Iran, Israel, and War in the Middle East
Hamas’ shocking infiltration of Israel is likely to be an inflection point in the Middle East. As Sept. 11, 2001, compelled a shift in America’s approach toward the region, so too are the barbaric violence of Oct. 7 and the war playing out now likely to force a recalibration of Israeli policy toward its enemies, and especially toward Iran. The Iranian-Israeli conflict is the least appreciated fault line in the Middle East. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Iran’s quest to topple the Israeli state is the cornerstone of its regional foreign policy and heavily influences Lebanese, Syrian, and Iraqi politics. It is an omnipresent factor in all of the regional conflicts Iran is party to, including in Yemen, and the dimension of its foreign policy with the greatest potential to spark a wider war. Although Israel has not blamed Iran for the attacks, the chances that Iran will somehow figure into Israel’s response at some point are high. In the interim, Iran will consider the deteriorating situation in Israel and the destruction in Gaza to be to its strategic benefit.
Fueled by Iran’s advancing nuclear program and its campaign to funnel weapons to allied proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza, the Iranian-Israeli feud has steadily heated up in recent years. Iran’s threat to Israel is clear: It has encircled Israel with heavily armed militants. Those groups — e.g., Hamas, Hizballah, and Palestine Islamic Jihad — share Iran’s commitment to the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state and are dependent on Tehran’s largess to maintain their domestic power and military strength. Israel has countered such provocations by conducting assassinations and sabotage attacks inside Iran aimed at retarding its nuclear, drone, and missile programs, and by conducting routine airstrikes against Iranian military sites and arms shipments inside Syria. Israel’s ability to permeate Iran’s borders to kill military leaders and bomb heavily secured facilities has made the shadow war an outwardly one-sided affair. Israel has done far more damage to Iran than vice versa, and Iran’s attempts at retaliation, such as its numerous plots to kill high-level Israelis abroad, have routinely failed. More glaringly, Iran has lacked the ability to land a meaningful blow inside of Israel — that is, perhaps, until now.
Despite Israel’s assertive covert campaign, Iran has not been deterred. What happened on Oct. 7 was the fruit of Iran’s persistent effort to strengthen rejectionist militant groups and erode Israel’s sense of security. Yet Hamas is only one piece of Iran’s broader, multipronged strategy. And even if Israel were to succeed in destroying or permanently weakening Hamas, it would not put an end to Iran’s threat matrix. For that reason, it is likely that the Gaza war is the beginning of what will become a larger, longer lasting, and much more complicated conflagration. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will lead to open regional war, but it does suggest that Israel is unlikely to be content with limiting its response to Gaza and that, at some point, is likely to turn its attention to Iran.
An Iranian Connection?
What role, if any, Iran might have played in the Oct. 7 attacks is unclear. A Hamas spokesman, Ghazi Hamad, reportedly told the BBC that his group “had direct backing for the attack from Iran.” A Wall Street Journal report cited unnamed “senior members” of Hamas and Hizballah, who claimed Tehran greenlit the attacks on Oct. 2 and that members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — Iran’s preeminent strategic force — had been instrumental in the operational planning, which began in August. Similarly, the New York Times cited anonymous sources in Iran associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and “senior leadership,” and a Syrian associated with Hizballah, who claimed that “a tight circle of leaders from Iran, Hizballah and Hamas helped plan the attack starting over a year ago, trained militants and had advanced knowledge of it.” The unprecedented nature of Hamas’ infiltration and the sophistication of its design are suggestive of outside assistance, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, having honed its skills in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, excels in asymmetric and guerrilla warfare against more powerful adversaries. And while Iranian officials have hailed the attacks — breathlessly calling the operation “Al-Aqsa Flood” in reference to the Jerusalem holy site — they have denied involvement. On Tuesday, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei praised the Hamas militants that slaughtered innocent men, women, and children, saying: “We kiss the foreheads and arms of the resourceful and intelligent designers” of the operation. Yet he further suggested Iran’s noninvolvement by saying: “Those who say that the recent saga is the work of non-Palestinians have miscalculated.”
Even if the Iranian regime’s longstanding financial and military support to Hamas has made it complicit, Israel has given no formal indication that Iran had a direct hand in the Oct. 7 attacks. An unnamed Israeli official told CNN that while Iran might have been unaware of the timing of the assault, it knew about the “Hamas operation before it happened.” American officials have also not concluded that Iran played a direct role, even if they acknowledge that its military backing of the Gaza factions suggests, at the very least, an indirect link. Unnamed U.S. officials told the New York Times that they possessed intelligence indicating that some Iranian officials usually in the know were surprised by the attacks. Morgan Muir, a senior U.S. intelligence official, reportedly told members of Congress in a briefing “that U.S. agencies had intelligence contradicting assertions that Iran had helped plan the attack.”
Therefore, the evidence regarding any potential Iranian involvement is so far both slim and contradictory. Given that neither Israeli or U.S. intelligence services seemed to have caught wind of this plot during the months that it was being planned, nor identified anything exceptional in the information they had, it is perhaps unsurprising if those in the loop — whether within Hamas alone or within any outside parties that might have supported the effort — were kept to a minimum, and that those knowledgeable about the plot’s particulars were uniquely diligent in safeguarding that information from outside surveillance. It is also likely that the planning for this attack was heavily siloed and that even those within Hamas who participated did not know much more about the operation than their limited role.
