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The Grand Strategy: Iran’s Strategy vis a vis Israel and the War in Gaza

International Affairs Analyst

Pro-Palestinian march in Iran, 2023 | Credit: Ahamadreza Madah, Wikimedia Commons

Iran’s “Axis of Resistance”, a string of Iranian-backed proxy groups around the Middle East, have provided Israel with its greatest security threat and its greatest intelligence blunder since the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Since the surprise attack on Israel by Hamas on the 7th October, thousands have been killed and injured, abhorrent violations of international humanitarian law have been committed, millions have been displaced, and an end to the present conflict seems inconceivable at this current time.  

Iran’s role in the lead up and continued developments of the conflict has been central to much of the coverage of the war, as well as being deeply misunderstood. Whilst Western media falsely accused Iran of ‘green-lighting’ the attack, the attack has nonetheless boosted Iran’s regional interests. Iran has been the most vehement supporter of the Palestinian cause and has maintained its self-acclaimed title as the vanguard of the Pan-Islamist cause, of which the Palestinian question is central to. 

At its root, the conflict has surpassed the hopes of Iranian officials in fulfilling part of their grand strategy: undermining Israel and its Western backers, exporting its revolutionary principles abroad, and strengthening the position of Iran’s rulers domestically. Just over a year ago, Iran witnessed the largest anti-government protests since the 1979 revolution. Now, the streets are filled with pro-Palestinians shouting “Death to Israel. Death to Zionism”. Moreover, whilst Israel continues to seek the obliteration of Hamas as their primary objective, this aim contradicts the realities of Middle Eastern geopolitics. As history has shown, as long as Iran continues to support Hamas, Israel cannot defeat Hamas and by extension cannot guarantee its own security. 

The Historical Underpinning of the Dichotomous Relations between Iran and Israel 

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the Islamic Republic has been perceived by Israeli officials to be the greatest threat to Israel's security. Pushed by the former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and maintained throughout the post-Khomeini era, one of the core and unwavering parts of the Iranian leadership’s Weltanschauung has been to undermine and eradicate the State of Israel. Unlike under the Shah, whose Western-backing and shared disapproval of Pan-Arabism enabled a flourishing of Iranian-Israeli relations, the governments in Iran since the 1979 revolution have held the unwavering position of being anti-Israeli. The Principalist faction in Iran, the main political faction within Iran who aim to maintain the principles of the 1979 revolution, have perceived Israel to be a fundamental security concern and an existential threat to both the territorial sovereignty of Iran and the revolutionary principles of Iran’s ruling elite. 

A frequently mischaracterised narrative of the dichotomous relationship between Iran and Israel has been the religious incompatibility between Islam and Judaism. However, this point could not be further from the truth. Whilst Iran’s leaders have carried forward an unwavering position of anti-Zionism, the popular notion of Iran being the vanguard of Middle Eastern antisemitism is mistaken. Despite many Persian Jews emigrating from Iran following the 1979 revolution, Iran continues to have the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel and the 25th largest in the world. As a minority group, Jews have constitutionally protected rights, including formal equality, freedom of religion, and a representative in the Majles- the Iranian parliament. The incompatibility lies predominantly with the geopolitical animosity of the two countries that has stemmed from opposition groups within Iran since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and has been the policy of Iranian state since the 1979 revolution, and this distinction is vital in understanding the current Israel-Gaza conflict and subsequent developments that are likely to develop.

Head of the Snake: Iran and it’s Axis of Resistance 

At the epicentre of Iran’s strategy has been its Axis of Resistance. A term that originated from a 2002 article in a Libyan newspaper to describe Iran’s Middle Eastern strategy since the early 1980s has materialised into becoming the central pillar of Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East, aiding in the spread of Iran’s revolutionary principles and weakening its adversaries. This Axis of Resistance, a string of political and military groups spread across the Middle East backed- financially, militarily, and politically- by Iran, is arguably the most well-connected and developed system of state-sponsored non-state actors, enabling Iran to weaken its enemy whilst stopping short of its own direct involvement in most conflicts. This means that Iran has used its proxies both as a surrogate in conflicts to substitute Iran’s direct involvement as well as to compliment Iran’s efforts in other conflicts. Iran’s primary proxies lie in Lebanon, Yemen, and the Palestinian territories, though according to the Wilson Center Iran has over a dozen major proxies in other areas such as Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain. 

Throughout this conflict, the two main arms of this axis have been Hamas and Hezbollah; whilst other groups have played a role in shaping the current conflict, namely the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen, they haven’t been as pivotal as the aforementioned groups of Hamas and Hezbollah. Since the inception of both groups, Iran has provided them with extensive funding, intelligence, and international political support as a result of their objectives being aligned with Iran. The two groups share many other commonalities, including being assisted by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and claimed legitimacy through election victories. As Karim Sadjadpour had previously stated, one of the great ironies of Iran’s Middle Eastern strategy has been the reliance on elections to provide their regional proxies with legitimacy. Whilst the Iranian regime obstructs and interferes with their own democratic process, their demands for democracy and elections in the wider Middle East has enabled groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas to gain political influence and control, and by extension has enabled Iran to have a concomitant rise in its own influence.

