June 19, 2024

The US intelligence community is digging through its stores of data and tasking the nation’s spy agencies to hunt for fresh clues to determine whether Iran played a direct role in Saturday’s deadly attack on Israel by Hamas, a senior Biden administration official said Tuesday.

Even as the US believes Iran is “complicit” in the attack, given its years of support to the Palestinian militant group, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday that the administration still does not have direct evidence linking Tehran to the planning and execution of the assault.

“We’re looking to acquire further intelligence,” Sullivan told reporters at the White House. “But as I stand here today, while Iran plays this broad role – sustained, deep and dark role in providing all of this support and capabilities to Hamas – in terms of this particular gruesome attack on October 7, we don’t currently have that information.”

Privately, multiple intelligence, military and congressional officials with access to classified intelligence tell CNN the same thing that Sullivan said publicly: No direct evidence has been found indicating Iran was directly involved.

“Waiting to see if we get a smoking gun in the intel,” said one military official.

Israeli intelligence is also going back and examining previous evidence, a senior Israeli official told CNN.

“I doubt that Iran had no knowledge whatsoever,” the official said. “We’ve seen meetings and we’ve seen the close coordination between them.”

US and Israeli intelligence had no advance warning of the attack – something US officials say is stunning given the scale of the assault – and now, the Biden administration is treading cautiously.

‘Where else would it have come from?’

Iran has for years been Hamas’ chief benefactor, providing it with tens of millions of dollars, weapons and components smuggled into Gaza, as well as broad technical and ideological support.

Hamas maintains a degree of independence from the Iranian regime. Tehran doesn’t have advisers on the ground in blockaded Gaza, according to former security officials and other regional analysts, and it doesn’t command the group’s activities.

But the unprecedented scale of the weekend’s attack – combined with analysts’ broad belief that Iran sees the attack as a net positive for its interests in the region – have fueled questions of whether Hamas could have pulled off such a sophisticated operation without direct Iranian assistance.

“We spend a lot of time and resources worrying about what Iran is doing and how to counter what Iran is doing,” a State Department official said. “This certainly opens up a new chapter in that discussion.”

In 2022, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said publicly that the group had received about $70 million from Iran that year and that it used the money to build rockets. A State Department report from 2020 found that Iran provided about $100 million annually to Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas.

Former US officials say there is little question the massive stockpile of weapons used in Saturday’s attack was acquired and assembled with help from Iran.

“Hamas didn’t build the guidance system and those missiles in Gaza,” said retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, the former commander of US Central Command. “They got them from somewhere. And the technology assistance to put it together certainly came from Iran – where else would it have come from?”

Still, the Biden administration has for days stopped short of attributing a role in the tactical planning and execution of the attack to Tehran, and current and former US intelligence analysts who spoke to CNN cautioned that past Iranian support to the group isn’t enough evidence to prove its direct involvement.

A plume of smoke rises in the sky over Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on October 9. - Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty ImagesA plume of smoke rises in the sky over Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on October 9. - Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

A plume of smoke rises in the sky over Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on October 9. – Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

“Even if they didn’t give the instruction, you see it in the support,” said Zohar Palti, the former head of the Political-Military Bureau at Israel’s Ministry of Defense. “Is Hamas a complete Iranian proxy that does everything Iran wants? No. But the relationship is much closer than it was even three years ago.”

Tehran has denied any involvement in the attack, even as it has lauded it publicly. Israel has also expressed caution publicly.

“We have no evidence or proof” that Iran was behind the attack, Maj. Nir Dinar, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces, told Politico on Monday. “We are 100 percent sure that the Iranians were not surprised.”

Disrupting Saudi, Israeli negotiations

Privately, some US officials believe it’s likely Iran had at least some involvement in the planning of the attack. But those personal assessments are largely based on the belief that Iran would likely look for any opportunity to disrupt the fragile negotiations that had been in the works to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saturday’s attack is widely seen as having endangered those talks.

Other analysts say it’s equally likely that Iran would have wanted to maintain its distance from any Hamas operation against Israel — even if it was aware of the attack in advance.

It is not in Iran’s interest to have more direct involvement, said Norm Roule, the former national intelligence manager for Iran at the CIA.

“Iran identifies regional proxies and then provides them with the political, financial and security support to dominate their particular geography,” Roule said. “Iran encourages military operations, but its proxies manage those actions.”

Fire burns in Ashkelon, Israel. after rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. - Amir Cohen/ReutersFire burns in Ashkelon, Israel. after rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. - Amir Cohen/Reuters

Fire burns in Ashkelon, Israel. after rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. – Amir Cohen/Reuters

It’s possible that Iran provided some operational and planning support in advance of the attack, but that it told Hamas, “You’re on your own once it happens,” said Mike Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute who specializes in Iran-backed proxy groups.

“This looks like Hamas learned some very significant new tricks from someone else and that may well have been the Iranians,” Knights said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Iran is up for broadening the war.”

An evolving relationship

The relationship between Iran and Hamas has evolved over the years. In the early days of the Syrian civil war a decade ago, Hamas and Iran found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.

For years, the two had a fraught relationship driven by two different Islamist ideologies: Sunni Muslim Hamas and Shia Muslim Iran. But Hamas saw Iran’s influence expanding in the region, especially as America’s shrinking role in the Middle East created a power vacuum for Tehran to exploit, according to Michael Milshtein, the former head of the Department for Palestinian Affairs in the Israeli military’s intelligence directorate.

More recently, Tehran has stepped up the training assistance it provides Hamas inside Iran, according to a former Western defense official. “Iran was being more proactive in logistics and training of these people,” the former official said. “They’ve gone full on in last few years … with explicit desire to destabilize” the region.

According to Knights, the closest relationship that Shia Iran now has with any Sunni group is Hamas. Tehran has “provided Hamas with precision loitering munitions drone systems that it has not even provided the Iraqi militias, (with) which it has had relationships since the 1980s.”

“This suggests a level of actual operational arming, training, equipping that we’ve only previously seen with Lebanese Hezbollah, and then with the Houthis in Yemen,” Knights said.

But Hamas is not a proxy of Iran, Milshtein said. Unlike terror groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas maintains a large degree of independence from Tehran, even as the assistance has dramatically expanded.

“Hamas became comfortable getting close to Iran,” Milshtein said, but the relationship remains largely based on military cooperation. Hamas received Iranian weapons and military technology, and learned from the Iranians about planning operations. But the power to make a decision remained with Hamas’ leadership.

“Everything we have seen in the last four days, we can’t say it’s an Iranian plan or an Iranian effort,” Milshtein said. “It’s a Hamas plan that got Iranian help.”

Searching for a motivation

US intelligence officials are also working to understand Hamas’ immediate motivation for launching the attack. Unlike the Palestinian Authority, the militant group does not recognize Israel and is committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.

Broadly, the more than 2 million residents of the Gaza Strip live in crowded and substandard conditions, partly as a result of a yearslong Israeli blockade and recurring airstrikes on the densely populated enclave.

McKenzie and others said Hamas was likely motivated by its own parochial cause more than it was by any interest in disrupting normalization talks.

“I think the Hamas calculation is very little on normalization,” McKenzie said. “I think it’s less the larger geostrategic things in the theater.

“It’s the Hamas-Israeli relationship, not the larger, ‘What does this mean to Saudi Arabia?’”

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