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Ayatollah Khomeini’s Approach to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and its Longstanding Ramifications


This article examines the long-term efforts made by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to create revolutionary opposition to the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, while exploiting the evolving relations between Iran and Israel as a blueprint for his proclamations. Khomeini’s anti-Israel policies had both anti- Semitic and anti-Zionist components that contributed to mustering different segments of Iran’s opposition to the Shah and Israel. This intersection of the mutual animosities consolidated relations between Khomeini’s supporters and the PLO in Lebanon, despite their major theological differences. The change brought about by the Islamic Revolution led to a restructuring of identities, values, norms and policies, which affected Israel considerably and today still calls for a new framework of analysis. Currently, the Islamic regime continues to utilise the Palestinian narrative as leverage its attempts to achieve regional hegemony and maintain its leadership in the Muslim world.

Iran-Israel relations have evolved from covert friendship to open animosity as a function of internal, regional and global developments. The Islamic revolution set the two countries on a collision course as a result of the worldview of a single individual: Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini. In his vision, Islamic revivalism could not take place unless the monarchy was eliminated. He thus advocated a violent, far-reaching social revolution to achieve this goal.

On 1 February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to the adulation of the crowds. Ten days later, he proclaimed the Islamic Republic of Iran under his leadership. The change brought about by the Islamic Revolution led by Khomeini and its influence on Iran-Israel relations is indisputable. This change led to a restructuring of identities, values, norms, and policies that require a new framework of analysis.

On 11 February 2023, the Islamic Republic commemorated the 44th anniversary of its founding. As in previous years, this event was harnessed to forefront its uncompromising stance negating the existence of Israel, which included hate speeches by senior officials who also praised the Islamic Republic as an utopia constituting a viable alternative to both Western hegemony and Communist political theory.[1]

An examination of the Islamic Republic’s anti-Israel policies over the past four decades sheds stark light on the extent of this change. At the ideological level, its policies reflect the regime’s uncompromising adherence to the worldview of the Republic’s founding father. Khomeini’s diatribes against Israel have anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist components. On the strategic level, the regime’s enmity to Israel provides it with leverage in its efforts to achieve regional hegemony and maintain its leadership in the Muslim world. Nevertheless, in Iran’s civil society there is no consensus in attitudes towards Israel.

A closer look at the historical context helps clarify the Islamic Republic’s animosity towards Israel. In Khomeini’s view, Iran’s precarious situation in 1979 was the fault of an autocratic monarch who had decided to disengage from Islam, leading to unprecedented dependence on the US and to close ties with Israel.[2] Several Iranian political scientists have ascribed Khomeini’s hatred of Israel to ideological motives, others have gone as far as to view it within the framework of a ‘security dilemma’.[3]

It is difficult to determine how Khomeini became aware of the nature of the relationship between monarchist Iran and Israel, which the Shah’s regime made every effort to conceal for both internal and external reasons. However, the expansion of the bilateral relationship as of the late 1950s, especially in terms of oil, security, commerce, and agriculture, infuriated Khomeini.[4]

In retrospect, the death of the influential Ayatollah Hussein Tabatabai Boroujerdi (March 1961) liberated Khomeini from his fears. Within the intricate web of Iran’s state-religion relations, Ayatollah Boroujerdi was perceived as a moderate force that embraced a policy of non-intervention by the religious establishment in politics. After his death, Khomeini made sustained efforts towards a radical change in this policy, which involved overthrowing the monarchy and implementation of Islamic law.

In his Ashura Day’s speech in June 1963, Khomeini depicted three circles whose common denominator was their curtailment of Iran’s development. He placed the 7th century massacre of Hussein bin Ali and his supporters by Yazid ibn Mu’awiya (and his army) during the Battle of Karbala (680 CE), which led to a fracture in the community of believers, in the outermost circle. The Shah’s efforts to further separate religion and state as concretized in his ‘White Revolution’ proclamation was placed in the middle circle. The innermost circles was reserved for the relations between Iran, the USA and Israel, which in his opinion, symbolized the disconnection of the ruler from the will of the people.[5]

The introduction to Khomeini’s book Velayat-e Faqih Hokumat-e Eslami identifies the enemies of Islam. This work, which over time became the scaffolding for the constitution and the revolutionary political system, presented the Jews as the enemies of Islam. Later he would situate Israel in the center of the ‘axis of resistance’ to the Islamic Republic. Khomeini first set out this view in a series of lectures in 1970 where he argued that during the 12 Imams’ occultation and prolonged exclusion from power, jurisprudence was its indirect agent. This idea of a mandate not only covered the interpretation of Islamic rulings on issues of devotion and personal affairs but also applied to the social realm and management of the state’s affairs on behalf of the Imam.[6]

On 5 June 1963, Khomeini was arrested and imprisoned in Tehran, but the authorities allowed him to return to the city of Qom. A month later he delivered another speech in which he attacked Israel’s involvement in land reform initiatives and the military cooperation between the two countries. In November 1964, Khomeini was exiled, but his 15-year-long exile did little to diminish his influence.[7] In February 1979, he established the Islamic Republic of Iran, blocked Iran-Israel relations, and ended the extensive bilateral network of contacts the two states had built up over the course of three decades.[8]

Khomeini’s goal was to bring about a revolution that would replace the non-Islamic political order with a new one based on the full implementation of Sharia law. He advocated an Islamic state led by a qualified jurist who would ensure that Islamic rulings were adhered to and implemented within the broad outlines and general principles of Sharia.[9] It is worth noting that Shiitism has a distinct doctrine of leadership, which sees the Imam not only as a source of religious knowledge for the community but also as a descendant of the prophet Muhammad with the legitimate right to exercise political rule.

