Why Iran Sees War Between Israel and Hamas as a Win

Amelia Cataldi, Feb 15, 2024

On October 7, 2023 Hamas achieved the impossible: an effective and brutal attack on Israel, a state long known for its security prowess and strongman leadership. The attack was catastrophic for Israelis and promised retaliation. It came at a historically weak time for Israel, which was in the midst of reorganizing its legislature. The tensions in Gaza have spilled over into neighboring states proving to be a focal point in the region’s politics. Soon after the attack, analysts suspected that Iran played a role in assisting Hamas due to the sophisticated nature of the attack and Iran’s history of monetary and intelligence-based support (though this suspicion has not been verified). Iran’s security posture and use of proxy groups in the region indicates that it has an interest in promoting conflict in the Middle East and broadening the scope of violence as a way to disrupt the regional balance of power and to move away from Western-influenced regional hegemony. The threat can already be seen in the widening of the conflict that has been spurred by Iran’s allies like the Houthis through engagement in the Red Sea. 


Iran periodically seeks to expand both its own regional influence and constrict that of their primary enemies, including the United States and Saudi Arabia. Iran sees this as an effort to defend the legacy of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, during which the Imperial State of Iran was replaced by the modern Islamic Republic [1]. The revolution signaled both a change in leadership and a movement away from a secular statehood; as such Iran views its current support of proxy groups as a means to defend the past legacy of the war. Beyond this, Iran is highly isolated internationally as one of the most heavily sanctioned states in the world, with particularly extensive sanctions levied by the United States [2]. To maintain its influence in the region, Iran has deployed a “forward defense” strategy that entails fighting proxy wars in weak states against Iran’s enemies without becoming directly involved [3]. Iran maintains a Regional Armed Network consisting of groups like Hamas, Houthis, and Hezbollah to amplify its control over the region and unify their response in proxy conflicts without direct involvement [4]. The use of this network is crucial to Iran’s ability to further its interests in the light of instability generated by the Gaza war. This cements Iran’s diplomatic legacy of furthering regional interests through the support of insurgents.  


Since its inception, Israel has represented the United States’ military stronghold in the Middle East and has been in conflict with Iran since the government’s turnover in 1979. Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of United States bilateral aid, receiving more than 3 billion dollars annually [5]. The United States sees Israel as a democratic stronghold in the Middle East and hopes to gain the support of American Jews through their relationship with Israel. The strategic security advantages that Israel grants the United States are extremely valuable, particularly after the recent shift away from more hands-on involvement in the region. The Israeli military modernization that has occurred as a result of the United States’ support, and Israel’s national ethos of defending their homeland, feeds the United States perception of Israel as a powerful military state. The United States’ backing of Israel, combined with the ideological debate of the disruption of the Muslim population previously living there, makes Iran see Israel as an obstacle to its regional hegemony.


Iran is fighting a proxy war for Middle Eastern hegemony across various states including Israel by providing resources and training to militant groups that share its ideological parallels of resisting western influence in the region. Iran sees the United States as its ultimate enemy and has signaled that it also feels particularly threatened by Saudi Arabia and Israel, who are both strong United States allies. Iran's support of small militant groups reflects a willingness to shape power in the region without becoming overly involved firsthand, which is becoming increasingly relevant as the Gaza conflict develops. The United States, for its part, has responded by strengthening its commitments to both Israel and Saudi Arabia. The use of allies on both sides reflects Iran and the United States’ willingness to balance each others’ power while avoiding direct engagement. This history provides a backdrop for any contingencies in Israel that involve both superpowers in an extension of the ongoing proxy war. 


