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The Iranian Connection

Tracing Tehran's ties to the Houthis, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

· 16 min read
The Iranian Connection

With the recent Houthi attacks on international shipping and the retaliatory bombing of military targets in Yemen by the US and UK, the conflict that commenced with Hamas’s 7 October attacks has broadened into a wider field of operations. The links between the Houthi, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran may at first glance seem opaque: these actors are all from different parts of the Middle East and some are Sunni, others Shi’a. Furthermore, even within the context of the century-old Arab–Zionist conflict, Hamas’s attacks were startlingly savage.  

Any reasonable person could have foreseen the fierce Israeli response to the atrocities of 7 October and the likelihood that, as a result, Palestinian statehood would be delayed for another generation at least. Even Hamas’s former Minister of Communications, Yosef Almansi, has denounced the attacks, claiming that they set the organisation’s cause back 200 years and were “the opposite of the religion of Islam. It is heresy, madness… not accepted by logic, religion, or common sense.”

So, why did Hamas attack and what is holding together the alliance of their allies?

It is difficult to discern a rationale for the attack when we consider it entirely within the scope of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—especially given that terrorist groups often lukewarm to the Palestinian cause, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Yemen’s Houthi, have also joined the fray against Israel, while militias in Iraq have simultaneously stepped up attacks against American targets there. Clearly, Hamas’s actions are merely a component of a wider Middle Eastern conflict.

To understand the events of 7 October, we must begin by considering the timing of the attack.

In the preceding months, Saudi Arabia had been moving towards a rapprochement with Israel. The 2020 Abraham Accords paved the way for this by facilitating the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as reaching similar agreements with Sudan and Morocco. The deal with Saudi Arabia came with a sweetener, provided by the United States. In exchange for peace with Israel, the US would provide the Kingdom with nuclear technology, thus making it more likely that Saudi Arabia might eventually develop a nuclear weapons program. If successful, this program would provide a counterweight to Iran’s secretive nuclear weapons program and radically shift the axis of power in the Middle East. Saudi leaders have previously stated that if Iran develops the bomb, they will too, and in the past the Kingdom has tried to negotiate a deal with Pakistan for the purchase of nuclear weapons.

The Israeli defensive response to the biggest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust rekindled widespread opposition to the Jewish state throughout the Middle East. Citing support for the Palestinian people, Bahrain recalled its ambassador to Israel, while other signatories to the Accords have faced growing support for Hamas within their own populations. The US-brokered Israel–Saudi deal is now reportedly “in tatters.” A domestically produced Saudi bomb leading to the realignment of power across the Persian Gulf now seems like a distant prospect. Iran remains ascendant.

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This raises a couple of questions. The first is whether the Hamas massacre of 7 October was a strategic act designed to preserve Iranian nuclear hegemony in the Gulf. The second question is more puzzling. Given the growing desire many Middle Eastern countries have shown to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel, why is Iran a holdout? If traditional foes such as Saudi Arabia and Israel can countenance a peace agreement, then why not Israel and Iran? 

The answer to the first question seems clear: Hamas probably undertook the massacre at the behest of Iran. The Islamic Republic provides Hamas with training, weapons and nearly $100 million in annual funding. Furthermore, not only did the highest levels of the Iranian government give the go-ahead for the attack, but Iran also provided special training in the months leading up to the attack—such as in the use of paragliders—as well as additional weapons and funding specifically earmarked for the commission of the atrocity.

So, why does the Iranian regime have such a peculiar hatred for Israel? After all, Saudi Arabia is also an authoritarian country whose religious life is dominated by fundamentalist Islam and, like Iran, the Saudis have called for the destruction of Israel. Yet, Saudi Arabia now seeks to normalize relations with the Jewish state. Likewise, while Hamas’s role as an Iranian lackey partially explains the attack, it fails to explain why the organization would so comprehensively undermine its stated long-term goal of Palestinian liberation. To understand the rationale for 7 October, we need to go back to the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.

