Iran’s Support for Hamas and the Risk of Multi-Front Escalation
In Sept. 2019, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday Prayer Imam of Mashhad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative in the city, referred to the disparity between Iran’s current geostrategic position and its status in the 1980s: “39 years ago, [the Iraqis] launched attacks from our western and southwestern borders. Within a few days, 1,500 km of our country faced enemy aggression,” he said. “But today, Iran encompasses more than its physical borders. The Iraqi ‘popular mobilization,’ Ansarullah [the Houthis] in Yemen, the Syrian National Front, the Palestine Islamic Jihad, Hamas in Palestine, and Hizballah in Lebanon all represent Iran.” The large-scale Hamas attack against Israel has rekindled questions about Iran’s involvement in the Palestinian front, its relations with its Palestinian partners, and the potential for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in Gaza to escalate into a full-fledged regional war led by Tehran.
While the question of to what extent Iran was directly involved in the execution of the Hamas attack remains open, the war in Gaza represents the first significant test event of the cooperation between the elements of the “Axis of Resistance.” At this stage, it appears Iran has no interest in expanding the conflict into a multi-front confrontation by directing Hizballah to attack Israeli territory en masse. The Iranian leadership’s hesitation, I believe, is due to Israeli deterrence: Israel’s leadership has signaled that it would respond with overwhelming force against Hizballah targets. The United States has also signaled that it would escalate its involvement in the conflict, raising the specter of military costs that may be too high for Iran to accept.
However, the continuation of the Gaza campaign, an Israeli ground invasion, and especially Israeli military success, which would threaten the very survival of Hamas and its ability to maintain effective control over the Gaza Strip, may present the Iranian leadership with a difficult dilemma: To refrain from expanding the war and allowing Israel to fulfill its objectives of putting an end to Hamas rule in Gaza, thereby potentially damaging the Iranian narrative of the “convergence of arenas,” or to endanger the strategic capabilities of its Lebanese ally, Hizballah, as well. The lengthier and tougher the war in Gaza becomes, the greater the likelihood that Iran could make a decision that could lead to further regional escalation.
This is not the first time that questions have arisen regarding the extent of coordination among the various elements of the “Resistance Front” led by the Islamic Republic of Iran. In April 2023, there was an escalation on the Temple Mount around the Jewish holiday of Passover. The multi-arena event included terror and violence in Jerusalem, terror against Israeli roads and settlements in the West Bank, rockets and shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles from the Gaza Strip, and rockets launched from southern Lebanon and the Syrian Golan Heights. Hamas exacerbated the situation in Gaza. And, in Lebanon and the Golan Heights, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Lebanese Hizballah played a central role. Lebanese press reports revealed that Esmail Qaani, the commander of the Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, visited Lebanon in the first week of April and met with officials from Hizballah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other Iran-backed militias, and that the decision to fire dozens of rockets from southern Lebanon into Israel on April 6, 2023 was taken at that meeting.
While the impetus for this previous round of escalation was not directly linked to Iran, its proxies seized the opportunity to establish a balance of deterrence against Israel. This was based on prior and longstanding coordination between members of the Axis of Resistance. Evidence of that preliminary coordination could be found in the visits by Hamas political bureau chief, Ismail Haniyeh, and the secretary general of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziad al Nakhalah, in Beirut for meetings with Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, as well as the visit to Beirut of Esmail Qaani, in the days before the escalation. Although the following events did not necessarily unfold according to an Iranian initiative and were not directly orchestrated by Tehran, they were viewed positively by the Islamic Republic as another indication of the “convergence of the fronts,” paving the way for the expansion of a potential future conflict with Israel into a multi-front confrontation.
Iran and Hamas: Strong Allies, Limited Control
Hamas benefits considerably from Iran’s provision of weapons, technology, know-how, and training. This support allows it to carry out attacks against Israel. The Islamic Republic has viewed the Palestinian Islamic organizations, Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad, as crucial centers of power in the Palestinian arena. The Iranian government uses these two groups to advance its regional goals, particularly vis-à-vis Israel. Led by the Quds Force, Iranian efforts to assist these organizations includes supplying weapons, providing technical-operational assistance (including knowledge for producing homemade weapons), offering training, and transferring funds for ongoing operations totaling tens of millions of dollars per year. Of the two, Iran’s connection with the Palestine Islamic Jihad is stronger. Despite being a Sunni organization, it has maintained a deep ideological relationship with Iran. Additionally, due to the organization’s limited financial resources and lack of a significant network of community-social services like Hamas, it relies more on assistance from Iran.