Since the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam, Shiite Muslims have wrestled with the question of who should be given the reins of community leadership in terms of political and spiritual authority.[10] Shiite doctrine relies extensively on the belief that since the concealment (ghayba) of the Twelfth Imam, humankind cannot remain without a guide. It is assumed that God will surely not allow the last Imam to be killed, since there will be no one to replace him.[11] Khomeini exploited this reasoning to justify his argument for a righteous jurisprudent in charge of public affairs of Muslim community, in Iran and beyond.

This intense effort to create and portray an Islamic utopia was by no means limited to Khomeini. He was influenced by many Islamic thinkers such as Abul-Ala Mawdudi, Rashid Rida, Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and others. These Islamists called for three types of change: the restoration of Islam’s sovereignty as a comprehensive framework in all spheres of life, the re-establishment of the ‘Nation of Islam’ as a current-day political framework, and the ousting of Western hegemony over Muslim societies. These Islamists used Islamic discourse to bridge between their aspirations and civil society.[12]

In Khomeini’s view, the ‘Islamic Nation’ could only be freed of colonialism and puppet regimes through a revolt of the people and the establishment of a new government. This would liberate the oppressed from regimes polarizing them into oppressors and oppressed. Thus, Khomeini used religious-political and economic arguments to claim that non-Islamic ‘polytheistic’ regimes should be scuttled.[13] Bernard Lewis suggested that there is a pervasive feeling among Shiites that the established authority, the established ruler, is illegitimate and lacks the legitimacy which alone can come from God, noting that ‘Religious revolutionaries, and even terrorists, also gain support because of their frequently genuine efforts to alleviate the suffering of the common people’.[14]

Khomeini’s doctrine attracted militant organizations that championed armed resistance to achieve their goals. These movements opposing the rule of the Shah fell into several categories as a function of their worldview, professional-social affiliation, and ideological leadership. Iran’s opposition did not emerge overnight but rather coalesced through a combination of several factors driving tensions between the Iranian monarch and his subjects. The Shah’s worldview and his dependence on American aid led to the consolidation of an opposition that grew throughout the 1960s and expanded even more rapidly in the 1970s.[15]

The outcome of the oil nationalization and the coup that led to the dismissal of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq(August 1953) was a significant phase in the emergence of the Iranian opposition.[16] However, the most clear-cut catalyst for the resistance movement was the opening shot in a series of reforms known as the White Revolution. The Shah instigated these reforms to promote modernity and progress, while simultaneously turning himself into an absolute ruler.

However, these measures boomeranged by consolidating the opposition, which was made up of three ideological factions: a) the Communist left, composed of former members of the Tudeh Party who founded other branches; b) breakaways from National Front that established the Iranian Liberation Movement (LMI) and the Freedom Movement of Iran (Nehżat-e Azadi-ye Iran) in 1961; and c) the group that coalesced around Khomeini’s leadership and operated within the framework of the Islamic Union community (Jam’iyat-e Mo’talefa -ye Eslami). Thus, the Iranian resistance encompassed ideological movements with differing worldviews and theologies.[17] The first two groups were active before the inauguration of the White

Revolution within the framework of Iran’s political arena, whereas the latter emerged in an external political arena that aimed to oust the regime.[18]

The Iranian Communist wing drew its strength, doctrine, and support from the Soviet Union and its allies. Its activists endorsed a Marxist worldview and revolutionary spirit. They maintained that the only way to overthrow the monarchy involved formulating an ideology and mustering resources for an armed struggle. The radicals found their way to communist countries, which at that time were eagerly welcoming young revolutionaries for training. Thus, these Iranians spent considerable time in countries with anti-Western orientations, where they received a revolutionary indoctrination and learned the intricacies of guerrilla warfare.[19]

The Iranian Liberation Movement (LMI) consisted mostly of National Front dissidents who supported Mosaddeq’s attempts to nationalize the oil industry between 1951 and 1953. Its main founders were Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani (d. 1979), Mehdi Bazargan, Ayatollah Seyyed Reza Zanjani (d. 1984), Yadollah Sahabi, Rahim Ata’i, Hasan Nazih, Abbas Sami’i. The movement’s power base was located in the universities, theological seminaries (madrasas), and bazaars.[20]

The activists represented various strata of society, including students educated in Iran and abroad or from religious seminaries as well as merchants and middle-class individuals from urban agglomerations. Ayatollah Taleqani is a good example of a prominent modernist cleric whose radical ideas helped politicize classical Shiite theology into an ideological competitor of Marxism. Like Mehdi Bazargan, he was highly critical of conservative clerics who either collaborated with the regime or kept quiet when the state pursued its repressive policies. After the August 1953 coup, the activities of Ayatollah Taleqani, Ayatollah Zanjani and Mehdi Bazargan were monitored, and the movement suffered a setback. However, unlike the Tudeh party, many members were released from jail and returned to political activity.[21]

The Jam’iyat-e Mo’talefa -ye Eslami, whose members rallied to the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1963, were not all cut of the same cloth. Its main activities were concentrated in mosques, religious seminaries, and cultural centers (Husseiniya) in large cities. The organization maintained extensive ties with members of the Liberation Movement and with opposition groups on the Iranian left. During the 1970s, the center of activity of the Iranian resistance movements expanded beyond Iran and spread abroad, including to Iraq and Lebanon. After the Islamic revolution, members of the Jam’iyat-e Mo’talefa became the dominant bloc of the Islamic Republic Party, which established itself as the ruling party.[22]

