Making sense of the Iran-Israel animosity

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 9 Jan 2024

The war in Gaza is throwing new light on the enmity between Iran and Israel in what could be the final milepost before a new Middle Eastern landscape emerges, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iranians comemorate the anniversary of the assasination of the late Iranian Revolutionary Guard Sole
Iranians comemorate the anniversary of the assasination of the late Iranian Revolutionary Guard Soleimani in Kerman, southeast of Tehran (photo:AP)


An official admission about Iran’s role in the Hamas-Israeli conflict has come from its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has said that the Palestinian group’s attack on Israel on 7 October was in revenge for the 2020 assassination of IRGC Al-Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in a US drone strike.

Though the remarks by IRGC Spokesman Ramazan Sharif, which tied the daring Hamas offensive to Suleimani’s killing, were later toned down by other Iranian officials after protests by Hamas, they have underscored how Tehran is integrating the Palestinian militant factions into its network of regional partners committed to fighting Israel.

The statement, in line with Iran’s boastful foreign policy, also highlights how Iran’s alliance with regional forces has been a major breakthrough in its efforts to play a key regional role at a critical time for the future of the Middle East.

As Israel’s large-scale offensive in Gaza enters its fourth month, the war has been thought of as potentially foreshadowing a direct conflict between Iran and Israel and precipitating even the nightmare scenario of a wider Middle East conflict drawing in the US and the Islamic Republic.

Hours after the spectacular raid carried out by Hamas by crossing the Israeli border on 7 October, attention turned towards Iran with speculation that the operation could have been planned and coordinated by the IRGC Al-Quds Force and other Iranian proxies.

Yet, there has been no clear evidence that Iran plotted the 7 October attack or the subsequent escalation.

Since the war started, several Iran-backed groups, such as the Lebanese group Hizbullah, the Yemeni Houthis, and the Iraqi Shia militias, have threatened to engage in the conflict with Israel on behalf of Hamas by opening new fronts and therefore risking widening the war.

These groups, which label themselves as “Islamic resistance movements” and the “axis of resistance,” claim that they act independently, though Iran’s use of proxies has been a trademark of its regional foreign policy.  

Among Iran’s top regional allies is Hizbullah. This group has both a political party and a military wing that has over four decades evolved into a powerful force boasting weapons that include precision rockets and drones that can hit large parts of Israel.

Since 8 October, Hizbullah has found itself drawn into the war between Israel and Hamas, firing rockets and shells from southern Lebanon and facing Israel’s retaliation by artillery bombardment and airstrikes.

Though the clashes have been limited to a series of low-intensity skirmishes on the Lebanon-Israel border, the risk of a broader spillover remains likely if something goes badly wrong with the tacit rules of engagement followed by the two sworn enemies.

A red line in these implicit constraints was crossed last week when Israel assassinated Hamas leader Saleh Al-Arouri in the Hizbullah-controlled southern district of Beirut, prompting the party’s leader Hassan Nasrallah to declare that the assassination had changed the nature of his group’s conflict with Israel and raising fears of escalation.

The Shia Houthi group that controls most of northern Yemen, including its Red Sea coastline and the strategic Bab Al-Mandab Strait, has been another key ally to Iran in the standoff with Israel over Gaza. Iran has been providing weapons to the group, which for years has tied down Saudi Arabia that supports the Yemeni government in the south.  

Since late October, the Houthis have launched scores of one-way attack drones and missiles at commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea. US Navy warships have also intercepted drones and ballistic missiles headed towards Israel.  

The US announced Operation Prosperity Guardian in December to work with other countries to send additional ships to the southern Red Sea in order to provide protection for commercial vessels passing through the critical Strait despite the Houthis’ pledge to continue to launch missiles and attack drones.

The wave of Houthi missile and drone strikes on ships plying the international waterway has caused the biggest disruption to global trade since the Covid-19 pandemic, and with little sign that it is backing off the group is taking the Iranian-Israel conflict into new waters.  

Senior Houthi leader Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi has warned that “any country that operates with the Red Sea Coalition led by the US will lose its maritime security.”

The US military has started hitting back, and last week the US Central Command said it had destroyed several small boats operated by the Houthis after they had attacked and tried to board a container ship in the Red Sea. Yemeni officials said at least 10 Houthi forces were killed in the strike.  

Another theatre where there is increasing fear that Iran’s conflict with Israel and the US could risk widening the Hamas-Israeli conflict is in Iraq, where the Islamic Republic exercises considerable political influence over the ruling Shia groups.

Iraqi Shia militias linked to Iran have been playing a key role in the standoff over Gaza. These groups, working under the umbrella of the Islamic Resistance of Iraq, have been attacking military bases where some 2,500 US troops as part of the International Anti-Terrorism Coalition in Iraq are based in order to demand their withdrawal.  

These drone and rocket attacks have increased sharply over the past three months, as these militias have rallied to show their solidarity with the Palestinians. They claim the attacks are in retaliation for US support of Israel in its war against Hamas.

In response, US forces have conducted a series of airstrikes killing and wounding several militiamen and destroying facilities used by Iranian proxies. On Thursday, the US military killed Mushtaq Taleb Al-Saidi, also known as Abu Taqwa, a high-ranking commander of an Iran-backed militia in an airstrike in Iraq, claiming he was “actively involved in planning and carrying out attacks against” the US military.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani, whose government relies on support from Tehran-aligned parties, just hours later repeated his pledge to “put an end” to the US-led International Coalition in his country.  