When Ayatollah Khomeini ascended to the role of Supreme Leader of Iran during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, he promulgated his fiercely anti-Israel philosophy—a worldview that was both anti-Zionist and antisemitic. Khomeini used the familiar tropes common among Arab countries at the time. Israel, he maintained, was a colonial-settler state, a lackey of the United States, and the usurper of Islam’s rightful claim to Jerusalem. But while such anti-Israel rhetoric has become more moderate in much of the Arab world over the last few decades, Iran’s posture has become ever more fanatical and strident. Iran’s annual Quds (Jerusalem) Day (held on the last Friday of Ramadan) features missile parades, anti-American, anti-Israel and antisemitic speeches, the trampling and burning of Israeli flags and chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”

Ayatollah Mohammad Mofatteh and Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, 2009. Wikicommons.

Iranian anti-Zionism has far less to do with the plight of Palestinians than with hatred of Israelis and Jews. In fact, the Islamic Republic is deeply suspicious of the Palestinian liberation movement. Although the Iranian regime was the first to establish a Palestinian embassy  soon after its revolution, relations soured after Yasser Arafat supported Iran’s archenemy, Saddam Hussein. During the brutal Syrian civil war, Iran stationed thousands of troops and advisors in the country in support of Bashar al-Assad’s government, even as Assad’s troops killed over 3,000 Palestinians and displaced 120,000 more into refugee camps. Iranian forces also actively participated in the infamous 2013 massacre in al-Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, in which all but a tiny fraction of its Palestinian population of around 160,000 perished or were displaced. Even now—like much of the Muslim world—the Islamic Republic refuses to accept Palestinian refugees.

The Iranian government uses anti-Israeli and anti-American propaganda to galvanize domestic support for the regime and provide external scapegoats for the country’s ills. Such rhetoric can also boost support for Iran among those in the Muslim world who share its antipathy towards Israel. But Iran’s hatred of Israel is more than just sloganeering and rhetoric: the Islamic Republic actively seeks the destruction of the Jewish nation, even at the cost of both money and lives. Israel regularly assassinates Iranian agents in Syria, while Mossad targets Iranian nuclear scientists in Iran. The Islamic State spends billions on proxies spread throughout the Middle East: Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi in Yemen, and nearly a dozen other terrorist militias, including Hamas. Not all these organizations are exclusively devoted to the elimination of Israel, but antisemitism and anti-Israel ideas are important to all of them.

Iran’s obsession with the Jews and Israel is rooted in the cult of the prophet Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi. Mahdi is believed to have been born in the ninth century as the twelfth descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and is revered today by followers of Twelver Shiism. He was born at a time of widespread violence and upheaval in the Islamic world. The four-year-old Mahdi was forced into hiding after his father was assassinated. For a while, he communicated with the outside world through deputies, but he continued to hide from the world after the last deputy died in the year 941 and, according to legend, is still hidden from us today. He will reveal himself at the end of times when he emerges at the city of Jamkaran, about 150 km south of Tehran, before finally defeating evil and ushering in an Islamic paradise throughout the world.

 Iranian Twelver Shia clerics, 1982. From left to right: Makarem Shirazi, Ruhollah Khatami, Ali Meshkini, Montazeri and Fazel Lankarani. Via Wikicommons.

Middle Eastern geography plays a crucial role in the story of Mahdi’s return. Many of the countries that play important roles in Twelver Messianism have also been the focus of contemporary Iranian-sponsored terrorism. For example, Twelver Shiism predicts that before emerging in Jamkaran, Mahdi’s return will be presaged by several signs. These include the appearance of Shi’a leaders Al-Yamani in Yemen and Seyyed Khorasani from the Iranian city of Khorasan. These prophecies are replete with stories of battles between good and evil in Syria, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. With the forces of evil finally vanquished, the Mahdi will go to Jerusalem to redeem Islam and usher in the global utopia. The role of Imam Mahdi in Shi’a eschatology reflects a complex interplay between religious prophecy and modern geopolitical aspirations. As Kays al-Hazali, the leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a radical Shi’a terrorist group and Iranian proxy in Iraq and Syria, has put it, “The emergence of the Twelfth Imam Mahdi al-Muntazar is very close. At that time, Revolutionary Guards in Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ansarullah (Houthis) in Yemen, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in Syria and Iraq, and their brothers will form a large Shia region from Iran to the Mediterranean.” Jerusalem is positioned at the heart of this messianic event, marked as the pivotal location for the fulfillment of prophecy.  

