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Iran is positioning itself to benefit from the Israel-Gaza conflict

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The writer is vice-president and director of the Foreign Policy programme at the Brookings Institution and an Iran specialist

Hamas’ attack on Israel has reignited the volatile conflict between the Jewish state and the Palestinians and threatens to trigger a wider war with devastating consequences for the Middle East and the world. As grief and fear engulf the region, there is one sinister potential winner: the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose leadership hopes to reap the whirlwind of the violence it has sown.

Speculation has focused on what role, if any, the Iranians had in orchestrating Hamas’s latest brutality. Tehran has sought to avoid explicit culpability, with senior Iranian officials insisting that the attack was solely a Palestinian enterprise, even as they celebrated its horrific toll. The US has also said there is no “direct evidence” of Iranian involvement.

But looking for Iran’s fingerprints on the attack plans is a red herring. Hamas relies on Iranian funding and extensive material support, especially in building its missile arsenal, among a wider array of backers. Over the past decade, Hamas, a Sunni Muslim group, has become fully integrated as a crucial component of Iran’s wider network of Shia militias, with close co-ordination from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Those Iranian investments made 7 October possible.

Tehran is now certainly doing its best to position itself as the beneficiary of the explosive aftermath. From its inception with Iran’s 1979 revolution, chaos and assertiveness have been the preferred currency of the Islamic Republic. Convinced that its embrace of theocracy was only the first of a wider wave of upheavals, the revolutionary state developed an infrastructure dedicated to toppling the status quo across the Muslim world through proxy groups, Islamist propaganda and instrumental use of extraterritorial violence. Attempted coups, assassinations and bombings followed. The anticipated revolutionary wave failed to materialise, but from the ashes of early Iranian terror campaigns emerged Lebanese Hizbollah. This gave the Islamic Republic a foothold on the perimeter of its foremost adversary, Israel, and a stranglehold on the future of Lebanon.

In this way, proxy terror groups became a core component of the Islamic Republic’s regional and international strategy. This proved a highly effective means of intimidating its neighbours, such as in 1996, when a Saudi group tied to Tehran bombed the Khobar Towers housing compound, killing 19 American military personnel. In the aftermath, US troops were relocated to a more secure base; ultimately, most were withdrawn from the kingdom.

Tehran’s own experience on the defensive has only cemented its sense that conflict and disorder advance its interests. Even Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran worked to its advantage by rallying popular patriotism, consolidating the fractious revolutionary state, forging a robust indigenous defence industrial base, and ultimately enabling the regime to survive past its infancy.

Out of adversity comes opportunity — each successive conflagration in the region has put Tehran in a stronger position. Even America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, which placed 150,000 US troops along its border, quickly broke in Tehran’s favour: Washington removed the theocracy’s most imminent and existential threat and then bequeathed the Islamic Republic a weak Iraqi state filled with Iranian clients. Tehran made the most of other apparent threats to its regional reach, such as the Syrian civil war, by mounting a transnational Shia militia to fight in Syria and eventually building a strategic partnership with Russia there as well.

So far, events in Israel and Gaza are serving several Iranian objectives: its stature as a regional interlocutor; emboldening its proxy network; blocking the nascent Israeli-Saudi normalisation, which would have further isolated Iran; and weakening Israel, which is embarking on a ferocious offensive that will cost lives and damage its international standing. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has already declared the conflict “an irreparable defeat” for Israel, adding that the Israeli government “will no longer be the regime it used to be, and they cannot easily compensate for the blow that has struck them”.

There is a chance, however, that Tehran has over-reached by helping to generate a crisis with such fearsome uncertainty. The Islamic Republic likes to rattle its sabres but would prefer to stay out of the direct line of fire, especially where it is outmatched by its adversaries. As clashes between Israel and Hizbollah continue, Iran risks being dragged into the conflict. This would be a dangerous turn of events, most especially for its own political survival.

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