The Iran-Israel shadow war and its role in the broader Mideast conflict

First published at World-Outlook.

The shadow war between Israel and Iran burst into the open on April 1, when an Israeli airstrike on part of the Iranian embassy in Damascus, Syria, killed seven top commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Iran and Israel then traded direct airstrikes on each other’s territory, for the first time, in a confrontation that raised the danger of a full-blown regional war. Both governments, however, stepped back from the brink after Israel chose to launch a limited strike on targets near Isfahan in response to Iran’s large but ineffective rocket barrage aimed at Israel. Having avoided further direct military conflict, both countries returned to their long-running shadow war, in which Iran’s strategy is to arm and direct allied militias such as Hezbollah while Israel conducts military strikes against IRGC-sponsored units in Lebanon and Syria.

These developments also shed light on Tehran’s “support” for the Palestinian liberation struggle. The clerical regime uses such posturing to prop up its dictatorial hold on power in Iran and its reactionary reach through proxy armies across the Mideast. Some Palestinians in the occupied territories, as well as working people and others in Iran, are beginning to see through such grandstanding and now openly oppose it.

Iran’s theocracy took power through a counter-revolution in the 1980s. The clerics crushed the independent struggle of Iranian workers and peasants who had carried out a popular uprising in 1979. That social revolution reverberated across the region and the world. The mobilization of working people toppled the U.S.-backed monarchy of the shah — a brutal and hated regime.

Since it tamed the mass struggle, the theocracy has held on to power — for more than 40 years — through periodic brutal crackdowns on any expression of opposition to the Islamist regime. 

Israel’s Damascus attack killed three generals in Iran’s Quds Force, IRGC’s external military and spy service, and four other officers. One of the generals was Mohamad Reza Zahedi, a Quds Force commander who oversaw Iran’s covert military operations in Syria and Lebanon.

Iran followed on April 13 with an unprecedented large-scale response that included some 350 missiles and drones. But the attack did minimal damage — seriously injuring a 7-year-old Bedouin girl and causing minor damage to an Israeli air force base. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system shot down about 99% of the munitions, with indispensable help from U.S., British, and other allied forces in the region — including Jordan.

It was the first direct attack from Iranian soil on Israel. Prior to it, the Iranian regime had pursued its goal of “uprooting” the state of Israel through proxy forces in the region. These include armies like those of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as close allies like Hamas and others that carried out the October 7 massacre in Israel. This strategy had kept Iran one step removed from a direct confrontation with Israel. That has now changed.

Israel’s war cabinet contemplated an immediate and devastating counterattack, but in the end chose a rather muted response — striking a military base in Isfahan, Iran, on April 19, that caused minor damage — after apparent pressure from the U.S. and other imperialist governments.

Eager to avoid an escalation of the conflict into a full-scale war, which would inevitably draw the U.S. military into more direct involvement, Washington pressed for restraint.

Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza

Since these events, focus has shifted back to Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza.

While the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has temporarily withdrawn many of its ground forces from Gaza, the Israeli air force has been pummeling sections of Rafah and other areas of the territory. The Palestinian death toll now exceeds 34,000, with another 77,000 Gazans seriously injured. Violence by Zionist settlers, backed by the IDF, is also on the rise in the West Bank — prompting a general strike by Palestinians there on April 21. Famine is growing in Gaza and threatens to become even more widespread.

Popular outcry against the onslaught on Palestinians has prompted some politicians in Europe and other countries to question ongoing military aid to Israel.

While negotiations have continued — in fits and starts — over a possible deal for a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of some Israeli hostages, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted the IDF will invade Rafah.

“Israel Declares Rafah Invasion As a Certainty,” read a headline in the May 1 print edition of the New York Times.

“The idea that we will halt the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question,” Netanyahu said. “We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there — with or without a deal — in order to achieve the total victory.”

