May 21, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Did Raisi’s outreach to Arab states pave the way for Oct. 7?

Iran sought to derail any Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, which October 7 did; as such, it exploited October 7 to change the regional order.
May 21, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Did Raisi’s outreach to Arab states pave the way for Oct. 7?

Iran sought to derail any Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, which October 7 did; as such, it exploited October 7 to change the regional order.

Late Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi’s untimely demise comes at a complex time for Iran. Over the last few years, Iran has been on the march across the Middle East, exploiting the vacuum left in Iraq and Syria after the war on ISIS, so it tried to establish influence on the ground. It also increased the strength of its proxies – like Hezbollah, the Houthi group, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

During Raisi’s era, Iran pursued a policy of outreach to Arab states. Its reconciliation with Saudi Arabia took place last year with China’s backing and came after Iran and China agreed to a multi-decade deal to increase ties.

The Iran-Saudi deal was likely a win-win for both China and Iran. It helped China increase its influence in the region and gave Iran the (at least a temporary) guarantee that there would not be Saudi-Israel normalization.

But Iran didn’t just reach out to Riyadh; it also reached out to the Arab League and helped bring the Syrian regime back into the folds of the Arab League. Tehran controls a swath of Syria, so, in essence, it was bringing its proxy into the Arab League after a decade when the Syrian regime received the cold shoulder due to the Syrian civil war.

Over the last few years, Iran has sought to change the region irreversibly; a large change overall has taken place thanks to the chaos that took place here over the last decades. This can be traced loosely to the end of the Cold War, the rise of al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism, the American global war on terror and its invasion of Iraq. However, this was put on steroids by the Arab Spring in the early 2010s. Iran was on the march throughout all of this – the Gulf War that Saddam caused by invading Kuwait, helped Iran; the rise of ISIS helped Iran.

The result was the rising proximity of Iranian-backed groups to Israel’s borders – Hezbollah, Hamas, and PIJ. Just this week, Israeli forces raided locations in the West Bank to fight terrorists, whose weapons partially come from Iran, Gaza in the South, and Hezbollah in the North. This threat can also be seen in drones flown by Iranian allies in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq towards Israel.

Iran was likely able to use all this influence it has built in the Arab world to pave the way to October 7.

Setting the stage for October 7 and regional conflict 

What were the key elements of that attack? First, Hamas’s power needed to grow. Iran likely did this through technological advice and perhaps through smuggling. Second, distracting Israel from the Gaza Strip by increasing the shipments and activity in the North – Lebanon and Syria: Israel’s MABAM (“war between the wars”) campaign. This includes the Iranian movement of precision munitions and drones to Hezbollah. Iran further inflamed the northern West Bank in 2022-2023, which brought the reaction of bringing in more Israeli units that without increased IDF recruitment, would result in thinned forces along the southern border, effectively a reduced presence.

Third, Iran’s outreach to the Arab world lowered tensions between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis in Yemen, opening the Houthis up to being used in the war on Israel. In addition, the reconciliation between Qatar the UAE, and Saudi Arabia likely helped Iran, which wanted to derail the Abraham Accords.

Once the Saudis and other countries were less hostile to Qatar and Iran, it could lure them over to its side. It is noteworthy that China and Russia did not condemn October 7. Through drone sales to Russia, Iran was able to buy Russian silence on October 7, and likely Russia lined up behind Hamas because of the rivalry with the US and the Ukraine war. Israel had done outreach to China over the years, but once Iran was closer to China, Beijing became more hostile.

With all these pieces in place, Iran may have yet gained from other winds of change. With the Gulf reconciliation, it is possible that the intelligence services of the Arab states were less inclined to be alert to Hamas activity because they were less focused on Iran’s destabilizing activities. This meant that the word could be fed to Israel that Hamas was “deterred.”

Who fed Israel this story is not clear. Was it cooked up in Tehran or by Hamas or others? What is clear is that Israel was lured into a false sense of security and Iran laid a trap – notwithstanding the internal concepts and ideologies that led to it from the inside out. Iran laid this trap through its increased role in the Gulf and the Arab world. With less focus by the Arab states on Hamas and Iran, the terrorists were able to move forward on October 7, now with a green light.

Iran wanted to use October 7 to derail Saudi-Israel normalization and the Abraham Accords, and to isolate Israel. It has exploited October 7 to change the regional order and sees this as a watershed turning point.

This happened under the watch of Raisi and Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian – who also died in the helicopter crash – both played a key role in the outreach to the Arab and Muslim world. Not all will be known for many years, but Raisi along with his administration, were central in laying the groundwork for October 7. 

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Arab Politics China Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Israel at War Russia