As Israel threatens retaliation, who are Iran's main allies?

The Axis of Resistance has long opposed Israel amid growing tensions over the war in Gaza.

A member of the Iranian paramilitary Basij force holds an Iranian flag as he covers her face in the Palestinian and Lebanese militants style in an annual rally to mark Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, to support the Palestinians in Tehran, Iran, Friday, April 5, 2024. In the rally in Tehran, thousands attended a funeral procession for the seven Revolutionary Guard members killed in an airstrike widely attributed to Israel that destroyed Iran's Consulate in the Syrian capital on Monday. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
A member of the Iranian paramilitary Basij force holds an Iranian flag as he covers his face in the Palestinian and Lebanese militants style at a rally to support Palestinians. (AP)

Tensions continue to rise in the Middle East amid fears of a possible Israeli counter-strike after Iran launched a drone and missile attack on it at the weekend.

Israel said Iran launched 170 drones, more than 30 cruise missiles and at least 120 ballistic missiles in an attack that set off air raid sirens across the country.

The assault was launched in response to a strike blamed on Israel on an Iranian consular building in Syria earlier this month that killed two Iranian generals. Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called it an attack on Iran itself, saying: "The evil regime must be punished, and it will be punished."

Israel said 99% of the drones and missiles in Iran's attack at the weekend had been shot down outside its borders. Defence secretary Grant Shapps said some drones were intercepted by the RAF in Syria and Iraq, where it was already operating as part of the Operation Shader mission against the Islamic State group.

Iran's strike is the first direct military attack by Tehran on Israel, despite long-standing enmity dating back to the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

It prompted G7 leaders to “unequivocally” condemn Iran’s unprecedented attack and warn that the risk of an “uncontrollable regional escalation” must be avoided. In a joint statement following an urgent meeting on Sunday, countries including the UK and US said they “stand ready to take further measures now and in response to further destabilising initiatives”.

Britain and the US have previously offered staunch support for Israel, although Tehran has threatened a “heavier” response if Washington cooperates in any further military action.

US officials have accused Iran of providing extensive training and weapons to Hamas that allowed them to carry out such a devastating attack in Israel last October. Since then, groups backed by Iran – part of the so-called 'Axis of Resistance' – have waged attacks on Israeli and US targets, highlighting the complex series of alliances at play in the tinder box region.

What is the Axis of Resistance?

The Axis of Resistance is an informal political and military coalition of states and other groups united by the support provided by Iran that is firmly directed against Israel and Western influence in the region.

Israel views the axis as a serious threat.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia Islamist political party and militant group that has de facto control of Lebanon over the border with Syria, is a member. Alongside these are numerous Palestinian militant groups and other organisations like the Houthis in Yemen.

President Bashar Assad, right, met Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian after the strike on Damascus. (AP)
Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian met Syrian president Bashar Assad after the strike on Damascus. (AP)

Hezbollah, which is a US-designated terror organisation, has played a key role in supporting Hamas in Gaza since the outbreak of the conflict on 7 October, with many of Hamas's operatives based in Lebanon.

Hezbollah has also launched near daily attacks on Israeli targets at the Lebanese-Israeli border since early October – drawing significant retaliatory strikes from Israel.

Iran is also widely reported to be a backer of the Houthi group in Yemen. The Houthis have wreaked havoc on the key Red Sea shipping lanes that facilitate much of the trade between Europe and Asia in support of the Palestinians in Gaza.

Their strikes on ships have forced many firms to redirect around the tip of Africa rather than risking the much shorter route through the Suez Canal. Iran has denied having any direct role in the attacks, though Ali Khamenei has praised the group saying in January they were doing a "great job".

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised retaliation against Israel during his speech to mark the end of Ramadan on 10 April. (AP)
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised retaliation against Israel during his speech to mark the end of Ramadan on 10 April. (AP)

In Iraq, Iranian-backed Shia groups (include Kataib Hezbollah and the Nujaba group) emerged as powerful players in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion, with tens of thousands of fighters targeting US forces in recent months.

These groups have declared their operations as part of an effort to "resist American occupation forces in Iraq and the region", and carried out in "response to the massacres" committed by Israel against Palestinians in Gaza.

The Syrian government – led by president Bashar al-Assad – is also part of the Axis of Resistance. Though Syria has not played a direct role in the current Gaza conflict, it has been a staunch ally of Iran for many years. The 1 April strike in Syria's capital Damascus, which left 13 people dead, is the latest incident to increase tensions and add to concerns of a wider escalation.

Who are Iran's other allies?

In recent years Iran has also grown closer to two more powerful nations: China and Russia. This growing triple alliance has worried many leaders in the West, particularly when it comes to the war in Ukraine.

Russia's alliance with Iran has been growing for years after both played a key role in propping up Assad's regime in Syria. After Russia's invasion became stalled, according to US officials, Moscow bought drones from Iran to bulk up their military supplies.

Russia and China have become closer allies since the start of the war in Ukraine. (AP)
Russia and China have become closer allies since the start of the war in Ukraine. (AP)

It is also believed Vladimir Putin sought China's approval for Russia's invasion of Ukraine and has been a key economic backer of the country. With the war in Ukraine bringing all three countries closer, their alliance became seemingly more entrenched when they carried out a joint naval exercise in March in the Gulf of Oman.

China said at the time the exercise "will help deepen practical cooperation between the participating countries’ navies ... and inject positive energy into regional peace and stability."

China has also been happy to import oil from Russia and Iran, both of which have seen their imports to the West completely cut off in recent years. In February 89% of Iran's oil exports went to China, according to the Atlantic Council.

The Atlantic Council has also claimed Russia has learned from Iran when it comes to circumnavigating international sanctions, operating a "shadow fleet" to shop its oil to China and now trades in the renminbi rather than the dollar.

Additional reporting from Reuters

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