Iran Plays a Diplomatically Cautious (and Smart) Game on Gaza

It’s not every day that Hamas leaders openly plead for Tehran’s support. But this is apparently  what happened when, as the battle between Gaza’s militant groups and Israel’s military escalated, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh sent a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei calling for “immediate action and mobilization of Islamic, Arab and international positions in order to … force the Zionist enemy to stop its crimes against the besieged people of Gaza.” He also spoke by phone to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. But however much they detest Israel, Iran’s leaders appeared to be doing their utmost to avoid getting directly drawn into the fighting. The same may be said for Hezbollah. While missiles were fired four times toward the Israel-Lebanon border during the week of May 15—and while a Hezbollah-affiliated protester was killed by Israeli troops when he joined a group that tried to storm the Lebanese-Israeli border—the missile attacks (which caused no Israeli casualties) were very likely undertaken by a Palestinian faction. Fearing a major war with Israel, Hezbollah leaders are skirting actions that they surely know Tehran would not support.

Indeed, Iran’s leaders are not wild risk takers. With one eye on the strategic situation in the region and the other on the June presidential elections (which could still produce surprises), they proceeded cautiously throughout the 11-day conflict. Now that a shaky ceasefire has been reached, Zarif may very well redouble his recent efforts to focus on regional and global diplomacy—an approach that could have implications for Iran’s upcoming presidential elections. As he moves forward, we should expect more carefully chosen words of defiance and solidarity that, in practical terms, will fall far short of what Haniyeh has called for but which create a wider dynamic that could have its own momentum.

Iran’s Restraint

Iran’s leaders could be forgiven if they feel that they are not getting enough credit from Palestinian leaders. After all, the capacity of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to fire missiles into Jerusalem and Tel Aviv owes much to the military support and training provided by Iran. It is not merely their range but the massive number of missiles that have been fired at once, thus poking holes in Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense system. While the decision to use such weapons seems to signal a major, if risky, shift in the strategy of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, it is not known if their decision was prompted by Iran, or as seems far more likely, by internal Palestinian domestic calculations following the attack by Israeli police forces on worshipers in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque. Whatever their motivations, the most recent Gaza conflagration could put Tehran in a difficult spot. Iran’s support for Palestinian militants is a two-edged sword, as they have their own political and strategic calculations.

Iran’s support for Palestinian militants is a two-edged sword, as they have their own political and strategic calculations. 

Statements by Iranian leaders suggest that Tehran is wielding this sword carefully. Indeed, Iranian leaders have signaled that prospects for preventing further bloodletting will rest on international diplomacy. For example, in the conversation with Zarif, in which Haniyeh reiterated Hamas’s desire for action from Tehran, the Iranian diplomat repeated Iran’s support for the Palestinians but offered little else in the way of concrete promises. In fact, two days before the phone call, Zarif set out Iran’s basic position before a virtual meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). “Palestine,” he stated, “is not only an Arab or Islamic issue, but also an international dilemma.” Putting a wide-angle frame on the matter, he argued that the “international community … has a duty to … compel [Israel] to end the destruction and siege of Gaza.” This statement came several days after President Hassan Rouhani, in a phone call with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, called for the OIC “to play a more active role in recent developments.” These messages were echoed by a foreign ministry spokesman, who called “on the International Security Council to assume its responsibilities.”

This focus on multilateralism reflects the pragmatic ethos of Iran’s foreign policy establishment. But hard-line leaders have in fact not strayed very far from this message. Iranian Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf condemned Israel as the “chief evil” in the region, but then called upon “all leaders in the region to assist the resistance forces as soon as possible.” The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) deputy commander for political affairs, Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, offered Palestinians reassurance that the “Zionist regime has no capability at all to change the situation in its own favor,” and that the “future belongs to the Palestinian people.” Yet, he offered no indication that Iran would seek to play a more direct military role in the near term.

This carefully pitched message seems to have Khamenei’s blessing. The Palestinians, he argues, “should make themselves powerful, resist and confront so as to force the other party to withdraw from crime and surrender to what’s right and fair.” But when it comes to the question of what is to be done, he has emphasized the need for the Muslim community to forge a united position, thus signaling the limits of Iran’s readiness to intervene on behalf of the militant Palestinian forces it has supported in Gaza.

Iran’s Multiple Considerations

In all likelihood, the primary concern that prompted Iran’s reticence is the possibility that the Gaza conflict could provoke a wider regional war for which Iran would pay a very high price—not only in the Middle East and wider global community but also at home. That war would most likely start in Lebanon. Lebanese officials, and Hezbollah’s leaders in particular, surely know that if Hezbollah unleashes missile attacks at Haifa or Tel Aviv, Israel would retaliate with massive force. This could set up a scenario for escalation that would quickly ripple into Syria and probably Iraq in ways that could draw Iran into a wider conflict, one it wants to avoid.

Thus it is hardly surprising that Lebanese officials insist that Hezbollah’s leaders have emphasized that the party has “no interest” in seeing the Gaza war spread to Lebanon. Indeed, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, Naim Qassem, stated the party’s basic position in March, insisting that it would “remain in a state of defense,” and has “no intention of starting a war … Israel must understand that the arena is not open to it, and today the battle will be within the Israeli entity.” There is no indication that Hezbollah has changed this prudent stance.