This conflicts with Washington’s public stance. In response to Netanyahu’s statement, White House spokesman John Kirby “made clear that the United States remained opposed to an Israeli strike against Hamas in Rafah without a meaningful plan to protect civilians, which American officials say they have not seen,” wrote the Times.

“As for what is in the public domain coming out of the prime minister’s office, you guys would have to talk to him and his team about that rhetoric and the motivation for it,” Kirby said. “All I can say is we don’t want to see a major ground operation in Rafah. That hasn’t changed.”

Earlier, on April 19, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that “the U.S. has already granted its consent to the conquest of Rafah in exchange for a limited strike against Iran,… thereby creating a trade-off between revenge in Iran and the conquest of Rafah.”

That report was based on an anonymous source and cannot be confirmed. It is clear, however, that U.S. “concerns” about the consequences of Israel’s relentless assault on Gaza have had little impact on Israeli military decisions.

Despite disagreements, U.S.-Israeli alliance remains ironclad

Against this backdrop, Washington used Iran’s attack to reframe Israel as the victim of “terrorism” and to make it clear that, whatever disagreements it may have with Netanyahu, its military support for Israel remains ironclad.

On April 20, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill authorizing an additional $15 billion of military aid to Israel. The U.S. Senate approved it quickly, and Biden signed it into law on April 24.

The U.S. president presented the new aid package as an effort to help Israel protect itself from Iranian attacks, while ignoring Israel’s bombing of Iran’s embassy. “The security of Israel is critical,” Biden told reporters. “I will always make sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself against Iran and the terrorists it supports.”

The new U.S. funds and weapons are now flowing into Israel as the IDF continues preparations to invade Rafah. A ceasefire agreement with Hamas, if one is reached, may delay that invasion, but Netanyahu remains committed to it.

During a widely publicized trip to the Mideast — including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel — at the end of April, U.S. secretary of state Anthony Blinken pressed the Israeli government to negotiate a deal with Hamas that would lead to the release of at least some of the hostages kidnapped on October 7 in exchange for a temporary ceasefire. Under such a deal, Israel would postpone a Rafah invasion.

Washington continues to try to strike a broader deal with the Arab regimes in the region, most importantly the Saudi monarchy, as a bulwark against Iranian influence. Prior to the October 7 Hamas-led assault, it appeared to be close to such an accord that could have included Saudi recognition of Israel and agreement to establish some form of a Palestinian state.

Progress towards the establishment of such a state has been blocked by Israel, for more than 30 years since the Oslo Accords. In the face of Israeli intransigence, Washington has accepted the Israeli veto. Washington still hopes to revive an agreement with Saudi Arabia and other Arab regimes. But an Israeli invasion of Rafah may again scuttle the possibility of such a deal.

“A historic defense pact that could reshape the Middle East is nearing completion, sources say, almost seven months after it was knocked off course by Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel,” Bloomberg News reported May 2.

“The defense pact could transform the balance of power in the region and cement US interests.

“A three-way alliance with Israel would deal a huge blow to Iran, which supports proxy groups across the Middle East and last month sparked fears of an all-out war when it directly attacked Israel for the first time in retaliation for a deadly strike on its diplomatic compound in Damascus.”

The Israeli war cabinet seems torn between these choices, in part because there is enormous pressure inside Israel to see the hostages returned.

According to the April 28 Haaretz, “War cabinet minister Benny Gantz said that the government would have no right to exist if it blocks a hostage deal, adding that the return of the hostages is of greater importance than a military operation in Rafah. His comments came after far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich told PM Netanyahu that if he cancels the planned ground offensive in Rafah, his government would have no right to exist.”

Iran’s reactionary ‘axis of resistance’

Prior to the Iranian revolution, U.S. support for the shah’s brutal regime, and Washington’s role in overthrowing the government of the reformer Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, led to deep-going hatred of the U.S. government among the Iranian people. The theocracy’s counterrevolution against the Iranian workers and peasants has tried to falsely cloak itself with that anti-imperialist sentiment and exploit it. It is a common theme in what it calls its “axis of resistance.”

