ran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered a clear message to the head of Hamas Ismail Haniyeh when they met in Tehran in early November, according to three senior officials.
According to Iranian and Hamas officials with knowledge of the discussions who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely, Khamenei said to the head of Hamas that the group gave Iran no warning of “your Oct. 7 attack on Israel and we will not enter the war on your behalf.”
The supreme leader said that Iran – a longtime backer of Hamas – would continue to lend the group its political and moral support, but wouldn’t intervene directly.
A Hamas official told Reuters that Khamenei pressed Haniyeh to silence those voices in the Palestinian group publicly calling for Iran and its powerful Lebanese ally Hezbollah to join the battle against Israel in full force.
Hezbollah, too, was taken by surprise by Hamas’ devastating assault last month that killed 1,200 Israelis.
Its fighters were not even on alert in villages near the border that were frontlines in its 2006 war with Israel and had to be rapidly called up, three sources close to the Lebanese group said.
“We woke up to a war,” said a Hezbollah commander.
The unfolding crisis marks the first time that the so-called Axis of Resistance – a military alliance built by Iran over four decades to oppose Israeli and American power in the Middle East – has mobilised on multiple fronts at the same time.
Hezbollah has engaged in the heaviest clashes with Israel for almost 20 years.
Iran-backed militias have targeted U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, just as Yemen’s Houthis have launched missiles and drones at Israel.
The conflict is also testing the limits of the regional coalition whose members – which include the Syrian government, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other militant groups from Iraq to Yemen – have differing priorities and domestic challenges.
Mohanad Hage Ali, an expert on Hezbollah at the Carnegie Middle East Center think-tank in Beirut, said Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault on Israel had left its axis partners facing tough choices in confronting an adversary with far superior firepower.
“When you wake up the bear with such an attack, it’s quite difficult for your allies to stand in the same position as you.”
Hamas, the ruling group of Gaza, is fighting for its survival against an avenging Israel, which vows to wipe it out and has launched a retaliatory onslaught on the tiny enclave that’s killed more than 11,000 Palestinians.
On Oct. 7, Hamas’ military commander Mohammed Deif called on its axis allies to join the struggle.
“Our brothers in the Islamic resistance in Lebanon, Iran, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, this is the day when your resistance unites with your people in Palestine,” he said in an audio message.
Hints of frustration surfaced in subsequent public statements by Hamas leaders including Khaled Meshaal, who in an Oct. 16 TV interview thanked Hezbollah for its actions thus far but said “the battle requires more”.
Nonetheless, alliance leader Iran won’t directly intervene in the conflict unless it is itself attacked by Israel or the United States, according to six officials with direct knowledge of Tehran’s thinking who declined to be named due to the sensitive nature of the matter.
Instead, Iran’s clerical rulers plan to continue using their axis network of armed allies, including Hezbollah, to launch rocket and drone attacks on Israeli and American targets across the Middle East, the officials said.
The strategy is a calibrated effort to demonstrate solidarity for Hamas in Gaza and stretch Israeli forces without becoming engaged in a direct confrontation with Israel that could draw in the United States, they added.
“This is their way of trying to create deterrence,” said Dennis Ross, a former senior U.S. diplomat specialising in the Middle East who now works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think-tank.
“A way of saying: ‘Look as long as you don’t attack us, this is the way it will remain. But if you attack us, everything changes’.”
Iran has repeatedly said that all members of the alliance make their own decisions independently.
The Iranian foreign ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment about its response to the crisis and the role of the Axis of Resistance, a term of disputed origin that has been used by Iranian officials to describe the coalition.
Hamas didn’t immediately respond to questions sent to Haniyeh’s media adviser, while Hezbollah also didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.