Iran on a tightrope

Manal Lotfy , Tuesday 10 Oct 2023

How Tehran plays its cards during the current military conflict between the Palestinian group Hamas and Israel will be closely monitored internationally, writes Manal Lotfy

Iran on a tightrope
Iranians demonstrate in Palestine Square in Tehran, raising the photos of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani and the Palestinian flag


Over the past four decades, Iran has walked a tightrope in most of crises in the region, from the US-led war in Iraq to the Civil War in Syria and the crisis in Yemen. But the current escalation in the Middle East between the Palestinian group Hamas and Israel will test Tehran’s ability to walk the tightest of tightropes.

On the face of it, the current war between Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and Israel carries potential gains for Iran, but it also carries risks and challenges. How Iran positions itself and the extent of its potential direct and indirect involvement in the current conflict will largely determine how long the war will last and how it will end.

Iran is a major supporter of Hamas, and it has provided the group with financial, military, and political support for many years. After Hamas’ unprecedented operations inside Israel at the weekend, called the “Al-Aqsa Flood,” some Western sources have accused Iran of direct involvement in the attacks.

A report on Sunday in The Wall Street Journal claimed that Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards have been attending biweekly planning meetings with Hamas in Beirut since August, including two attended by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

Tehran declared uncompromising support for the “Palestinian resistance” after the Hamas operation, but Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Tehran was not involved in the operation and hailed what he called Israel’s “irreparable” military and intelligence defeat.

“We kiss the hands of those who planned the attack on the Zionist regime,” Khamenei said on Tuesday in his first televised speech since the attack. “The Zionist regime’s own actions are to blame for this disaster,” he added.

At a weekly press conference Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Nasser Kanani said that “we have no role in making decisions on behalf of any party in the region, including the Palestinian nation… What concerns us is that we consider the resistance of the Palestinian people to be a legitimate resistance.”

US and Israeli officials were also quick to say that there was no evidence of Iranian involvement in the Hamas attacks.

“Iran is a major player, but we can’t yet say if it was involved in the planning or training,” said Daniel Hagari, a spokesperson for the Israel Occupation Forces (IOF).

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also said that the US has no direct knowledge of Iran being behind the attacks.

These are all indicators of an unwillingness to turn the “grey war” or “shadow war” between Tehran and Tel Aviv into a direct and costly regional war risking the involvement of other regional parties.

Only days have now passed since the most violent escalation in the Middle East in years, and the confrontations between Hamas and Israel may continue for weeks or even months to come. But whatever the scenario in the coming days, Iran will most likely emerge as the biggest victor in this crisis on more than one level.

The new Middle East that US President Joe Biden is trying to establish with a historic normalisation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel seems to be in turmoil. It is difficult to imagine Riyadh resuming negotiations with the US and Israel in order to normalise relations with Tel Aviv while the conflict is continuing with such violence, leaving hundreds of Palestinian civilians dead.

At any rate, even before the current crisis Riyadh required for any normalisation to take place that Israel would take positive and tangible steps with regard to alleviating the suffering of the Palestinian people and entering negotiations to achieve their national aspirations for a state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.

These Saudi demands were the biggest obstacle to the ultra-nationalist government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, it has become even more difficult for the Netanyahu government to make any concessions, no matter how marginal, to the Palestinians.

The escalation puts all normalisation efforts at risk and threatens the Biden administration’s chances of rearranging the Middle East as it wants it. This will be seen as a major victory for Tehran and its allies in the region.

A second point is that all of Israel’s military options to respond to Hamas could play into Iran’s hands.

If the Israeli army decides to carry out a major military operation inside Gaza and use excessive force to destroy what it sees as Hamas’ infrastructure, this will put enormous pressure on the Arab countries that have recently normalised their relations with Israel and on the countries that want normalisation.

It will also lead to an increase in the Arab street’s resentment towards Israel.

On the other hand, if the Israeli army considers a ground military operation inside Gaza to be too dangerous and decides not to respond in this way, this will be seen as a major victory for Hamas and as evidence of Israel’s limited options despite its military power.

Again, this will be very beneficial to Iran.

A third point is that Iran will likely provide political, humanitarian, and medical support to Palestinian civilians injured in the conflict, which would boost Tehran’s image as a regional leader and champion of the Palestinian cause.

Yahya Rahim Safavi, a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, voiced Tehran’s support for the Hamas operation, calling it a “proud operation.”

“We support the proud Operation Al-Aqsa Flood…  and we are sure that the resistance front also supports this,” he said in comments reported by the ISNA News Agency.

Safavi also pledged support for the Palestinians “until the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem” is complete.

Many Iranians gathered in Tehran’s Palestine Square carrying the Palestinian flag and pictures of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, who was assassinated in a US drone attack in 2020 after overseeing the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign operations for more than a decade.

But perhaps the biggest prize that Iran may win from the current escalation is the defeat of Netanyahu’s political project, which is based on bypassing and ignoring the principle of “land for peace” in favour of the vague principle of “peace for peace.”

In some left-wing Israeli newspapers, led by Haaretz, there have already been calls for him to resign and not to supervise any Israeli response to the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation on the grounds that he will make matters worse for Israel.

An opinion piece in the British newspaper The Guardian by Simon Tisdall, a foreign affairs commentator, also called for the immediate departure of the Israeli prime minister.

Despite Netanyahu’s call for a national government in Israel, he did not receive a positive response from the Israeli opposition parties, which see the end of his political career approaching and do not want to extend a lifeline to him.

There are also Israeli reports that popular demonstrations are being prepared to force Netanyahu to step down.

It is not difficult to imagine how the unprecedented operation carried out by Hamas may radically change the political debate in Israel in favour of left-of-centre political parties.

“If the world ignores the real causes of Palestinian anger, operations similar to the Al-Aqsa Flood will continue and will not stop. For Iran, things are black and white. The racist settlement policies of the extremist Netanyahu government are responsible for the Hamas operation, and the sooner the Zionists and Western capitals realise the real reason for the escalation, the closer we will get to a just solution,” an Iranian diplomatic source in London told Al-Ahram Weekly.

But the enthusiastic Iranian language and supportive positions are also on a tightrope. Many European countries lost citizens in the Hamas attacks. French President Emmanuel Macron made his feeling very clear on Tuesday, saying that Tehran’s praise of the Hamas attacks were unacceptable and that France was looking into establishing whether it was directly involved.

“I have no comment to make about the direct involvement of Iran, for which we have no formal proof, but it’s clear that the public comments by the Iranian authorities were unacceptable. And that it is likely that Hamas was offered help,” Macron said in a news conference in Hamburg with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

So far, France has confirmed that four of its nationals were killed in the operation.

Iran also does not want to appear as the primary beneficiary of the current escalation in the Middle East because this would hinder its efforts to improve relations with the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, and would push the Gulf states to throw themselves into the arms of the US again, which conflicts with Iran’s long-term strategic interests.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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