Hamas is a larger and more established organization, and its ideological attachment to Iran is looser. Due to its more significant and diverse financial resources, Hamas also relies less on Iran. Over the years, Hamas has adopted a more independent stance, leading to past crises between it and the Islamic Republic. For instance, this occurred following Hamas’ support for the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011 and its support for Saudi Arabia following the Saudi attack in Yemen in March 2015 leading to temporary tensions between Iran and Hamas. Generally speaking, the connections between Iran and its regional proxies and partners, including Hamas, and the tension between their ideological and political allegiance to Tehran versus their commitment to their own interests and agendas largely influence the characteristics of the Iranian proxy network. This network operates more like a loose system of interconnected components within a web of common interests alongside a shared ideological vision rather than strictly as a hierarchical network with direct Iranian command and control. In recent years, especially after the U.S. assassination of the Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, in January 2020 and the curtailment of proxy-led military action in Syria and Iraq, Iran has managed the network in a more decentralized manner than before. However, it still maintains a significant degree of influence within it.
Hamas’ continued control of the Gaza Strip since June 2007 compelled the movement to undergo an accelerated military buildup. This was necessary to continue the organization’s strategy of terror against Israel, with rockets becoming a primary tool in the conflict, inspired by Hizballah’s successes in Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Iran had a clear strategic interest in helping to bolster Hamas’ rule in Gaza: It served as a leverage point for conducting an armed struggle against Israel along its southern border while establishing the threat of Hizballah on its northern border. The resolution of the civil war in Syria and the appointments of Ismail Haniyeh as Hamas political bureau chief and Yahya Sinwar as the new leader of Hamas in Gaza in May 2017 improved relations between Iran and Hamas. In recent years, senior Iranian officials, led by Supreme Leader Khamenei, have emphasized the need to expand the “Palestinian resistance” from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, where Hamas is not in control. Numerous Iranian references to developments in the West Bank coincided with a series of Israeli revelations regarding increasing Iranian activity in this area, including attempting to establish Iranian intelligence infrastructure in Israel and the West Bank, setting up terrorist networks under the guise of civilian organizations, and transporting explosives using drones.
The intricate relationship between Iran and Hamas necessitates distinguishing between Iranian support for the organization and ongoing coordination between elements of the “Resistance Front” and Iran’s initiating, directing, and controlling operations, such as the recent Hamas operation. Did Hamas utilize Iranian aid? Definitely. Did Iran have an interest in the action? Yes. Did Hamas require Iran’s approval to act? Not necessarily. Was there early coordination between Hamas, Iran, and Hizballah? Possibly.
However, ultimately, the Oct. 7 attack was an action taken by Hamas based on its interests arising from the Palestinian reality, aimed at furthering the movement’s goals. These goals also align with those of Iran, including the endeavor to bring the Palestinian issue back to the regional and international agenda, and to hinder normalization efforts between Israel and Saudi Arabia. This assessment was corroborated by Israeli Defense Forces Spokesman Brigadier General Daniel Hagari, who stated: “Iran is a major player, but we can’t yet say if it was involved in the planning or training.” White House National Security Spokesperson John Kirby also noted that “Iran has long supported Hamas and other terrorist networks throughout the region with resources and training capabilities.” However, he clarified that “in terms of specific evidence on these types of attacks, no, we don’t have anything.”
Iran, Israel, and the Threat of “Convergence of the Fronts”
For years, the prevailing assessment in Israel has been that Iran harbors no interest in engaging in direct confrontation with Israel nor in putting Hizballah at risk for the Palestinians. According to this perspective, Iran views its Lebanese ally as a strategic tool to counter a potential Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. Iran has transformed Hizballah into a formidable military force to act as a credible front against Israel. Iran has provided tens of thousands of advanced missiles, including precision-guided munitions, which now cover a significant portion of Israeli territory. The rationale behind empowering the organization to become such a potent force is to employ Hizballah as a deterrent against Israel, particularly if Israel were to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The extent to which Iran is willing to jeopardize vital interests, particularly directly intervening in the conflict for the Palestinians’ benefit, remains questioned in Israel. However, over the past few years, there have been several developments that may challenge the validity of this assessment. First, the war in Gaza holds the potential to reshape the reality not only in Gaza but also across the entire Middle East. This may necessitate increased involvement by Iran and its proxies, led by Hizballah. Since the outbreak of the war, there has been a noticeable uptick in Hizballah’s activities aimed at challenging Israel from another front. However, at this stage, it appears that the organization — presumably in coordination with Iran — is content with relatively limited actions that signify its commitment to the Palestinian cause and its desire to maintain the established rules of engagement with Israel. The organization has so far refrained from deploying most of the resources at its disposal, notably its substantial firepower, which includes an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets and missiles. This restraint can be attributed to considerations related to Lebanon’s internal situation, the extensive mobilization of the Israeli Defense Forces in northern Israel, and the unambiguous American stance in support of Israel. The U.S. military response includes the presence of two aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean, seemingly with the intent of deterring Hizballah and Iran from joining the campaign against Israel.
However, the ongoing war could present a significant challenge to the very existence of Hamas, particularly to its leadership, military capabilities, and ability to maintain control over Gaza. Such a challenge could strip Iran of a central strategic ally against Israel, potentially compelling it to transition from a phase of providing assistance, support, and coordination with Hamas to more direct involvement, preferably through the use of Hizballah. During his recent visit to Lebanon, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein-Amir Abdollahian cautioned that “the ongoing perpetration of war crimes against Palestinians and Gaza will undoubtedly trigger a collective response from the resistance axis.”
