Gaza is Just One Front in Iran’s Regional War

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 27 May 2021

Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system [left] activates over southern Israel against incoming HAMAS rockets [right], 14 May 2021

Naim Qassem, the deputy secretary-general of Hizballah, the Lebanese division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), gave an interesting interview to Hizballah’s Al-Nour radio station on 22 May, explaining IRGC/Hizballah’s vision for what it had achieved with the recent war in Gaza. Qassem added to a large body of evidence about Iran’s extensive role in the war, a lot of it supplied directly by the combatant parties themselves. Not only did the clerical regime in Iran supply the material basis for the Islamists’ war against Israel this month; they provided much of the ideological framework, too.


Hardware and Technology

The Iranian role in the recent Gaza war has hardly been hidden. Last year, Hizballah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah—who attracted attention this week when he appeared for the anniversary speech looking distinctly ill—openly stated that the bulk of the weaponry HAMAS possesses is supplied by IRGC; he’s not lying. In 2019, HAMAS’ formal deputy and the on-the-ground leader in the Strip, Yahya Sinwar, stated bluntly: “If it wasn’t for Iran’s support, we would not have had these capabilities”. That’s truer now than then.

It was obviously Iran that enabled the firing of 4,000 missiles by HAMAS over the eleven-day conflict this month, almost exactly the same number as HAMAS managed to launch over fifty days in 2014, and the newest HAMAS drones were self-evidently modelled after the ones Iran has deployed through Ansarallah (the Huthis) in Yemen.

Iran’s practice has evolved from providing missile shipments to fostering local missile-production—in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere. Partly this is done because small pieces of specialised equipment and individual advisers are less vulnerable during transfer to Israeli airstrikes.

Another reason Tehran does this is so that local variations in design and quality can be used as “deniability”. Unconvincing as this is to any good-faith analyst, therein lies the problem. The “debate”, such as it has been, over where the missiles come from mirrors a long-running obfuscation by academics and journalists, some of it quite deliberate, about the export of Iran’s Revolution.

The “Deniable” Reality

In 2015, there was a poisonous argument within the analytical “community” about who controlled the Iraqi militias that were self-declaredly loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i, and which dominated the Hashd al-Shabi structure that the West chose to align with against the Islamic State (IS). In Syria, there are persistent efforts to downplay Iran’s role or overplay Russia’s role or detect meaningful competition between the two—or, most bizarrely, to insist on Bashar al-Asad’s “agency”. This while IRGC has fully co-opted the Syrian command structure. In Yemen, the attempt to deny Iran’s role has been most successful, despite the overwhelming evidence that Ansarallah is an IRGC creature and has been for decades.

And all of this begins with the Revolution in Iran itself in 1978-9, the nature of which was distorted by wish-thinking and worse from day one, and the other compartment of the Revolution in Lebanon.

IRGC has its origins in Lebanon in the late 1970s, and these exact same networks are what later come to be called Hizballah. In short, Hizballah is an organic component of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. But this did not stop a vast disinformation campaign taking hold to deny this fact. Academia was particularly bad on this score, creating a literature that is, as Tony Badran has put it, “littered with superfluous, misleading, and false categories”, all of them intended to present Hizballah as fundamentally Lebanese and nationalist, rather than what it is: an extension of the Iranian theocracy.

What is most amusing, and infuriating, is that neither Hizballah nor any of IRGC’s other duplicates really try very hard to deny what they are. Naim Qassem personally, for example, wrote a memoir, available in English, that told the history of Hizballah as it is: a story of Iran’s Revolution. In 2014, during what was otherwise a pretty carefully scripted speech, Qassem casually refuted the nonsensical idea Hizballah originates as a “resistance” movement against Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. With this latest round in Gaza, the pattern has held.

Iran’s Advertised Role in Gaza

Iran’s Supreme Leader boasted this week of being behind the “recent jihad” against Israel, supporting its two crucial elements, HAMAS led by Ismail Haniya and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) led by Ziyad al-Nakhala. PIJ, a straightforward outgrowth of Iran’s Revolution, has been particularly outspoken in advertising this fact, thanking the clerical regime for its missile arsenal, and framing PIJ’s attacks on Israel as part of Iran’s “Resistance Axis” and in memory of the IRGC-Quds Force chief Qassem Sulaymani, a theme played on by others.