Hamas -officially the Islamic Resistance Group- has grown since its inception during the First Intifada. Having started as a purely militant group, Hamas has evolved into also becoming a political entity in the Palestinian territories. Following the final withdrawal of Israeli settlements in Gaza in 2005, Hamas’ success in the 2006 Palestinian elections promoted the group to be the governing party of the whole of the Palestinian territories. When disagreements of transitions of power appeared between the Palestinian group Fatah and Hamas, the government of unity collapsed and Hamas took over control of the Gaza strip. 

Conflict between Hamas and Israel is nothing new either. In previous years, the two sides have exchanged missile fire, border incursions have occurred, and full-scale war has broken out on 5 separate occasions between 2006 and today. The conflict today, however, has been unprecedented in scale and the operation timeline with an estimated 20% of all buildings in Gaza either destroyed or damaged, over 20,000 Palestinians killed since October 7th, over 1200 Israelis killed, and operationally lasting longer than most previous conflicts between the two. 

Hamas is a unique case in Iran’s geopolitical strategy. Whilst many Western analysts stress the importance of spreading Shiite Islamism in Iran’s Middle Eastern policy, Hamas is unique in being a Sunni Muslim organisation. Just as Iran’s support of Christian-majority Armenia reflects Iran’s geostrategic pragmatism rather than parochial considerations of religion, Hamas is another case of this pragmatism. Being in a unique position also means that Hamas receives funding from Sunni-majority states, most notably Turkey and Qatar, with the latter providing financing to the group since 2007 and which accelerated following an agreement with the Israeli government in 2018, funding which helped alleviate much of the humanitarian pressure on Gaza. 

The Lebanese group Hezbollah has expanded rapidly since its inception during the 1982 Lebanese war and following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Since this point, Iran has continuously funded the organisation. From the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hezbollah pursued the policy of Lebanonisation, which saw Hezbollah transform beyond a pure militia into becoming a political force - forming the political party Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc - and developing a civilian arm. As a result, Hezbollah gained legitimacy within Lebanon as well as an ability to act beyond the parameters of state power through its paramilitary branch. 

Much like Hamas now, Hezbollah became heavily ingrained in many communities around Lebanon and became a fixed ideology beyond its membership, posing a challenge to Israel in trying to undermine the organisation through military operations. Hezbollah played a key role in pushing Israel out of South Lebanon in 2000, ending fifteen years of Israeli occupation of the region, and humiliating the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

Hezbollah and Israel have fought further costly wars before, with the largest being the 2006 Lebanese war, a conflict which mirrors many aspects of the current war in Gaza. Starting with a cross-border attack by Hezbollah forces, the IDF retaliated by stating such an attack was an act of war. Whilst millions were displaced and thousands killed, it showed Israel the huge costs imposed when it goes to war with one of Iran’s proxies, similar to the cost - both materially and reputationally - of the current conflict in Gaza. Hezbollah and its backers - Iran and Syria - had declared its repelling of the IDF as a “big strategic, historic, and divine victory” and highlighted the limitations of Israel’s capabilities vis a vis its neighbours. 

Since then, Hezbollah, currently headed by Hassan Nasrallah, has expanded with the help of Iran, and they currently have the capabilities to do significant damage to Israel, exemplified by the over 100,000 missiles Hezbollah has in its arsenal. In fact, Hezbollah poses a much larger threat than Hamas in that it has significantly greater capabilities. Whilst the focus has primarily been on Hamas, Israel and Hezbollah are technically in a state of war at the moment with daily exchanges of fire and missile attacks- albeit strictly confined range. Israel cannot afford to open a northern front to this conflict, and this is precisely why the IDF sent many forces to the northern border with Lebanon following the 7th October attack in the south.

Iran’s position as the head of this proxy network has provided Tehran with a privileged strategic position. Whilst it has abstained from directly involving itself in the conflict, as well as being at the forefront of members in the United Nations demanding an immediate ceasefire, the seeds which Iran has been planting for decades have once again shown to have materialised in promoting Iran’s long-term grand strategy. 

The Limits of Israeli and US Power 

At the start of the conflict, the Israeli MP Sharren Haskel echoed the sentiment felt by many Israelis in needing to attack Iran and “cut off the head of the snake”. However, limitations to the ability of Israel to actually ‘cut off’ the head of the snake is an understood state of affairs by the Iranian ruling elite. In an impassioned speech against the US during the Iran hostage crisis, the former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared that “America cannot do a damn thing against us”. A similar situation is present between Iran and Israel. Whilst Israel has threatened to cut off “the head of the snake” if Iran escalated the war, in reality a state of direct conflict cannot exist between the two states, just as how neoconservative aspirations in the US of invading Iran are nonsensical. Particularly since the rapid expansion of Iran’s conventional capabilities under the former President Hassan Rouhani, any sort of conventional attack against Iran directly would be extremely costly and almost suicidal for either of the regimes. Instead, fighting is confined between Iran’s proxies and its enemies. 

