Treading a Fine Line: Iran and the Israel–Gaza War

Axis of resistance: Hizbullah in Lebanon is part of a network of groups supported by Iran across the Middle East. Image: dpa picture alliance / Alamy

After initial speculation around Iranian involvement in the Hamas attacks, Tehran is coming under increasing pressure over how to respond to the conflict.

From the moment Hamas attacked Israel, Iran has been extremely vocal, praising the assault and warning Israel and the US of reprisals for military action. However, while initially seen as a beneficiary of the events, the pressure on Iran is now starting to mount.

After the events of 7 October there was immediate speculation over Iranian involvement, with evidence soon surfacing of meetings between Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas. Iran has long viewed Israel as its greatest regional threat, and vice versa. Israel has been involved in a number of successful security operations against Iran, while the Islamic Republic does not recognise the State of Israel. In 2005, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously gave a speech that was translated as saying Israel ‘should be wiped off the map’.

In addition, the Islamic Republic has made supporting Palestinians a key pillar of its foreign policy. As a result, Hamas has long been backed by Tehran, both for its cause and as part of a network of groups across the Middle East that forms an ‘axis of resistance’ against the US, Israel and its allies. Consequently, over many years, Iran has provided funding, equipment and expertise to help Hamas develop its capabilities.

Iran, Initially a Beneficiary of the War

Part of the immediate rationale for Iranian involvement in the attack was that Iran could be seen as a beneficiary of the horrific events. Firstly, Hamas had shattered the illusion of the invincibility of Iran’s archnemesis. In recent years, Israel’s military and intelligence capability, along with its vast defence spending and veil of protection from the sophisticated Iron Dome missile defence system, had created the idea of an unbeatable foe. However, the events of 7 October exposed a number of Israeli weaknesses which have been celebrated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They have used the events in their own propaganda to place further doubt on Israeli capability and to boost their own morale.

Iran will not want to risk any major escalation that would force a decision about direct military involvement

Secondly, the events have diverted attention away from Iran’s borders. As the region had begun to look increasingly peaceful, there was a further focus on Iran’s rising nuclear threat, human rights record, and destabilising activities across the Middle East. However, effort and resources have now been refocused towards the west of the region. Last week, for example, the expiration of UN sanctions on Iranian ballistic missiles went largely unreported.

Thirdly, the attacks have put a halt to any normalisation negotiations between Iran’s archenemy Israel and its regional rival Saudi Arabia. Israel has been slowly building up relations with its neighbours, culminating in the 2020 Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain. More recently, conversations have been progressing with Saudi Arabia, with which Iran made its own deal to restore relations earlier this year. However, reigniting the conflict between Israel and Palestinians has caused a snapback reaction by some Arab states and has temporarily derailed Israeli-Saudi negotiations. All Arab countries have issued statements condemning Israeli airstrikes, and the King of Jordan even cancelled a meeting with US President Joe Biden and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in protest against Israeli military activities.

The Rising Pressure on Tehran

However, despite the original speculation around Iranian involvement in the Hamas attacks and the initial benefits to Iran, Tehran quickly denied any participation, and the US has since declared there to be no evidence of direct Iranian involvement in the events of 7 October. Furthermore, as the conflict progresses, Iranian officials are coming under increasing pressure. In particular, Iran needs to demonstrate ongoing support for its Hamas and Hizbullah allies, but will find it ever more difficult to provide weaponry, both as logistics become more challenging in the conflict zones and because of the balancing act between arming these – and other – groups, honouring arms deals with Russia, and maintaining its own defensive capabilities and military arsenal.

Iran will also not want to risk any major escalation that would force a decision about direct military involvement. Iran’s strategy has always been to provide ‘forward defence’ through its proxy groups and to follow a policy of maximum tactical flexibility, with provocation that hovers on the threshold of confrontation without spilling into outright war. However, if the war spreads, the Islamic Republic’s options and flexibility will rapidly decrease, and as tensions rise, so does the risk that provocative activity will lead to miscalculation and escalation.

While the destruction of Hamas would significantly weaken Iran’s regional strategy, supporting Hamas in the long term may prove even more costly

Finally, Iranian focus on the Israel–Hamas war will cause further tensions domestically. The country has seen significant unrest in recent months, with the public more concerned about Iran’s flailing economy, returning social restrictions and crackdowns on protests. In particular, anti-government protests have regularly featured the chant ‘Neither Gaza nor Lebanon. I sacrifice my life for Iran’ in response to concerns over the use of government funds to support Hamas and Hizbullah, so Iranian focus in this area is likely to cause further unrest.

As a result, Iran has some difficult decisions to make over the coming weeks and months. While the pressure around Iranian nuclear activity and Israel’s normalisation of its regional relations may have somewhat reduced, this is only temporary. In addition, while the destruction of Hamas would significantly weaken Iran’s regional strategy, supporting Hamas in the long term may prove even more costly.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Louise Kettle FRHistS

Associate Fellow; Assistant Professor of International Relations, University of Nottingham

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