Changing regional dynamics

Al-Ahram Weekly , Friday 24 May 2024

Israel’s war on Gaza is impacting capitals across the region, not least in states engaged in political transition.

The decision by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to seek arrest warrants against I
The decision by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to seek arrest warrants against Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been hailed as a historic move in defying Israel s impunity


The burial of Ebrahim Raisi is expected to take place on Thursday in Mashhad, his birthplace, following three days of funeral rites. Iran’s hardline president since 2021, Raisi was killed, alongside his foreign minister, the head of his security team and others in a helicopter crash on 20 May.

The circumstances surrounding the crash remain murky. Tehran first blamed the accident on fog and later on a technical failure. Unlike the crash, the process of transition is clear. The vice president takes over from Raisi for 50 days, after which elections to choose a successor will be held. And as always, ultimate power remains in the hands of the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei.

Despite the procedural clarity, regional diplomats agree that the post-Raisi moment raises multiple questions that have become more loaded given the changing narratives around Raisi’s fate.

Iran owns a number of helicopters but international sanctions make it difficult to obtain parts for them and most of its military air fleet predates the 1979 Revolution. If the crash was really a result of bad weather, regional diplomats ask how the other two helicopters in Raisi’s convoy “reached their destination safely”, as Tasnim news agency reported. If the helicopter crashed due to a technical failure, why was the president allowed to fly in an aircraft that had not undergone a thorough technical checkup? And why, they ask, was the rescue operation so seemingly inefficient: two people on board appear to have communicated with Tehran during the crash, shortly before the death of all seven people on board.

While some commentators have speculated about possible Israeli involvement, diplomats say the speculation overestimates the reach of Israel’s intelligence apparatus.

Noting just how opaque Iran’s power structures are, one diplomat who served in Tehran before Raisi became president said that it is no secret that Iran’s conflicting centres of power disagree on many things, including Iran’s relations with the West, the scope of operations by Iran’s affiliated militant groups and, perhaps most tellingly, the post-Khamenei succession.

That Raisi was widely seen as Iran’s supreme guide in waiting was not to everyone’s taste, said one diplomat, with some firmly favouring Khamenei’s son Mojtaba. Now, he says, among the most pressing questions raised by Raisi’s death is its impact on Mojtaba’s chances of succeeding his father and on the chances of a possible revival in the fortunes of more moderate politicians who were marginalised under hardline Raisi. He argues that any revival is unlikely. The hardliners, if anything, will tighten their grip.

Experts familiar with Iran expect greater domestic repression and more uncompromising policies not just towards the West and Israel but across the region, at a time when the Israeli war on Gaza has entered its eighth month, hardliners in the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu are pushing for a war with Hizbullah and Netanyahu’s cabinet is increasingly engaged in open squabbling. Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz has threatened to resign, and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak called this week for anti-Netanyahu demonstrations.

According to an Egyptian source close to Cairo’s, Doha’s, and Washington’s mediation efforts to secure a sustainable ceasefire, Netanyahu has shown no inclination to end the war. Speaking after Sunday’s meeting in Tel Aviv between Netanyahu and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, the source said the impression in Cairo is that Netanyahu “is not yet ready” to accept Washington’s offer of a combined package that would end the war, introduce a new administrative scheme to Gaza — including an Arab-international peace-keeping and security presence — and expand the Abraham Accords to allow for normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

On 6 May, within 48 hours of the Sullivan meeting, Israel expanded its military operations in occupied Palestinian territory, including in Jenin in the West Bank. The Egyptian source said that even so, the mediators are not giving up.

On Monday, the International Criminal Court prosecutor filed an application for arrest warrants against Netanyahu and his Defence Minister Yaov Gallant, and against Gaza-based Hamas Yahya Sinwar and Mohamed Deif and the Doha-based head of the Hamas Political Bureau Ismail Haniyeh.

On the same day, Sullivan was in Saudi Arabia for talks with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman about the combined deal that Washington is hawking and which includes multi-layered security and economic cooperation between Washington and Riyadh. The White House readout of the meeting said that Sullivan had “constructive” talks on “a comprehensive vision for an integrated Middle East region”.

According to a diplomatic source in Washington, the bilateral part of the deal on the future of security, economic, and diplomatic cooperation between the US and Saudi Arabia “is almost done”. What are still subject to discussion are elements of the deal that relate to the Palestinian situation — “not just Gaza but also the issue of eventual Palestinian statehood.”

The source added that it is almost impossible to see Bin Salman sign up to a normalisation scheme before Netanyahu ends the war in Gaza. Israeli promises to do so will not be enough, he added, given the lack of trust in Netanyahu.

“It was very clear during the Arab Summit [in Bahrain earlier this month] that Arab leaders will condition any future Arab role in Gaza on the end of the war and the launch of a clear path towards Palestinian statehood,” he said. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan has made it clear on several occasions that there can be no normalisation without “a credible and irreversible path” towards Palestinian statehood.

According to diplomatic sources, Mohamed bin Salman’s ascent to power has to be coated with some sort of pro-Palestinian support to appease conservative political and religious quarters within the kingdom and to avert any political provocations from Tehran.

The same sources agree that across the Gulf the light is flashing green to move on with the Abraham Accords. One source said that it is not just Saudi Arabia that is ready but also Kuwait where last week the new Emir Meshal Al-Sabbah dissolved parliament in what was widely seen as an attempt to marginalise the otherwise strong Islamist voice.

When Al-Sabah and Bin Salman met in Riyadh at the end of April commentators detected a clear rapport between the two Gulf leaders, and a coalescence of views about the prospects for the region, especially vis-à-vis the non-Arab Middle Eastern states of Iran, Israel, and Turkey.

Reported by: Salah Nasrawi and Dina Ezzat in Cairo, and Manal Lotfy in London


* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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