Jam’iyat-e Mo’talefa’s worldview and notions were reminiscent of the Fedayan-e Islam (Devotees of Islam), which was founded in Iran in the 1940s. This organization suffered a severe setback in December 1955 when several of its key operatives were executed, including its leader, Navvab Safavi. It thus comes as no surprise that a significant number of Fedayan members found common ground, ideologically and tactically, with the Jam’iyat-e Mo’talefa and aligned themselves with them after the protests of 1963. The Fedayan advocated terrorist warfare and intimidation methods, such as the killing of prime ministers, politicians, and intellectuals to achieve its goals. This group was involved in the assassinations of Ahmad Kasravi (March 1946), Abdolhossein Hazhir (November 1949), Ali Razmara (March 1951) and Hassan Ali Mansour in 1965.[23]

The Fedayan organization modelled itself a great extent on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and aimed to set up a governmental model based on Islamic religious law. Initially, the organization was inspired by Ayatollah Abul Qasim Kashani, who served as their spiritual leader and joined forces with Mosaddeq during the oil nationalization period. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, its remnants tried to regroup but failed. Nevertheless, most of them cooperated with the Islamic government and held various positions.[24]

After Khomeini was exiled to Najaf and issued his proclamations to establish a new Islamic order, he started making concerted efforts to form an armed resistance movement. The execution of Sayyid Qutb in Egypt prompted Khomeini to associate with militant movements which considered violent resistance a legitimate means of overthrowing the ruler. Two prominent loyalists of Khomeini who laid the ideological foundations for overthrowing the monarchy were Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri and Ayatollah Murtaza Mutahhari.

Montazeri (d.  2009)  was a  high-ranking cleric who endorsed a revolutionary conception of Shiite Islam and was active in transforming Shiite theology from its quietist stance into an ideology of oppositional force in the pre-revolutionary period. He defended a revolutionary political theology of clerical guardianship, and his proclamations were considered only second in importance to Khomeini’s until the rift between them.[25]

Murtaza Mutahhari (d. 1979) was a prominent Shiite scholar whose teachings influenced many Shiites, including Khomeini. Mutahhari was arrested in the wake of the June 1963 uprisings and in 1964 began to serve as Khomeini’s confidant and representative in Iran during the latter’s exile. He commented extensively on the significance and differences between ‘surrender and making peace’ and had considerable influence on the revolutionary spirit. Mutahhari was assassinated in May 1979 by members of Furqan, a small radical group of disenchanted seminary students.[26]

Lebanon as a base for Iran’s resistance movements

The bilateral relations between Iran and Israel served as a convenient justification for cooperation between the Iranian opposition movements and

Palestinian terrorist organizations. In the early 1960s, student associations began to be set up for Iranians who had studied in the United States and Europe. This was the seedbed for resistance movements beyond Iran’s borders against the Pahlavi monarchy. These student associations served as a bridge between activists such as Mustafa Chamran, Ali Shariati, Sadeq Qutbzadeh, Ibrahim Yazdi, Sadeq Tabatabai and other members of the Nehżat-e Azadi. Many of these activists held key governmental positions after the revolution.[27]

In December 1963, Chamran, Qutbzadeh and Yazdi went to Cairo for military training. The Egyptian government allotted Nehżat-e Azadi’s members a camp near the city where groups of Iranian dissidents were trained by Egyptian commando instructors together with Palestinians. This cohort founded a militant-underground Sama (Sazeman-e Mahsus-ye Etehad va Amal) that became the militant faction of the Liberation Movement.[28]

Khomeini adroitly exploited the personal animosity between Gamal Abdel Nasser and Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in his struggle against the Shah. Relations between Iran and the Arab world were considerably influenced by the specific features of ‘Arab nationalism’ that were intertwined with pan-Arab ideology, and were essentially a Sunni phenomenon that rejected Shiite Iran.[29] Simultaneously, the Shah’s political aspirations and his determination to turn Iran into a modern regional power and his relations with Israel quickly clashed with the revolutionary goals of pan-Arabism that Nasser sought to impose on the Arab world.

One of the most prominent figures, dubbed the ‘Ideologue of the Iranian Revolution’ was Ali Shariati (1933–77), who advocated ‘Red Shiism’ and worked to marry Marxist views with Islam to achieve revolutionary class consciousness.[30]He argued that Islam was at the forefront of the struggle against the West, which was characterized by materialism and moral vacuity which he termed al-Jahiliya al-Jadid. He promoted the notion of Islamic ideology in his search for a reinvigorated collective conscience of Islamic ideology, which would lay the foundation for the revolution.[31]

Shariati’s form of radicalism embraced the sacred role of martyrdom (shahadat). Shiite mujtahids and thinkers praised martyrdom in the name of God as the ultimate sacrifice. The notion of historical suffering embodied by shahadat served to reinforce the Iranian revolutionaries’ determination. This same view also cemented Shiites over the centuries and helped maintain a common bond and communal unity.[32] The translations of Shariati’s writings and proclamations were translated to Arabic and contributed to fanning the flames in Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and beyond.

