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11 October 2023

What the West got wrong about Iran

The country’s role in the Middle East has been long ignored – and Israel is paying the price.

By Lina Khatib

Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel is not just an escalation in Israeli-Palestinian tensions. It is the product of Iran’s growing destabilising role in the Middle East. It is also proof that any solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict must also address Iran’s regional role.

Ever since Barack Obama’s first presidential run in 2008, Iran’s role in the Middle East has been largely sidelined in Western policy circles in favour of attention to Iran’s nuclear programme. Even on the campaign trail, Obama made a nuclear deal with Iran his policy priority for the Middle East. Obama spent much of his two terms turning this pre-election promise into reality, resulting in the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015. The US and its Western allies viewed the prospect of Iran possessing a nuclear weapon as the most serious threat the country could present in the Middle East. As one European diplomat told me, while the nuclear deal with Iran was being negotiated, simply raising the matter of Iran’s regional role was frowned upon within the EU policy community. Washington, Brussels and other European capitals were united in attempting to separate Iran’s nuclear file from Iran’s regional interventions. This artificial separation persisted – until now. Hamas’s attack on Israel is, in part, an indirect outcome of 15 years of this separation.

As the nuclear deal with Iran was being negotiated and even after the US pulled out of the deal under President Donald Trump, Iran, undeterred by Western sanctions, was steadily increasing the scope and scale of its interventions in the Middle East. When Obama came into office, Iran was already riding high on the self-proclaimed “victory” that the Lebanese armed group it supports, Hezbollah, had declared against Israel following its 2006 war. A year later, Iran violently quashed peaceful protests in Tehran against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while Hezbollah and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad continued to assassinate their political opponents in Lebanon. When non-violent protests broke out in Syria against Assad in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring uprisings, Hezbollah and Iran quickly acted to advise Assad on violent crackdowns on protesters. Shortly after, they increased their support to the level of full-on military intervention in Syria in aid of Assad’s forces. Washington’s focus on trying to broker a nuclear deal with Iran meant that the US largely ignored its role in Syria. 

As the Syrian conflict ground on, Iran stepped up its support for Hezbollah, which used Syria as a training ground for its younger fighters. Iran, like Russia, used Syria to test its own weapons. The two countries became Assad’s main supporters against Syrian rebels and in so doing consolidated their presence in the country. Hezbollah leveraged its intervention in Syria to increase its own political power at home by presenting itself as Lebanon’s protector from Syrian Sunni extremists, on the basis that the Lebanese Armed Forces are too weak to defend the country against both Israel and Sunni extremists on its own.

Although Hamas initially took a position against Assad during the Syrian uprising, it later changed course, returning to full alignment with Hezbollah. After all, it has been supported by Iran both financially and militarily since at least the early 2000s. Hamas has benefited from the long military expertise of Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which have both trained its fighters. Although Hamas and Hezbollah make military decisions autonomously when it comes to routine or isolated operations and are not mere proxies of Tehran, decisions to engage in warfare in the full sense can only be made after agreement with Iran – as was reportedly the case in the latest attack. Hamas and Hezbollah’s military leaders are in touch on an almost daily basis and have shared an operations room where they coordinate with the IRGC.

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More than a decade after the start of the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah has consolidated its position as the most powerful political actor in Lebanon. But Hamas does not enjoy the same status in the Palestinian context. Despite efforts towards reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the two remain political rivals. Hamas and Iran were alarmed by the momentum gained by recent talks between Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US about a potential deal that would bring security guarantees for Saudi Arabia and present a solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict blessed by the Palestinian Authority. Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority have had a number of talks and were due to have more later in October. This may have been a key factor behind the timing of Hamas’s attack on Israel.

Hamas wants to frame the Palestinian Authority as weak and illegitimate, while presenting itself as the sole representative of Palestinians. Iran, meanwhile, sees in a Saudi-Israeli-US deal both a security and a political threat. If the Israel-Palestine conflict is resolved, Iran loses a huge part of the legitimacy narrative it uses to justify its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas and Hezbollah – both self-styled “resistance” movements – also lose their raison d’être. In other words, without the Israel-Palestine conflict, Iran’s regional influence in the Middle East is greatly diminished.

Hamas’s attack on Israel brings to the fore Iran’s destabilising influence in the Middle East. The attack may have been timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, but the actors that surprised Israel with an attack then – Egypt and Syria – are no longer the main regional players in the Israel-Palestine conflict. And although Hamas is the organisation leading the military campaign against Israel, it is Iran that could make the greater geopolitical gains from this attack if the West does not develop a comprehensive policy to counter its role in the region. There can be no meaningful resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict without curbing Iran’s destructive behaviour.

[See also: What comes next in Gaza]

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