This is a network of proxy armies and political formations across the Mideast that Iran helps finance and direct. They include Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and, to a lesser extent, in the West Bank.

Hezbollah, the most prominent of these formations, is a Shiite Islamist political party in Lebanon with a large military wing. It was established by Lebanese clerics as part of the opposition to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It adopted the name Hezbollah (“The Party of Allah,” or “The Party of God”) chosen by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader at the time.

Some 1,500 Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps instructors were instrumental in creating the organization by helping unify various Shiite groups. In the last 15 years, Hezbollah has succeeded in electing a large number of deputies to Lebanon’s parliament. Its military wing is recognized as a legitimate armed force in the country.

Hezbollah aims at establishing a theocratic Islamic regime in Lebanon like that in Iran. One of the group’s main goals is the destruction of the state of Israel. The organization claims it is anti-Zionist, not antisemitic. But its leaders loudly deny the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews during World War II and have often expressed antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Since the start of Israel’s assault on Gaza, Hezbollah has stepped up its slow-burning conflict with Israel, launching more missiles and drones into Israeli territory. Israeli forces have countered with airstrikes, artillery, and tank shells into Lebanon. Both sides have tried to avoid letting the conflict spiral into an all-out war. But that danger remains real.

The Houthi movement is the largest political/military formation in Yemen. It now controls most of the western part of the country after a bloody civil war. It has recently gained popularity by mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people in the country’s capital, Sanaa, to demonstrate in opposition to Israel’s war in Gaza.

Since October 7, Houthi forces have occasionally fired missiles and sent drones to attack Israel, in solidarity with Hamas — as Hezbollah has done from southern Lebanon. Most of the Houthi rockets have been shot down.

The group exudes Jew hatred with pride. “God Is the Greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse Upon the Jews, Victory to Islam,” the Houthis defining slogan states.

The Houthis have recently achieved global notoriety by firing rockets at dozens of ships traversing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden — allegedly in solidarity with the embattled Palestinians in Gaza — disrupting maritime commerce there. These actions have provoked retaliatory strikes on their military installations by U.S., British, and allied forces in the region. The group has in turn used the conflict to buttress its “anti-imperialist” credentials.

Tehran, along with Moscow, threw a lifeline to Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president whose dictatorial regime almost collapsed in 2013, and again later in 2015, after a popular uprising known as the “Arab Spring” that begun in 2011. Assad’s crackdown displaced 14 million Syrians, forced 7 million into exile, and killed 580,000 to salvage that despotic regime.

The Iranian government provides military and other backing to Iraq’s government as well.

Tehran also controls client militias in both countries.

Anti-working class and antisemitic

Hamas, now a close Tehran ally in Palestine, was founded in 1987. It was politically inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is based among Sunni, not Shiite, Muslims.1

Hamas was born out of the Brotherhood’s religious and ideological influence in Gaza going back decades. It saw the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising that erupted that year in the occupied territories, as an opportunity for “rais[ing] the banner of God over every inch of Palestine,” as Tareq Baconi has documented in his book Hamas Contained.

The Muslim Brotherhood — once Egypt’s largest opposition movement and a standard-bearer for Sunni Islamist groups around the world — won the 2012 presidential election when its candidate Mohamed Morsi became the country’s first president to gain power through the ballot. But the Egyptian military toppled that government a year later, jailed Morsi, and severely repressed the Brotherhood.

With its parent organization crippled, Hamas has relied more and more over the last decade on financial, logistical, and other support from Iran.

The Iranian regime applauded the gruesome October 7 attack by Hamas and it originally claimed it had no role in planning or executing the assault.