Khomeini elevated Twelver Shiism to a central tenet of his rule, declaring the existence of the Islamic Republic a precursor to the saviour’s return, and casting himself in the role of a modern-day deputy of the Hidden Imam. These ideas enjoyed considerable influence during the rule of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–13). In his first speech to the United Nations in 2005, Ahmadinejad prayed for Mahdi’s speedy return. The president also spent enormous sums of money refurbishing the Jamkaran mosque and building a highway from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport to Jamkaran—“in case Imam Mahdi reappears he could travel directly from Jamkaran to Tehran’s airport without getting stuck in traffic.”

The Iranian regime brought antisemitism and Twelver Shiism together in a lethal combination. Khomeini portrayed the struggle against Israel as both political and religious. He viewed the elimination of Israel and Zionism as a necessary precondition before the Muslim world (the Ummah) could unite to bring about an Islamic revival. Israel, he declared, is a “festering sore and cancerous tumour on the body of Islamic countries,” a “germ of corruption in the heart of the Arab world”; Jews, he claimed, have sought to corrupt and divide the Ummah since the times of Mohammed, have “grasped the world with both hands and are devouring it with an insatiable appetite.”

It wasn’t long before Iranian clergy and leaders joined the dots between Jews, Israel, and Twelver Messianism. In Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic visions, Jews and Israel are the primary obstacles to Mahdi’s return. Senior Iranian clergy have also declared that Israel and the Jews must be vanquished to pave the way for the return of the Hidden Imam and the redemption of the Ummah. These themes are also gaining prominence among Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.

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The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was initially formed under the leadership of Khomeini. It began as a small elite cadre of 6,000 in 1979 and has since grown into a formidable military and financial power, with a core of least 150,000 members and influence over nearly every facet of Iranian life. The IRGC’s Quds Force was established to fight enemies beyond Iran’s borders and spread Twelver radicalism. It is through the Quds Force that Iran works with its proxies throughout the Middle East, including Hamas, which it trained and developed into an organisation with missiles and cyber warfare capabilities and a fighting force of tens of thousands. The Quds Force trained around 500 Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists for the 7 October attack. 

As Saeid Golkar and Kasra Aarabi have shown, rather than moderating its ideology since 1977, the Islamic regime has become increasingly fanatical, subjecting the IRGC—and especially the Quds Force—to religious indoctrination. Central to the Revolutionary Guard’s mission are the destruction of Israel and the liberation of Jerusalem in anticipation of Mahdi’s return. In 2012, the Supreme Leader’s representative to the IRGC declared that the Republican Guards will be instrumental in preparing for the Hidden Imam. More recently, other senior clerics associated with the IRGC have declared that “Observers must remove the obstacles to the emergence of the Imam of the Age, the most important of which is the existence of the usurper regime of Israel.” In 2023, the IRGC declared that it is on war footing in preparation for the Mahdi, a task requiring the destruction of Israel and the defeat of the American-based global order.  

Iran wants to globalize its revolutionary fervour as well. “We shall export our revolution to the whole world,” declared Khomeini. “Until the cry ‘There is no god but Allah’ resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle.” This revolutionary ideology is derived from the idea of Velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist), whereby all authority must be vested in the Shi’a leadership until Mahdi’s return. Even before he came to power, Khomeini wrote and lectured extensively about Velayat-e faqih and infused it with a vicious antisemitism, arguing that Jewish and satanic groups undermined knowledge of this principle in Muslim countries.  During the 1979 Revolution, he used this idea to justify total control over Iran and portrayed himself as imbued with the perfection formerly ascribed only to Mahdi and his predecessors.

Beyond Iran’s borders, Velayat-e faqih asserts the Supreme Leader’s authority throughout the entire Ummah, cementing Iran’s proselytizing role in exporting its ideology—including its anti-Israeli and anti-American hatred. Positioning itself as the heart of the Islamic world and of true Islam, Iran exploits its own model of Twelver Shi’a ideology to attempt to undermine Arab regimes and their Western allies and expand its hegemony. In this religious worldview, the export of the Iranian Revolution is a prerequisite for the emergence of Imam Mahdi. To further this end, Iran projects soft power throughout the region through charities, the construction of mosques and the spread of propaganda; and flexes its hard power through the Quds Force.