An Undesirable Position
There probably won’t be clarity on this question any time soon, and even as Israel attempts to put the pieces together of its intelligence failure in the coming weeks and months, some details might never be known. Further, even if Israeli officials were to conclude Iran was involved, rushing to implicate it would present more peril than opportunity. Were Israel to definitively identify Iran as a culprit, a response would be necessary. With Gaza operations and the hostage crisis still unfolding and as obvious priorities, Israel is not in a position to enlarge the conflict. The United States is in a different but similarly undesired position. With its focus on Ukraine and China, the Joseph Biden administration is even less interested in worsening tensions with Iran, much less getting bogged down in another war in the Middle East. Iran and its proxies have all threatened to retaliate if Israel expands the conflict or if the United States intervenes. There is also a very real possibility that the war could expand to Lebanon, with intermittent cross-border exchanges between Israel Defense Forces and militants in southern Lebanon already occurring. Israel cannot easily fight a multifront war and is likely to seek to avoid unnecessary escalation with Iran and its proxies as long as it can. The United States, likewise, wants to avoid becoming overstretched.
As much as both Israel and the United States might want to avoid a wider conflict, Iran and its clients could also lash out, leading to unintended escalation. Although the Iranian bloc is probably not seeking a broader, open war, they are clearly comfortable flirting with one. Part of what is motivating Iran and its clients is a perception that Israel is vulnerable and weaker than it has ever been. Israel’s domestic political divide (which was vividly exposed earlier this year by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s effort to weaken the country’s judiciary), simmering tensions in the West Bank, and the rise of anti-Palestinian vigilantism from settler groups have all contributed to that perception. The Abraham Accords have been the one counter narrative to Israel’s perceived decline, and the Biden administration’s efforts to strike a deal that would lead to the normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel would have further strengthened Israel’s regional integration.
The timing of the attacks might have been deliberately set to derail a Saudi-Israeli convergence, but they were unlikely to have been driven solely by that motivation. That is because Iran has been working for decades to strengthen its proxies to succeed in their fight against Israel, and that campaign, especially in Gaza, has steadily gained pace. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has designed bespoke weapons systems for Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad, enabling those groups to produce short- and medium-range rockets with inexpensive and readily available industrial materials. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has pursued a similar, albeit wider, effort with Hizballah in Lebanon, providing the group with rockets, advanced missiles, guided anti-tank and anti-ship munitions, and drones capable of striking deep within Israel. The consequent weapons stockpiles of the Gaza factions and Hizballah are hardened in underground tunnels and collocated within densely populated neighborhoods. As a result, Hizballah and Hamas can target most major Israeli population centers with over-the-horizon weapons, and even though Israel possesses highly advanced anti-air defense systems, a percentage of aerial weapons can still make it through and kill Israeli civilians.
Combined with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp’s forward deployed missiles, rockets, and drones in Syria, and its long-range and highly accurate missiles at home, Israel is virtually surrounded by a multipronged transnational threat. Even with its superior military power, Israel cannot easily eradicate these weapons, and any attempt to meaningfully degrade them militarily will invariably lead to massive civilian casualties. Israel’s current operations in Gaza are playing out precisely as Hamas and Iran would have anticipated. They know that Israel cannot seriously fight Hamas without killing innocent men, women, and children in the process. The more innocent Palestinian civilians die, the more Israel loses the moral high ground, and the more regional sentiments (including within those Arab states currently antagonistic to Hamas) will turn against Israel. That reality has given Iran confidence that its strategy toward Israel is working. From Tehran’s perspective, it does not need a total war against Israel to defeat it; it simply needs to keep the fire burning. Whether it was directly involved or simply provided the means, Hamas’ attack, Israel’s response, and the carnage that a new Gaza war will bring all advance Iran’s agenda.
Iran’s strategy against Israel has been a patient one. The regime has sought to kill its enemy with a thousand cuts instead of with overwhelming force. The attacks of this month, however, have forced Israel’s hand. If Israel truly seeks to end the threats aligned against it, it will have to expand its focus well beyond Gaza and confront Iran. It is clear that Israel’s approach to Iran up until now has been ineffective. That suggests that another round of retaliatory Israeli covert action will be insufficient to change Iran’s calculus, hold it accountable for its complicity, or decrease the menace that it and its proxies pose. Thus, Israel will need to change the game, and what that could entail or how long it could last is anyone’s guess. What is assured is that things will get worse. The risk of escalation is very real, and the prospect of a wider regional war is uncomfortably close. But more than that, this may be the beginning of a dangerous new cycle in the Iranian-Israeli conflict — a war with no obvious offramps or endpoints.
Afshon Ostovar is an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of the award-winning VanGuard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and of the forthcoming Wars of Ambition: The United States, Iran, and the Struggle for the Middle East.
The opinions in this piece are the authors alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or U.S. Government.
Image: Wikimedia Commons