On April 3, however, the Coalition Council of Islamic Revolution Forces — a group in Iran’s parliament with strong ties to the country’s Supreme Leader — issued a statement hailing Brig. Gen. Zahedi, one of the top Iranian officers slain by Israel’s April 1 airstrike in Damascus, for his “quiet efforts” in directing the October 7 Hamas attack.

“The strategic role of the martyr Zahedi in consolidating and strengthening the resistance front, and in the planning and execution of Al-Aqsa Flood, are part of the great pride that will transform the quiet efforts of this great commander into the eternal history of the struggle against the occupation by the Zionist regime,” declared the Iranian group, according to a translation of its statement by the U.S.-based Middle East Media Research Institute.

The “Al-Aqsa Flood” is the term Hamas uses for its October 7 operation.

Iran’s clerical regime and all its proxies across the Mideast are thoroughly bourgeois, anti-working class, and antisemitic.

Tehran’s ‘pro-Palestinian’ posturing

The Iranian government has been supplying its allies in Gaza — Hamas and Islamic Jihad — with arms and technical know-how for years. Recent reports in the media have documented Iranian efforts to smuggle weapons to the same groups in the West Bank.

“In a statement, Iran’s U.N. Mission did not comment on the smuggling operation, but emphasized what it said was the importance of Palestinians taking up arms against Israel,” reported the April 9 New York Times.

“Iran’s assessment posits that the sole effective avenue for resisting the occupation by the Zionist regime is through armed resistance,” said Amir Saeid Iravani, the country’s U.N. ambassador. “Palestinian resistance forces possess the capability to manufacture and procure the necessary armaments for their cause.”

As World-Outlook pointed out in the column On the Character of the Oct. 7 Attack by Hamas, “Facing the violence of oppression and military occupation, the oppressed have the right to defend themselves. But the methods used to fight for freedom need to serve the strategic goals of the struggle. If not, they become a political liability and a self-inflicted obstacle on the road to liberation.”

Defending the right of an oppressed people to make use of armed struggle is not the same thing as advocating taking up arms “as the sole effective avenue” at all times to fight for liberation.

What is needed today is a strategy explained clearly decades ago by Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s former president who led the decades-long struggle to overthrow the racist apartheid regime in that country.

“Victory in the national liberation struggle,” Mandela explained, “is dependent upon the active and conscious participation of the masses of the oppressed people, determining their own destiny through struggle.”

The Palestinian people have showed they can carry out such a strategy. They did so during the First Intifada.

The course of Iran’s regime, and of Hamas, are the opposite of that.

Hamas has made it clear its strategy includes: “Pogroms that target Israeli civilians coupled with mass martyrdom that sacrifices the lives of thousands of Palestinians — ultimately tens of thousands or more — who have not chosen this course or volunteered to give up their lives for it,” as World-Outlook explained.

Such armed actions that relegate most Palestinians to the status of helpless bystanders have been tested in the past six months, with catastrophic results for the Palestinian people.

As Rashid Khalidi, author of The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, wrote in an April 11 essay in The Guardian, “Looking back over the past six months — at the cruel slaughter of civilians on an unprecedented scale, the millions of people made homeless, the mass famine and disease induced by Israel — it is clear that this marks a new abyss into which the struggle over Palestine has sunk.”

This is a result of the Iranian clerical regime’s “support” for the Palestinian struggle.

Its pro-Palestinian rhetoric is part of its efforts to prop up its own influence among Iranians — and others — who sympathize with the Palestinian struggle.

Despite these efforts to bolster its image, confidence in the government by working people and others has plummeted across Iran over the last decade. Periodic explosions of opposition to economic austerity, social repression, and compulsory military service to provide human fodder for the Iranian regime’s reach across the Mideast are clear signs of this.

Popular unrest in Iran

Popular unrest has included an uprising in 2017-18 and a wave of mass protests that erupted in 2022 and continued last year. Both were met with brutal repression by the regime.

Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody on September 16, 2022, sparked the most recent protests. The 22-year-old woman had been arrested by Iran’s “Guidance Patrol,” or morality police, for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly while visiting Tehran from her native Saqqez.

