Within hours of Hamas’s attack on Saturday, the celebrations had started in Iran. The Office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei released a new propaganda video, glorifying the so-called “Al Aqsa Storm” operation. In Tehran’s “Palestine Square”, regime flunkies handed out drinks and sweets to passers-by.
In the coming days, Israel and Hamas will dominate the headlines. But, beyond the latest battle in a war between Israel and the Palestinians that has lasted for almost 80 years, something else is going on. Two autocratic states — Iran and Russia — are consolidating a relationship centred on certain ideological tenets. The first is hostility towards the West; the second, a deep-seated desire to overturn the US-rules-based order; and the third, as far as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is concerned, a clash of civilisations.
Iranian hatred of Israel, and its resulting support of its enemies, is so long-standing as to be banal. Iran’s Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has funded, armed and trained Hamas since the early Nineties, and while funding stopped in 2012 after a fallout resulting from Hamas’s refusal to support Iran’s client Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, it was resumed in 2017. Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a military adviser to Khamenei, has declared his unequivocal support for the attack, while the spokesperson of Izzuddin Al-Qassam Brigades went even further. “We thank the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said. “Who provided us with weapons, money and other equipment! He gave us missiles to destroy Zionist fortresses, and helped us with standard anti-tank missiles!”
Russia has generally been more circumspect. It has had good relations with Israel, and President Vladimir Putin welded himself into his job by raging against Chechnya’s supposed “Islamic terror”, which he used as an excuse to level its capital city Grozny. But the more he has allowed his appetite for conquest to curdle into gluttony, the more he has yanked Russia away from the Western order that he once hoped to join.
Last year, Putin clearly decided that becoming a Western pariah was a price worth paying for filching Ukraine. But the price has been higher than he expected, so he’s had to improvise. Since February 2022, we have seen between Russia and Iran what amounts to an alliance of “rogue states” who need each other’s help as they are further locked out of international agreements and trade deals.
Only last month, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu (who has never actually served a day in the absurdly-medalled uniform he wears) visited Tehran to meet with Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, to discuss “strengthening bilateral defence and military cooperation”. Shoigu was then taken on a tour of Iran’s drone, missile and air defence arsenal at the IRGC Aerospace Force Headquarters in Tehran.
Shoigu also met with his Iranian counterpart, the lugubrious Defense Minister Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani (who at least was once an actual soldier), and was shown several Iranian missiles (notably Paveh cruise missile and 358 surface-to-air missile). This is alarming. On 18 October, the requirement that countries obtain UN Security Council permission before transferring certain missiles and drones to and from Iran expires. Washington already says Iran is in violation for its transfer of Shaheds to Russia. Now, it might be able to stock up on badly needed missiles for its own war.
The Security Council deadline does contain a “snapback clause” for violation. But this seems unlikely to be enforced given the Biden Administration’s clear desire for a nuclear deal. Last month, Washington made a deal with Iran to release five American hostages in exchange for five Iranians held in US jails and around $6 billion of Iranian assets frozen in South Korea.
Now, the deal’s opponents say this cash has been used to fund the weekend’s attack. The White House has responded that there are safeguards in place to make sure the ransom (which is what it is) is used only for humanitarian purposes. It’s a nice thought but a naive one. Money is fungible. Even if the Americans could ensure the cash was used correctly, all it does is allow the Iranians to free up money they might otherwise have spent on those very things and funnel that to their proxy killers in Gaza and Beirut.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, has no real ideological interest in Gaza but it is making its presence felt. Hamas leaders have travelled to Moscow several times to meet with an assortment of Russia’s security personnel and politicians. In March, a senior Hamas official met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, just a few months after Lavrov had decided the Western response to Ukraine was nothing to do with Russian imperialism but something else entirely. “There was a poorly camouflaged attempt to take advantage of the situation in Ukraine to distract the international community’s attention from one of the oldest unsettled conflicts — the Palestinian-Israeli one,” he said.
The rhetoric here is notable not for its clichéd content, but for the fact that it was said at all. The Israel-Palestine conflict, like the war in Ukraine, represents a broader geopolitical fault line between East and West. Where you stand on each one is likely to define where you stand on a broad range of wider issues separating the two blocs.
For its part, the Islamic Republic has always had an East-West divide as a guiding principle of policy. Its founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini based much of his hatred of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, on what he perceived as Pahlavi’s subservience to the West. Like many unreasonable old men, Khomeini had a binary view of the world. His fusion of Islamism and anti-imperialism found a politically expedient outlet in Islam’s traditional bifurcation of the world into of Haq versus Batel (truth and righteousness against falsehood) and Dar al-Islam versus Dar al-Harb (the realm of peace and belief against the realm of war and disbelief). Onto that he grafted his desire to preserve Iran’s Islamic identity in the face of Western inﬂuence: a resistance to what was called Gharbzadegi (literally: ‘West-struckness’).
Khomeini manifested much of these desires in a foreign policy that preached a non-aligned vision of “neither East nor West” (while of course still trying to export the Islamic Revolution abroad). Khamenei has gone further. The messaging coming out of Tehran is, on this point at least, unyielding. Iran looks at the West and sees civilisational atrophy everywhere. Civil strife, unemployment and homelessness are ubiquitous. Abroad, its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria are legion. Politically, it points to the rise of the Brics (Tehran applied to join the group in June 2022 and will become a member on 1 January 2024); the emergence of new trade routes; and the shift in economic power to the Global South. For Khamenei, this is where the arc of history is bending: towards the birth of a new world order in which three civilisations — a Russo-Slavic civilization led by Russia, an Islamic civilisation led by Iran’s Shia Islamists and the Chinese Han civilisation — are all in conflict with a declining West.
Putin is more rhetorically circumspect, but his thoughts are equally clear. “The trend toward multipolarity in the world is inevitable,” he declared. “It will only intensify. And those who do not understand this and do not follow this trend will lose. It is an absolutely obvious fact. It is as obvious as the sunrise. Nothing can be done about it.”
Whether it is a clash of civilisations, the desire to destroy the Western world or the drive to a multipolar one, for both Russian and Iran, this lens is the wider ideological prism through which they view geopolitics. It is the broader importance of the wars in Gaza and Ukraine. It is the prism through which they view possible Saudi normalisation with Israel, and with which they view the violence in Gaza, which they view as a challenge to the West and a net good for them accordingly.
For Tehran and Moscow, Ukraine and Israel have become two fronts in a wider clash between East and West. The United States has spent so much cash and political capital in helping to defend the Jewish state in the past half century that any defeat Jerusalem suffers projects not only its own weakness but that of its primary ally. Every Hamas rocket that strikes home is not merely another act of terror but yet one more hole punched through the Western order.