On the regional front, the Gaza conflict offers potential opportunities for Iran to score diplomatic points. Statements by Iranian leaders favoring a joint response by Muslim and Arab leaders underscore Tehran’s desire to isolate those Arab countries that signed normalization deals with Israel.

On the regional front, the Gaza conflict offers potential opportunities for Iran to score diplomatic points. Statements by Iranian leaders favoring a joint response by Muslim and Arab leaders underscore Tehran’s desire to isolate those Arab countries that signed normalization deals with Israel under the rubric of the “Abraham Accords.” Iranian leaders—and Khamenei in particular—were furious with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (a “handful of small governments” as he put it, that had “normalized relations with the Zionist regime”). By championing a Gaza position that is at odds with those Arab countries that struck deals that secured zero concessions from Israel on the Palestinian issue, Tehran is trying to position itself as a spokesman of the wider Islamic world. Its ongoing talks with Saudi Arabia, not to mention official statements that Tehran welcomes Riyadh’s “change of tone,” are part and parcel of this diplomatic offensive. The fact that Hamas officials have called for unity between Iran and Saudi Arabia will encourage Tehran to sustain this campaign.

On the global front, Tehran is operating in an international context that is increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Iranian leaders are surely following the criticism of Israel in the US Congress, and it is very likely that Zarif has read or is aware of recent reports by Israel’s human rights organization B’Tselem, and by Human Rights Watch, detailing policies of what both organizations called demographic and economic apartheid aimed at Palestinians in both the Occupied Territories and in Israel. International media coverage of the efforts to expel Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood reflects a shifting global climate in favor of a robust effort to renew diplomacy on the Palestinian-Israeli issue. To get sucked into a dangerous military conflict with Israel would put Iran at odds with Russia and China as well as with European leaders (not to mention Turkish officials, to whom they have reached out in recent days). In affirming the above considerations, Zarif has argued that the world is now “looking at the Palestinian issue from a different viewpoint.” The perception (and claim) that Israel has “lost the public opinion battlefield” to the Palestinians has surely animated his push for diplomacy.

The most immediate international forum that Zarif must grapple with is the ongoing talks in Vienna on the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). With Iran gearing up for a return to the international oil market, it has much to lose if the talks fail to create a reasonably credible framework for ending nuclear-related sanctions. Statements by US officials that the Biden Administration intends to sustain the negotiations despite the situation in Gaza indicate that White House officials are intent on moving ahead. With the Vienna talks due to conclude the week of May 24, the pressure on both Washington and Tehran to reach an agreement is increasing. Thus the logic of sustaining something of a firewall between the talks and ongoing events in the Middle East.

The most immediate international forum that Zarif must grapple with is the ongoing talks in Vienna on the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The nuclear talks—as well the situation in Gaza—will also have implications for Iran’s domestic arena. With presidential elections scheduled for June 18, Iranian leaders from all the key factions probably prefer maintaining some measure of regional quiet. These leaders include hard-liners, some of whom—such as Ebrahim Raisi—seem especially well placed to make a bid for the presidency. But experience suggests that even Iran’s closely controlled elections can produce surprises. Indeed, Iran’s leaders, particularly Khamenei, appear justifiably concerned about the prospects for a poor turnout at the polls. Thus, avoiding regional conflicts that could create consternation in the wider Iranian populace—or worse, that could rebound to the benefit of more pragmatic or reformist candidates—makes good sense. This is not the time for adventurism.

Uncertainties Persist

Now that a still precarious cease-fire has been reached between Israel and Hamas, we will have to see how and if Zarif can move his diplomatic efforts forward in ways that may or may not create opportunities on multiple fronts. For his part, Zarif has indicated that he has no intention of entering the presidential race. The political fate of his allies in the weak and divided reformist camp will be shaped, in part, by Tehran’s evolving regional and global diplomacy. They will live to fight another day if Zarif’s efforts to signal a desire to back multilateral efforts to address the Palestinian issue gains momentum in ways that could secure greater support in European capitals.

Still, the basic dilemma for Iran remains: how to support the premise of negotiations when, as a matter of principle, the Islamic Republic and Hamas reject the existence of Israel. Khamenei’s cleverly worded proposal for a “referendum on Palestine” is perhaps worth noting, but it hardly departs from Iran’s basic hard-line stance. Recent statements by Iranian leaders that Iran is “ready to cooperate with regional countries” to further “collective security” echo these basic tensions in its foreign policy. Indeed, what separates Iran from every government in the Arab world is that it rejects a two-state solution; further, it has given its allies in Lebanon and Gaza the means to sabotage Palestinian-Israeli talks. That the policies of Israel’s government in East Jerusalem and the wider West Bank have helped obscure these contradictions is true. But that does not absolve Iran’s leaders from the responsibility they must bear for maintaining a position that is ultimately at odds with the international community.

Will the domestic ground shift following the June elections in ways that might strengthen those Iranian leaders who favor a more coherent strategic (as opposed to tactical) engagement in the region? Perhaps not. Still, with Iranian leaders playing the diplomatic card, Europe and the United States have an interest in testing Tehran’s intentions. That opportunity may grow or shrink in the coming months. But such uncertainty itself is reason enough for the White House to grapple with the Palestinian-Israeli issue in ways that it had clearly not anticipated when Biden’s foreign policy team entered the global stage a few short months ago.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here