Many observers suggest that the elimination of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), or ending their role in Gaza, could lead to lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Proponents of this view often assume that Hamas and PIJ are autonomous, unitary actors, overlooking the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has played a significant role as a peace spoiler in the region. As long as the Islamic Republic’s peace-spoiling efforts are not fully acknowledged and countered, peace between Israelis and Palestinians will remain elusive.
The Islamic regime in Iran, founded in 1979, espoused “the most radical anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist” position in the Muslim Middle East. In a theological innovation, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the new regime, asserted that liberating Jerusalem from the “Zionist enemy” and its return to Muslim hands was a precondition for completing the Islamist revolution and the return of Mahdi, the Shiite 12th Imam.
The regime has started to practice “redemptive anti-Semitism,” a highly virulent form of antisemitism that considers the physical annihilation of the state of Israel to be one of its highest callings. The obsessive focus on Jerusalem has also served a realpolitik purpose. Since the Saudi Kingdom, the main rival of Khomeinism, was the custodian of Mecca and Medina, Khomeini tried to even the playing field by declaring the Muslim shrines of Jerusalem to be of equal value and essentially appointing Iran as its custodian.
Having created this mission, the regime took actions ranging from using merely abusive language to violently foul actions to point out its commitment to obliterating Israel from the face of the earth. Calls for the destruction of Israel, referred to as “the Little Satan,” were a feature of Quds Day, a large annual event to express support for the Palestinians and opposition to Zionism.
However, the new regime had limited resources to confront powerful Israel directly. Instead, they adopted the low-cost strategy of engaging in conflict through proxy groups, which allowed the regime to avoid direct confrontation. The Islamic Republic has spent the last four decades building a network of nineteen terrorist organizations on Israel’s borders, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as 16 other terror groups in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. These proxies enabled Iran to engage in conflict with Israel from multiple fronts.
This highly successful strategy helped the regime to make significant inroads in the Middle East and to encircle Israel from all fronts. Through this strategy, the regime was able to gain strong influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, as well as in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad have morphed into radical sub-state actors, virtually able to control their respective territories.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its foreign terror operation unit, the Qods Force, provide these proxy groups with money, training, and weapons to use against the Jewish State. Iran not only provides terror proxies with advanced rockets and armed drones but has also helped them develop drone and missile production facilities of their own, creating a sophisticated arsenal within range of Israeli cities.
The IRGC trained proxy groups to use several asymmetrical tactics against Israel (and the US forces in the region), including kidnappings, hijackings, and suicide bombings (also known as the poor man’s smart bomb), as well as roadside bombings deployed against US and IDF forces to inflict maximum casualties. The IRGC also trained proxies to disperse weapons, infrastructure, and fighters among the civilian population and in local houses and public institutions, mosques, and hospitals to minimize the cost of their actions. They use civilians as human shields, regardless of whether they are killed when the enemy bombs those infrastructures in retaliation.
On several occasions, Israeli leaders were willing to make peace with Palestinians. However, the Iranian regime has categorically opposed it and used its proxy networks to undermine peace efforts.
For instance, when Palestinians and Israelis engaged in peace talks in Oslo and Madrid in 1990 and 1991, the regime in Tehran was greatly alarmed by the prospect of a peace deal and rushed to create a “rejectionist front” to scuttle the deal. As a matter of fact, regime leaders admitted that peace in the region would further isolate them, and challenge not only their revolutionary ideology but also their geopolitical ambitions. For instance, Masoud Eslami, an official in the Iranian Foreign Ministry, wrote, “If the Arabs were to get closer to Israel, Iran would become even more isolated. And then Israel would be in a position to turn itself into a major problem for Iran.” Thus, the regime had no recourse but to order Hamas and Hezbollah to derail the peace talks.
After the initiation of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the Islamic Republic promptly organized the International Conference in Support of Palestine in Tehran. At this conference, they offered financial support to Hamas and the PIJ. The regime declared Iran’s readiness to engage in jihad for Palestine’s liberation and pledged to combat Israel alongside Palestinians if necessary. Following this, Palestinian jihadi groups escalated their activities, and intensified suicide attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers. They also abducted and killed numerous Israelis, aiming to undermine the peace supporters in Israel.
Despite increased efforts, the Israeli intelligence and security services had little luck in preventing the jihadist suicide attacks from mushrooming. As a result, public opinion in Israel turned sour on the peace process, effectively ending any remaining hopes for peace.
Iran’s peace-spoiling blueprint was also visible in the collapse of the Camp David II talks. Despite a generous offer from Ehud Barak – a virtual return to the 1967 borders, a Palestinian capital in the Abu Dis neighborhood, and a condominium in the Holy Basin – Yasser Arafat strangely refused. Several assumptions were offered for Arafat’s sudden change of mind, among them possible intimidation from Iran.
During the late spring and summer of 2000, the IRGC-QF increased training and funding for Palestinian militants. When Ariel Sharon, the opposition leader, decided to visit the Temple Mount on September 28, the jihadists were ready to turn the mass unrest into a new Intifada. They received broad support from Tehran. Between 2001 and 2003, the Israeli Navy intercepted three vessels carrying Iranian and Hezbollah weapons, including Karina A. The latter was purchased by an associate of Arafat and loaded with Iranian weapons in the port of Bandar Abbas.
The goal of the Iranian regime has never changed. The regime continues to undermine peace and create a situation that prevents Israelis and Palestinians from reaching a deal because peace would further isolate Iran. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said his regime will continue to support Palestine and bless Jihad against the enemies of Islam, (a reference to Israel), and that the only solution for peace is “the elimination of the Zionist regime.”
Iran’s peace-spoiling blueprint was visible in the Hamas October 7th terrorist attack against Israel. The regime coordinated and ordered Hamas to initiate this conflict with Israel to complicate any attempts by Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel. The Islamic Republic views normalization between Israelis and Saudis as a devastating blow to its revolutionary export doctrine.
Every time Israelis and Palestinians (and Arab nations) work towards a peaceful Middle East, Iran’s Islamic regime intervenes to disrupt these efforts. From a theological standpoint, a peaceful Palestine undermines the regime’s objective of liberating Jerusalem. Consequently, regardless of the destruction of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as long as Tehran’s regime exists with its eschatological beliefs, it will vehemently oppose any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and attempt to thwart it.
Farhad Rezaei is a senior fellow at the Philos Project.