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Conciliation of Theological Divides in the Middle East and Iranian Pragmatism in the Context of October Attack on Israel

Conciliation of Theological Divides in the Middle East and Iranian Pragmatism in the Context of October Attack on Israel

09-06-2024
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onflicts and contradictions among the state and the nonstate actors in the Middle East has been profound for centuries. Regional balance of power has always been volatile due to the shifting power dynamics previously among the local, now the regional, and global powers. After the October Attack by Hamas in Southern Israel has also deeply impacted the struggle for the power in the region and formation of alliances. Specially the greater coordination among the militant groups with different interests and ideologies against Israel and the Western allies underscore the role of Iran in facilitating the communication by eradicating gaps.

This article aims to reflect on the united approach in the axis of resistance, mostly issues uniting and parting militant groups in the Middle East. Additionally, role of Iran would also be examined in the light of autonomy of the militant groups in pursing their own objectives and what is the uniting glue Iran supplies that mitigates the sectarian hostilities. 

Even if it does not reflect the reality of the Middle East, Western views have depicted the picture of this region in terms of religious divide, namely Shia-Sunni separation. Consequently, any approach to understand the Middle East has been from the perspective of religious lens. However, this tradition continues to shape the geopolitics of the region. But there been an interesting development in the regional statecraft in terms of alliance creation by subsiding the ideological divide. Though at the state level, relations among Shia and Sunni countries went through ups and downs but militant groups in different countries at least who belong to the axis of resistance showed a greater level of coordination in unsettling Israel and western allies collectively. This development may not have been wholly unique but newly evolving realities after Hamas attack on Israel last year marks an extraordinary level of calibration. 

Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen and small groups in Iraq and Syria have continued to combat Israel and Western powers and their allies in the region with their respective capacity and strategic advantage. This level of coordination and solidarity (might be short lived) with Hamas is very unprecedented. After the October attack, Houthis have been very active in the Red Sea to attack ships having affiliation with Israel. Disruptions in this vital trade route have caught vigorous international attention. Hezbollah on the other hand has continued its efforts to throw missiles in Israeli territories from Lebanese adjacent border regions. Meanwhile small groups in Syria and Iraq are also targeting the US military bases and was able to score limited success in inflicting some cost. Lastly, Iran has also retaliated Israeli attack on its territory at a limited scale. 

Amid such realities, Iran has been accused of plotting such coordinated act which is causing considerable instability in the region. This also begs the question how Iran is managing different militant groups with different theological traditions, especially Shia and Sunni. Looking at the religious profile, Hamas has been a Sunni dominated organization while Hezbollah, Houthis and other militant groups are Shia. This contradicts the traditional understanding of ideology an explanatory variable to defend the traditional rift among major powers on the ground. Therefore, a growing number of literature object such arbitrary causation where Islam is being labelled as the source of the conflict. Objective understanding demonstrates several compelling reasons fuelling the conflict and rational decision making is involved in determining alliance, and advancing actions and inactions among them. 

However, we need to deconstruct the puzzle in understanding why Sunni Hamas affiliates itself with the Shia circle in its political alignment while state level cooperation between Shia and Sunni is not very common. Historically speaking, Hamas was born in 1987 when Iran was about to settle itself from war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. It is believed that Iran had a huge patronage in its establishment. It explains the natural alignment with Iran from its inception but what explains the theological differences? For Hamas, its objective had been to establish an independent Palestine state through violent means since negotiation is unlikely to produce any result. 

In the absence of any strong backing or concrete example among Sunni countries, Shia Iran became a visible framework for Hamas leadership to follow in advancing its cause against Israel. Obviously, an uncompromising image of Iran also created incentive for Sunni supporters of Hamas to accept Iran. Whereas readily financial and tactical military supports were additional for Hamas to create partnership with Iran. On the other hand, Iran had reasons to form relationship with Hamas. Palestine issue still holds appeal in the Muslim world and Iranian domestic segment. After October 7, Hamas would be more valued and appreciated in Iran due to its impressive planning and execution of it. So, being a partner of Hamas emboldens the positive image of Iran whereas strong Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE chose to appease with Israel.  

Going back to the coordination issue among resisting parties, role of Iran is argued to be central and pivotal, especially its part in facilitating inter-groups relationship among Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis broadly.  Apart from Iran’s interests, these groups also have mutual needs to get closer to each other in advancing the collective interest to hold on to power. Being supportive of each other, these militant groups actually justify their cause of existence. One’s success is often being portrayed victory for others as well. In the similar vein, they can also share the failure together and vow revenge. If we look at such militant groups very independently, we will easily see their influence very limited in shaping or happening major events in the broader political environment. But when considered collectively, they possess an enormous impact specifically in weighing the regional balance of power. Iran also gets the benefit by harmonizing these groups and they account for Iran’s military and strategic capacity. 

