Almost from the moment that Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, foreign policy analysts began fretting about Iran. U.S. and Israeli officials have stated there is no evidence directly linking Iran to the attack, and some U.S. intelligence sources have suggested that Iranian leaders were caught off-guard. But there is little doubt that Tehran considers it a major victory that Hamas was able to dupe Israeli intelligence and pull off such a large-scale operation. Iran does not hide its strong support for Hamas, and it has outwardly praised the attack.
With thousands of casualties and no immediate end in sight, the war with Hamas has already become one of the most devastating conflicts in the history of Israel and Palestine. But Israel’s invasion of Gaza and Iran’s backing of Hamas could transform it into something far more catastrophic. As Israeli forces advance through Gaza, the war could escalate to the point where Iran’s “axis of resistance”—Hezbollah and other Tehran-backed militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere—become direct combatants. Such developments could, in turn, drag the United States into the fighting. Even if they didn’t, an Iranian-Israeli regional war would have far-reaching consequences, including an influx of refugees to Europe from the Middle East, increased extremism across the region, and potentially major disturbances of the international oil market and global economy.
Although Iran has echoed calls by the United Nations and others for a quick end to the Israel-Hamas war, Tehran seems prepared for a protracted fight, even if it carries high human costs. In fact, if past is prelude, the Iranian leadership likely views this war as an opportunity to achieve multiple objectives. Already, Hamas has succeeded in bringing the proxy war between Iran and Israel—typically fought in Lebanon and Syria—to Israeli soil. As Tehran sees it, the conflict could help Hamas permanently deter Israel from attacking Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by teaching Israel that the costs of invading the territory are prohibitively high. The conflict could further unite Tehran and its allied militias into a lethal and highly coordinated fighting machine. It could give the Islamic Republic a new claim to moral leadership among states outside the West and restore Tehran’s credibility in the Arab world. And should the war expand into a regional conflict, it could create a window of opportunity for Iran to finally build a nuclear weapon.
FRIENDS IN NEED
Since its establishment in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has portrayed itself as a staunch ally of the Palestinian liberation movement. Many of the Islamist and leftist Iranian revolutionaries who toppled the shah drew inspiration from Palestinian writers and fighters. During the 1960s and 1970s, some of these Iranians even received training in Palestinian guerilla camps.
Once they succeeded in taking control of the state, these Iranian revolutionaries returned the favor. They turned over the Israeli embassy to the Palestine Liberation Organization. The group’s leader, Yasir Arafat, was welcomed in Tehran within days after the revolutionaries took charge. Throughout the 1980s, Iran’s newly established Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provided training for Lebanese Shiite groups battling the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, even though the IRGC was itself fighting a war against Iraq. And after the Palestine Liberation Organization shifted away from violence and toward diplomacy in the mid-1990s, Iran helped cultivate a network of anti-Israel Islamist armed groups.
At first, Lebanese and Palestinian militants struggled in the face of the far better equipped and trained Israeli Defense Forces. But with Iranian help, they grew significantly more capable. For example, through IRGC training and repeated armed engagements with Israel, Hezbollah transformed itself into a formidable military force and was ultimately able to drive Israel out of southern Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah’s subsequent war with Israel in 2006 inflicted significant human and economic costs on Lebanon, but it also dealt widespread damage to the IDF, achieving a measure of mutual deterrence that has kept Israel from invading Lebanon in the years since. By extension, the 2006 war helped deter Israel from overt military actions against Iran’s nuclear facilities—lest it faces massive retaliatory rocket attacks by Hezbollah.
Iran has claimed credit for the 2006 victory, and it considers that win a turning point in its confrontation with Israel. Before the Islamic Republic took the lead, successive Arab nationalists faced defeats against the IDF—such as the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973—and failed to advance the Palestinian cause. In a meeting with the commanders of the IRGC in August, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei contrasted Hezbollah’s relative success in the 2006 war with Israel’s humiliating defeat of six Arab states in 1967. “After the Islamic Revolution, this same regime [Israel] did everything it could for 33 days to defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon, but did not succeed and was forced to flee shamefully,” he boasted.
