Raisi speaks during a commemoration ceremony marking the anniversary of the 2020 killing of Soleimani Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

January 27, 2024   6 mins

Reporting from Israel at the end of last year stirred various emotions in me, not least a constant feeling of mild claustrophobia. Not from the Hamas rockets that incrementally forced me to duck into bomb shelters, nor from the colossal Israeli response I heard thundering overhead. Rather, wherever I travelled, be it to Gaza’s fringes in the south or the Lebanese border in the north, I felt surrounded by Iran.

Right now, Iranian proxies — from Hamas to Hezbollah to its flunkies in Syria, as well as the Houthis — are attacking Israel and its interests. Iran has also kicked off against Pakistan, with the two spending recent weeks lobbing missiles and accusations at each other. It is, some might argue, illogical behaviour. Iran is regarded as generally belligerent, and it is. But as Iranians never tire of telling me, they have not invaded a country or started any wars for centuries. And Iran’s leadership is most certainly not illogical. So why all the violence?

All foreign policy is a product of domestic factors; the internal always creates the external. You cannot understand Brexit without understanding the conflicting personalities that fuelled it. And you cannot understand Iranian behaviour in the Middle East (and beyond) without understanding its corrupt, faction-ridden revolutionary dictatorship, and the degree to which these factors shape its foreign policy. At its core, Iran’s foreign policy rests on a doctrine of “forward defence”. Loosely speaking, it seeks to fight abroad so it doesn’t have to do so at home. It bases this strategy on two things: long-range ballistic missiles and proxy warfare using local groups. And it has proved successful ever since it was conceived in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.

I have always considered those eight years to be the Islamic Republic’s War of Independence. So much of its identity was forged then. All nations are shaped by the accretive wisdom of their history and the unchanging determinants of geography (even if they often ignore one or both). For the Islamic Republic, much of what drives its policy was learned through its experience of being a revolutionary state that had to fight for its existence throughout almost all of its first decade. In particular, the War of the Cities in 1984, during which Iran found itself repeatedly struck by long-range Iraqi missiles with no ability to respond in kind, burned the need for a ballistic missile capability into Iran’s leaders. Now, 40 years later, missiles sit at the centre of Iranian deterrence and state pride. The second thing that the war taught Iran was the value of using proxy forces to fight your enemies. And key to that was a man named Qasem Soleimani.

Soleimani was the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) expeditionary Quds Force until the United States droned him in 2020. In his early twenties at the start of the war, he became commander of a volunteer force that was deployed to Iraqi Kurdistan — the centre of anti-Saddam separatist activity in Iraq — to work with the Kurds against Baghdad. It was his first taste of using foreign forces to attack an enemy by proxy, and it shaped him.

It was also, at least in spirit, the beginning of the Quds Force, which began life as “Department 900”, specialising in cross-border raids and recruiting Iraqis against Saddam. But as it grew, what made the Quds so effective was its understanding that two things were needed for the kind of leverage it sought. The first was pragmatism. Despite its Shia sectarianism, Tehran was happy for the Quds to find Sunni partners, from the Iraqi Kurds to the Afghan Northern Alliance to Hamas in Gaza. The second, and this was crucial, was the need to expand beyond the military realm. In Afghanistan, Soleimani became a quasi-diplomat, spending years mediating between the various factions — he ultimately became so vital to Afghan politics that the country’s first post-Taliban government might well not have emerged without him. By the time of the 2001 US invasion, Tehran held such political sway in the country that it was able to help Washington against their mutual enemy, the Taliban.

Iran assumed this modus operandi everywhere it went, helping to create a Lebanese Hezbollah that, beyond a terror group, is an effective political party and social-care provider. In Iraq, as well as helping its various Shia militia proxies — collectively known as Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) or Al-Hashd al-Shaabi — to kill coalition soldiers, he also organised them into a political grouping, the Fatah Alliance, to considerable electoral success. In the 2021 general elections, the first after he was killed, Fatah dropped from 48 to 17 seats. This wasn’t even because it received significantly fewer votes, but without Soleimani to guide it, the parties failed to understand recent boundary changes while their opponents instructed followers to vote tactically and hoovered up seats accordingly.

