“We kiss the foreheads and the arms of the shrewd and astute planners and the courageous Palestinian youth.”
On Oct. 10, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed his unambivalent support for Hamas’ attack against Israel. Yet he swiftly repudiated any Iranian involvement, claiming, “Those who attribute the acts of the Palestinians to outsiders fail to understand the Palestinian people. They have underestimated them.” Khamenei’s remarks perfectly encapsulate Iran’s stance on the war in Gaza over the past month: championing Palestinian “resistance” against Israel while concurrently underscoring the autonomy of Hamas and other “resistance movements.” Indeed, both U.S. and Israeli authorities have, so far, found no concrete evidence linking Iran directly to the attack. Yet Iran’s extensive military, economic, and political backing for Hamas is widely acknowledged.
At the same time, Khamenei and other Iranian officials have been warning both Israel and its allies that their actions in Gaza could trigger escalation. Against this backdrop, there have already been increased hostilities between Israel and Hizballah along the Lebanese border, as well as rocket strikes against the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from Syrian territories. Meanwhile, Iranian-supported militias in Iraq have escalated their operations against U.S. assets. In less than a month, between Oct. 17 and Nov. 13, there have been 52 recorded incidents targeting U.S. entities in both countries. Finally, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels of Yemen have also proclaimed their participation in the conflict, launching missile and drone attacks targeting southern Israel.
Understanding the risk of escalation across the axis of resistance requires understanding its internal dynamics. There is growing reason to believe that the axis has transformed into a cohesive alliance network, balancing autonomous actions with strategic coordination to strengthen the members’ collective stance. Its members have established a flexible command network that allows for dynamic role allocation. Now, they are trying to use this network to preserve Hamas’ military capabilities while avoiding a direct confrontation with the United States. It remains an open question, however, whether even a cohesive and well-synchronized axis can manage this difficult feat.
Unification of the Arenas: From Idea to Reality
Traditionally, Iranian leadership has highlighted the importance of cohesion and unity within the axis. A notable example was Khamenei’s call, in a June 2023 meeting with senior Hamas representatives, for “greater unity and coordination among resistance groups.” He underscored Gaza’s centrality in the resistance but simultaneously accentuated the need for fortifying the West Bank front. Media channels and websites affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps also began to delineate the possibility of a “multi-front war” against Israel. Both Gaza and the West Bank would be primary theaters of conflict, but with the added support of other Iranian-backed factions in the region.
Roughly a month prior to the Hamas-initiated assault, on Sept. 10, Maj. Gen. Abbas Nilforoushan, the deputy chief of operations of the Revolutionary Guard, discussed the existence of an “integrated command and control network in the resistance front.” While this network’s existence wasn’t characterized as a recent development, it marked the first instance where an Iranian military official of such stature openly called for going further toward what has been termed “the unification of the arenas.”
Within the strategic discourse of the Islamic Republic and its allies, this strategy refers to a campaign of preparatory and synchronized undertakings to combat Israel by highlighting Iran’s multi-front response capacity. It focuses on enhancing operational coordination among the non-state militant groups within the axis of resistance and expanding the battleground to encircle Israel. It is intended to counter Israel’s “Campaign Between the Wars” and is influenced by the 2021 Saif al-Quds war. The campaign envisions four primary fronts: the Gaza Strip (southern front), the West Bank (central front near major Israeli cities), southern Lebanon (northern front), anchored by Lebanese Hizballah, and the Golan Heights (eastern and northeastern front), also managed by Hizballah.
From the vantage point of Iranian military experts and security analysts, the latest Gaza conflict offered a test for the unification of the arenas blueprint. Crucial to this effort is the “joint operations room” of the axis, which was created after the death of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. While alive, Soleimani exerted overarching control over the axis within a clear hierarchical setup. His demise initially led to a decentralization within the axis. But to ensure continued coordination, the Quds Force, in collaboration with Hizballah, gradually established a joint operations room. Subsequent events highlighted Hizballah’s enhanced function in recruiting, training, and commanding Iranian-backed militias in Syria, as well as Nasrallah’s prominent part in mediating among various Shia factions within Iraq. This reinforced his central position in directing the operations of the axis of resistance factions. Some even posit that Nasrallah’s influence might now overshadow that of Maj. Gen. Esmail Qaani, who presently heads the Quds Force.
This joint operations room consists of three operational echelons. The Palestinian territories, where Iranian-backed Palestinian factions, particularly Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, operate, form the foundational tier. These factions showcased their coordination through a military drill in January 2021 called Rukn al-Shadid. Hizballah constitutes the second tier, responsible for liaising with the Palestinian factions, alongside its broader task of co-managing the whole structure. The third tier incorporates Iranian-backed militias in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
There’s little information about the precise structure of the joint operations room. Nevertheless, Qaani and Nasrallah are said to co-direct this hub, which involves regular meetings with representatives from the Palestinian, Iraqi, and Yemeni factions that Iran supports. While Beirut is the primary venue for the meetings, recent weeks have seen reports of Qaani attending coordination meetings in Syria as well. Within the broader framework of the axis of resistance’s command structure, there are also at least two local operations rooms. One focuses on Palestinian militias with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad at its core. The other comprises Shia militias in Iraq, known collectively as the “Islamic Resistance in Iraq,” which recently assumed responsibility for attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq and Syria.