Building on its success with Hezbollah, in the early 1990s, Iran began backing Hamas, the armed Palestinian organization that has controlled Gaza since 2007. It is, in a sense, a strange partnership. Rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was founded after the first Palestinian intifada in 1987 and has received support not just from Shiite Iran but also from Sunni states, such as Qatar. Hamas is, in fact, a Sunni organization, and it has cracked down on Gaza’s small Shiite population—persecuting Shiite worshipers and closing Shiite charity organizations according to reporting by Haaretz. And Hamas aligned itself with the Sunni opposition against Bashar al-Assad during Syria’s uprising, even though Assad is one of Iran’s closest partners.
But Iranian leaders have displayed pragmatism in building their network of allies, and their associates enjoy agency and autonomy. As a result, Tehran has consistently overlooked these differences with Hamas. And it has paid off: like its Lebanese counterpart, Hamas has grown increasingly capable over time through Iranian aid and repeated military confrontations with Israel. By providing financial, military, and political support, Iran has contributed to the advances of Hamas’s capabilities and its rapidly expanding arsenal of rockets. These capabilities and weapons all came together on October 7, and to terrifying effect.
ROLES AND GOALS
Iran has many goals for the current war in Gaza. But the most immediate is for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (a smaller militant group in Gaza which Tehran also backs) to emerge more popular and more powerful than before. Iran specifically wants its partners to inflict intolerable damage on Israel while preventing an Israeli victory in Gaza, thereby deterring the Israeli military from mass attacking Palestinians again. Iran also believes that such an outcome could protect Palestinians against Israeli settlers by helping a triumphant Hamas, or a similar militant group, rise to power in the West Bank, where the militants could use violence to deter settlers from carrying out attacks. Even if they cannot take charge in other Palestinian territories, a victory would also enable Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to extend their influence beyond Gaza by making the groups much more popular among residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Although this outcome is exactly what Israel wants to prevent, it may materialize, given the potential unintended consequences of a massive invasion of Gaza by the IDF.
Iran has a plan for Israeli escalation. To protect its partners, Tehran has threatened that its axis might attack Israel and the United States if Israel goes through with a full-scale land war and continues with the indiscriminate bombing of Palestinian civilians. As Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said, the axis’s “finger is on the trigger.” They are ready, Amir-Abdollahian announced, to open new fronts if doing so will help Hamas resist Israel’s assault.
Tehran’s statement, of course, could be bluster. Iran might expect that the battleground will spread from Gaza to the West Bank and Jerusalem, and ultimately to the Arab citizens of Israel, but not to other countries. Such an outcome appears quite conceivable. The staggering toll of civilian casualties in Gaza, coupled with Hamas’s resistance, could amplify Palestinians’ anger and trigger their suppressed grievances to explode in other Palestinian territories. Iran’s threats could help this process. By warning that it will open new fronts, Tehran could further divert Israel’s attention and security resources away from Gaza, creating possible space for a new intifada. And Iran would score points with Palestinians and their supporters for coming to their aid during an existential moment of crisis- in contrast to impotent Arab dictators.
At the same time, Iran’s threats to open fronts beyond Palestine appear credible. Already, there have been bloody border skirmishes between Hezbollah and Israel in Israel’s north, unsuccessful missile attacks by Iranian-backed Houthi militias which—according to the U.S. Department of Defense—were “potentially” aimed at Israel, and rocket strikes by Iraqi Shiite militias on bases housing U.S. forces. If these organizations wanted to, they could launch simultaneous assaults against Israel and U.S. forces throughout the region, prompting reprisals that could quickly escalate into a broader regional war. This scenario is still unlikely; Iran does not appear to seek a war that extends beyond Israel and Palestine. But given the tense environment and many pathways for escalation, it is not improbable. The United States, for example, could feel pressure to strike Iran if it comes under aggressive attack by Tehran’s proxies.
If the conflict does expand, the odds of Iran taking the final steps to becoming a nuclear power would go up. The country already has the capability to build a workable warhead. With strong support from Israel, the United States withdrew from the nuclear agreement in 2018. In response, Tehran began expanding its enrichment activities to the point where, according to U.S. officials, it now possesses enough fissile material to make a nuclear bomb within two weeks. And an escalating war could create both an opening and a strong rationale for Iran to finally cross the threshold. A broader regional crisis might generate so much international turmoil that other powers cannot pay attention to Iran’s nuclear decisions or cannot expend the resources to stop it. And should the conflict expand to involve Iran, the country’s leaders could also conclude that they need nuclear weapons for defense.