And there was something else, too. During the Eighties, Soleimani struck up a friendship with Khamenei (then the President). When the latter became Supreme Leader, Soleimani had a direct line to the seat of power. The Quds Force, and its doctrine of forward defence has formed the centrepiece of Iran’s foreign operations ever since. This nexus of military, historical and political factors is the broader cause of turmoil we see right now. Beyond its ideological, often lurid rhetoric, Iran sees Israel as the most powerful state in the region and a threat accordingly. For Tehran, the Gaza War is an opportunity to strike Jerusalem via its various proxies — especially when it sees Washington caught up in Ukraine and suffering internal squabbles.

As ever, it retains (admittedly implausible) deniability. In his first speech after 7 October, Khamenei set out the official position: “Some of its own people [of the Israeli government] have been gossiping in these two or three days
 indicating Iran is introduced behind this movement. They are wrong about this, we of course defend Palestine and the struggles
 but those who claim that the work of Palestinians is the result of non-Palestinians
 are making a wrong calculation.

But with its strikes in Pakistan, Iranian actions are starting to look incontinent. There is a real chance of a broader mass war, which it has consistently said it does not want, and which logic dictates it must avoid. Once more, to understand this inconsistency, look inside Iran. “The Islamic Republic’s primary goal has always been self-preservation,” Ali Ansari, Professor in Modern History with reference to the Middle East at the University of St Andrews, told me. “But they have now unleashed all these proxy units. Iran doesn’t want to escalate too much and now, if you look at the rhetoric coming out of Hamas and Hezbollah and the Houthis, it’s along the lines of ‘where are you?’ They were expecting Iran to come to their aid, and they haven’t.”

Part of this is simply the way power operates in the Islamic Republic. “It’s not just their proxies, even within Iran, you have a range of non-state actors, of which the IRGC is one,” Ansari said. “But it is also the nature of the way command and control works there. It is very much totalitarian. Everyone has plausible deniability. And you are expected to be able to read the leader’s mind.” In a time where the regime has faced several years of mass protests to its rule, there are those within the political and military establishment who think now is the time to look tough, and there is no better way of doing this than striking at Israel. And it can all be justified if it is couched in the guise of carrying out the leader’s will (if not his actual words)

Part of the problem, though, is that the Islamic Republic never successfully created a body that could effectively manage elite relationships — and the result is near perennial discord. The Foreign Ministry and the Quds Force have spent 20 years squabbling over who handles the foreign affairs portfolio in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the wider Middle East. In August 2022, for instance, the Quds Force excluded the foreign ministry from a meeting with one of Iraq’s most important Shia figures, Muqtada al-Sadr. Instead, what has emerged to fill the bureaucratic void is a series of informal power bases congealed around important figures. The result is that interpersonal disputes and alliances dominate state politics. Throw 120 registered political parties into the mix and chaos is the logical result.

Now add the prospect of an imminent change of leadership. Khamenei is 84 and peppered with cancer. Rumours of his looming death have circulated for years, but this time it seems to be true. He was treated for prostate cancer in 2014; two years ago, after visiting a shrine, he reportedly told his entourage that it might be his last visit. The choice of his successor is largely in the hands of the Assembly of Experts, which vets the potential candidates. It is, of course, stuffed with warring factions and opaque feuds, and yet one more centre of infighting.

It will come down to two candidates. First there is Mojtaba Khamenei, Khamenei’s second son, who is the senior IRGC chaplain, which puts him right at the heart of the establishment’s twin power centres: the military and the clergy. Like all revolutionaries, the Mullahs once disavowed notions of hereditary succession; and like all revolutionaries, they have taken on many of the characteristics of the regime they despised. The second candidate is Ebrahim Raisi, but he is unlikely to win. The incumbent President and so-called Butcher of Tehran, a reference to his role as a judge in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, is thunderously uncharismatic — no one really likes him.

But the problem of Khamenei’s death remains. “Even if the issue of the succession is settled,” says Ansari, “it’s more the fact that Khamenei doesn’t have quite the grip he had in the past. Normally he would be able to manage things but with a transition looming, they’re all on manoeuvres, and some people are trying to appear tougher than they are.” The regime, in other words, is losing its authority. And with its credibility diluted, it’s forced to look tough. Of course, as games go, it is a dangerous one, the result is uncertain, and it could well end up being a wider war that nobody really wants — and nobody can escape.

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)