Shariati began supporting the Palestinians a few weeks after the Six Day War. In July 1967, a month after the war, he criticized certain Iranian intellectuals for their support of Israel. According to Shariati, it was a mistake to compare the Arab-Israeli conflict to other cases of territorial disputes.[33] His contribution to the alliance between the Iranian revolutionaries, Lebanese Shiites and the PLO is indisputable. His motto that ‘every day is Ashura and everywhere is Karbala’ was adopted by young Shiites and became one of these militants’ rallying cries for armed resistance against the US and Israel. During the 1970s, Shariati incorporated a clearly anti-Israeli approach into his ideology and elevated the Shahadat to holiness by announcing that it was not merely a means but an end in itself.[34]

The Iranian resistance movement and the PLO’s relations expanded exponentially from 1967 onwards. After the 1970 Black September and Nasser’s death the same month, many of Iran’s Mojahedin-e Khalq activists were trained in PLO bases in Jordan and Lebanon. The Mojahedin evolved mainly from the religious wing of the National Front and drew inspiration from Shariati.[35] This group worked tirelessly to strengthen its ties with foreign revolutionary movements and through encounters with PLO representatives. In the 1970s, the triangular exchanges between the Iranian resistance movement, the Palestinian terrorist organizations and Shiite factions in southern Lebanon strengthened considerably.

For most of these militant organizations, opposition to the Shah’s rule was rooted in the bilateral ties between Iran, the US, and Israel. These militant organizations fell into several categories as a function of their worldview, professional-social affiliation, and ideology. However, their animosity towards Israel and the Shah served as an excellent foundation for mutual cooperation with Palestinian terrorist groups since the activities of these organizations were fueled by both anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic propaganda. In 1970, Mustafa Chamran moved to Lebanon, which was one of the major bases of the Liberation Movement’s Middle Eastern operations. He primarily went there to help Musa al-Sadr organize the local Shiite community. From Lebanon he maintained his contacts with other Iranian opposition groups. Chamransettled outside of Tyre as the director of Burj al- Shimali Technical Institute, which was located near a PLO camp. At the same time the Iranian Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) were also training in PLO camps.[36] In his recollections of his relationships with the PLO, Chamran noted that:

I must point out that our relationship with them (the PLO) dated back to Egypt’s training camps. The Palestine Liberation Organization was not an apolitical organization at the time. Fatah had just been established as a military force, motivated by faith in the sacred armed struggle against the conquerors and had sent its men to Egypt to undergo training there. We got to know the Palestinians in these camps. Acquaintance turned into friendship and led to more courageous ties with them in Lebanon.[37]

In 1970, another Marxist group known as Sazeman-e Cherikha-ye Fedayi Khalq-e Iran, which was virulently opposed to the Shah, was founded. The Cherikha-ye Fedayi Khalq developed for the most part out of the Tudeh and the Marxist wing of the National Front. Their followers were primarily university students who championed its anti- regime activities. These included individuals whohad gone to Lebanon and trained in Fatah facilities. The Fedai later received training in Lebanon from the PLO and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.[38]

The leading Iranian revolutionaries collaborating with the Shiites and Fatah in Lebanon were Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur, Mohammed Montazeri (son of Ayatollah Montazeri), Sadeq Tabatabaei (Musa al-Sadr’s nephew), Mehdi Hashemi and Jalal al-din Farsi. According to Mohammed Montazeri, the Iranians in Lebanon had no particular political affiliation, but identified with Khomeini’s struggle against the Shah and Israel. The Iranian revolutionaries received military aid from Fatah but were divided into several groups that competed with each other over the nature and orientation of the Islamic revolution. Their dispute in Lebanon revolved around two main issues: the attitude towards the Palestinians in Lebanon and the attitude of the Lebanese Shiite community towards Velayat-e Faqih.[39]

Mohtashamipur studied in Najaf, near his mentor Ayatollah Khomeini. In the 1970s, he received military training in a Fatah camp to generate support for the Palestinians and Iranian revolutionaries alike. Mohtashamipur went to Lebanon (along with Mohammed Montazeri) to join liberation movements in the Middle East against Israel. Eventually in 1982, as Iranian ambassador to Syria, he began recruiting Hezbollah volunteers, and entered the collective consciousness as the ‘Iranian who founded Hezbollah’.[40]

Mohammed Montazeri was one of the leading representatives of the radical clerics in the opposition to the Shah’s regime. In the early 1960s, he studied with Khomeini and engaged in clandestine activities against the Shah. He was active in Lebanon, training and supporting the PLO there, and together with Mehdi Hashemi organized students in Qom against the monarchy. He disagreed with the Bazargan and Ayatollah Taleqani on fundamental theological issues and assumptions, including the role of jurisprudence.

Sadeq Tabatabaei studied in Germany, was influenced there by Bazargan, and joined the ‘Iranian Liberation Movement’. He became a supporter of Khomeini and joined the struggle against the Shah in 1966. Mehdi Hashemi was the brother of Hadi Hashemi, Ayatollah Montazeri’s son-in-law and a close confidant of the Ayatollah’s son Mohammed. After the latter’s death in the bombing of Islamic Republican Party headquarters (June 1981), Hashemi took over as the head of Mohammed’s armed followers. Hashemi adhered to Montazeri’s view of the Islamic revolution’s influence on Lebanese Shiites and advocated exporting the revolution to other Shiite areas in the Middle East.

Jalal al-Din Farsi spent eight years in Lebanon (before and after the revolution) and served as Khomeini’s personal representative to the PLO. He opposed the Shah during the 1950s and joined the LMI (Nehżat-e Azadi). Jalal engaged in ideological writing and authored several books that dis- cussed theological themes and Marxism from an Islamic perspective. During the 1970s he went to Lebanon, where he worked in the Shiite stronghold of the Burj al-Barajneh camp guiding and training young Iranians in preparation for the armed struggle against the Shah’s regime.

