning this operation is also supported by international experts. Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said, “What role did Iran play? We don’t know. We don’t know to what extent Iran was involved in the logistical, operational part of this formation, or what kind of logistical support [they provided for the October 7th attack].” Elgindy added, “I don’t think anybody knows. Intelligence services from all countries have been kept in total ignorance, including and especially the Israelis.” There is a consensus that severe consequences would result if tangible evidence of direct Iranian involvement were to be formally established.
The Iranian Big Brother and its Indirect Support for Hamas
While rejecting accusations of direct responsibility for launching the operation, Iran does not hide its full solidarity with Hamas and its absolute support for the “anti-Zionist cause” championed by the Palestinian movement. This support has been symbolically but explicitly illustrated in the aftermath of the events in Gaza, with two giant banners displayed in the center of Tehran. One banner reads, “The great liberation has begun,” while the other shows the black and white pattern of the Palestinian keffiyeh gradually enveloping the white and blue Israeli flag. Beyond symbols, Iran’s long-standing ties with Hamas and its militant Palestinian partners, the Islamic Jihad, are well documented. Western intelligence estimates that Iran contributes $100 million to Hamas’ $500 million annual budget. The U.S. State Department declared in 2021 that the group was receiving substantial funding, weapons, and technical training from Iran and its various organizations, such as the IRGC and the Quds Force.
Many experts believe that, in recent years, Iran has forged a genuine ideological and strategic affiliation with Hamas – despite it being a Sunni movement originating from the Muslim Brotherhood. For Gilles Kepel, there is no doubt that Hamas’ attack on Israeli territory “was made possible only through all-around assistance from Shiite Iran, which has become its auxiliary, both through the supply of equipment and the impressive preparation designed by Tehran’s intelligence services […]”. According to the scholar, the “solidarity shots with Gaza from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite party affiliated with the Islamic Republic, against the Galilee, and Israel’s immediate response foreshadow […] both the expansion of the conflict and the coordination of the maneuver by the Iranian Pasdarans’ Quds Force.” Kepel concludes that, even if there is no evidence of their direct involvement, the events in Gaza can be described as “Israel’s 9/11 – Iranian version.”
At the same time, many experts emphasize that, unlike Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas maintains an ambiguous and fluctuating relationship with Iran. Often allies of convenience, these two members of the “Axis of Resistance” have experienced periods of disagreement. This was notably the case at the beginning of the “Arab Spring” and the Syrian civil war, which pitted Assad and his allies, predominantly from the Alawite and Shiite minority branch, supported by the Iranian regime, against an opposition movement initially backed by Hamas and composed mainly of Sunni Muslims – the dominant Muslim branch. Nevertheless, the dispute between Iran and the Palestinian movement was eventually resolved in favour of normalizing relations between Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Today, with the mitigation of inter-sectarian conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites in Syria, as well as in Iraq and Yemen, Hamas and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards once again see their strategic interests converge in the common struggle against the “Zionist entity.”
Even though the details of Iranian-Palestinian cooperation remain unclear, Washington holds little doubt about the Islamic Republic’s responsibility for the October 2023 terror attack on Israel. Although it does not yet possess “direct information” linking the events in Gaza to Iranian military institutions, the United States has reiterated, through Jon Finer, Deputy National Security Advisor, its belief that Tehran is “broadly complicit” in the Hamas attacks in Israel. “What we can be quite clear about is that Iran is broadly complicit in these attacks, for having supported Hamas going back decades,” Finer said in an interview with ABC, pointing to the weapons, training and financial support provided by the Iranian regime to the Palestinian movement. He added that U.S. intelligence agencies continue to investigate the exact role of Iran in the recent events.
Beyond the ideological convergence with Hamas in support of the Palestinian cause and the anti-Israeli struggle, there remains the question of Iran’s strategic interest in a sudden outbreak of violence in the Middle East. The day after the October 7th attacks, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken argued that Iran’s encouragement to start hostilities between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Palestinian movement, whether direct or indirect, is motivated by its desire to disrupt the process of diplomatic rapprochement between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf oil monarchies. Iranian leaders have made no secret of their opposition to the warming of Israeli-Arab relations initiated by the Abraham Accords. A close advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, recently warned the countries that hoped to solve their problems by normalizing relations with the “Zionists” that they were seriously endangering the security of the region. In other words, this is the message conveyed by Ebrahim Raisi and Ali Khamenei when they recently criticized Arab countries tempted to ally with Israel, labelling it the “wrong horse.”
Analysts also agree that Hamas and the Iranian regime have a common interest in undermining the expansion of the “Abraham Accords” (agreements negotiated in 2020 between Israel and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand and between Israel and Bahrain on the other) to Saudi Arabia. For Ismail Haniyeh’s Palestinian movement, progress made in this direction by American diplomacy could – if successful – lead to the establishment of peaceful coexistence between Israel and the Gulf monarchies, which would mean the abandonment and marginalization of the Palestinian cause. For the Islamic Republic, a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement could eventually lead to the emergence of a regional anti-Iran bloc. As noted by a French diplomat, Tehran “therefore has a dual interest in derailing this rapprochement,” the result of which would be both ideological and geopolitical isolation in the Middle East.