Whilst concerns over Houthi attacks in the Red Sea have further promoted stronger discussion over potential full-scale US intervention, the likelihood of this materialising is extremely low as a result of what has been discussed. Beyond retaliatory strikes conducted by the US in the past and protection forces deployed to safeguard shipping lanes, a full blown US intervention in the Red Sea or even directly in the Gaza conflict would prove costly for an administration embattled by domestic border concerns, not to mention the impact that subsequent Iranian intervention would necessarily have.

In this regard, Iran has enabled itself to gain and maintain position as a dominant power in the Middle East. With the strategic safety provided by its development of its domestic military industrial complex, Iran has been able to use the current conflict in Gaza as a means to bolster the image of Israel as an illegitimate state who uses disproportionate violence, frequently referring to Israel as the “child-killing Zionist regime”. Moreover, as Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar wrote in Foreign Affairs, the war has enabled Iran to position itself favourable to non-Western nations. As the growing multipolarity of the international system takes shape, Iran’s ability to exert tremendous influence in the Middle East has enabled it to successfully position itself as one of the key actors in the Middle East and the conflict in Gaza has helped solidify this.

Disrupting the Arab-Israeli Normalisation Process

Prior to the outbreak of the conflict, significant steps were being made in the continuation of the Arab-Israeli normalisation process. Since the normalisation of relations between Egypt and Israel in 1979, the idea of achieving greater peace through Israeli-Arab normalisation has been a coveted aspiration for many leaders, especially in the United States. Historically, agreements such as the Camp David accords under President Carter, the Oslo Accords under President Clinton, and the recent Abraham Accords under President Trump all proved to bolster rather than hinder their respective presidencies. For example, following the release of a picture of President Trump alongside the leaders of Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain, the then Foreign Minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, stated that “[President Trump] desperately needed a campaign photo”. President Biden’s hope for achieving this similar breakthrough came in the form of Israeli-Saudi Arabian normalisation. 

For months prior to October 7th, media outlets pushed the narrative that an agreement between the two countries, brokered by the United States, was a plausible reality. Whilst much of the coverage failed to highlight the necessary yet implausible conditions required to be met, namely the issue of Palestinian question and the security guarantees that Saudi Arabia sought from the United States, there still was a non-zero chance of an agreement being made. 

As of the time of writing, such an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia seems unequivocally out of the question. Whilst the Whilst House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby stated at the beginning of November that the United States is “still interested in pursuing this normalisation arrangement between Israel and Saudi Arabia”, such a statement fails to capture the realities of the difficult nature of the Palestinian question in light of the ongoing conflict. The byproducts of the current conflict have sounded the death knell for any sort of continued normalisation effort for the foreseeable future. The notable damage that Israel has done reputationally with regards to their violations of international law throughout the conflict, Saudi Arabia cannot conceivably normalise relations if it continues to hold the notion that it remains one of the primary advocates of the Palestinian cause. 

Iran has viewed the Arab normalisation process as a barrier not only for the Palestinian question but also as a danger for its own national security. Providing Israel with greater regional legitimacy hinders the ability for Iran to project its own revolutionary principles and enables an anti-Iranian coalition of middle eastern states to form. In the most recent step of Arab-Israeli normalisation, the 2020 Abraham Accords, Khamenei went as far as to say that the UAE had “betrayed the Islamic world”. Whilst Iran has shored up its security concerns in recent years, such as de-escalating tensions with Saudi Arabia with their agreement in March 2023, Iran still fears an Israeli-Arab coalition forming. By stopping and even reversing the Arab-Israeli normalisation trend, Hamas- and by extension Iran- have successfully tethered the growing ties between the Arab world and Israel, shoring up its medium term security and enabling Iran to expand its influence further in the region. 


The catastrophic and irreparable consequences of this conflict are yet to truly unfold, and a permanent end to the fighting remains unachievable at this stage. Whilst Hamas will almost certainly have reduced military capabilities, Iran’s regional strategy means that Hamas will continue to exist in some form and will continue to be the dominant actor in the Gaza Strip. Iran has proved to be the primary antagonist to Israeli security, past and present, using its role as the leader of the Axis of Resistance to both undermine Israeli and American interests in the Middle East whilst promoting its own revolutionary principles abroad. 

Reconciliation between Iran and Israel is impossible if the current status quo prevails; instead, the exacerbation of tense relations that exist between the two may leave the Middle East a far more unstable region. With Israel’s recent killing of the Iranians IRGC commander Sayyed Razi Mousavi and Iran threatening significant retaliatory measures, the Middle East seems to be on the knife-edge. As a result, the likelihood for lasting peace looks improbable, the pathway to a solution on the Palestinian question has hit a brick wall, and the suffering felt by millions will unfortunately continue. 


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