In 1973, Musa Sadr began establishing a movement whose goal was to protect the rights of the Shiite community in Lebanon. This movement was called Harakat al-Mahrumin (Movement of the Dispossessed) and recruited many young Shiites who identified with its ideals. Sadr had initially come from Iran to provide spiritual leadership to the Lebanese Shiites in 1959 at the invitation of the Mufti of Tyre, who formed the Lebanese Shiite Islamic Higher Council in 1967. He adhered to the belief that the appearance of the Vanished Imam would save the world and the oppressed and emphasized that self-reliance on the Mahdi increased the consciousness and enthusiasm of humankind to fight for justice. According to Fouad Ajami, Sadr’s preaching maintained that ‘the Hidden Imam redeeming the world enhances the mental readiness of men to hear calls for justice’.[41]

Sadr argued that the philosophical elite could resist ‘doubts and deliberations’, but that the masses required faith and guidance since, otherwise, their comprehension would be weakened, and they would find themselves in chaos. This pessimistic approach towards the masses was a recurrent theme in the Shiite doctrine that also stipulated protection and guidance for the oppressed.[42] Sadr’s worldview did not differ from Khomeini’s outlook regarding the relations between the religious elite and society.

Chamran stood by Sadr in mobilizing the Shiite community socially and politically. The alliance between the Iranian revolutionaries and the Lebanese Shiites intensified, and Lebanon established itself as a military infrastructure for the Iranian opposition’s activity in the Middle East. Chamran stated that he went to Lebanon ‘to create an Islamic revolutionary movement and build a base against the Shah and against Israel’. At the same time, Palestinian terrorist organizations that had been expelled from Jordan in 1970 reached southern Lebanon. They were willing to cooperate with the Iranian revolutionaries, some of whom they knew from their joint training in Egypt. As a result, Iranian dissidents were sent to training camps in Lebanon under Palestinian command.[43]

Over the course of 1974, Iranian militants trained in southern Lebanon under complete secrecy before being sent back to Iran. However, in June 1975, an accident occurred at the training camp that forced Sadr to admit the existence of the Amalmilitia (acronym for Afwaj al-Mouqawma al-Lubnaniyya),[44] which was to become one of the most important Shiite militias during the Lebanese civil war and grew stronger through support from Iranian revolutionaries and Syria.[45]

Unlike the mutual relations between Chamran and Amal, Montazeri preferred to strengthen his ties with the Palestinians in Lebanon. He viewed the Palestinians as combatants waging a battle against Israel who would become his natural allies, once the security apparatus of the Islamic republic had been established after the revolution. However, the fierce rivalry between Amal and the Palestinians in southern Lebanon left its mark and prompted an internal power struggle among Iranians in Lebanon.

These power struggles intensified further when Israel began to retaliate by targeting Palestinian bases operating from southern Lebanon. This conclusively affected the attitude of the Iranian Islamist groups that opposed Sadr, Chamran, and others in Amal. The most prominent Palestinian supporters were Mohammed Montazeri, Jalal al-Din Farsi, Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur, and Akhmad Nafri, and later Mohammed Salah Husseini. He went to south- ern Lebanon from Iraq and became the key link between the Iranian revolutionaries and Fatah.[46]

In the 1970s, the PLO took over large parts of Lebanon and turned the country into a base for its terrorist activities against Israel. Israel responded with a series of reprisals against Palestinian but also Lebanese targets. The incidents between the IDF and the Palestinians aggravated the situation of the Shiites in southern Lebanon, many of whom welcomed the arrival of Israeli troops in June 1982.[47]

Lebanon was and remains crucially important for Iranian revolutionaries. Curiously, the Islamic Revolution occurred not long after US President Jimmy Carter defined Iran as an island of stability in the Middle East. The State Department’s woeful lack of knowledge of current events and their devastating implications for the Shah’s rule may stem from the fact that Western officials focused on Iran itself and did not pay attention to events in Lebanon and Najaf. Obviously, the number of Iranian religious and official elites solidifying Iranian-Lebanese Shiite relations before the revolution can account for the magnitude of their future ties.

Roschanack Shaery described the extent of the Revolutionary-Lebanese connection as follows:

Religious leaders and politicians who have been active in maintaining a transnational Shiite network between Iran and Lebanon . . . Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur (former ambassador to Syria), Sadiq Khalkhali, Ali Khamenei, Murtida Elwiri (a former major of Tehran), and Sayyid Hamid Rawhani (a former member of the parliament) . . . Actors who identify closely with the religious elite, such as Ali Vilayati (the former Iranian foreign minister) and Jalal al-din Farsi (formerly Fatah’s representative in Iran), who were in leading positions of government in the 1980s. Although religious elites such as Husayn Ali Montazeri . . . His son, Muhammad Montazeri, was one of the main supporters of creating the Lebanese Hizbullah.[48]

The Islamic Republic’s animosity towards the State of Israel

With the consolidation of the new regime after the Islamic Revolution, opposition to Israel became a strategic and ideological goal. As a result, the first dignitary invited to visit Iran after the revolution was not the leader of a sovereign state but Yasser Arafat. On this same occasion, he was handed the keys to the building that had housed the Israeli delegation, in acknowledgment of the close ties that had developed between the PLO and Iran’s resistance movements during the 1970s.