Furthermore, in recent years, Iran has escalated its involvement in the Palestinian arena against worsening conflict with Israel, capitalizing on the opportunities created by events in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. The Islamic Republic’s animosity toward Israel remains one of the fundamental pillars of Iranian foreign policy and has been a significant aspect of the Iranian regime’s worldview since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Since establishing the Islamic Republic, Iranian officials have consistently asserted the imperative of eliminating Israel. Just days before the Hamas operation, Khamenei emphasized in an address to government officials and ambassadors from Muslim countries that the issue of Palestine is the foremost concern for the Muslim world. He asserted that the “Zionist regime,” which he called a “cancer,” will certainly be eradicated by the hands of the Palestinian people and the “resistance” forces across the region. He further stated that Muslim countries normalizing relations with Israel are “betting on a losing horse,” as the Palestinian movement is more vibrant and active than ever, while the “oppressive regime” is declining and on the brink of disappearance.
Even though fundamental hostility toward Israel has existed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the perception of mutual threat between the two countries only began to develop in the 1990s. In the 1980s, the prevailing sentiment in Iran was that the grand victory of liberating Jerusalem could only be achieved after the lesser victory of Saddam Hussein’s defeat. Iranian leadership believed that “the road to Jerusalem passes through Karbala” and regarded the campaign against Iraq as their foremost priority.
As the conflict between the two countries intensified, becoming more direct, Iran’s sense of threat grew. Israel dubbed this campaign the “snake’s head” concept, which asserts that the Iranian regime should be weakened through economic means, cyber measures, as well as overt and covert actions. Israel has followed through on this concept, conducting covert activities against Iran’s nuclear program and striking Iranian-linked targets. This campaign increased Iranian concerns and the leadership decided it needed to improve its response by doubling down on its reliance on proxy organizations, developing more capable military systems, and building military infrastructure near Israel’s borders. In Iran’s view, Israel is the aggressor, endeavoring to alter the rules of the game and the balance of deterrence — and not solely within the context of the nuclear program. The head of the Israel Defense Force’s Military Intelligence Directorate, Aharon Haliva, explicitly acknowledged that Israel brought itself to the forefront of friction with Iran, transitioning from a peripheral player to a central one, and that the attacks attributed to Israel on Iranian soil compelled Tehran to prioritize Israel as its number one enemy. Therefore, the Iranian leadership may be willing to pay a heavier price than before for increased involvement in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, no longer satisfied with fighting solely to the last drop of Palestinian blood.
The developments in Iran’s nuclear program may also impact its willingness to escalate its involvement, mainly through Hizballah, in a possible campaign against Israel. The significant advancements in the Iranian nuclear program, which have occurred since Tehran started violating its commitments to the nuclear deal following President Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018, have positioned Iran on the nuclear weapons threshold. Iran does not seem to be currently concerned with the possibility of Israeli military action against its nuclear facilities except in the scenario, which does not seem likely at this stage, of an Iranian decision to achieve a nuclear break out. Therefore, Tehran may assess that using Hizballah is no longer considered a waste of capabilities but a justified way to advance its strategic vision at a moment of historic opportunity.
The threat of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict expanding from Gaza to other fronts increases significantly as the war escalates. The likelihood of direct Iranian military involvement remains highly improbable. Iran still prefers to rely on its proxies, although, in recent years, it has shown a growing willingness to conduct direct offensive operations against Israel from Syria using drones and rockets. While the interests of Iran and Hizballah are still inclined toward avoiding an all-out confrontation as much as possible, the potential for the convergence of fronts against Israel is gradually rising, involving Hamas from Gaza; Hizballah from Lebanon; and, potentially, pro-Iranian militias from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. This reality necessitates Israel to decide whether it is advantageous to seize the current situation for a preemptive strike against Hizballah, which would reshape the Middle Eastern landscape in Gaza and Lebanon. While the Israeli military has prepared for the potential of a multi-front campaign for the last few years, dividing military efforts between the north and the south could jeopardize the primary endeavor against Hamas and the prospects of achieving strategic objectives against both Hamas and Hizballah.
Unfortunately, this decision does not rest solely with Israel since such a decision would confront Iran with a significant dilemma. On the one hand, refraining from actively joining the campaign might allow Israel to continue to focus its fighting efforts against Hamas in Gaza to the point of fatally damaging Hamas’ capabilities and damaging the Iranian narrative of the “convergence of arenas.” On the other hand, active involvement through Hizballah’s entry into an all-out war with Israel could also endanger the capabilities of Iran’s most important strategic ally. The lengthier and tougher the war becomes, the more difficult it will be for Iran to avoid a decision that could mean opening up another front against Israel.
Dr. Raz Zimmt is a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies and the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. He is also a veteran Iran watcher in the Israeli Defense Forces. @RZimmt.
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