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Oct 15, 2023

How does Iran fit into the war between Israel and Hamas?

Iran likely won’t launch direct attacks against Israel, but the possibility of a regional conflagration is real.

By Ellen Ioanes

Speculation around Iran’s involvement in Hamas’s gruesome attack on Israel has been rampant over the past week — along with questions about whether the Islamic Republic or any of its regional proxies will get involved in the war between Israel and Hamas.

Iran has denied involvement in planning the attack, but the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the slaughter in a televised address Tuesday. “We kiss the hands of those who planned the attack on the Zionist regime,” Khamenei said.

“The Zionist regime’s own actions are to blame for this disaster.” Hamas, for its part, has claimed sole responsibility for the attack on October 7, in which militants killed an estimated 1,200 Israelis, mainly civilians, injured upward of 3,000, and took as many as 150 hostages.

Though Iran and Israel have been in conflict since the 1979 Iranian revolution, there has never been outright war between the two. However, Iran does support proxies in the region, including Hezbollah, the Shia militant group in southern Lebanon, which could opt to join the conflict, though thus far it’s not clear that the group has made any concrete moves in that direction.

(Rockets were fired from southern Lebanon this week toward what is now northern Israel, though it’s not clear at this point whether they were launched by Hezbollah or another group.)

Iran does provide material support to Hamas as well as training and money, experts told Vox, as does Hezbollah. Proxy groups — armed groups affiliated with a state actor like the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria and the Badr Organization in Iraq, as well as the Houthis in Yemen, work more in concert with the Iranian regime, but it would be incorrect to automatically put the blame for Saturday’s attack right at the regime’s doorstep.

“Hamas has a rather complex relationship [with Iran],” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, told Vox. “It’s a Sunni group, not a Shia group like most of the groups Iran supports, but it also has a history of rupture with Iran,” most notably over Iran’s support for the Assad regime at the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

Though groups like the Houthis in Yemen sometimes directly contradict the policies and wishes of their benefactor, such a significant political and ideological rift as that between Hamas and Iran “has almost never happened with any other non-state actor,” Vaez said.

In addition to supplying Israel with ammunition and other materiel, the US has deployed a carrier strike group in the Eastern Mediterranean as a deterrent, US officials have said, to discourage Iran from getting involved via one of its proxy groups.

Though it’s not likely that Iran would launch its own specific, direct attacks against Israel, the possibility of a regional conflagration is real. But gauging its likelihood, especially given that Iran has a lot to lose if it does get involved, is another question entirely.

Iran vs. Israel: a history

Israel and Iran once had close economic and strategic ties; Iran imported Israeli arms and Israel bought Iranian oil prior to the Iranian revolution in 1979. Both countries also had close ties with the US and considered fighting the Soviet Union and the spread of communism part of their foreign policy, according to the US Institute for Peace.

But the 1979 revolution brought in a hard-line Shia government that considered Israel usurpers on Muslim land — and considered the US an enabler.

“In this world view, Israel was seen as a Western colonial outpost and Zionism as a version of imperialism,” Shireen Hunter, an independent scholar and honorary fellow at Georgetown University’s Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, wrote in a piece for the Stimson Center in March. “At the time, many Arab governments also rejected Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and radicals opposed to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel formed a so-called Rejectionist Front.”

Meanwhile, groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories also formed, partly against Israel but also in relation to constituencies on the ground. Hezbollah, for example, started in response to a number of pressures within Lebanon, not the least of which was Israel’s invasions in 1978 and 1982 to try to eliminate Palestinian militant groups in the region. This was also in the context of a brutal, 15-year sectarian civil war in Lebanon.

In addition to carrying out terror attacks against US and Israeli targets in Lebanon, the group also provided some basic necessities and support for people living in poor Shia areas south of Beirut; that increased under the leadership of Hassan Nasrallah, whose investment in social services for this constituency increased Hezbollah’s popularity.

In addition to its militant and terrorist activities, Hezbollah has representation in Lebanon’s parliament, though their political support declined in recent elections.

Iran has provided funds and training to Hezbollah since the group’s early days, and the connection between the two is well documented, as the Islamic Republic has made attempts to increase its influence throughout the Middle East.