Since Arafat led a national movement that was distanced from Shiite Islam, the convergence of interests between the Islamic Republic and the PLO was not theological but rather based on mutual goals, partnership and collective memories in Lebanon before the revolution. Khomeini viewed the relationship with the PLO as a bridge between revolutionary Iran and the Arab world. This hope would be dashed, however, after the Palestinian leadership’s refusal to adopt the ‘guardianship of the jurist’ principle espoused by the ayatollah.

To the Ayatollahs’ consternation, Arafat also took a non-aligned stance during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), which left a significant mark on Iran’s international orientation. The quest for self-sufficiency and self-reliance exemplifies one of many conclusions drawn from the war and embodies a hallmark of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. Khomeini was particularly infuriated by talks between PLO representatives and Iranian opposition factions in France, as well as by contacts between the PLO and Saudi officials over King Fahd’s August 1981 peace plan.[49]

Despite Khomeini’s disappointment with Arafat’s refusal to change course, the Palestinian issue continued to be a central motif in his proclamations, as the Islamic Republic exploited the Palestinian struggle as a platform to achieve geostrategic successes that served its own interests. Presenting itself as the guardian of the Palestinian struggle helped Tehran formulate notions such as ‘supporting of the oppressed against the oppressors’, which enhanced its prestige and dwarfed the power of its rivals in the Muslim world.

The rejection of the ‘Guardianship of the Jurisprudent’ by major Sunni Arab states, and the growing resentment of a segment of his revolutionary companions, impacted Khomeini’s tactics, and obligated him to reinforce his governing base by focusing on the ‘external adversary’. For these reasons, he encouraged Islamic activism by converging his efforts on Palestine and Jerusalem. In August 1979 he declared the last Friday of Ramadan International Quds (Jerusalem) Day, in solidarity with the Palestinians.[50]

Khomeini was aware of the rift between Sunnis and Shiites and made attempts to overcome it. This split was reflected in the teachings of leading Islamic Mujtahids and theorists such as Ibn Taymiyyah (died 1328), Rashid Rida (died 1935) and others. No one was more influential than Ibn Taymiyyah, who formulated arguments, accusations and allusions against the Shiites, whom he even viewed as a fifth column.[51]

Khomeini was well acquainted with the worldview of Ibn Taymiyyah and Rida, founder of the Salafiyya who was inspired the medieval thinker. Khomeini and Rida agreed on the idea of expulsion of the West from Islamic countries and the adoption of Sharia law in Muslim societies. On the other hand, there was a deep rift between them given Rida’s position on Shiism, which was not far removed from Ibn Taymiyyah’s.

After the revolution, Khomeini also had to overcome the challenge posed by pan-Arabism to Shiite Iran, which had created deep rifts in Iran’s foreign relations with the Arab world and had played a significant role in the development of bilateral relations between Tehran and Jerusalem before the revolution. Pan-Arabism, which was fundamentally Sunni, aimed to distance Iran from the ‘real Arab nation’. Simultaneously, the personal rivalry between Nasser and the Shah evolved into fierce animosity that labelled Iran as an enemy of the Sunni Arabs.52[52]

After Khomeini’s death in June 1989, representatives of the Iranian ruling elite continued to strictly uphold his legacy to prove loyalty to his heritage. Despite differences of opinion, the various factions of the revolutionary establishment presented a unified anti-Israel front. The current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, like his predecessor, was prepared to forget the fact that Arafat showed no particular interest in Khomeini’s teachings.

Iran’s ruling elite promulgated the notion that revolution is more than the replacement of one set of rulers by another and requires new ideology, identity, and above all legitimacy to reinforce its sovereignty. Consequently, revolutionary ideology explicitly required describing its adversaries and the (alleged) dangers they posed to legitimize its own values and policies. The survival of a revolutionary regime was thus seen as depending to a great extent on its ability to maintain a carefully crafted image of the enemy. Thus senior members of the Islamist regime consistently stressed the existence of an external enemy that threatened the foundations of the Islamic regime.

The demonization of the enemy received a major impetus during the Iran-Iraq war when the Islamist regime underscored the difference between the Iranian army and volunteer forces and the Iraqi military. The former was described as loyalists and defenders of Islam while the latter were described as heretics who represented a regime of tyranny and oppression. However, any unification of forces relied on the premise that there was a just and righteous mission on one side and an illegitimate ruler utilizing power against Islamic values on the other.[53]

As of its founding, revolutionary Iran constantly focused on its security dilemma, including its balance of power, as part of its risk assessment policy. While any state’s security ultimately depends on its power relative to others and states are essentially seen as rational actors whose primary goal is survival, Stephen Walt suggested focusing on threats rather than on power alone, since the ‘balance of threat’ theory provides a more complete explanation of why revolutions increase the likelihood of war.[54]

Iran’s evaluation of its balance of threat led to the formulation of a strategic principle based on the definition of strategic depth. This doctrine relies on the assumption that confrontation with the adversary should be conducted as far as possible from Iran’s borders. This strategy was heavily influenced by the Iran-Iraq war, which left its mark on Iran’s national security policy. It required setting up an ‘axis of resistance’ utilizing combat militias as proxy forces operating under the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The ultimate goal was to integrate these militias into a powerful political force and an active partner in formulating foreign and domestic policy in line with Iran’s interests.[55]

Another dimension of Iran’s security policy relied heavily on soft power such as investing resources, establishing cultural centers, hospitals, schools and welfare programs all of which are designed to enhance the appeal of the Islamic Republic’s Velayat-e Faqih model of governance. Joseph Nye argued that soft power enhances the ability to attract and persuade. From Tehran’s point of view, soft power remains essential in dealing with critical issues requiring bilateral cooperation among states.[56]