If Israel or the United States believed Tehran was about to produce a bomb, they might respond by attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, no matter their other military commitments. But many of Iran’s nuclear facilities are deep underground and difficult to destroy, even with the most powerful conventional weapons. To truly eliminate the program, Washington might need to initiate a full-scale invasion of the country—a prospect that Iran’s growing conventional capability, together with its axis of resistance, would make extremely costly and exceedingly difficult.
SEIZING THE MOMENT
For Tehran, the upsides of renewed conflict go beyond a weaker Israel and, possibly, a nuclear weapon. The war in Gaza is fostering solidarity among many countries of the so-called global South, which tend to view U.S. support for Israel as profoundly hypocritical. Even within the West, many people share this sentiment. By positioning itself at the heart of the Palestinian cause, then, Iran hopes it can claim both global leadership and moral superiority—despite its own reputation as a state that represses its people and interferes with its neighbors.
For Tehran, Israel’s war in Gaza comes at an opportune moment. Iran has long relied on the Palestinian cause to compensate for its isolation as a Shiite Persian state in a predominantly Sunni Arab region. Yet this strategy was less effective when Palestinians were not in the international spotlight. Tehran, with all its meddling, grew increasingly unpopular with its Arab neighbors, and Israel was able to use Iran’s belligerent behavior (namely, Iran’s threats against Israel and its proxies’ strikes on Sunni Arab states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia) as a justification for not compromising with the Palestinians. Israel even succeeded in normalizing ties with Bahrain, Morocco, and the UAE in what some in Israel and the United States hoped would be a stronger regional bulwark against Iran. Before October 7, Israel seemed poised to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, too. But the Hamas attack halted all that progress. In the aftermath, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Iran’s president held a phone conversation for the first time since they restored ties last March.
Tehran also believes the war in Gaza can cover up its internal repression. Last year, the streets of Berlin, London, Washington, and other cities across the world were filled with people protesting the Islamic Republic’s violence against women. Now, those same streets are occupied by people protesting Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Iranian officials and pro-government commentators, seeking to capitalize on the discontent, are sharing videos and stories of a Lebanese female singer and an Arab American female Playboy star who have shown support for Hezbollah and Hamas on social media. Within Iran itself, the conflict has divided opposition groups and among exiles. Some dissident figures and even secular opposition activists support the Islamic Republic’s backing of the Palestinians, whereas others have expressed solidarity with Israel and strongly condemned Hamas. This unusual expression of support for Israel has befuddled the Islamic Republic, but also helped manage its state-society tensions by dividing its adversaries.
Tehran, of course, may be wrong about what the war will do for its strength and reputation. Iran’s leaders are well aware that an expanded conflict could lead to a direct attack against their country, one that risks weakening or destroying the Islamic Republic. They are assessing developments in Israel and deciding what to do next. But they still see the conflict as more evidence the world is undergoing a broad, once-in-a-generation shift away from the West. They believe the United States is in decline and that new global and regional powers are upending the order that emerged after World War I and World War II.
Ultimately, there is little that the outside world can do to stop Iran’s efforts. The Israel-Hamas war is fundamentally centered on the Palestinian plight and the need for a credible political solution; until one exists, Iran will remain uniquely influential in the Palestinian issue. Yet outside states must recognize that increasing tensions between Iran and Israel are a serious long-term threat with global repercussions. External parties must look for pathways to de-escalate, including using backchannels to help the two sides (and Iran and the United States) communicate. Doing so will be difficult. But although it may seem unrealistic at the moment, the current conflict could create opportunities for mediation.
Such communication could prevent a broad catastrophic confrontation between Iran and Israel. But even if this conflict goes no further, the Hamas attacks—and Iran’s response—show that the region has already transformed. The collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Iranian nuclear agreement have empowered hardline forces in both the Palestinian territories and Tehran. This war is unlikely to dislodge them—and it risks making them stronger.
Source » foreignaffairs