Iran’s 'axis of resistance' to Israel begins to crack

Demonstrators gather to denounce anti-Semitism at a "March for Israel" on the National Mall in Washington on Tuesday. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI
Demonstrators gather to denounce anti-Semitism at a "March for Israel" on the National Mall in Washington on Tuesday. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI
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Nov. 20 (UPI) -- Cracks are beginning to show in the so-called "axis of resistance" over the war in Gaza.

The axis of resistance is a loose-knit alliance that combines the terrorist organizations of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Shi'ia militias in Iraq, together with countries like Iran and Syria.

The main driver of the axis is Iran. Their key focus is the destruction of Israel and the removal of U.S. and Western military influence from the Middle East. But the Hamas-Israel war in Gaza may turn out to have been a major strategic blunder for Iran's mullahs.

Iran has been a long-term sponsor of Hamas, supplying arms, personnel and training via its Quds Force, the extra-territorial wing of its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the theocratic regime's Gestapo. Although there is no direct proof that Tehran knew in advance of the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, their involvement, at the very least, has been complicit.

The mullahs have provided hundreds of millions of dollars annually to Hamas, enabling the group to develop its own weapons. In recent years, there has been an increasing flow of Iranian rockets, anti-tank missiles and other sophisticated weaponry, smuggled into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt and from ships docking in Gaza's ports.

U.S. President Joe Biden (L) embraces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) upon arrival in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18. Tehran was shocked by the intensity of American support for Israel. Photo by Israeli PM Press Service/UPI
U.S. President Joe Biden (L) embraces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) upon arrival in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18. Tehran was shocked by the intensity of American support for Israel. Photo by Israeli PM Press Service/UPI

But following their initial support for the Hamas incursion into Israel, there has been a conspicuous cooling of militant fervor in Tehran. Indeed, on Wednesday, Reuters reported that Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had told Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh that Tehran would not go to war with Israel on behalf of the Palestinian group.

This was felt to be such a betrayal by Hamas, that the commander of the Iranian regime's Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, was forced to backtrack, sending a letter to Hamas's supreme military commander Mohammed Deif.

U.S. President Joe Biden (L), meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18. Pool Photo by Miriam Alster/UPI
U.S. President Joe Biden (L), meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18. Pool Photo by Miriam Alster/UPI

In the letter, which was widely reported in Iran's state news agency IRNA, Qaani denied that the theocratic regime would withhold its support for the conflict, stating, "Your brothers in the resistance axis stand united with you and will not allow the enemy to reach its dirty goals in Gaza and Palestine. We stand by our fraternal pledge that unites us and we assure you that we will do whatever it takes in this historic battle."

Despite Qaani's bellicose rhetoric, it seems that Tehran was shocked by the intensity of American support for Israel. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's and President Joe Biden's respective visits to Tel Aviv to pledge America's outright backing for Israel was followed by the deployment of a fleet of ships to the Gulf, including the massive USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier with more than 2,000 Marines on board.

The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford departed Naval Station Norfolk Friday to transit to Newport News Shipyard in support of her Planned Incremental Availability (PIA), a six-month period of modernization, maintenance, and repairs. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class William Spears)
The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford departed Naval Station Norfolk Friday to transit to Newport News Shipyard in support of her Planned Incremental Availability (PIA), a six-month period of modernization, maintenance, and repairs. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class William Spears)

The positioning of the U.S. fleet was primarily seen as a deterrent to Hezbollah, warning them not to enter the war by opening a second front against Israel, but the message clearly was not lost in Tehran, where an escalating conflict was a prospect they had not envisaged.

Tehran's primary objective had always been to damage Israel and to destabilize the Abraham Accords signed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and others who sought to normalize relations, reaching rapprochement with Israel. The mullahs were deeply dismayed when the Arab Summit in Riyadh on Nov. 11, although condemning "Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip, war crimes and barbaric and inhumane massacres by the occupation government", nevertheless reiterated that they intended to pursue reconciliation with Israel after the war in Gaza ended.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on November 5. Pool Photo by Alaa Badarneh/EPA-EFE
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on November 5. Pool Photo by Alaa Badarneh/EPA-EFE

The fundamentalist leadership in Tehran is also acutely aware of the fact that the Iranian people do not support the regime's massive spending on proxy wars and entities like Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Houthis, the Iraqi militias and Hezbollah. With a collapsing economy and widespread poverty, the recent nationwide uprising in Iran was marked by protesters chanting slogans decrying financial aid to groups like Hamas, highlighting the deep gulf between the mullahs' regime and the public it is supposed to serve.

Indeed, while mass pro-Palestinian demonstrations have taken place in towns and cities around the world, there have been none in Iran. Although ordinary Iranians have deep sympathy for the Palestinians, they hate the brutal dictatorship that has reduced their country to penury.

Tens of thousands of people join the families of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza as they enter Jerusalem on the fifth day of a march from Tel Aviv on Saturday. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI
Tens of thousands of people join the families of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza as they enter Jerusalem on the fifth day of a march from Tel Aviv on Saturday. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI

Following the protests that saw tens of millions of Iranians take to the streets in a bid to overthrow the mullahs' regime, Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi, known as "the butcher of Tehran" for his notorious role as an executioner in the 1988 massacre of more than 30,000 political prisoners, are panicking.

They had hoped that the Hamas conflict in Gaza would act as a welcome distraction from rampaging poverty, blatant misogyny and punitive oppression at home. They fan the flames of the Gaza conflict to keep the region unstable so that it can be used to serve the ideology of the Iranian regime. The mullahs have even exploited the conflict to portray protests in Iran as involving "agents of Israel," claiming such protesters are "foreign-controlled."

This tactic is well-established and, along with nuclear weapons blackmail, the hostage-taking of foreign citizens, and the suppression of the Iranian people, is part of the core repertoire of the clerical regime, which clings to power more desperately in the face of increasing uprisings in Iran.

As the overwhelming majority of Iran's 75 million population know, the only way to achieve peace in the region is the overthrow of the mullahs' regime by its legitimate resistance, the main democratic opposition Mojahedin-e Khalq, which has a clear vision for a democratic future of freedom, justice, human rights, women's rights, an end to the death penalty and an end to the nuclear threat. The West must now back the Iranian people and their resistance movement.

Struan Stevenson represented Scotland in the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He served as president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and as chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is chairman of the In Search of Justice committee on the protection of political freedoms in Iran. He is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change, an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association. His latest book is "Dictatorship and Revolution. Iran - A Contemporary History." The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.