To no small extent, the establishment of Hezbollah in 1982 as part of the Badr organization (comprising Iraqi dissidents) that fought against Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war can be seen as a harbinger of Ian’s strategy of formulating soft power and its resistance axis. Hezbollah’s fealty to Tehran was demonstrated in a series of declarations that made it unequivocally clear that an Islamic order based on Khomeini’s vision was a main plank of its worldview.[57]

Hezbollah attracted public attention towards the end of 1983 with a series of suicide bombings of Western and Israeli targets in Lebanon, but its anti- Israel activities extended well beyond the Land of the Cedars. In March 1992, in retaliation for the killing of its leader Abbas Mousawi a month earlier, Hezbollah blew up the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. In July 1994, the group perpetrated yet another terrorist atrocity in the Argentinean capital by murdering 96 people and wounding more than 50 in the bombing of the Jewish community center (AMIA) in the city.[58]

For Iran, the March 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition opened a window of opportunity to promote the ‘resistance axis’ by setting up Shiite militias that would operate under its aegis. Not long after the invasion, Tehran helped build up the Jaish al-Mahdi (founded by Muqtada al-Sadr) and the Katai’b Hezbollah militias. These two groups began operations against coalition forces in Iraq headed by the IRGC’s Quds Force.

Somewhat later, in 2007, the IRGC established the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia led by Kais al-Khazali. Seven years later, after ISIS conquered the city of Mosul in June 2014, Iran set up the al-Hashd al-Sha’abi group, an umbrella organization of some 40 militias that operated alongside the Iraqi army in its fight to liberate ISIS-occupied territories. This activity by proxy suited Tehran by allowing it to operate widely in Iraq without leaving a footprint in the fighting. Over time, Iran’s shadow military presence in various parts of the Middle East came to reflect this approach.

The civil war in Syria, which began in March 2011, led to a change in the theocratic regime’s strategy and the advent of a new model. Anxious to preserve Bashar Assad’s regime, Tehran not only drastically increased its military involvement but also committed regular military forces, in stark contrast to its modus operandi in Iraq. At the beginning of the war Iran employed the familiar method of establishing mostly Shiite militias to operate under its aegis but its direct involvement quickly went well beyond the Iraqi model.[59]

The plethora of militias set by Iran included the Zainabyun militia, composed of Pakistani fighters, the Fatemiyun militia, most of whose fighters were Afghans living in Iran (mostly without a defined status), and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba under the command of Akram al-Qa’abi, who established the Golan Liberation Army battalion whose aim was to wrest the area from Israel.


The desire to achieve unity and social cohesion drove ayatollah Khomeini to infuse the Islamic revolution with theological significance, emphasizing the sharp division between oppressors and oppressed. This was a convenient framework to place Israel as an adversary on one hand and the Palestinians on the other. Towards the end of his life, Khomeini became concerned about the decline in religious zeal and devotion to revolutionary ideology. He feared that his proponents would show less adherence to Islamic values. He thus undertook specific steps to ensure that his disciples would sustain his revolutionary radicalism.[60] The perpetuation and promulgation of animosity towards the State of Israel served as a convenient premise.

To some extent, the religious basis of Khomeini’s proclamations and his anti-Israel struggle meshed with Palestinian enmity and its perceptions of the Jews. The present conflict could thus be described as a direct continuation of the struggle waged by the Jews against the prophet Muhammad from the moment he reached Medina, in a desperate effort to prevent the spread of Islam.[61]

The Shiite-Sunni divide and the struggle against Sunni dominance in the Muslim world contributed to Khomeini’s teachings and proclamations placing the Palestinian issue as the main axis of struggle between Islam and the West. He viewed the ‘liberation of Palestine’ as the first necessary step to the unification of the Muslim umma and set this struggle within the broader pan-Islamic context. He sought to make the Islamic Republic the political center of Islam, under the assumption that the commitment to Palestine would grant him the right to lead the Muslim world in its struggle to uproot Western imperialism and its local allies. And while Khomeini’s proclamations were based on theological arguments, his support for the Palestinian struggle was primarily the result of collective memory and mutual interests that evolved in Lebanon during his exile in Najaf. After the revolution, Khomeini and his successor made efforts to generate support for the Palestinians to promote Iran’s revolutionary regime to a level of regional hegemony.

In retrospect, Lebanon became a base for Iran’s ‘resistance movement’ in the 1970s because Iranian revolutionaries (despite their diversities) were able to exploit the country’s specific political and social conditions to achieve their goals. This alliance constituted a solid foundation for the special relationship that emerged before and after the Islamic revolution. Mohammed Montazeri’s recollections clearly capture Lebanon’s importance for the Iranian revolutionaries: ‘We all belonged to Imam Khomeini and were against the Shah and Zionism . . . The unity concerning common goals – ousting the Shah and defeating Zionism- meant all differences of opinion could be overcome’.[62]

Today, the Islamic regime’s belligerent anti-Israel statements embody a clear deterrent message that Iran is not afraid of inflicting significant damage to Israel and the US. The Islamic Republic’s hostility towards Israel is unquestionable, but the theocratic regime appears to be taking a different path and launching a new phase in the struggle. Its classic set of belligerent statements denying Israel’s right to exist is now backed up by operative measures suggesting that direct confrontation is possible.

