Updated Oct 20, 2023 - World
Axios Explains

What to know about Iran's role in the Israel-Hamas war

Illustration of the Iranian flag surrounded by torn green and red pieces of paper.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Iran and the militant groups it backs are forcing Israel and the U.S. to contend with the possibility that the Israel-Hamas war could explode into a wider regional conflagration.

The big picture: President Biden's visit to Israel — paired with the movement of U.S. warships and aircraft into the region — was intended in part as a warning to Iran.

  • The White House has even discussed the possibility of U.S. military action if Iran-backed Hezbollah opens a second front in the war on the Israel-Lebanon border.

Driving the news: Already, the Lebanon-based militant group has fired dozens of rockets into Israel, which has responded with cross-border strikes of its own.

  • Israel is bracing for further escalation. The government on Friday announced the evacuation of the city of Kiryat Shmona near the Lebanon border.
  • Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has said Iran does not want further escalation but warned that if Israel's attacks continue to kill civilians in Gaza, its "axis of resistance" will open new fronts in the war, and could take "preemptive action" targeting Israel.

Zoom out: While Hezbollah poses the gravest direct threat to Israel, Iran-linked groups in Yemen, Iraq and Syria could also play a role in the conflict.

Our thought bubble: Without playing any direct role on the ground, Iran is seeking to create an atmosphere in which Israel and the U.S. must constantly be concerned about what it and its proxies might do next, Axios' Barak Ravid notes.

Iran and Hezbollah

The group has been closely tied to Iran since its founding in the wake of the 1982 Lebanon War, when its fighters — recruited from various Shiite factions that had resisted the Israeli invasion of Lebanon — were trained by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

  • In addition to its military force — which includes roughly 20,000 fighters and 30,000 reservists, per one recent estimate — Hezbollah is also a leading political player in Lebanon.
  • While hardly a peer to Israel's technologically advanced military, Hezbollah has large stockpiles of missiles and drones and many of its fighters have combat experience, including from the war in Syria.

Iran and Hamas

Tehran's operational links with Hamas are less clear-cut than its ties to Hezbollah. However, Amir-Abdollahian met with Hamas' political leader soon after the Oct. 7 terrorist attack and vowed to "continue cooperation to fully achieve the goals of Hamas and the Palestinian people."

  • The White House called Iran "complicit" in Hamas' Oct. 7 terrorist attack because it has provided the group with training, funding and support. But U.S. officials have said they have no evidence that Iran was involved in the planning or execution.
  • At the very least, funding and technological know-how from Iran have helped Hamas increase its own military capabilities.

Flare-ups across the region

U.S. forces conducted airstrikes on two facilities in eastern Syria used by groups linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Pentagon announced on Thursday.

  • Those strikes came in "response to a series of ongoing and mostly unsuccessful attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria" the Pentagon said. U.S. bases in both Iraq and Syria came under drone attacks last week.
  • "As a result of these attacks, one U.S. citizen contractor died from a cardiac incident while sheltering in place; 21 U.S. personnel suffered from minor injuries, but all have since returned to duty," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement.
  • "The United States does not seek conflict and has no intention nor desire to engage in further hostilities, but these Iranian-backed attacks against U.S. forces are unacceptable and must stop," Austin added.
  • The U.S. Navy last week also shot down missiles and drones fired by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, "potentially toward targets in Israel," the Pentagon said.

What to watch: Israeli leaders are now preparing for a prolonged campaign against Hamas. Iran and its allies may determine whether the war spreads far beyond Gaza — and potentially ensnares the U.S.

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