So, it’s no surprise that many Iranians have expressed opposition to Tehran’s attempts to wrap its domestic conduct and military adventures abroad in the mantle of the Palestinian liberation struggle.

On April 6, for example, authorities asked Iranian soccer fans in Tehran’s Aryamehr Stadium to observe a minute of silence in honor of the IRGC officers killed by the Israeli strike in Damascus. “Instead, spectators began booing and blowing air horns in an apparent act of protest,” reported the April 9 Haaretz. Videos of the incident went viral on social media.

“It is not the first time Iranian soccer fans have staged protests in their home stadium during the past six months,” Haaretz continued. On October 8, the day after the Hamas surprise attack on Israel, spectators demanded that Palestinian flags authorities posted on the field be removed. “In one video that made the rounds on X [formerly Twitter], fans can be seen shouting, ‘Take that Palestinian flag and shove it up your ass!’” Haaretz said.

This crude way to oppose the Iranian regime is an indication of how its “pro-Palestinian” posturing has set back support for the Palestinian struggle inside Iran.

Palestinians openly criticize Iranian regime, Hamas

An increasing number of Palestinians now openly speak out against such grandstanding by Tehran and its allies.

More Palestinians have recently given interviews to the media criticizing Hamas for providing Israel the opening to launch its genocidal war on Gaza, as World-Outlook reported in Gazans Opposing Hamas Say They’re the Majority.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah, the main political force in the PA, are discredited among many Palestinians in the West Bank. This is due to widespread corruption and the PA’s role in carrying out police functions, assigned to it by Israel, in the occupied territory. But leaders of these organizations are not wrong in their assessment of Iran’s actions.

Fatah “accused Iran last week of trying to ‘exploit’ Palestinians for its own means by spreading chaos in the territory,” said an article in the April 9 New York Times, reporting on Iran’s efforts to smuggle weapons into the West Bank. “In a statement, Fatah said it would not allow ‘our sacred cause and the blood of our people to be exploited’ by Iran.”

Sensing a shifting mood among Palestinians, Fatah has also begun criticizing Hamas for its methods on October 7 and beyond.

The dispute became public when Hamas accused PA president Mahmoud Abbas of being “out of touch with reality” for appointing Dr. Mohammad Mustafa to form a new PA government, reported Asharq Al-Awsat. This is an Arabic newspaper headquartered in London and owned by a member of the Saudi royal family.

“Those who caused Gaza to return under Israeli occupation and caused a nakba [catastrophe] to befall the Palestinian people, especially in Gaza, have no right to make dictates related to national priorities,” Fatah said, batting aside Hamas’ assertion of authority.

“The real side that is out of touch with reality and the Palestinian people is the Hamas leadership that has until this moment failed to realize the extent of the catastrophe endured by our oppressed people in Gaza and the rest of the Palestinian territories,” it continued.

Fatah asked how Hamas could speak of unilateral action and division after “it did not consult the Palestinian leadership or any other national Palestinian party” when it decided “to embark on an adventure on October 7 that has led to a nakba that is more severe than the 1948 Nakba.” This refers to the catastrophic outcome of the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation.

This was first time since October 7 that a major Palestinian organization acknowledged the full extent of Hamas’ responsibility for deliberately provoking Israel’s entirely predictable onslaught with no plan whatsoever to protect the population of Gaza.

This was the first of two parts. The second part of this article, which sketches the origins of the Iranian regime that underlie its current trajectory, including the damage it does to the Palestinian struggle can be found here.

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    Saudi Arabia is the most powerful purveyor of Sunni Islam, far and away the main discipline in the Islamic world. Sunni Muslims are the dominant religious group from West Africa to Indonesia. Iran is at the center of Shia Islam. Much of the regional rivalry today is about who wields the most political muscle in the Middle East.