If the Iraqi government moves ahead with plans to remove the US troops, it will be a major blow to the US security strategy in the Middle East and a game-changer that will give Iran an important victory.  

Taken together, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen have increasingly become the arena for confrontations between Iran-backed forces and the US and Israel amid Tel Aviv’s brutal war on Gaza, with concerns mounting about a broader regional conflict.

The Shia groups in these countries, which exploit the state’s fragility, have established a strong relationship with Iran built on religious and ideological affinities and shared political militancy, mainly enmity to Israel and the US.  

A significant part of this partnership is that Iran can exert overriding influence over its proxies and steer their campaigns of attacks and military confrontations with Israel and US targets to serve Iran’s strategic regional interests while saving the Islamic Republic from direct military confrontations with Israel.

Since its start, fears have been growing that the war in Gaza is potentially foreshadowing a direct conflict between Iran and Israel that could engulf the entire Middle East. An Iranian-Israeli confrontation could spark a much-feared regional conflagration and could bring Iran into open confrontation with the US.

Iran is not at war with Israel, but one of the most resounding questions in the discussion about the ongoing regional escalation over Gaza is whether the two countries will engage in a direct confrontation.

In past standoffs with Israel and the US, Iranian leaders have usually used threatening rhetoric and issued ominous warnings, but Tehran has rarely actively resorted to force and instead has opted for limited and well-calculated responses to avoid a larger confrontation.

When an IRGC commander said recently that “the Mediterranean Sea, [the Strait of] Gibraltar, and other waterways,” could be closed if the US and its allies continued to commit “crimes” in Gaza, observers took the threat with a pinch of salt.

But to Israel, Iran remains a threat as long as it pursues its regional ambitions and continues to build its weapons arsenal, military power, and most importantly advance its nuclear technology to arms-grade levels.

Nevertheless, the main topic of discussion regarding a possible war between Iran and Israel should come not from Tehran’s ambitious and aggressive policies, but rather from its actual need to engage in direct confrontation with Israel or even the US.

For decades, the Islamic Republic has been considering itself at war with Israel, the West, and many of its regional rivals, but it has done everything it can to avoid escalation and direct confrontation with them and let its proxies carry out its plans.

Therefore, it is unlikely to be a slip of the tongue for an Iranian official to say that the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October was in revenge for Suleimani’s death, for example, because this is what Iran’s proxies are in fact doing on its behalf, allowing it to spread its influence and undermine the US and its regional allies.

In another reckless statement, an Iranian cleric once said that Iran controls four Arab capitals, namely Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sanaa, guaranteeing some level of Iranian influence along an arc that extends from the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean and crafting a new regional order.

One of Tehran’s key achievements thus far is that the Gaza war has halted the US-sponsored Saudi-Israeli normalisation process that Iran feared could bring together Israel and its rivals in the Gulf and undercut its bid to expand its regional standing.

The Gaza conflict has also badly damaged Israel’s reputation as an invincible regional force and undermined its vaunted standing worldwide. In no time in its 76-year history has Israel’s colonial and expansionist project been so exposed as unattainable and unsustainable as it has today.  

While the 7 October attack indicated a cascade of failures in Israel’s security system, its genocidal campaign in Gaza and its policy of apartheid and coercion of the Palestinians in the West Bank have doubled down on the theory shared by Iran, its proxies, and many in the Middle East that Israel is vulnerable and that the Gaza war may turn out to be the beginning of its end.

No doubt, the war will reshape the Middle East and will have a profound effect on the main regional players, including Iran and Israel, whose response will define its trajectory.  

It would be unwise to assume that a direct confrontation between Iran and Israel is inevitable, let alone predict the outcome or a winner. While it would be naïve to expect a nuclear-armed Israel to vanish soon after the war in Gaza, it is highly unlikely that Iran will emerge as a sole regional superpower in the way that its leaders would probably like.

Relations between Iran and Israel are complicated and cannot be divorced from history, regional geopolitics, and national considerations. Iran’s animosity towards Israel came with the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that replaced the former bilateral diplomatic, security, and political relations under the Shah’s regime.

In many analyses, common denominators appear in Iranian-Israeli relations, especially the conceptualisation of the two countries’ policies as constitutive of each other’s identities. Both Iran and Israel have an identity that combines religion and nationalism and that remains deep rooted in national psyches and politics.

In the broader Middle East context, Zionism in Israel and Shiism in Iran constitute an important element in their outlooks on a region polarised by religious and ethnic divisions and seen as the source of today’s conflicts.  

Iranian animosity towards Israel, therefore, should be always looked at in the mirror of the Arab nationalism that has been threatened by Zionism and its national and religious claim to Palestine while remaining sceptical about Iran’s Persian Shiism and its discourse of a supranational identity.

In the current turbulence that could reshape the region, the Iranian-Israeli proxy conflicts and their future prospects can only be viewed in the larger context of the struggle for the Middle East. This does not necessarily pit Iran and Israel against each other in an all-out war, at least not for now.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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