Policy trap

Manal Lotfy in London , Tuesday 21 Nov 2023

Tehran and its allies are testing the water with the seizure of an Israeli cargo ship in the Red Sea.

Policy trap


The war raging in Gaza is testing America’s diplomatic ability as well as its capacity for military deterrence, and on neither front does the US seem to be winning. The bold seizure of an Israeli cargo ship, Galaxy Leader, in the Red Sea by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels over Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip was a calculated risk daring the US to respond.

Though the US is wary of a direct confrontation with Iran, increased Houthi attacks could force it to act. Since the start of the war, the Biden administration has dispatched aircraft carriers to the region to deter Iran and her allies, and yet there have been rocket, drone and missile attacks on Israel and on American troops from Iran’s network of allied militias across the Middle East, though so far this has not developed into a regional conflict.

The Israeli army described the attack on the ship as a “very grave incident of global consequence”. The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the vessel “was hijacked with Iran guidance by the Yemenite Houthi militia”, criticising what it called “another act of Iranian terrorism”. The Israeli army said the vessel was on its way from Turkey to India when it was seized in the southern Red Sea before it was taken to a Yemeni port.

Although Israel says the vessel does not have any connection with it and no Israelis were among its crew, the maritime security company Ambrey said the vessel’s “group owner is listed as Ray Car Carriers”, whose parent company belongs to Abraham “Rami” Ungar, an Israeli tycoon. Tehran denied any direct involvement in the incident. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said the Israeli allegations were “invalid” and a form “projection meant to escape from the situation they are facing. We have repeatedly announced that the resistance groups in the region represent their own countries and make decisions and act based on their interests. The Zionist regime cannot accept that it suffered a major defeat in Palestine and wants to find justification for the defeat by accusing the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Although the calculations of Tehran and its allies in the Middle East, led by Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, are to avoid direct war with America and Israel, this does not exclude carrying out specific operations against American and Israeli interests in the region. It seems that the goal of Iran and its allies in the escalation on the Israeli-Lebanese border or against American military bases in Iraq and Syria is to reduce pressure on Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza by opening other fronts, albeit in a limited way, to exhaust Israel and America militarily and politically.

Also among those goals is to warn Washington of the possibility of expanding the war regionally unless the Biden administration pressures Israel to implement a resolution issued by the UN Security Council earlier this month stipulating humanitarian truces in Gaza to allow the entry of humanitarian aid to the Strip’s population of 2.3 million people, of whom 1.7 million people have been displaced according to the latest United Nations statistics.

Despite the fact that Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi has insisted that the resistance groups in the region “are independent in their opinion, decision and action,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned that the intensity of the war has rendered its expansion “inevitable”. He also recently said that resistance groups allied to Tehran were “cleverly adjusting pressure” on Israel and its supporters. Tehran’s vague threats mean that all options are open depending on developments in the situation in Gaza. So far, the Biden administration has failed to influence Israel to limit its attacks on civilian targets. This failure made America, along with Germany, one of the very few countries around the world that still defends the killing of thousands of civilians in Gaza as Israeli self-defense.

Such unwavering support for Israel, despite strong evidence from the United Nations and other international organisation reports that Israel is committing war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and forced displacement in the Gaza Strip, puts America in an indefensible moral position. It also places it in a very weak strategic position globally and in the Middle East.

It is a situation that defeats Biden’s efforts to rearrange the international order to ensure continuing American hegemony. The war not only helped the restoration of Russia’s active diplomacy in the conflict, it also gave China the chance it has been waiting to flex its growing diplomatic muscles in the Middle East. There is no doubt that the gathering of a number of Arab officials, led by the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Palestinian Authority as well as officials from Turkey, Nigeria and Indonesia in Beijing this week to discuss ways to end the war in Gaza was met with deep concern from the Biden administration.

The same group of diplomats will also visit the UN Security Council’s five permanent members and others to urge an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, a Turkish Foreign Ministry source told Reuters on Tuesday. The group will meet British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron during visits to Britain and France on Wednesday, the source said. “The primary goal of the contact group is for a ceasefire to be announced as soon as possible and for humanitarian aid to be sent to Gaza,” the source told Reuters.

In these diplomatic efforts, America, due to its blind bias in favour of Israel, appears to be largely marginalised and without many friends in the region or globally. This encourages Iran and its allies to exploit the situation. Israel’s defense minister has talked this week about the military campaign taking months, but this would be the worst scenario for the Biden administration because it means enhancing the possibilities of the war expanding into a regional conflict.

Although America and Israel may agree on the goal of ending Hamas’ rule in Gaza, they disagree on almost everything else, starting with the duration of Israeli military operations, the forced displacement of Palestinians, the targeting of civilians, humanitarian truces, destruction of civilian infrastructure including hospitals and schools and the reduction of Gaza’s territory or even an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza.

Biden’s inability to pressure Netanyahu on any of those issues has made his administration appear weaker. His stance led to deep disagreements within the Democratic Party and inside the administration and Congress. The majority of American citizens support a ceasefire in Gaza, which the American president refuses to support despite the passage of seven weeks of war and the death of more than 13,000 people, the majority of whom are women and children. It is a risky situation for a president who wants to be re-elected in just 11 months.

“The recent attacks by Iran’s allies are a message to America and Israel that every day of the war on Gaza will have a price and that the axis of resistance will not allow the elimination of Hamas or Islamic Jihad,” a former Iranian diplomat in London told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Although the majority of Iranians do not support Iran’s involvement in a direct war with America or Israel, they support selective operations that protect Iran’s regional interests and her allies. And as long as the cost of Iran’s involvement remains tolerable, these operations against America and Israel in the region will continue.”

So far, the war is costing America diplomatic and political capital around the world and in the Middle East, and despite Biden’s 40 years of experience in American and international politics, he does not seem to have the cards to pressure Israel. This is what Iran and her allies are exploiting, and no doubt Russia and China are exploiting it too.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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