Iran’s long history of involving itself in other states’ affairs has triggered suspicions of its possible involvement in Hamas’ attack, especially because of its sophisticated nature, but this claim has not been sufficiently authenticated. However, Iran’s Regional Armed Network of proxy groups is well positioned to expand the Gaza war across the entire region to serve Iran’s goals of destabilizing regional hegemonic norms and pushing against Israel’s dominance and connection with the west. Iran possibly knew of plans for Hamas’ attack, as it trains Hamas’ militants. Hezbollah, another piece of Iran’s proxy forces, has had ongoing historical conflict on its border with Israel since their stalemate conflict in 2006 [6]. Currently, Israel and Hezbollah have become engaged in military conflict along the shared borders of Israel and Lebanon. Both groups have also traded rocket fire into enemy territory and have taken hostages [7]. Iran has vowed to continue to support Hezbollah through the controversy generated by these military actions, which is an example of its pointed use of proxies to expand the arena of conflict spurred by the Gaza war [8]. Hezbollah says their actions tie up Israel’s military resources at the Lebanese border as a way to weaken their ability to strike in Gaza [9]. While both Hezbollah and Iran remain hesitant to allow the situation to escalate to a more deadly war, Hezbollah is content to disrupt Israel’s actions in Gaza, and Iran is content to allow their proxy to continue to widen the conflict to weaken Israel and foster the instability that it sees as a resistance to regional western influence. 


Running parallel to Hezbollah, the Houthis, who are also Iran’s allies, have taken steps to broaden the conflict across the Middle East. The Houthis have been influenced by Hezbollah’s takeover of the previous regime in Lebanon, and have emulated this in their takeover of the capital of Yemen. The Houthis have been involved in attacks on ships in the Red Sea that they say have been conducted in solidarity with their Hamas allies. This has impacted global shipping routes because of the importance of the Red Sea for trade. The Houthis have also fired missiles at U.S.-allied warships, leading to a US response of military strikes against Houthis in Yemen [10]. Just like Hezbollah’s actions, the Houthis have been able to expand the Gaza conflict into a regional war that engages global actors. For Iran, this is evidence of its proxies behaving in a way that benefits it, achieving its short-term goals of regional instability, and its long-term goals of disrupting western regional hegemony in hopes of creating a power vacuum that Iran can fill.  


The timing of Hamas’ attack may also be advantageous to Iran. Because of Iran’s perceived interest in pushing for Palestinian autonomy, Palestine’s own negotiations with Israel are relevant to Iran’s strategic calculus in their involvement. Arab states appear to have shifted their priorities away from unified support of Palestine in favor of reinforcing relations with the United States. The wall of Arab support for Palestine has been the Palestinians’ greatest bargaining chip in negotiations, and has historically prevented Israel from gaining more control through the use of their military. Recently, however, the consensus among Arab states to support Palestine has been called into question. A push for normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia that began under President Trump, called the Abraham Accords, represents an effort by the United States to shore up regional support by facilitating peace between their two major Middle Eastern allies [11]. A conciliatory shift towards Israel would threaten to degrade the situation in Palestine even more due to the loss of their remaining bargaining power. This is significant because it has the opportunity to recalibrate the balance of power in the region towards Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Israel and away from Iran.


Because of this, Iran sees normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel as dangerous and a threat to their rising regional hegemony. The Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, has publicly stated that this normalization is “reactionary and aggressive” and has emphasized that this is a harsh break in the tradition of Arab support of Palestine [12]. The timing of Hamas’ attack on Israel ensures that the progress on normalization will be stunted, because it makes it harder for U.S. allies to ignore the issue of Palestinian independence, and shifts Israeli focus away from pursuing diplomatic relations. From another standpoint, Iran relies on the division between Saudi Arabia and Israel to balance power with opposing forces in the region and would see the Abraham Accords as a dangerous consolidation of power among their adversaries. The timing of the Abraham Accords makes the attack on Israel favorable to Iran in terms of the implications on the Middle Eastern power structure. 


