October 07, 2023

Iran Update Special Edition, October 7, 2023

Hamas has launched a surprise ground and air attack into Israel, marking the most significant escalation between the two sides in decades. Hundreds of Hamas fighters crossed from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory and attacked nearby border posts, military sites, and residential areas on October 7.[i] The group also launched a series of large-scale rocket attacks from the strip into Israeli territory throughout the day.[ii] This operation has injured and killed hundreds of Israeli civilians thus far.[iii] Israeli leaders have responded by describing the attack as an act of war and have given every indication that they will respond decisively.[iv] Previous Israeli response patterns suggest that Israel would likely conduct a ground operation into the Gaza Strip meant to rout Hamas completely. Hamas leaders almost certainly considered this strong possibility when planning their attack. But they have no reason to believe that they could successfully defend against such an operation, given the relative strength of the Israeli military. This observation raises the question: what is Hamas’ theory of victory? This special edition explores three possible explanations—none of which are mutually exclusive—that may be driving Hamas’ current actions.

1. Hamas leaders may expect the conflict that they have ignited to expand to include other Palestinian militias as well as Iran and its so-called “Axis of Resistance.” Iranian leaders use this term—the Axis of Resistance—to describe their international partner system of state, semi-state, and non-state actors.[v] This coalition includes Lebanese Hezbollah, Syria’s Bashar al Assad regime, Yemen’s Houthi movement, and myriad militias operating in Bahrain, Iraq, Palestine, and Syria, all of which Iran supports financially, materially, and politically.[vi] Other Iranian-backed Palestinian militias have expressed their readiness to join the fight against Israel, but there are no indications at this time that non-Palestinian members of the Axis of Resistance are involved in the conflict.[vii] The Axis of Resistance is nevertheless well-positioned to intervene if its leaders chose to do so given its military footprints in Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank. In fact, encircling Israel has been one of the key motivations for Iran’s extensive investment in supporting proxy and partner militias in these locations.[viii]

The fact that Hamas launched its operation on the anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War lends credence to the possibility that it expects support from others against Israel. One of the key features of that war was that Egypt’s surprise attack heralded a multi-front war.

2. Hamas may have based its current operation on Iranian leaders’ thinking about defeating Israel. Major General Hossein Salami—the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—presented in August 2022 the most explicit articulation from an Iranian official yet on how to destroy Israel.[ix] Salami downplayed the role of drones and missiles and instead argued for Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian militias to conduct more ground operations and urban combat inside Israel. Salami asserted that such activities would generate internal displacement and sow chaos, which would ultimately destabilize Israel and lead to its decline. Hamas’ decision to conduct a ground attack into Israel and how it went about doing so are noteworthy in this context. The group indiscriminately killed, abused, and abducted civilians in the towns its fighters reached and posted images and videos of the acts online, likely in part to instill terror among Israelis.[x]

3. Hamas may have sought to disrupt the US-led negotiations to normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The attack into Israel has understandably focused international attention once again on Israel-Palestine dynamics. The Saudi Foreign Affairs Ministry released a statement on October 7 advocating for the Palestinian cause and affirming Riyadh’s support for a two-state solution.[xi] This attack and whatever fallout ensues will likely complicate the normalization talks and could delay or even disrupt them.

One of the most dangerous courses of action Iran could pursue would be to exploit Israeli focus on the Gaza Strip in some way in the coming days and weeks. Iranian leaders will almost certainly look for opportunities to take advantage of the conflict even if they did not direct it. Iran could exploit Israeli distraction by moving advanced military systems into Lebanon and Syria or making significant advances in its nuclear program. This scenario is less likely than others at the moment, but it warrants consideration because it could set conditions for even more significant escalations or geopolitical changes. Incidents like Hamas’ attack no longer remain confined to the immediate area in which they occur. Each now carries the potential to grow into a larger phenomenon with ripple effects throughout the Middle East and even beyond.

The US and its allies must remain vigilant against the danger that Iran and its partners may seek to expand the crisis caused by the Hamas attacks on Israel and must avoid the tendency to become narrowly focused on Gaza and the immediate Israeli response to this attack. Iran has been pursuing an offensive strategy in the Middle East aimed at expelling the United States, among many other things, for years, as CTP has previously assessed.[xii] The October 7 Hamas attack could be a part of that larger effort.

[i] https://www.almanar dot com.lb/11001157

[ii] https://apnews.com/article/israel-palestinians-gaza-hamas-rockets-airstrikes-tel-aviv-11fb98655c256d54ecb5329284fc37d2

[iii] https://abcnews.go.com/International/live-updates/israel-gaza-hamas/?id=103804516

[iv] https://www.cnn.com/2023/10/07/middleeast/sirens-israel-rocket-attack-gaza-intl-hnk/index.html; https://twitter.com/JoeTruzman/status/1710726426931175463

[v] https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/pivot-to-offense-how-iran-is-adapting-for-modern-conflict-and-warfare/

[vi] https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR4231.html

[vii] https://t.me/sarayaps/16152; and https://t.me/areennabluss/280

[viii] https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/pivot-to-offense-how-iran-is-adapting-for-modern-conflict-and-warfare/

[ix] http://farsi.khamenei dot ir/others-dialog?id=50786

[x] https://nypost.com/2023/10/07/horrifying-videos-show-hamas-terrorist-invasion-of-israel/

[xi] https://x.com/ksamofa/status/1710604311703466451?s=46&t=SOgF7XQTnfAAhf_EGq1zPA

[xii] https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/pivot-to-offense-how-iran-is-adapting-for-modern-conflict-and-warfare/