DUBAI—Iranian security officials helped plan Hamas’s Saturday surprise attack on Israel and gave the green light for the assault at a meeting in Beirut last Monday, according to senior members of Hamas and Hezbollah, another Iran-backed militant group.
Officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had worked with Hamas since August to devise the air, land and sea incursions—the most significant breach of Israel’s borders since the 1973 Yom Kippur War—those people said.
Details of the operation were refined during several meetings in Beirut attended by IRGC officers and representatives of four Iran-backed militant groups, including Hamas, which holds power in Gaza, and Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group and political faction in Lebanon, they said.
U.S. officials say they haven’t seen evidence of Tehran’s involvement. In an interview with CNN that aired Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “We have not yet seen evidence that Iran directed or was behind this particular attack, but there is certainly a long relationship.”
“We don’t have any information at this time to corroborate this account,” said a U.S. official of the meetings.
A European official and an adviser to the Syrian government, however, gave the same account of Iran’s involvement in the lead-up to the attack as the senior Hamas and Hezbollah members.
Asked about the meetings, Mahmoud Mirdawi, a senior Hamas official, said the group planned the attacks on its own. “This is a Palestinian and Hamas decision,” he said.
A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations said the Islamic Republic stood in support of Gaza’s actions but didn’t direct them.
“The decisions made by the Palestinian resistance are fiercely autonomous and unwaveringly aligned with the legitimate interests of the Palestinian people,” the spokesman said. “We are not involved in Palestine’s response, as it is taken solely by Palestine itself.”
A direct Iranian role would take Tehran’s long-running conflict with Israel out of the shadows, raising the risk of broader conflict in the Middle East. Senior Israeli security officials have pledged to strike at Iran’s leadership if Tehran is found responsible for killing Israelis.
The IRGC’s broader plan is to create a multi-front threat that can strangle Israel from all sides—Hezbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the north and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, according to the senior Hamas and Hezbollah members and an Iranian official.
At least 700 Israelis are confirmed dead, and Saturday’s assault has punctured the country’s aura of invincibility and left Israelis questioning how their vaunted security forces could let this happen.
Israel has blamed Iran, saying it is behind the attacks, if indirectly. “We know that there were meetings in Syria and in Lebanon with other leaders of the terror armies that surround Israel so obviously it’s easy to understand that they tried to coordinate. The proxies of Iran in our region, they tried to be coordinated as much as possible with Iran,” Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, said Sunday.
Hamas has publicly acknowledged receiving support from Iran. And on Sunday, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi talked to Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah and Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.
Iran has been setting aside other regional conflicts, such as its open feud with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, to devote the IRGC’s foreign resources toward coordinating, financing and arming militias antagonistic to Israel, including Hamas and Hezbollah, the senior Hamas and Hezbollah members said.
The U.S. and Israel have designated Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations.
“We are now free to focus on the Zionist entity,” the Iranian official said. “They are now very isolated.”
The strike was intended to hit Israel while it appeared distracted by internal political divisions over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. It was also aimed at disrupting accelerating U.S.-brokered talks to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel that Iran saw as threatening, the senior Hamas and Hezbollah members said.
Building on peace deals with Egypt and Jordan, expanding Israeli ties with Gulf Arab states could create a chain of American allies linking three key choke points of global trade—the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Bab Al Mandeb connecting the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea, said Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“That’s very bad news for Iran,” Ibish said. “If they could do this, the strategic map changes dramatically to Iran’s detriment.”
Leading the effort to wrangle Iran’s foreign proxies under a unified command has been Ismail Qaani, the leader of the IRGC’s international military arm, the Quds Force.
Qaani launched coordination among several militias surrounding Israel in April during a meeting in Lebanon, The Wall Street Journal has reported, where Hamas began working more closely with other groups such as Hezbollah for the first time.
Around that time, Palestinian groups staged a rare set of limited strikes on Israel from Lebanon and Gaza, under the direction of Iran, said the Iranian official. “It was a roaring success,” the official said.
Iran has long backed Hamas but, as a Sunni Muslim group, it had been an outsider among Tehran’s Shia proxies until recent months, when cooperation among the groups accelerated.
Representatives of these groups have met with Quds Force leaders at least biweekly in Lebanon since August to discuss this weekend’s attack on Israel and what happens next, they said. Qaani has attended some of those meetings along with Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, Islamic Jihad leader al-Nakhalah, and Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas’s military chief, the militant-group members said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian attended at least two of the meetings, they said.
“An attack of such scope could only have happened after months of planning and would not have happened without coordination with Iran,” said Lina Khatib, director of the SOAS Middle East Institute at the University of London. “Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, does not single-handedly make decisions to engage in war without prior explicit agreement from Iran.”
The Palestinian and Lebanese militias’ ability to coordinate with Iran will be tested in the coming days as Israel’s response comes into focus.
Egypt, which is trying to mediate in the conflict, has warned Israeli officials that a ground invasion into Gaza would trigger a military response from Hezbollah, opening up a second battlefront, people familiar with the matter said. Israel and Hezbollah exchanged fire briefly on Sunday.
Hamas has called on Palestinians in the West Bank and Palestinian citizens of Israel to take up arms and join the fight. There have been limited clashes in the West Bank, but no reports of clashes between Arabs and Jews inside Israel, as happened in May 2021 when Israel and Gaza last engaged in extended combat.
The Iranian official said that if Iran were attacked, it would respond with missile strikes on Israel from Lebanon, Yemen and Iran, and send Iranian fighters into Israel from Syria to attack cities in the north and east of Israel.
Iran’s backing of a coordinated group of Arab militias is ominous for Israel. In previous conflicts, the Soviet Union was the ultimate patron of Israel’s Arab enemies and was always able to pressure them to reach some type of accommodation or recognize a red line, said Bernard Hudson, a former counterterrorism chief for the Central Intelligence Agency.
“The Soviets never considered Israel a permanent foe,” he said. “Iran’s leadership clearly does.”