Suspicion over Iran's role in Hamas attack may linger for years

Suspicion over Iran's role in Hamas attack may linger for years
The question of whether Iran was involved at any level in this month’s deadly attack on Israel may not be conclusively answered for years.

But the suspicion is likely to linger until the truth is found, if ever.

Until then, analysts told The National, intelligence specialists across much of the world will keep busy trying to gauge how much Iran could get involved in the conflict going forward, and how far it would push its proxies across the region to fight, all while Israel continues its relentless air strikes against Gaza.

It’s become common to see Iran's involvement in most of the region’s trouble spots, from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Yemen, but Tehran is rarely caught red-handed.

The October 7 attack by Hamas militants that killed hundreds of Israelis is a case in point. Iran is Hamas’s closest ally and is believed to have helped the militant Gaza-based group improve the range and accuracy of missile attacks on Israel. Military advisers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are believed to have regularly trained Hamas fighters in Lebanon or Syria. And many of Hamas’s senior leaders reside in Iran or are frequent visitors there.

Iran has welcomed Hamas’s deadly incursion into southern Israel but denied involvement in the attack that gave Israel the bloodiest day in its 75-year history.

Deepening the vexation about Iran’s covert operations, according to the analysts, are two things: It is rarely directly involved in confrontations with its enemies and it has a track record showing a taste for revenge that’s often belated or served in unlikely places.

In the 2008-09 Israel-Gaza war, Israeli troops invaded the Gaza Strip after Hamas fired rockets at the city of Sderot. At the time, a senior western intelligence official said privately that part of Hamas’s motive in igniting that war was revenge, but not for one of its own.

It was revenge for the killing of Imad Mughniyeh, a top operative of Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah and one of Tehran’s most valuable Arab assets. He was killed in 2008 in Damascus by a suspected CIA-Mossad operation, the official told The National this week.

“It is not a secret that the Iranians rarely respond directly,” said the official, who has since left the security agency.

Notably, Mughniyeh is believed to have played a crucial role in developing Hamas’s military and intelligence capabilities.

Iran has since the 1979 revolution gained significant influence across the Middle East.

Influenced and backed by Tehran, albeit to varying degrees, are powerful non-state players like Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthis and Hamas.

In post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, Tehran has had strong leverage over the successive Shiite-led governments that came to power since 2003 as well as well-armed and combat-seasoned Shiite militias.

Iran’s support for the government of President Bashar Al Assad in Syria’s civil war has given it vast influence there and proved instrumental in the Syrian leader’s fight against rebels.

Aside from the level or existence at all of Iranian involvement in the October 7 attack, the world’s attention is now focused on preventing a wider conflict with consequences that could be disastrous for the region and beyond.

Iran is seen as a likely instigator of such escalations with Israel threatening to launch a ground offensive which it says will wipe out Hamas. And it is non-state players like Hezbollah and Iranian-aligned groups in Syria who are the likely perpetrators.

Washington is not taking this prospect lightly.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CBS this week that Washington has had back-channel talks with Iran in recent days to warn it against escalating the conflict.

In Baghdad, a senior Iraqi diplomat and an influential politician told The National that Washington sent a message to Iran through the UN and Qatar in the early days of the Gaza war asking that it counsels Hezbollah against igniting Israel’s northern front.

While visiting Qatar last week, according to the Iraqi politician, Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told his hosts that Hezbollah will strike Israel and anyone that comes to its aid if needed.

There have been no major hostilities so far between Hezbollah and Israel across the Lebanese border. Israeli positions at the Golan Heights came under attack by Iranian-backed groups on the Syrian side of the plateau, but they were limited in scope and effect.

Mr Amirabdollahian said Tehran was considering closing the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf if the US intervened in the war to back Israel.

It could just be rhetoric befitting a senior Iranian official whose country’s declared goal of Israel’s destruction is a pillar of its political discourse.

But Tehran also sends out mixed messages.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi last week called Sheikh Tamim of Qatar, a US ally who maintains close ties with Tehran. Neither Doha nor Tehran divulged details of their discussion, but Mr Amirabdollahian held a publicised meeting with Hamas leader Ismail Hanyah the same day he met the Qatari ruler.

The two agreed to “continue co-operation”, while Amirabdollahian praised the attack on Israel as a “historic victory” amid its occupation of Palestine.

Iran could mainly be wanting to project power, said Maamoun Abu Nawar, one of Jordan’s top military experts, about Tehran's strategy.

The Golan Heights and Lebanon fronts will remain at “tit for tat” levels of violence, he said.

“Iran is definitely not spoiling for a fight,” said Hoda Raouf, a political science lecturer and an expert on Iran from Egypt’s New Giza University. “Generally, Iran avoids direct military confrontations and relies on its proxies in the region to provoke and create tension with Israel.

“It goes to great lengths to distance itself from direct involvement,” she told The National.

That view is echoed by Jordanian political science professor Hassan Al Momani, who believes that Iran is at pains to avoid military confrontation with the US which has moved an aircraft carrier strike group to the East Mediterranean as a deterrent to anyone pondering entering the Gaza conflict.

“Iran is managing the situation pragmatically. There is a tacit agreement with Israel on the rules of the game,” said Mr Al Momani of the University of Jordan.

“I don’t think there will be an open war. An Iranian response will also remain limited from Lebanon and Syria,” he said, cautioning that his views would only hold if Israel does not advance too deep into Gaza in the event of a ground offensive.

On the face of it, Iran’s restraint appears commendable, although it is inspired in part by protecting its own interests.

“If it becomes known that Iran is directly involved in the Gaza war, that will give legitimacy to any retaliatory action by Israel,” said Ms Raouf.

Its economy crushed by US and other sanctions, Iran is also experiencing a period of quiet in its often-fraught relations with Washington, something that was evidenced when it freed five US nationals from its jails last month in exchange for the release of $6 billion of its frozen funds.

But Iran, says a senior Syrian opposition official with an intelligence brief, may not be only concerned with projecting power in the region given the attacks its allies and its own commanders have suffered over the years at the hands of Israel or the US.

“It is a mistake to think that Iran is only eying strategic gains from the war,” he said.

“Look at all the hits they have taken in the last several years: their proteges in Syria are constantly targeted, Qassem Suleimani killed and there are also the US sanctions,” he said, referring to Gen. Suleimani, a top Revolutionary Guard commander killed in Baghdad in 2020 by a missile fired from a US drone.

“It may also want revenge.”

It can get worse if Iran is found to have been involved in the October 7 attack.

“If Iran is found to be involved in the attack or in a possible wider conflict, that will change the political landscape for the Biden’s administration and create pressure on it to act,” said Michael Hanna, the New York-based director of the US programme in the International Crisis Group.

“Determining whether Iran was involved in the October 7 attack has become a high priority for the US intelligence community,” he warned. 
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