FRESH AIR

Israel is increasingly part of a regional cold war against an Iran-Russia-China axis

Aug 26, 2022 | Ran Porat

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

On August, 9, at the beginning of the latest round of fighting in Gaza, as Israel was attacking the Islamist terrorists of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), who in turn were shooting rockets at Israeli civilians, the Russian embassy in Egypt issued a somewhat peculiar statement. The embassy’s social media post addressed a public message back in April by then Israeli Foreign Minister, now Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, who accused the Russians of committing war crimes in their attack on Ukrainians in the city of Bucha.

“Is that not a double standard and disregard and contempt for Palestinian lives?” the Russian embassy in Cairo asked of the Israeli attacks in Gaza. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson made similar comments reprimanding Israel just a couple of days earlier.

Why would Moscow want to chastise Israel’s self-defence pre-emptive assaults on the extremist PIJ, which was plotting a major terror attack against Israelis using anti-tank missiles? Russian President Putin in no way supports PIJ, or Islamist terrorism, and Russia has had major difficulties with extremist Muslim terrorists in its own backyard in the past (most notably in Chechnya).

What Russia’s critical attitude toward Israel’s efforts to undermine the PIJ’s capabilities reflects is that the clash in Gaza was not merely a local dispute. Rather, it was another front in the renewed regional, post-cold war conflict between the Western democracies and their allies, and authoritarian regimes affiliated with Russia and China.

From Israel’s perspective, the PIJ rockets and other terror threats from Gaza are just another front in Jerusalem’s ongoing low-level war with Iran – what Israeli military planners term the “war between the wars.”

It is, therefore, no wonder that, contrary to what happened in the past when Israel clashed with Palestinian terror groups, this time almost all the Arab states of the Middle East were either silent about Israel’s action, or, at worst, issued very low-key, lip service, condemnations of Israel’s military actions. That’s because Israel’s allies in the region, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, together with other conservative Sunni states, share Jerusalem’s perception of the Iranian threat, which includes ballistic missiles, proxy forces, drones and a relentless drive to reach military nuclear capabilities.

These states are actually barracking for Israel in any clash with Iranian proxies such as PIJ, even if they won’t say so publicly.

From their point of view, Israel’s swift and complete victory over the PIJ was a very positive outcome, because it was a setback for the wider Iranian axis in the Middle East, albeit a minor one.

Even within the Palestinian camp, there was little support for PIJ. Both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its arch-nemesis terrorist organisation, Hamas, which rules Gaza, see the PIJ as a competitor or at least a nuisance. In fact, it is rumoured that the PA disclosed to Israel the information that led to the arrest by the Israeli army of Bassam al Saadi (Aug 1), the most senior PIJ operative in the West Bank. This arrest later provided the excuse for a planned PIJ terror attack, which was foiled thanks to Israel’s attack on Gaza.  The PA certainly has an interest in halting Saadi’s attempts to set up a terrorist PIJ infrastructure in areas under Ramallah’s control.

Despite maintaining some level of relationship with Teheran, the PA is not considered aligned with Iran. Hamas works with the Iranians and enjoys their support, but never fully commits to Teheran’s strategic goals, without foreclosing its options in terms of aligning with other regional players.

The PIJ is a completely different story. From day one, it followed the Shi’ite revolutionary ideology developed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, despite being Sunni. Teheran funds, arms, guides and assists the PIJ in producing weapons without necessarily directly controlling everything it does, the same way it operates other proxies in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, cultivating and deploying local militias to serve Teheran’s interests.

As such, the PIJ has become an integral part of the anti-West axis, whose Middle Eastern centre of authority is Iran, but importantly also extends beyond, to Russia and its main international ally China.

It’s no coincidence that PIJ leader, Ziad al-Nakhaleh was in Iran when the fighting broke out. In Gaza, PIJ militants enjoy US$400 per month in income, way above the average salary there. Nakhaleh was in Teheran to beg for more funding to his organisation. This money is never invested into bettering the lives of Gazans – unlike Hamas, PIJ does not engage in social welfare or political activities. Instead, PIJ money is funnelled to create more despair and death.

In recent weeks, Iran has publicly sided with Russia in the Ukraine war in word and deed.  The regime has reportedly started supplying Moscow with attack drones and has also been providing advice to the Kremlin on how to circumvent the international sanctions based on Iran’s rich experience in that field. In Syria, the dictator Bashar al-Assad, who is almost totally dependent on Iranian support, sent ‘volunteers’ to fight alongside the Russians in Ukraine.

Most recently, the off-the-shelf Iranian espionage satellite, built by Russian companies for Iran, was launched into space on a Russian rocket. This satellite which is causing concern in the West and the Middle East, is reportedly going to be Russian-controlled and designated to be used over Ukraine for a time before being turned over to the Iranians to use for their own purposes.

Teaming up with Russia (and with China, which also aids Russia and Iran to dilute the sanctions’ effects) Teheran is now part of the same major challenge to the rules-based international order that is being posed by Russia in Ukraine and by China over Taiwan and the South China sea.

Teheran has proven its rejection of a rules-based world order in more ways than one – for example, by lying and cheating its way to nuclear weapons capabilities despite commitments anchored in international agreements and treaties. If reports suggesting a new and weaker version of the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) with Iran is imminent are correct, after signing the deal, Teheran is expected to enjoy billions of dollars to re-supply Russia (and its own proxies) with more weapons, teach Moscow how to circumvent international sanctions and fund destabilising activities across the Middle East.

Teheran is not only engaged in promoting terrorism across the region and even further afield, but also sponsors global criminal activity, such as drug smuggling, money laundering and other illegal product trafficking, on a large scale.

So while some may understand the recent Israel-PIJ clash to have been yet just another episode in the ongoing and seemingly insoluble Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and therefore of little interest to Australia, this is not the case. Israel’s fight to curb Iranian proxies is actually part of a wider pattern of regional polarisation and conflict with profound implications for the rules-based international order on which Australia’s prosperity and security depend.

Dr. Ran Porat is a Research Associate at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). He is also a Research Associate at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University and a Research Fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Reichman University in Herzliya.

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