Iran has indicated that it wishes to avoid engaging in war itself, but its capacity to fight proxy wars through the support of militants has proven extensive in the past. Many estimate that Iran’s own military is relatively weak compared to that of Israel, and that Iran would prefer to limit their use of their own resources. Hamas’s role in attacking Israel is useful to Iran, in that Iran has supported Hamas in the past, and has the funding and intelligence to assist Hamas’ military endeavors. As an extension of this, Hezbollah and the Houthis have served to expand the scope of the conflict while engaging a wider set of global actors without directly involving Iran, which allows it to support a challenge to western regional hegemony without itself getting involved. Iran also seeks to maintain their role of spearheading the efforts against Israel while gaining the reputation of a protector of Palestine. Giving militant groups the resources they need would mean that attacks against Israel could become more and more lethal while diverting their military resources away from Gaza, and Iranian interests would be furthered. 


Outside actors and their connection to Iran will be crucial in terms of relevance to the broadening and intensifying of the war in Gaza following the October 7th attacks. A broader war may have favorable outcomes for Iran, like serving as an extension of a struggle against the West, maintaining a balance of power by preventing Saudi Arabia and Israel’s normalization, and providing an opportunity to destabilize the region, by erupting into a deadly war over influence in the Middle East. In the end, Israeli and Palestinian casualties already show that the biggest losers will be civilians. Iran has the rhetorical resolve and strong network of militant groups to become involved in the conflict and elevate the intensity and deadliness. Beyond the impending devastation on citizen populations, engagement between Hamas and Israel changes the distribution of power in the Middle East, in an environment that is already unstable, and has the opportunity to become even more unbalanced. The situation may present an opportunity for Iran that could change the security environment in enduring ways.


[1] Guyer, Jonathan. "The Arab World and the Israel-Palestine Conflict." October 14th, 2023. Vox. https://www.vox.com/world-politics/2023/10/14/23914904/arab-world-israel-palestine-conflict-middle-east.

[2] United States Institute of Peace. "Timeline: U.S. Sanctions on Iran." June 6th, 2023. https://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/timeline-us-sanctions.

[3] Loft, Philip. Iran’s Influence in the Middle East. House of Commons Library. April 14th, 2023. https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9504/.

[4] Merrow, Will. Robinson, Kali. “Iran’s Regional Armed Network.” Council on Foreign Relations. January 31st, 2024. www.cfr.org/article/irans-regional-armed-network.

[5] "Israel's Military Capabilities Explained." Axios. October 21st, 2023. https://www.axios.com/2023/10/21/israel-military-capabilities-explained.

[6] Sewell, Abby, and Melanie Lidman. “Israel and Lebanon Are Prepping for a War Neither Wants, but Many Fear It’s Becoming Inevitable.” AP News. February 1st, 2024. apnews.com/article/israel-lebanon-hezbollah-war-preparedness-civilians-military-aafd7a0048dceb810456b93ceecf543c.

[7] "Israeli Strike Kills Five Hezbollah Fighters, Including senior member's son". Reuters. November 22nd, 2023. www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/least-four-killed-israeli-strike-south-lebanon-sources-2023-11-22/.

[8] Keating, Joshua. “All the Tangled Conflicts in the Middle East, Explained.” Vox. February 6th, 2024. www.vox.com/world-politics/2024/2/6/24062589/middle-east-conflicts-explained-israel-hamas-iran.

[9] Arraf, Jane. “Why Hezbollah and Israel Haven’t Plunged into All-out War.” NPR. December 19th, 2023. www.npr.org/2023/12/19/1219748268/lebanon-hezbollah-israel-hamas-iran-war.

[10] Keating, Joshua. “How a Yemeni Rebel Group Is Creating Chaos in the Global Economy.” Vox, Dec 21st, 2023, www.vox.com/world-politics/24010092/houthis-red-sea-shipping-yemen-israel-gaza.

[11] Associated Press. "Biden on Israel, Saudi Arabia, Normalization, and Hamas." October 10th, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/biden-israel-saudi-arabia-normalization-hamas-246213034afa75e4dff27e71362a1979.

[12] France-Presse, A. Iran slams normalization with Israel as “reactionary.” Voice of America. October 1st, 2023. https://www.voanews.com/a/iran-slams-normalization-with-israel-as-reactionary/7292434.html#:~:text=Iranian%20President%20Ebrahim%20Raisi%20denounced,as%20%22reactionary%20and%20regressive.%22