Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

Why Iran is Gambling on Hamas

| Nov. 01, 2023

Tehran's Strategy to Weaken Israel and Divide the Region

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.


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 guerrilla 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....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Tabaar, Mohammad Ayatollahi .“Why Iran is Gambling on Hamas.” Foreign Affairs, November 1, 2023.

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