The Hamas attack from Gaza on October 7 and the resultant situation of war reflect the return to center stage in the region of two linked phenomena. These are, firstly, the Iranian project for the destruction of Israel through the prosecution of a long war maintained by client and proxy organizations and directed mainly against Israel's civilian population, and secondly, the popularity at grassroots level across the region of Islamist and anti-Western politics, and the consequent continued vigor and dominance of Islamist militarized political movements in the Arabic-speaking world. The meeting point between these two processes is what made possible the Hamas offensive.
So, to understand what is taking place, it's worth taking a closer look at each of these phenomena, and seeking to understand the nature of the relationship between them.
The precise role of Iran in the Hamas surprise attack remains a matter of dispute. But the dispute is concerned only with a small part of the picture, namely, the extent to which Iran was or was not involved in real-time tactical decision-making on the day of the attack and in the period immediately preceding it.
Regarding this, the evidence remains inconclusive. But what is not under dispute is that the Hamas military capability is the product of the movement's link with Iran.
Hamas' Allies and Friends
Hamas has a number of state allies or friends, which assist or support it in the diplomatic and economic fields. Erdogan's Turkey is one such friend (and the friendship, domiciling, and assistance remain, despite Turkey's rapprochement with Israel). Qatar, which domiciles Hamas's leadership and whose state media support the movement, is another. But the only ally offering military assistance and know-how is Iran. Hamas's homegrown missile- and rocket-making capacity is the result of Iranian assistance.
Given Israel's close surveillance of Gaza, it seems a near certainty that preparations and training for the October 7 attack (such as training on the use of paragliders) took place outside of the Strip. The provision of the long-range Iranian Fajr and Syrian M-302 missile systems to Hamas is obviously and straightforwardly the result of the alliance with Iran. And so on. That is, the military alliance between Iran and Hamas is not in dispute, and capacities deriving from this alliance were essential to the October 7 attack.
Why does Iran maintain this alliance? Iran projects power throughout the region by the utilization of proxy, almost exclusively Islamist political-military organizations. Its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has developed a methodology of the combination of political and paramilitary power, adapted to local circumstances, which is without peer in the Middle East. It has brought Tehran power and influence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza.
With regard to Israel, Islamist Iran holds to the view developed in its time by Arab nationalism that Israel is an inherently weak society protected by powerful military technology. The strategy therefore is to bypass the technological wall and strike at the civilian society itself. To achieve this, an effort is under way to surround Israel with spaces controlled by or accessible to Tehran's militia instruments. This goal is now at quite an advanced stage: Iranian proxies control Lebanon and Gaza, have freedom of action in Syria and Iraq, and appear to have access to the West Bank via Syria and Jordan.
Israel has over recent years focused mainly on the Iranian nuclear threat. But the nuclear ambition is mainly intended as an insurance policy beneath which the strategy outlined here can be pursued. The nature and form of this strategy was neglected, or dismissed. The Iranian intention is that by the constant harassment and periodic violence of these militias, Israeli society will gradually and over time become untenable, as normal life for Israelis is demonstrated to be an impossibility. The October 7 attack, it hardly needs to be said, is being seen as an important episode in this process.
The Iranian project is only feasible, of course, if it can find willing recruits among the Arab Muslim populations among whom it seeks influence. In its favor in this regard is the fact that the politics of Islamism remain without peer in terms of popularity and legitimacy at ground level in the Levant and in Iraq. From Egypt up to Iraq, and taking in the West Bank/Gaza, Lebanon and Syria on the way, Islamism has no serious rival at street level. In Iran's disfavor is that it is a Shia power. This has served to limit its appeal. But Tehran has sought to invest heavily in the Palestinian cause in an effort to counteract this limitation by making the flag of a supposedly pan-Islamic project its own. Its success in this regard has been limited, as witnessed by the steep loss of popularity it suffered among Sunni Arab populations during the Arab Spring period when it supported the Assad regime in its suppression of a Sunni Islamist insurgency.
Nevertheless, Iran continues (probably with some justification) to believe in the pan-Islamic appeal of the Palestinian cause at popular level in the Arab and broader Islamic world, and hence continues to invest in it.
The result, as witnessed in Gaza this month, is that the groundswell of Islamist militancy from below meets the provision of Iranian state support from above, to become a physical force capacity of considerable and murderous consequence.
Despite the important Shia-Sunni divide, this meeting is in many ways a natural one. After all, the Islamic Republic of Iran is itself the product of the same forces of Islamic revival over the last half century in the Middle East as is the Hamas enclave in Gaza.
It is important to understand the nature and dimensions of this project, because it forms the main challenge to the efforts currently under way by Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the Saudi crown prince and others to promote a diametrically opposed vision of the region. That vision places commerce and peaceful economic and societal development, alongside respect for tradition, at the heart of its project.
The victory of that vision, which is comparable in many ways to the thinking underlying the advance of Asian states and economies in recent decades, is by no means assured in the Middle East. The counter project of the states and movements of political Islam has its own considerable capacities.
The events of October 7 and the subsequent larger fight now brewing in its wake will be an episode in this broader contest. The outcome of the latter is likely to determine the future of the Middle East.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter's Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (2018).