By reigniting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran and Hamas seem to have already partially succeeded in derailing the extension of the “Abraham Accords.” Already, the massive Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, with their civilian casualties and devastation, including the collapse of mosques, have put Arab capitals in a difficult position and obliged them to distance themselves from the Netanyahu government. With the notable exception of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, the vast majority of Arab foreign ministries have formally accused Israel’s policy of occupying Palestinian territories as the root cause of the current crisis. “It seems obvious that Riyadh will slow down this attempt at normalization,” analyzes former diplomat Denis Bauchard. In the medium term, Saudi Arabia’s partners, Egypt and Jordan in particular, under pressure from their own public opinions, will also likely reconsider their nascent ties with the Israeli state. In the long term, the chill cast over the Israeli-Arab rapprochement process could jeopardize Washington’s strategy of isolating Iran and thus favour Chinese and Russian interests in the region. Unless, of course, all of this leads to a widespread conflagration.
A risk of war?
However, one might wonder whether the current crisis will inevitably result in an open conflict between the two sides. Initially, some factors do not promote optimism. Like the Balkans in the early 20th century, the Middle East is a true powder keg, and, as in 1914, the play of alliances could lead to a regional – or even global – conflict. If Hezbollah were to launch a large number of missiles or mortar shells at towns in northern Israel, it would lead to significant retaliation, potentially escalating into a larger-scale conflagration.
As for the Lebanese Hezbollah, recent estimates suggest that they have thousands of rockets capable of reaching deep into Israeli territory. Furthermore, the hallmark of this kind of “grey zone” rivalry involving this type of proxy actors is the lack of clarity and communication – leaving room for uncontrolled incidents. However, Hezbollah’s propensity to act independently and exacerbate the situation should be put into perspective. The leader of the movement, Hassan Nasrallah, is aware of the vulnerability of his organization, which, moreover, has recently been involved in a gaz-sharing agreement with Israel in the Mediterranean.
Moreover, other factors suggest that a regional conflagration is not inevitable. First, all the protagonists are acutely aware of the dangers of a conflict escalation and the catastrophic consequences that direct confrontation on the conventional battlefield could bring. This is why, up to this point, they have refrained from direct confrontations, relying on proxies and indirect approaches instead. Despite the hawkish rhetoric from the protagonists, Israelis and their Western allies are hesitant to engage in a conflict that many fear could lead to a third world war.
Furthermore, it is reasonable to believe that neither the Iranians nor the Israelis want to engage in a conflict with the potential to escalate and engulf them in regional chaos. For the time being, Iran prefers to use Hamas as an indirect leverage to exert pressure on Israel without having to intervene directly and without jeopardizing the very existence of the Palestinian movement. Ahmad Zeidabadi, a Middle East specialist, argues that “If Hamas weakens and all its political, economic and military infrastructure is destroyed, it will be a debacle for the Islamic Republic.” By depriving Iran of a virtual border with Israel, the complete dismantling of Hamas could represent a significant weakening of Iran’s advanced defence system – a luxury that its political and military leaders cannot afford.
Finally, it is essential to keep in mind that the military balance of power between Iran and its regional rivals is fundamentally asymmetrical. More specifically, this balance of power is particularly disadvantageous to Iran regarding conventional military capabilities. Iran has hundreds of thousands of personnel but lacks high-tech military equipment to support their deployment. In contrast to the Iranians, the Israelis have access to state-of-the-art military technology but, for various reasons, lack the means and the legitimacy to deploy an expeditionary force on a regional scale. Aware of this situation and the advantages that can be gained from it, Iran will do everything to avoid direct confrontation with its regional rivals by continuing to rely on a hybrid and asymmetrical approach below the threshold of direct violence. As a result, an open, conventional war between the Islamic Republic and its regional adversaries, while possible, remains unlikely.
Conclusion: High-Intensity Psychological Warfare
Although it is suspected, and even explicitly accused, of contributing to Operation al-Aqsa Flood, the Islamic Republic denies any formal involvement in an attack that it proudly touts for its audacity and legitimacy. Whether direct or indirect, the Iranian regime’s support for Hamas nevertheless makes it one of the primary actors in the now-escalated Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The dividends of Iranian support for the Palestinian cause and Hamas are multiplied tenfold by the terrorist attack of October 7th. One of the main benefits is to derail the normalization process between the Gulf monarchies and Israel, initiated by the Abraham Accords. Even the most pragmatic Arab capitals today denounce Israel’s territorial colonization of Palestinian territories and the brutality of the bombing of Gaza’s civilian populations while hinting at a pause in their rapprochement with the Israeli state.
Another benefit of the current crisis is to further establish the Islamic Republic as the “champion of the Arab street.” After the events in Gaza, Iran can indeed boast of being the only state actor to carry the banner of the Palestinian cause. Furthermore, the ground invasion of southern Israel by Hamas strengthens the so-called “Axis of Resistance” against Israel, led by Shiite Iran alongside Syria, Iraq and many pro-Iranian movements such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Hamas. Finally, the attack by Palestinian commandos under the noses of Mossad and Shin Bet and the images showing Israeli kibbutzim held by Islamist commandos allow Iran to question Israel’s technological invincibility and military supremacy. Ismail Haniyeh and his Iranian sponsors have not hesitated to mock the Israeli state for being “incapable of protecting itself.”
Remaining faithful to their asymmetrical strategy, the Mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards will therefore continue to develop the theme of “humiliation” to strengthen the Islamic regime’s status on the regional stage and to improve its international image, which has been significantly tarnished by the recent “chador revolt.” In general, therefore, Iranian leaders, as they did during the 33-day war in the summer of 2006, are playing the psychological card to reshape the regional game in their favour, even though, in doing so, they are also aware that they are playing with fire.