Al-Quds Brigades weapons exhibition/parade, Gaza Strip, 7 January 2022. Tasnim News Agency.

The Quds Force privileges those Iranian proxies who swear allegiance to the Supreme Leader and prioritise fidelity to Velayat-e faqih over any national or regional loyalties. This is not to assert that the actions of Iranian proxies are due entirely to their ideological conformity with the ideals of the Revolution. Often, alliances form because of intersecting interests and strategic needs and ideology is a secondary consideration. However, several of Iran’s proxy groups in Lebanon and Iraq are Twelver Shi’a, so following Iranian Velayat-e faqih was an easy step for them to take. For example, Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leading member of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, have both declared their fealty to Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Velayat-e faqih is so important for Hezbollah that each of its military units has a “fighting cleric” to provide spiritual guidance to the troops. These clerics derive authority from Hezbollah’s spiritual leadership and ultimately from Iran itself. Much like its Iranian patron, Hezbollah is motivated more by a desire to take Jerusalem out of Israeli hands—as well as by antisemitism and occasionally by religious Shi’a visions—than by any concern about the plight of the predominantly Sunni Palestinians. The organisation provided crucial support to Bashir al-Assad’s rule in Syria; Assad relied heavily on Hezbollah to attack Palestinian strongholds such as al-Yarmouk in Damascus. Nasralla rarely calls for Palestinian statehood; instead, he frequently urges Palestinians to rally behind Iran. In 2015, he even gave a speech against a backdrop of a map of Israel with an Iranian flag superimposed over it, which further infuriated many Palestinians. Nonetheless, Hezbollah has provided Hamas with limited support and training and frequently voices approval of the Palestinian cause in order to bolster its own popularity among Sunni Muslims.

Iranian proselytizing has yielded mixed results outside Twelver communities in Lebanon and Iraq. Although it is a Sunni organisation, Palestinian Islamic Jihad—Hamas’s ally in Gaza—has openly embraced Velayat-e faqih. Across Israel’s north-eastern border in Syria, Iran had great difficulty recruiting the local population to its cause and was forced to bring in Hezbollah fighters as well as recruit Shi’a soldiers from Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Many of these men were motivated not by Velayat-e faqih but by money or the promise of Iranian citizenship. Iran has co-opted these Middle Eastern terrorist groups, without making them swear allegiance to the Ayatollah.

In Yemen, for example, the Houthi Ansar Allah Movement, despite being an Iranian proxy, does not subscribe to Velayat-e faqih. This group follows the Zaydi branch of Shi’a jurisprudence, which has significant theological differences from Twelver Shiism. However, several of its leaders have strong connections with Iran and Hezbollah, which has influenced their own ideology. One of the movement’s founding members, Hussein al-Houthi, studied in Iran and embraced Iranian Islamic ideas. In 2001 he held a sermon on Iranian Quds Day, in which he argued for the elimination of Israel and the extermination of the Jews, whom he accused of ruling the world and corrupting Islam and likened to dogs and pigs. Such language occurs frequently in Houthi propaganda, as does the Iranian chant “Death to Israel, death to America”—to which the Houthi add “curse the Jews,” while sometimes giving the Nazi salute. Since the Iranians declared support for the Yemeni group in 2015, the Houthi have pursued an agenda more aligned with Iran’s: threatening Israeli interests in Eritrea, pushing for the release of Hamas terrorists, and, of course, threatening Red Sea shipping in support of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas.

