Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7, and the massive Israeli retaliation that has followed, constitutes the latest battle in the decades-long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. But it is also part of another conflict that has already lasted for about four decades – that between Iran and Israel.
There has been very little solid indication, certainly no smoking gun, that Iran had any direct role in organising the Hamas attack. Indeed, Palestinian militant groups in Gaza have enough motivation to plan and execute operations without Iranian direction. Israel’s increasingly deadly occupation of the West Bank, expansion of settlements and prolonged isolation of Gaza have played a major role in escalating tensions to a point where a new round of violence may have been inevitable.
And early reporting about the level of Iranian involvement in Hamas’s attack on October 7 has been spotty, and some politicians have clearly exaggerated the matter to advance an agenda.
But focusing on the operational details of the attacks misses the broader picture. Without Iranian support, Hamas would have no military capacity to organise an operation of this sophistication and magnitude.
The only consistent source of military, financial and political support for Hamas and its junior partner, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), has long been Tehran. While Turkey and Qatar have occasionally offered limited financial and political support to Hamas, this is often in co-ordination with Israel and has never included explicit support for Hamas’s tactics or its broader agenda. Turkey, moreover, has long-lasting relations with Israel, while Qatar supports a two-state solution. In contrast, Iran is the only state in the world publicly committed to the destruction of Israel. Many Arab states have long extended a hand of peace and recognition to Israel, if it would only end its occupation of Palestinian lands, Tehran, by contrast, harbours an openly anti-Israeli agenda.
The particulars of Iranian-Palestinian relationship make it unique. Tehran’s support to Palestinian factions is directed through the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the militia that controls much of the political and economic power in Iran. Iran’s current foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, has close ties with the IRGC and all major Iranian ambassadors in the region are picked directly by IRGC’s external operations wing, the Quds Force. Former non-IRGC-affiliated foreign minister Javad Zarif often bitterly complained about being side-lined on the Palestinian issue.
More importantly, the IRGC’s massive funding of Hamas and PIJ is part of its decades-long intervention in Arab and Palestinian politics. In recent years, Iran has adopted a deliberate policy of intervening in the domestic politics of several Arab countries, using sectarian grievances and existing conflicts to further its agenda. This agenda goes back to 1980, when the newly established Islamic Republic helped found the Shiite militia Hezbollah amid the Lebanese civil war. While Tehran received indirect help from Israel throughout its long war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s, it simultaneously nurtured Hezbollah as a vehemently anti-western, anti-Israeli and anti-Saudi regional force.
In the years that followed the uprisings that rocked the Arab world in 2011, Tehran upped its agenda. In Syria, the Assad regime was kicked out of the Arab League and it went on to suppress the uprising, killing and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. But it was strongly backed by Tehran, which dispatched tens of thousands of IRGC and Hezbollah boots, as well as those of Iraqi, Pakistani and Afghan militants, to defend Damascus. Crucially, these militias still occupy significant parts of Syrian territory, some very close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the de facto line of control between Israel and Syria.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah was the only group that didn’t disarm following the end of the civil war in 1990, and it continues to plague the Lebanese state and society. In Yemen, Iran backed the insurgency by the Houthi tribal militia, turning a domestic civil conflict into a regional proxy battle with the main backer of the Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia.
In Iraq, following the overthrowing of Saddam Hussein by the US invasion of 2003, Tehran has emerged as a kingmaker. Mustafa Al Kadhimi, Iraq’s prime minister from 2020 to 2022, was the only post-invasion prime minister not to have the blessing of the IRGC. Although Iraqi voters rejected pro-Tehran parties in repeated street protests and even at the ballot box, Iran was able to use a variety of tactics to help elect a Prime Minister from the pro-Iran bloc.
Iran’s role in Palestinian politics needs to be understood in the same vein. The regime has long tried to undermine the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the State of Palestine, empowering the militant parties that were once marginal but now dominate Palestinian politics. In the 1990s and 2000s, as much of Palestinian society and the broader Arab world was clamouring for an end to the decades-long conflict with Israel, it was the Iranian state that resolutely opposed the peace talks and supported tactics such as killing of civilians to terrorise Israel.
Before receiving Iranian support, PIJ was a small group most Palestinians hadn’t even heard of. Tehran bolstered it into a significant force. A landmark attack by the group during the Second Intifada displayed the type of tactics favoured by the IRGC. On October 4, 2003, it bombed the beachfront Maxim restaurant in Haifa, well-known as a place of mingling between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Three Arabs were among the 21 killed in the attacks. As the PLO condemned the attacks, the IRGC and Iranian state media celebrated it profusely.
In the years since, Iran has systematically and patiently used Israel’s continued occupation and repression of Palestinians to grow its influence in the Palestinian society. Aiming to scuttle any efforts at peace between Israelis and Arabs, it thrives on instability and disorder. The post-2009 right-wing drift in Israel has helped Tehran tremendously. Israel has continued to impose a brutal siege on Gaza while its state-sponsored civilians repeatedly attack Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and desecrate Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. As the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority is humiliated and weakened by the Israeli occupation, pro-Tehran parties such as Hamas and PIJ have naturally grown in popularity.
The significant influence of Tehran over four Arab capitals (Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Sanaa) also includes its sway over several Palestinian factions. This influence is not only malign due to the destructive ideologies followed by the IRGC – it is a clear violation of Palestinian and Arab sovereignty. The main levers of Palestinian politics are now not in the hands of the Palestinian people or their fellow Arabs in other states; they are left to machinations of Tehran. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have inadvertently supported this when, in 2021, he proclaimed Tel Aviv and Tehran as the two main powers in the region.
But this isn’t a sealed fate for the Arab world. Concerted action by major Arab states, and the Arab League, can counter Iranian influence – especially if it can use Israel’s stated desire for recognition by bringing about an end to Palestinian statelessness and definite steps toward ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which has been a major source behind growth of Iranian influence in the Arab world.
As the brutal Israeli attacks on Gaza continue, diplomatic tours are being held in region. While Mr Amirabdollahian has been to Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Qatar, his American counterpart, Antony Blinken, has visited Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, as well as Israel. Crucially, a first-ever phone call was held between Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Crown Prince Mohammed also held an hour-long meeting with Mr Blinken, which the latter described as “productive”.
Crucially, Mr Amirabdollahian’s itinerary included not only meeting state officials but leaders of militias Hamas and Hezbollah, respectively in Doha and Beirut. While Crown Prince Mohammed and other Arab officials stress a desire to bring calm to the region (most of them also condemning any civilian targeting), Hamas officials have claimed that a “bigger Axis” should be opened against Israel with Iranian support. Iranian officials repeatedly make similar incendiary threats.
The Arab world and Israel thus both face a choice. In 2002, the Arab League gave Israel an unprecedented offer: recognition in exchange with an end to the occupation of Arab lands and forming a Palestinian state. Despite all that has changed, major Arab powers are adamant they remain committed to the same formula. If Israel wants recognition by its neighbours, it must choose to take the offer. For Arab states, this will also be an opportunity to win a historic victory for Palestinians and undermine the Iranian threat to their sovereignty. It will be good news for all peoples of the region, including the people of Iran. We are all tired of endless years of conflict.