One word was conspicuously absent from President Joe Biden’s speech on Tuesday about Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel: Iran.
On Sunday, an explosive Wall Street Journal article accused Iran of having helped Hamas plot the deadliest attack on Israel in 50 years, a claim that seemed engineered to draw the U.S. into war with Iran. But the Biden administration and the Israel Defense Forces, as well as current and former U.S. national security officials interviewed by The Intercept, say there’s no evidence of direct Iranian involvement.
“We have no evidence or proof” of Iranian direction, Maj. Nir Dinar, IDF spokesperson, told Politico on Monday — an assertion echoed by Biden’s national adviser, Jake Sullivan, on Tuesday. Though the Biden administration can be said to have a political stake in avoiding conflict with Iran ahead of an election year, two senior Pentagon officials also told The Intercept that efforts to determine Iranian direction are intensive and ongoing but that no proof has emerged.
“I don’t understand why the Wall Street Journal’s nondescript ‘Hamas and Hezbollah’ sources are more trustworthy than the U.S. government’s sources, who receive extraordinary scrutiny,” J.D. Maddox, a former CIA branch chief, told The Intercept.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the Hamas attack surprised Iranian leadership — a claim echoed later that day in a report by the Wall Street Journal, contradicting its own previous reporting.
Monitoring leadership for communications evincing foreknowledge after a major attack is a common practice for intelligence services. Such communications are valuable indicators of whether parties knew of an operation beforehand.
Despite the growing evidence to the contrary, Iran hawks like John Bolton have seized on the narrative that Iran directed Hamas’s attack, advancing the claim in a CNN interview on Thursday.
“Bolton has no access to intelligence besides the newspaper,” former Obama administration National Security Council spokesperson Tommy Vietor fumed on X. “Zero lessons learned from the Iraq war propaganda disaster.”
Several other former national security officials also drew parallels between claims of Iranian direction of Hamas’s attack and the Iraq weapons of mass destruction fiasco.
“Same suspects, different war,” retired Col. Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, told The Intercept. “I can’t imagine Iran would jeopardize the talks with the U.S. Perhaps interpose no objections and continue arms supplies, but no promotion of the attack.”
Iran is a longtime sponsor of Hamas, and there’s no question that the country provides critical logistical support to the militant group. But whether they directed the attack is another matter.
“My sense is that nuance on this issue is critical,” Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer who worked in the region, said on X. “The difference between ‘directing’ the attack and giving the actual green light (as stated here) vs ‘coordinating’ may be [the] difference between war with Iran or not.”
It’s possible that evidence of Iranian sponsorship exists and simply hasn’t emerged yet, but that reasoning echoes the Iraq WMD imbroglio. “If the Israeli government had any evidence at all of direct Iranian involvement in the Hamas attack, it is very likely that Israel would let the world know about that,” Paul Pillar, a former chief analyst at the CIA’s counterterrorism center, told The Intercept.
According to Pillar, Hamas had plenty of incentive to conduct the operation on its own, including acquiring hostages as bargaining chips to free Palestinian prisoners and also to torpedo the Saudi–Israel normalization deal being pursued by the Biden administration.
“Even extensive relations involving material support do not imply any operational direction or instigation,” Pillar said. “A similar situation is Iran’s relationship with the Houthis in Yemen, who have benefitted from Iranian material support but seized the Yemeni capital of Sana against the advice of Iran.”
Iran has issued fiery statements celebrating the attack, feeding into the theory that they directed it. But experts say it’s more complicated.
“Iran’s praise for Hamas’s attack sounds a lot like Saudi’s praise for the attack,” Maddox, the former CIA branch chief, said. “Israel is surrounded by detractors. It would be wise to withhold judgment until there’s clear evidence of direct support.”