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Given that it is a Sunni organisation, Hamas is an outlier among Iran’s predominantly Shi’a “axis of resistance.” Since 1979, the Sunni–Shi’a conflict has caused the deaths of over a million Muslims and displaced millions more. Furthermore, Hamas has not always been sympathetic towards Iran and its ideology. During the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah and IRGC troops encountered roadside bombs resembling ones that they themselves had taught Hamas to construct, from which the Shi’a coalition deduced that Hamas was active in the war against them. This suspicion was confirmed in 2013, when Hezbollah and the Quds Force faced off against Hamas directly in the Syrian town of Qusayr. In 2015, during the conflict between the Houthi and the Saudis, Hamas voiced their support for the Sunni Saudis. However, under the leadership of millionaire Yahya Sinwar, Hamas quietly walked back its support for its Palestinian brothers in Syria and has reversed its opposition to the Houthi, angering its Saudi brethren. In doing so, it cemented Iranian support.

Hamas’s stated aims have always been the eradication of Jews from “the river to the sea” as a necessary step towards the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state. The organization began as the Gazan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas’s fanatical antisemitism and anti-Zionism were inherited from the Brotherhood, whose founder Sayyid Qutb infused his pan-Islamic beliefs with vicious Jew hatred, even declaring that “Allah brought Hitler to rule over them (the Jews). And once again today the Jews have returned to evildoing in the form of Israel.” Hamas’ 1988 founding Covenant is full of the same antisemitic rhetoric: it accuses Jews of controlling everything from the Rotary Club to the global financial system, and explicitly cites the 1903 Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  

The ideological parallels between Iran’s leadership and Hamas are unsurprising: Iranian scholars studied with Brotherhood leaders in Cairo in the 1950s, leading to cross-pollination of radicalism and antisemitism. Like the Iranian theocrats, the Brotherhood also hoped for a pan-Islamic caliphate. But Hamas initially diverged from these aims by becoming a nationalist organisation, focused on an Islamic Palestinian state and eschewing talk of a revolution beyond Palestine’s borders.

But while Hamas is not explicitly aligned with Velayat-e faqih, there have been some changes in ideological emphasis within its ranks. Since 7 October, its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, have begun to speak of the Prophet Mohammed as a martyr or mujahid, notions that are more aligned with Shi’a than with Sunni belief, and especially with the version of Shi’a Islam promulgated by the Iranian Republic. This vision of Mohammed signals a fanatical commitment to jihad and the pursuit of a global caliphate. Hamas is now focusing on universal Islamic redemption and not just on Palestinian statehood. For example, on 8 December 2023, a senior Hamas official stated that their goal was “no oppression, no treachery, no Zionism, no treasonous Christianity” and that Gaza would be the beachhead for the establishment of a global caliphate. Their plan, the Hamas leader claimed, “is not confined to the liberation of Gaza,” but encompasses a cure “for all the maladies of this Western civilization.”  

Any explanation of 7 October that views the atrocity merely as part of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict will be incomplete. The rationale for the massacre—and for the parallel actions of terrorist groups in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen—is to be found within a complex tapestry of Middle Eastern politics, antisemitism, Shi’a theology, and eschatological visions of an Islamic Jerusalem. If a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians were ever to be achieved, this would not guarantee the Jewish state’s security, so long as Jerusalem remained central to the Islamic Republic’s ambitions.

Iran’s nuclear program poses a particular threat to Israel. If the Republic develops nuclear weapons, it could avoid direct confrontation with the West and Israel by providing these weapons to its proxies, thereby fighting a nuclear war through a network of terrorist groups. Even if it were threatened with direct nuclear retaliation, the fanatical Iranian leadership might still launch their weapons and risk the destruction of their country, if it meant the annihilation of Israel and the return of Imam Mahdi. There is tragic precedent for the idea that a nation might sacrifice itself to fulfill its genocidal fantasies. Even as it faced defeat, Nazi Germany devoted manpower and resources to the murder of six million Jews, resources desperately needed for the war effort. Germany prioritized dreams of a world without Jews over its own survival.

Israel’s struggle is also our own. From Tehran to Yemen, chants of “death to Israel” are always accompanied by chants of “death to America.” And by “America,” they mean not just the United States but the entirety of western society, a society that many radicals hope will be destroyed in a future global Islamic caliphate.

Pierre James

Pierre James is an independent researcher based in Adelaide, Australia. He has formerly written on the Holocaust and right-wing extremism.

Suha Hassen

Dr. Suha Hassen holds a PhD from Al-Nahrain University (Baghdad) and is currently a Doctoral Candidate in the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University.

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