Sinwar said just yesterday that HAMAS and its military units, Kataib Izzadeen al-Qassam (or Al-Qassam Brigades) were in high-level communication with IRGC and Hizballah throughout the entire eleven-day war. Shortly before this, Sinwar had let it be known that Iran “did not skimp” on the resources it supplied for the assault on Israel.

The Yemen Dimension

Worth noting is that both PIJ and HAMAS made a point in this round of connecting their war on Israel to the Huthi jihad in Yemen. This was done in rhetoric, and then PIJ, HAMAS, and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) sent representatives to Huthi-occupied Sanaa to celebrate the war, referred to as the “Sword of Jerusalem” (Sayf al-Quds), as the most significant blow to the Zionist Entity in quite some time.[1]

What makes this so noteworthy is that, despite the Huthis oft-stated belief that their war is a transnational one on Iran’s behalf against the Americans and their Zionist puppet-masters, it still remains possible for analysts and even political leaders like Senator Chris Murphy to argue that there is distance between Iran and the Huthis and not automatically trigger an expert consensus that they’re delusional or mendacious or both.

Tehran’s decision to flaunt the fact that Gaza and Yemen are two fronts of the same war is presumably because it understands that if the “analysis” denying that the Huthis belong to the Supreme Leader has not died under the weight of evidence by now, it is not going to, and the Iranian regime can therefore have it every-which-way: be defended in the West from charges of instigating and perpetuating war in Yemen, while engaging in ideological reaffirmation with its own constituencies, and telling the regional states like Saudi Arabia that it very much is behind the war and concessions better be sent in its direction unless they want things to get worse.


Iran’s Vision of the Gaza War

Shaykh Naim Qassem confirmed in his interview over the weekend what Sinwar said yesterday. “We in Hizballah … had daily contact with the leaders of the Resistance and the mujahideen [in Gaza]”, said Qassem, which allowed the provision of material support to the Islamists “at the right time”. The entire Axis of Resistance is coordinating closely, Qassem says, impervious to the pressures of “media and political debate”, so that the Axis can uphold its core purposes of a readiness to sacrifice for faith and jihad.

Qassem tells a story of Hizballah’s growth and empowerment as one that has come about gradually, in stages of warfare, each building on the last. Thus, after “achieving victory” over the July 1993 “aggression” from Israel, with the Israelis ending their Operation ACCOUNTABILITY having not achieved its goals, it gave a boost to Hizballah that was enhanced by the way the April 1996 GRAPES OF WRATH operation turned out, and with the “liberation” in May 2000, it “made us feel more powerful”. The July 2006 conflict only added to Hizballah’s sense of its strength, says Qassem.

Qassem says the May 2021 “Sword of Jerusalem” operation by HAMAS, PIJ, and the other Islamists against Israel was “a strategic milestone and a historic turning point; it was not an ordinary victory … [but] a very important matter that we will now build on”. Qassem celebrates the fact that Israelis had to feel vulnerable, fleeing into shelters under sirens as Hizballah-enabled missiles were launched at its civilian population. With a nod to internal troubles with the Israeli Arabs, Qassem says that “all of Palestine is today resisting” and this clears the way for Israel’s destruction so that Muslims can rule “from the River to the Sea”.

Qassem clearly feels that among the most important aspects of the “victory” in the Gaza war was the political damage done to Israel, as expressed in the hostile reaction of international opinion. Israel “has been exposed as killing civilians”, says Qassem, “and this global image of Palestinian suffering is … achieving victory and results”. Qassem says that Israel can only be sustained by constant fighting, and its will is now being worn down by this. Israel is weaker than a “spider web”, is how Qassem phrase it, celebrating the movement of Iran’s tributaries closer to Jerusalem.

Specifically mentioning President Joe Biden, Qassem rejects his belief in the two-state solution, since “the Zionists” have to be expelled “to the countries from which they came” (a tall ask given that most Israeli Jews descend from refugees from Arab countries, who were driven out by state-directed campaigns of theft and murder).

Qassem insists that the ceasefire in Gaza has put HAMAS and PIJ on the hook for nothing; the siege of Gaza must be lifted, even if gradually, and “the Resistance” has options to hasten this should it not be so. Qassem reiterates that the “victory” of the Iranian-run Islamists in the Gaza war was “historical and strategic” and “to be built upon”. “Victory comes in stages”, concludes Qassem. “We must expect more confrontations, sacrifices, and other stages. As long as the result is victory, we must endure [these hardships], particularly since the project of Resistance is the project of a small group of countries and peoples, facing the international community and Global Arrogance”.