The connection between Iran and Hamas is less cut-and-dried; though both the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah provide funding, training, and weapons to Hamas, Iran doesn’t direct its actions, nor does Hamas even necessarily coordinate with Iran regarding its plans.

“Iran’s relationship with other groups really fits onto a spectrum,” Vaez said. “At one side of the spectrum you have Hezbollah, because Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah is really like two NATO allies.” Hezbollah has only Iran as a state backer, while Hamas and militant groups in Iraq and Syria have relationships with other nations.

Indeed, Hamas has a looser relationship with Iran, though many experts agree that the group has benefited from Iranian funding, training, and other support.

But there’s no clear reason to believe that Hamas would have coordinated with Iran on this particular attack, especially given the high level of penetration the Israeli security service has in the Iranian regime. Coordinating directly with Iran could have put Hamas’s plans for its October 7 attack at serious risk, Vaez said.

Would Iran get involved in the conflict outright?

Probably not. There is a lot to lose — including access to $6 billion in assets, which the US and Qatar have already restricted pending investigation into Iran’s role in Hamas’s capabilities and attack against Israel, the New York Times reported Thursday.

“There’s the Iran question of, does Iran get directly involved?” Raphael Cohen, director of the strategy and doctrine program of RAND Corporation’s Project Air Force, said during a panel discussion on Tuesday.

“On the spectrum of ‘likely’ to ‘less likely,’ it’s probably one of the less likely scenarios. But should Israel feel the need to directly strike Iran or vice versa, that has a broader implication for regional war that could draw in not only Israel but a lot of the Arab states, the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia as well.”

Vaez said that in the last several years it has been Israel on the offensive in Iran, rather than the other way around.

“Israel and Iran have been engaged in a multidimensional cold war against one another for a long time,” Vaez said.

“In the past few years, if you look at the covert operations Israel has conducted against Iran — and overt operations that it has conducted against Iranian personnel and assets in Syria — it really hasn’t [been] that much of a tit-for-tat,” with Israel waging cyber attacks against Iranian infrastructure, like the massive Stuxnet attack against Iran’s Natanz nuclear material enrichment facility and targeted assassinations of military commanders and nuclear scientists.

Iran had also been on a significant deescalatory track with the US and other countries, most recently agreeing to a prisoner swap in September that freed several US citizens being held in Iran in exchange for the freedom of five Iranians and access to $6 billion in assets for humanitarian use.

Regional actors like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also made headway on easing tensions with Iran and charting a path forward to manage their various conflicts; putting that on the line to directly attack Israel seems unlikely.

Hezbollah could certainly get directly involved; Hezbollah and Israel fought a war in southern Lebanon in 2006 which ended in an Israeli withdrawal and a deployment of United Nations peacekeeping forces to southern Lebanon.

“Hezbollah will make its decisions, and has made its decisions in the past, regardless of whether or not there is an American aircraft carrier there,” Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs in the Obama administration, told Vox. “So you have the US there to provide support and backup — and hopefully, enough muscle to get those who have influence over Hezbollah, to say, ‘back off.’”

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, did meet with senior Hezbollah leadership and Lebanese officials in Beirut this week, Reuters reports.

“The continuation of war crimes against Palestine and Gaza will receive a response from the rest of the axis,” Amir-Abdollahian said Thursday, likely referring to Iran, Hezbollah, militant groups in Iraq and Syria, and Palestinian armed groups. “And naturally, the Zionist entity and its supporters will be responsible for the consequences of that.”

But what exactly that means in the context of both the war and the deescalation efforts among Iran and its adversaries is not clear.

What’s likeliest, Vaez said, is that groups Iran supports ideologically but with which it has loose ties, such as Palestinian armed groups or groups in Syria and Iraq, could take advantage of the conflict to either strike Israel or US positions in Syria and Iraq.

There have been no attacks on US forces in either Syria or Iraq since March as part of the US and Iran’s deescalatory agreements, but if those agreements break down — because, for example, the US decides to permanently freeze the $6 billion being held in Qatar — that could be reason enough for Iran to encourage smaller allied groups to attack US positions.

Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

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