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Emboldened Iran counts victories as anti-Israel investments pay off

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Meng Tao/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Iran insists it had no direct involvement in Hamas’s surprise assault on Israel this week, but that is not keeping it from celebrating what it sees as a multitude of victories.

In the wake of the multipronged attack on October 7 by the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group in the Gaza Strip, Tehran was basking in the moment.

Within hours of the attack that left at least 900 Israelis dead, billboards erected in the Iranian capital heralded the beginning of “the great liberation” of the Palestinian territories and the demise of Iran’s archenemy Israel.

The results of Hamas’s attack, the deadliest in Israel’s history, have altered the diplomatic and military landscape in the region.

That has benefitted Iran, a Shi’a-majority country that seeks to cement itself as a major power in the Middle East and characterizes itself as the leading supporter of the Palestinian cause in the Muslim world.

Tehran has publicly acknowledged providing financial and moral support to Hamas, a Sunni group that controls the Gaza Strip. Iran also backs proxies such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a Sunni militant group in Gaza, as well as the Shi’ite militant group Hizballah in Lebanon.

The Islamic republic, experts say, is now seeing a high return on its investment against Israel.

“It’s about co-opting forces that are willing to shoot at the people that you would like to shoot at, and that essentially explains the Iranian material support to Palestinian terror groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told RFE/RL.

“Iran is an equal-opportunity offender when it comes to supporting both Sunni and Shi’ite, Islamist or jihadist terrorism,” Taleblu explained. “And often, it’s been Iran’s material and financial support to Palestinian Islamic Jihad…and as well as Hamas itself, that has had added this ecumenical color to its export of the Islamic Revolution throughout the Middle East.”

The attack, coming as Iran warily watches archrival Saudi Arabia inch toward normalized relations with Israel, also allows Tehran to benefit from a strong military response by what Tehran disparagingly refers to as the “Zionist regime.”

This, observers and Iranian officials suggest, could galvanize anti-Israeli sentiment in the region, thereby disrupting recent efforts in the region toward rapprochement with Israel.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Veleyati said as much in a phone call on October 9 with his Syrian counterpart in which he appeared to single out Riyadh, which has been taking steps to build ties with Israel following similar moves under U.S.-brokered agreements by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

“Those Arab countries who wish to establish diplomatic relations with the Zionist regime must now take a lesson from what has happened and think twice before doing so,” Velayati said. “They are pursuing futile plans.”

‘Broadly Complicit’

Iran has insisted that it did not help Hamas coordinate the attack on Israel. The Israeli Defense Force on October 9 said that no evidence had been uncovered yet to indicate a direct Iranian role.

The United States, too, has said it has not seen evidence of Iran’s involvement, although officials have said Tehran is “broadly complicit” due to its provision of weapons and training to Hamas.

Some observers, while noting the Hamas-Iranian partnership, have highlighted Hamas’s traditional independence compared to Iranian proxies such Hizballah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller group based in the Gaza Strip.

“This is a Palestinian story. Did Hamas use Iranian aid? Definitely yes. Did Iran have an interest in this action? Yes,” Raz Zimmt, a research associate at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, wrote on October 9.

“Does Hamas need Iranian permission to operate? No. Was there early coordination between Hamas, Iran, and Hizballah? It’s possible. But, in the end, it is an action by Hamas based on its own interests arising from the Palestinian reality.”

For its part, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has continued to deny involvement, saying on October 9 that “the accusations linked to an Iranian role…are based on political reasons.”

The leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, has acknowledged that the group received about $70 million in military aid from Iran last year, and the U.S. State Department in 2020 reported that Tehran provided about $100 million a year to Palestinian militant groups including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

After Hamas launched more than 4,000 rockets and armed drones during its latest assault, some intelligence officials have alleged that Iran provided technical help in manufacturing those weapons.

The militant group’s use of gliders, drones, rockets, and other use of indigenously produced weapons, Taleblu said, are all part of Iran’s strategy of “death by 1,000 cuts against Israel.”

“Part of Iran’s security strategy as Israel has been able to more effectively target the raw materials and the components and the entire systems that the regime has been sending across the region is to support local production,” said Taleblu. “And it is really here that the regime has been supporting more local production and you see the knife being sharpened against Israel from a bunch of different fronts.”

Ultimately, the approach serves Iran’s interests without requiring Tehran’s direct involvement.

“Once you have this cycle of violence and retaliation, how the images will play out in the Arab world, the Iranians are certainly hoping that that pumps the brakes on Saudi-Israeli normalization,” Taleblu said.

The most important message is that it signals the continuing “ascendance” of Iran, according to the analyst.

“The regime has moved to becoming more and more risk tolerant not just against America, and not just against U.S. partners, but also against Israel and in the region as well,” Taleblu said.

“This is part of a larger philosophical and psychological change in the revolutionary elites we’ve seen in Iran,” Taleblu explained. “The willingness to do more, the willingness to punch back, the willingness to even directly target Western forces. This is a chain we’ve been seeing in the Middle East for the past few years. And I don’t think this change is going away.”