Is Iran following the example of late Iranian emperor Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi who tried to emulate Cyrus the Great, although Khomeini’s Iran has forbidden any recognition of the founder of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire in the 6th Century BCE whose control had extended to Central Asia, Persian plateau, and North Africa?

If not, why has Iran assumed leadership of the Sunni majority Palestinian resistance against Israel by using its ring of proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria as the “Axis of resistance”?

The answer could be found in Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s “pan-Islamic” policy since 1979 that “exporting the revolution” was necessary for its survival as any ‘enclosed environment’ would end in defeat of Islamic Revolution.

Also, in his successor Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei’s speech on April 29, 2022, on International Quds Day to treat the entire Palestine an area of resistance: “Holy Quds is the heart of Palestine, and the entire occupied country of Palestine, from river to the sea, is a continuation of Quds”.

To this, we should add United States Institute of Peace’s “The Iran Primer” (November 2, 2023) on how Fathi Shikaki, a physician and co-founder of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), had promoted Shia-Sunni unity through his book “The Shia and Sunna: An Unfortunate, Artificial Turmoil” published in 1985, ten years before he was assassinated by Israel in Malta.

Also, how Hamas, founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a quadriplegic and blind cleric who preferred Palestinian nationalism in an Islamic framework rather than Khomeini’s pan-Islamism, was induced to join the “Axis of resistance”.

True, Iran-Israel relations were friendly even before 1948 when Israel was born. Israeli historians say that even before the 1950s, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s government had played a critical role in saving approximately 5,000-6,000 Jews, mostly children, who were escaping from Eastern Europe during the Second World War.

Although Iran voted against the United Nations resolution on the partition of Palestine on November 29 1947, along with Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Greece, India, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen, it did not join the Muslim majority Arab states in opposing Israel.

University of Oxford historian (St. Antony’s College) Eirik Kvindesland says that Iran, India, and Yugoslavia had suggested a “federative solution which was about keeping Palestine as one state with one parliament but divided into Arab and Jewish cantons.”

Iran did not join other Muslim countries during the first Arab Israeli War in 1948 when Israel aggressively captured more territory than the United Nations had approved. Instead, Iran became the second Muslim country to recognise Israel apart from Turkey. The ‘Times of Israel’ (dated November 1 2013: “Did Israel, under the Shah help start Iran’s nuclear programme?) stated that it was only de facto and not de jure. It did not react when more than 7 lakhs Palestinians were evicted from their homes by Zionist militias, which they call “Nakba” (catastrophe in Arabic).

The ‘Times of Israel’ also quoted a film ‘Before the Revolution’ on Israel- Shah’s Iran relations which “depicts a controversial framework of military and intelligence cooperation that likely included helping set up what became Tehran’s rogue nuclear program”.

Other accounts say that during the Arab Israeli wars in 1967 and 1973, Iran- Israel relations assumed strategic depth with joint projects like “Trans-Atlantic Oil”, set up in Panama and Switzerland and a secret Eilat-Ashkelon Oil Pipeline at a time when Arab oil producers had imposed embargoes on Israel.

Apart from their intelligence cooperation through “Savak” and Mossad, a secret Israel-Iran project named “Project Flower” on advanced missile systems was also reportedly going on according to ‘The New Arab’ October 23 2023, quoting ‘The New York Times’, April 1, 1986.

All these changed with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution which gained strength with the failure of Pahlavi’s “White Revolution”, which was meant to modernise Iranian society. The Shah had to leave Iran on January 16 1979 and Khomeini entered Iran on February 1 1979 to lead a theocratic nation.

Dr. Suzanne Maloney, director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institute told a US Senate Committee of Foreign Relations hearing on February 28, 2024, that the “Axis of Resistance” was an extension of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s policy since 1979 of exporting the revolution.

The first foreign leader to visit Islamic Iran was Yasser Arafat, al-Fatah leader on February 17, 1979. Arafat, who had suffered a crushing defeat in 1970 while attempting to take over Jordan (“Black September”), was looking for a country to support him. Meanwhile, Lebanon had allowed him to operate from their soil and also to control 16 official refugees’ camps under the United Nations Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA) where three lakh Palestinian refugees lived.

Iran specialists, during that era, said that the creation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was a result of Arafat’s suggestions through Lebanese PLO leader Anis Naccache, who had led the 1975 Vienna kidnapping of OPEC oil ministers through Carlos the Jackal.

Naccache worked closely with Jalaleddin Farsi, who was then close to Khomeini to prevent a coup against the latter in the unsettled conditions in Iran.

The IRGC is Iran’s leading fighting force now numbering nearly 2 lakhs with overseas responsibilities through Quds Force. A Council on Foreign Relations paper updated on April 17, 2024, says that it has regional allies in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon (Hezbollah), Palestinian territories (Hamas & Islamic Jihad), Syria and Yemen.

The paper quotes a 2020 assessment by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that “the IRGC has become the most powerful controller of all important economic sectors across Iran” for funding covert activities.

A paper dated December 2023 by the “Combating Terrorism Center” (CTC) at US West Point Military Academy says that IRGC does the crafting of their overseas activities through umbrella groups and joint operations centres.

In September 2023 Hamas and Palestinian Jihad started a joint operations room (JOR) in Beirut. Another joint operational centre of Hezbollah and Hamas has been functioning since 2021.

The CTC reports that this joint operations room utilizes Lebanese Hezbollah as a coordinator between Iran, other Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and the Palestinian groups.

The CTC paper quotes Yahya al-Sinwar, Hamas’ Gaza lead military commander, proclaiming in November 2018 that the JOR would form the “nucleus of the Army of Liberation”. Consequently, JOR undertook joint operations by firing the rockets to Israel in November 2018 and in 2019.

That Israel had neglected “Open-Source Intelligence” was revealed by the CTC which reproduces JOR Telegram Channels communications dated December 29, 2020, on the types of exercises that included launching rockets, simulating taking IDF hostage from a tank, raiding small structures, deploying Iranian-made Misagh MANPADS, and using Iranian-made AM 50 rifles.

The paper refers to the videos from the drill, on simulated combat divers raiding coastal targets and JOR fighters interdicting mock Israeli seaborn forces. It also quotes Joe Truzman writing in ‘Long Wars Journal’ on December 27, 2020, about these exercises.

All these were found utilised by Hamas during the actual 7 October 2023 attacks. That was the reason why 7 October 2023 was as bad an intelligence failure for Israel as the October 6, 1973 “Yom Kippur” war, which killed nearly 2,500 Israeli soldiers.

VAPPALA BALACHANDRAN is former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat-Views expressed are the writer’s own.

Cover Photograph AP