Initially, the revolutionary regime mainly operated against Israel on the ideological level; for example, by proclaiming International ‘Quds Day’. Later, Tehran adopted a proxy strategy that enabled it to avoid direct evidence of its involvement. Currently Iran is investing efforts to revive Palestinian terrorist factions on Lebanese soil, similar to the model implemented in the 1970s.

The strengthening of ties between the IRGC, Hezbollah, Hamas and other proxy organizations and the supply of long-range missiles via Syria to Lebanon, has increased levels of concern in Israel.[63] Support for Iran and the founding of Hezbollah and Palestinian terror organizations, the training of their operatives in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon’s Beqaa Valle, the settling of Hamas operatives in southern Lebanon, it is a proven reality. Thus, more than four decades after its establishment, the Islamic Republic’s animosity towards Israel has not diminished, and its pursuit of nuclear capability greatly exacerbates this threat.


[2] Bialer, “The Iranian Connection.”

[3] Jervis, “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma.” For an overview of Iranian writers publications, see: Velayati, Iran va Tahavolat- e Palestine; Murteza, Diplomasi-ye Penhan; Rad, Hamkari-e Savak va Mussad; Haji Yousefy, Iran va Regime-ye Sahyonisti; and Reza, Ertebat-e Nashenokhte.

[4] Itzchakov, “Iran’s Quds Day.”

[5] Taroujani, “Tarikh-e Ma’aser-e Iran az Didgah-e Imam-e Khomeini,” 317–18.

[6] Mavani, “Ayatullah Khomeini’s Concept of Governance.”

[7] Chehabi, “Religion and Politics in Iran.”

[8] Itzchakov, Iran-Israel 1948–1963.

[9] Mavani, “Ayatullah Khomeini’s Concept of Governance,” 807–8.

[10] Rahimi, “The Rise of Shi’i Ideology in Pre-Revolutionary Iran.”

[11] Kohlberg, “From Imamiyya to Ithnä-’ashariyya.”

[12] Shavit and Winter, “My Enemy, My Mentor.”

[13] Khomeini, Velayat-e Faqih Hokumat-e Eslami, 70–71.

[14] Lewis, “Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East.”

[15] Itzchakov, “Iran’s Unwavering Israel-Hatred.”

[16] Keddie and Richard, Roots of Revolution, 140.

[17] Chehabi, Iranian Politics, 158–9.

[18] Zubaida, Islam, The People and the State, 253–9.

[19] Abrahamian, “The Guerrilla Movement in Iran.”

[20] Chehabi, Iranian Politics, 156.

[21] Murteza, Selselhay-e Pahlavi, 104.

[22] The Islamic Republican Party was founded in 1979 and disbanded in 1987.

[23] Itzchakov, Iran-Israel 1948–1963, 45–6.

[24] Taghavi, “Fadaeeyan-i Islam.”

[25] Rahimi, “Democratic Authority,” 198.

[26] Moghadam, “Mayhem, Myths, and Martyrdom,” 136.

[27] Shaery-Eisenlohr and Shaery-Eisenlohr, “Post-Revolutionary Iran and Shi’i Lebanon.”

[28] Shapira, Hezbollah, 75–6.

[29] Nasr, The Shi’a Revival, 71–2.

[30] For an analysis of Shariati’s “Islamic Sociology,” see: Zubaida, Islam, The People and the State, 71–8. About Shariati’s personal life see: Abedi, “Ali Shariati.”

[31] Arjomand, “The Reform Movement.”

[32] Moghadam, “Mayhem, Myths, and Martyrdom,” 139.

[33] Ahouie, “Ali Shariati on the Question of Palestine.”

[34] Shapira, Hezbollah, 97.

[35] Abrahamian, “The Guerrilla Movement in Iran,” 8–9.

[36] Samii, “The Shah’s Lebanon Policy.”

[37] Shapira, Hezbollah, 81.

[38] Samii, “The Shah’s Lebanon Policy,” 80.

[39] Shapira, “Who Was Behind the Killing of Imam Musa Sadr?”

[40] Shaery-Eisenlohr and Shaery-Eisenlohr, “Post-Revolutionary Iran and Shi’i Lebanon,” 280.

[41] Ajami, The Vanished Imam, 93.

[42] Musa al-Sadr disappeared on August 1978 in a journey to Libya.

[43] Shapira, Hezbollah, 81–2.

[44] Zisser, Lebanon, 60.

[45] A decade after its establishment, Amal began losing its status to Hezbollah, which evolved as the most dominant party in Lebanon’s politics.

[46] Shapira, “Who Was Behind the Killing,” 166.

[47] Zisser, Lebanon, 76.

[48] Shaery-Eisenlohr and Shaery-Eisenlohr, “Post-Revolutionary Iran and Shi’i Lebanon,” 273–4.

[49] Podeh, “From Fahd to Abdallah.”

[50] See note 4 above.

[51] Nasr, The Shia Revival, 73–9.

[52] Hunter, “Iran and the Spread of Revolutionary Islam.”

[53] Itzchakov, “Iran Must Demonize Its Enemies to Justify Itself.”

[54] Walt, “Revolution and War.”

[55] Kaye, Israel and Iran.

[56] Nye, Soft Power.

[57] Menashri, “Iran’s Regional Policy.”

[58] Zisser, Lebanon, 217–18.

[59] Dekel, The War in Syria.

[60] Takeyh, “All the Ayatollah’s Men,” 54.

[61] Litvak, “The Islamization of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.”

[62] Shapira, Hezbollah, 93.