Similarly, Iran has the potential resources in terms of material and instrumental support to offer for such actors operating with capacity to influence the regional events. Iran’s power projection in the Middle East lies in its unparalleled capacity to utilize the complex network of Islamic groups operating in the region. Iran has been using them in its neighbouring countries covertly and often overtly to leverage its military power. High profile attacks in the Red Sea or on Israel attach some credit automatically to Iran boosting its profile among its own citizens and others who follow the politics of the Middle East.

Maintaining connections with groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah gives Iran a shed from being directly involved with Israel and its allies in a military confrontation. It has become clear that Iran is not super enthusiastic to wage full-scale attack on Israel despite Israel’s provocative acts against it. But distracting Israel and its allies such as USA and Saudi Arabia through these militant organizations at a cheaper cost weakens its opponents profoundly in the longer run. Iran cannot sustain a durable conflict militarily and financially but bolstering local groups gives Iran a stronghold cementing its influence. This strategy has been proven to be time taking but worthy as time elapses.

Abovementioned discussion still does not provide rationale why Iran has been successful in retaining a sort of authority or coordinating power over these military groups in advancing its greater objectives in the wider region. Agency of these organizations is also another issue to comprehend. When October attack took place, several political analysts have drawn the conclusion that Iran was behind the masterplan of the attack. But intelligence has been failed to give any evidence that Iran was fully aware of such event in developing. It is at the same time true that Iran must have contributed this attack over the years though financing and transferring arms to Hamas. Now question may be raised how cannot Iran know about the eminent attack from its partner on its enemy?

This gets interesting in Iranian approach in alliance making and directing. Unlike USA, Iran takes a very flexible approach in its alliance formation and sees the partners’ priorities independently. Iran has been providing supports to these militant organizations for years for its own ends in harbouring own strategic interests in the longer run but they were left with greater agency in setting their own agenda individually. No matter if there is any election or not, these groups also have to legitimize their existence and de facto rule in the absence of the state authority in the local context. So some of their actions must acknowledge the local demands which may often align with the greater objective the axis of resistance. Therefore, they decide their priorities that Iran may not have any authority over. There is also a possibility that these organizations have different approach to Shia-Sunni divide at the domestic level but while they collectively act in the broader regional level, they put aside these differences and act for greater objectives linked to power possession. Presumably Iranian practical understanding helps to mediate tensions among the groups laying informal coherence of action. 

References:
01. Alaaldin, Ranj Alaaldin. “Iran’s Strategy in the War on Gaza.” Middle East Council on Global Affairs, February 9, 2024. https://mecouncil.org/blog_posts/irans-strategy-in-the-war-on-gaza/.
 
02. Ebrahim, Nadeen. “Hamas and Iran Are Longtime Allies. Did Tehran Help with Its Attack on Israel?” CNN, October 10, 2023.https://edition.cnn.com/2023/10/09/middleeast/hamas-iran-israel-attack-analysis-intl/index.html

03. Haddad, Fanar. “The Diminishing Relevance of the Sunni-Shi’a Divide.” Project on Middle East Political Science. Accessed May 19, 2024. https://pomeps.org/the-diminishing-relevance-of-the-sunni-shia-divide.

04. Knickmeyer, Ellen. “From Houthis to Hezbollah, a Look at the Iran-Allied Groups Rallying to Arms around Middle East.” AP News, January 23, 2024. https://apnews.com/article/hamas-hezbollah-houthis-iran-militant-groups-745bfc36e23997ee3f0bc499a9f5c16d.

05. Koss, Maren. Flexible resistance: How Hezbollah and Hamas are mending ties - ..., June 11, 2018. https://carnegie-mec.org/2018/07/11/flexible-resistance-how-hezbollah-and-hamas-are-mending-ties-pub-76782.

06. Reisinezhad, Arash. “The 7 Reasons Iran Won’t Fight for Hamas.” Foreign Policy, December 4, 2023. https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/12/04/iran-hamas-gaza-israel-regional-war/.

07. Sara Harmouch , and Nakissa Jahanbani. “How Much Influence Does Iran Have over Its Proxy ‘axis of Resistance’ − Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis?” The Conversation, January 23, 2024. https://theconversation.com/how-much-influence-does-iran-have-over-its-proxy-axis-of-resistance-hezbollah-hamas-and-the-houthis-221269.

08. USIP. “Doctrine of Hamas.” The Iran Primer, October 19, 2023. https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2023/oct/19/doctrine-hamas
Md. Imran is Research Assistant at the University of Oslo. He also works with Peace Research Institute Oslo, Norway. He is currently studying Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Oslo.
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Md. Imran
Md. Imran is Research Assistant at the University of Oslo. He also works with Peace Research Institute Oslo, Norway. He is currently studying Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Oslo.
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