Deterrence Amid War: How the Axis Works on the Ground
The actions and responses of Iranian-backed militias during the Gaza war show how this structure works in practice. The joint room abides by principles like deterrence via limited engagements, ambiguity in retaliation, collective actions during critical security periods, and task allocation based on threats. Despite having relative operational autonomy, the factions that make up the axis of resistance can align during emergencies applying the principles of “ambiguity” and “risk distribution.” This strategic posture exploits the potential to open new battlefronts against Israel, thereby enhancing the network’s deterrence capability.
Palestinian militias, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are on the front lines, directly combating Israel. Contrary to some prior speculations, there’s evident coordination between those groups. While Gaza remains a primary battleground, the West Bank was also supposed to be part of this front; however, Iranian-backed militias still have limited influence there. Since Iran would be wary of engaging Israel without having a stronghold in the West Bank, this adds some evidence to the idea that Hamas’ recent attacks might have been a unilateral decision.
Since the conflict began, Lebanon’s Hizballah has taken swift action to alleviate the pressure on Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In this context, southern Lebanon and southern Syria operate as a unified front under Hizballah’s command. The frequent missile attacks from these regions aim to divert Israel’s focus to the north, seeking to hinder its efforts to target Hamas in Gaza. Hizballah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, elaborated on this strategy in a speech he delivered on Nov. 2, emphasizing the role of this front in supporting the Palestinian militias.
Another layer of Iran’s strategy encompasses Shia militias in Iraq, eastern Syria, and Yemen. While both entities have occasionally targeted Israel directly, their rhetoric primarily identifies the United States as the principal adversary. This stance is strategically designed to deter the United States from retaliating against Iran in the event of a direct conflict with Israel.
Discussions in Iran have revolved around the potential for Israel to provoke Tehran into a direct confrontation. In such a scenario, there’s an understanding that the United States would fully back Israel. For the Islamic Republic, a face-off with America poses an existential threat, something they are keen to evade. Furthermore, if Hizballah were to escalate too far against Israel to aid Hamas, there’s a likelihood the United States might intervene. The Islamic Republic is wary of any significant U.S. action against Hizballah, as this might compromise its pivotal regional ally.
In short, coordination with other regional militias is intended to deter the United States. By raising the stakes for American involvement in the region, Iran hopes it can push the U.S. administration to push Israel into revising its stance on Hamas. Meanwhile, intermittent attacks by groups from Iraq and Yemen serve as a reminder of their ability to escalate. Finally, rhetoric from Iran and Hizballah is aimed at reinforcing this deterrence. Nasrallah and Khamenei have both made statements suggesting they are ready for conflict with the United States, even though they prefer to avoid it. Nasrallah has warned that U.S. naval forces and regional bases could become targets should the conflict in Gaza intensify. Meanwhile, Khamenei has labeled the United States as an “unquestionable accomplice of Zionist crimes,” indirectly alerting Washington of the potential repercussions of its backing for Israel.
The aftermath of Hamas’ attack has demonstrated the axis’ ability to join independent operations with strategic synchronization. This makes it a multifaceted and formidable entity. From an operational standpoint, the joint operations room or the integrated command network has effectively crafted a nuanced, tiered structure for the axis members. Even though initial operational roles were established, on-ground task distribution remains fluid, adjusting according to ever-evolving wartime circumstances. This would suggest the existence of a consistent review mechanism to decide the intervention magnitude for each faction.
Ultimately, the axis of resistance prioritizes thwarting any potential U.S. involvement. The optimal outcome for Iran and its allies would be to limit the conflict in order to constrain Israel’s ground operations and preserve Hamas’ military capacity. This strategy hinges on maintaining strategic ambiguity and persistently challenging Israel on diverse fronts. Hizballah and, to a lesser degree, Iraqi and Houthi partners are currently prioritizing this confrontation.
But despite their posturing, it is not certain whether Hizballah and other axis factions would escalate should Hamas suffer substantial damages. Deterrence is a risky proposition, and there is a contradiction between threatening escalation to help Hamas and avoiding a direct conflict with the United States. As Israel continues to degrade Hamas, some senior members of the group are voicing their expectations for greater support from Hizballah and Iran. In Iran, there are voices, like former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who warn about Iran getting dragged into a war for the sake of the Palestinians. Hizballah also seems to be wary of drawing Lebanon into a full-scale war that would result in domestic backlash. Tehran, for its part, may also be hesitant to risk its paramount ally in Lebanon through a direct confrontation with the United States.
Currently, the axis members seem to regard time as an ally, anticipating that growing global disapproval of the Israeli campaign in Gaza will pressure Israel into a ceasefire without completely undermining Hamas. Should this strategy fail, the axis likely plans any escalation to be incremental, eschewing a full-scale offensive or a comprehensive declaration of war by Hizballah. Step-by-step escalation could serve to measure the other side’s responses while maintaining the option to recalibrate and avert an unmanageable crisis. But even this approach does not rule out the possibility of a dangerous miscalculation at a critical juncture.