What is clear from Qassem’s description is that the Iranian regime, far from seeing these repeated wars it instigates in Gaza as pointless bloodlettings, believes they are cumulative, one might say progressive. The Islamic Republic truly believes it can build up HAMAS in Gaza to a point that it can break out of the siege, deter Israel, and ultimately be used as a base for the final confrontation to eliminate Israel.

Miscellaneous from Qassem

Within the interview, Qassem touched on a number of other interesting subjects.

Qassem declares himself uninterested “in discussing who fired the rockets from southern Lebanon [into Israel during the Gaza war] or whether it was correct to launch them”, and even says, “We had no information indicating Israel would exploit the latest military manoeuvre to wage a war on Lebanon” [emphasis added]. On the contrary, Qassem feels—and he is not completely making it up—that Israel is already deterred in Lebanon and that its freedom is shrinking. Israel had to stick to one area because, Qassem asks rhetorically, “How could it succeed in fighting on several fronts with the Axis of Resistance?”

Qassem offers the situation in Lebanon as a model for the Islamic militants in Gaza, advising them essentially to create what the Soviets would have recognised as a Popular Front, which gives the impression of broad-based legitimacy, even as a clique of extremists run the show. Hizballah has embedded the Resistance in a protective, “nurturing environment” (bayat hadana), says Qassem, surrounded by, on the one hand, the political cover of the AMAL movement and other Hizballah supporters, and, on the other hand, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). “We then raised the slogan of the triumvirate of ‘the People, the Army, and the Resistance’,” says Qassem, and this worked to ensure the “resistance work” is unhindered.

Additionally, on Lebanon itself, Qassem says that Saudi Arabia “is indifferent to what is happening in Lebanon and has no ability to interfere”, underlining that it “does not want to” get involved. This does appear to be accurate.

The Gaza war has hastened the reconciliation between HAMAS and Bashar al-Asad’s Syria, according to Qassem, and HAMAS will soon return to Damascus. HAMAS left Syria for Qatar in 2012 after siding with the Syrian rebellion, but soon switched back to Iran’s camp and Tehran has been seeking to patch up the HAMAS-Asad relationship for a while.

Finally, Qassem directly addresses Yemen, saying there has been a strategic breakthrough in the country for the Resistance Axis, piercing the cordon of the Gulf monarchies and making advances, even as southern Lebanon and the supporters of the anti-Huthi forces are in disarray. “The Yemenis’ [i.e. the Huthis] willingness to fight against the Zionists is a source of pride”, says Qassem, “they are sincere and they are truly with Palestine”.


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Funeral for Husayn al-Wa’eli, the Huthi jihadist killed in Gaza (source: IRGC’s Mashregh News)

[1] UPDATES: One of IRGC’s channels, Mashregh News, reported on 29 May that “Palestinian activists” had, on 21 May, buried “the first Yemeni martyr in the fight against the Zionist enemy, Husayn al-Wa’eli, from the Wadi al-Abu Jabr tribe in Saada”, the stronghold of the Zaydi Shi’a population and the heartland of Huthi control, the base from which they expanded to occupy much of the rest of the country. Mashregh, playing the part of a legitimate news organisation, says “there is no information about … the extent of Yemeni participation” in the war against Israel, but “the participation of the Yemeni Resistance” alongside the Palestinian militants was acknowledged a few days ago by Abd al-Malek al-Huthi, the leader of Ansarallah, and the Huthis’ “Al-Masirah network … also reported the martyrdom of the first Yemeni affiliated with Ansarallah [in Palestine], Husayn Muhammad al-Wa’eli”.

On 31 May 2021, the Hizballah paper Al-Akhbar reported three notable things: (1) HAMAS coordinated its “ultimatum” to Israel on 10 May, before HAMAS commenced war, with Hizballah/IRGC in Lebanon; (2) there was a deliberate effort to launch attacks on Israel from Syria, Lebanon, and possibly Iraq (Al-Akhbar is coy about where the drone near Haifa came from) in order to demonstrate the unity of the Resistance and the multiple fronts from which it can threaten the Zionist enterprise, a warning in the short-term that a regional war will break out if Israel does anything against the branches of Iran’s Revolution and a curtain raiser for the “Great War of Liberation” to come that will “eliminate Israel”; and (3) along similar lines, the Huthis had asked HAMAS for coordinates so they could launch missile and drone strikes from Yemen against Israel, but HAMAS told them to hold off while their military predicament was favourable, albeit they should come in with attacks if Resistance Axis “red lines” got crossed.

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