TEHRAN, IRAN - OCTOBER 23: Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian holds a press conference after meeting of South Caucasus platform in Tehran, Iran on October 23, 2023. (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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Abu Dhabi, UAE CNN  — 

A day after Palestinian militant group Hamas launched its brutal attack on Israel, a curious video emerged out of Tehran’s Azadi stadium. Hundreds of soccer fans, gathered to watch a match between Perspolis FC and Gol Gohar Sirjan FC, chanted in unison: “Shove the Palestinian flag up your a**.”

The vulgar protest came in response to officials attempting to raise a Palestinian flag in the stadium to show support for the October 7 attack. But for the fans, it was another unwelcome mixing of politics and soccer, and a stark reminder of the Iranian government’s involvement in proxy battles in far-flung arenas.

Hamas’ attack, which killed 1,400 people according to Israeli authorities, prompted a fierce aerial campaign on Gaza that has so far killed more than 7,000 people, according to the health ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza. And there are now concerns that more fronts will open in the war, including one with Iran.

Experts say that while Iran is wary of being dragged into the Israel-Hamas war, it may not be in full control if the militias it backs in the region independently intervene as Hamas suffers heavy blows and the death toll in Gaza continues to mount.

“What connects all these groups to Iran is their anti-Israel policies,” said Sima Shine, head of the Iran program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, noting that while Iran has varying levels of influence over the groups, it doesn’t dictate all their actions.

In the early days after the October 7 attack, questions were raised about Iran’s potential involvement in the killings. Tehran at the time commended the operation but was quick to deny any hand in it . Initial US intelligence also suggested that Iranian officials were surprised by Hamas’ attack, and that Tehran was not directly involved in its planning, resourcing or approval, CNN has reported.

Despite its denial, however, Iran has ramped up its rhetoric against its arch enemy.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has warned that Israel’s bombardment of Gaza could have far-reaching consequences, saying that if Israel does not halt its airstrikes, “it is highly probable that many other fronts will be opened.”

“This option is not ruled out and this is becoming increasingly more probable,” he told Al Jazeera last week.

On Monday Abdollahian said the US has sent Iran two messages regarding escalation in the region.

“The first message said that the United States is not interested in expanding the war, and the second message asked Iran to have self-restraint and insisted that Iran should also ask other countries and other sides to have self-restraint,” Abdollahian said during a news conference in Tehran Monday, without saying how and when the messages were delivered.

He added that while the US says it wants to de-escalate, it has contradicted itself by continuing to support Israel.

Palestinians inspect the damage of destroyed buildings following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City on Friday.

Proxies have ‘their own strategic calculations’

Trita Parsi, vice-president of the Quincy Institute in Washington, DC, said there is no appetite or desire from either Iran, the US or Israel for a wider war, but that Washington’s failure to restrain Israel may inadvertently drive the region towards escalation.

US President Joe Biden last week pledged continued support for Israel, which has hardened Arab sentiment across the region and translated to mass protests against Israeli and American policies.

“The only actor that has a clear interest in (a wider conflict) is Hamas, given that an enlargement of the war could change the dynamics in a favorable way for them,” Parsi said. In the absence of US efforts to rein in Israel, “many (regional) actors are going to feel compelled to step in… because of their own strategic calculations.”

“When Israel is mobilizing 300,000 (troops), it is not likely that Hezbollah is going to sit there and assume that this is done only to go after Hamas,” he said, adding that it will factor in the risk of Israel going after the Lebanese group as well.

An Iran-backed armed group and powerful regional force, Hezbollah has been trading fire with Israel’s military since the October 7 attack by Hamas. The fighting has been the worst since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, but it has so far been restricted to the border between Lebanon and Israel.

Israel’s defense minister last week said that Israel was not interested in another war with Hezbollah. Israel has nonetheless turned the area of 4-kilometer radius near its border into a closed military zone, and evacuated residents from 28 communities within 2 kilometers of the Lebanese border.

Hezbollah’s influence spans beyond Lebanon, however. It also operates alongside Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria, where the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights separates Israel from Tehran-aligned fighters.