The 17-day-long conflict in Gaza highlighted the growing relationship between the IRGC and Hamas, as well as progress in the latter’s strategic and tactical planning. Tehran supplied weapons via subterranean smuggling routes, and the IRGC was much more public in its support to Hamas than ever before and claimed credit for any successful strikes and casualties.
Gaza remains at the forefront of Iran’s forward defense doctrine. Commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh boasted on January 2, “Gaza and Lebanon are on the frontlines of this war. Their missile capability has been possible due to the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said on January 12 while paying tribute to Qassem Soleimani that he “helped the Palestinians to stand up and resist.”
In his televised “victory” speech, Ismail Haniyeh thanked Iran, which “did not hold back with money, weapons and technical support.” On May 16, General Esmail Qaani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, telephoned Haniyeh. Qaani praised “the resistance forces’ perfect and successful performance in the face of the Israeli enemy.”
Despite this apparent IRGC-Hamas nexus, Tehran has tried to cover up its tracks through plausible deniability to avoid further sanctions while managing its overstretched footprint. Nonetheless, its financial support and supply lines to Hamas cannot be completely covert.
As mentioned, Gaza is perfect for Iran’s forward defense doctrine. Hence, Tehran has focused on boosting Hamas’s fighting capabilities to achieve its strategic interests. Since smuggling weapons is extremely risky, the Quds Force opted to transfer knowledge and develop production units in Gaza. As a result, the transfer of missile and rocket designs along with know-how bore some success for Iran. Even though Israel claims to have destroyed over two dozen missile assembly factories in Gaza, hundreds of projectiles and the parts of many others remained in clandestine warehouses. This production model resulted in the firing of a barrage of rockets into Israel with the Iron Dome defense system failing to intercept approximately 10 percent of them. From Hamas’s arsenal, Badr 3 was assessed by experts to be a copy of Iran’s al-Qasim but it lacks the various upgrades which the IRGC possesses. In addition, Hamas’s Shehab drone was viewed by them to be similar to the Houthi’s suicide UAV.
Iran’s stratagem of developing a local knowledge base in Gaza has several advantages. Firstly, not only does it end the risk of supply lines being disrupted by law enforcement agencies but also ends logistical headaches and minimizes costs. Secondly, locally sourced materials for producing cheap rockets can lead to rapid customization and a plentiful supply line at the same time. Thirdly, Tehran can also evade the blame for supplying weapons and materials, hence shifting focus away from local production units.
However, Iran’s plan to evade the blame game has not fooled regional powers and the international community. For example, Hamas’s use of a missile with a range of 250 kilometers bore Iran’s fingerprint, and its drone factory – allegedly supplying UAVs to Hamas as well as other militants – was targeted in a bomb explosion.
The blast at the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA), which produces a variety of aircraft and drones left many injured in Isfahan. The sabotage may be the first since the Israel-Hamas ceasefire but it will definitely not be the last.
Iran finds it challenging to mask its military engagement with Hamas. Hence, layer by layer the cloak of plausible deniability will disappear. Israel will directly hold Iran responsible for any aggression against its territories. It will not be quiet about preempting Hamas’s actions, and eliminating its threat. As much as Tel Aviv will spend on replenishing and upgrading its air defenses and human intelligence in Gaza, Tehran will invest in Hamas’s ability to access commercially available parts and materials. Even though the missiles and rockets will be produced in local units, the cost of defense for Tel Aviv will continue to increase. Israel’s punitive action against Iran may increase if it reaches a fresh nuclear deal with Washington.