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Source: Nikkei-Asia

Dec 5, 2023

Iran has gotten all the war it wants in Gaza already

Israel-Hamas conflict advances Tehran's goals as long as fighting does not widen

By Vali Kaleji

Vali Kaleji is a senior research fellow with the Institute for Iran-Eurasia Studies in Tehran.

Until Hamas' surprise attack on Israeli towns, farms and bases around the perimeter of the Gaza Strip on Oct. 7, Israel appeared on course for a potential deal under which it would establish normal diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, the self-anointed leader of the Islamic world.

Such an agreement would have marked the crowning achievement of the U.S.-led drive to convince Muslim states to abandon their hostility to the Jewish state in exchange for special concessions from Washington. The U.S.-brokered agreements, known as the Abraham Accords, had already seen Israel normalize ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and, partially, Sudan over the past three years.

Iran was never a part of any such discussions, and indeed would never be. While Saudi Arabia and many of its fellow Arab states have long held out the prospect of accepting Israel as a neighbor as part of a "two-state solution" in which Palestinian statehood is also established and accepted, the idea of any kind of peace with Israel has been anathema to Iran since the 1979 revolution that created its Islamic republic.

Before that, under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran and Israel enjoyed close informal relations as Israel offset isolation by its Arab neighbors with functional ties with peripheral nations that were predominantly Muslim but not Arab, including Turkey and Pakistan. For his part, Pahlavi kept Iran out of the Arab states' wars with Israel as well as the 1973 oil embargo against the U.S. and its allies over their support for Israel.

But since the establishment of clerical rule in 1979, official Iranian statements have referred to Israel as a "cancerous tumor" that should be removed from the Middle East. As a result of this stance, Iran broke off relations with Egypt soon after the revolution, citing Cairo's decision to sign the 1978 Camp David Accords with Israel.

Iran's position on Israel is quite different from its stance toward the U.S., its other primary nemesis. In the case of Israel, Tehran simply does not accept that the country even exists, while in the case of Washington, it is merely a case of not having diplomatic relations.

In practice, this means that no contacts or negotiations with Israel are allowed. Since the early 1980s, Iranian athletes have been banned from competing face-to-face with Israelis in sports competitions, and Iranian passport holders cannot travel to "occupied Palestine."

Last August, the Iran Weightlifting Federation banned champion lifter Mostafa Rajaei for life from all sports and sports facilities because he, after winning second place in an event at the World Master Weightlifting Championships in Poland, shook hands and posed with Israel's Maksim Svirsky, the third-place finisher.

By contrast, despite its long embrace of the slogan "Death to America," Iran has never restricted athletic competition with Americans or travel to the U.S.

As for Israel, Iran's position is that all of the Palestinians who have left lands controlled by Israel since 1948, as well as their descendants, are entitled to go back. Its position is that once those who want to return have done so, a referendum should be held among all "native inhabitants" of the area -- whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish -- to decide on a new political system in a fresh act of self-determination.

This idealistic plan, which stands in fundamental conflict with the two-state concept of independent Israeli and Palestinian states existing side-by-side, has not gathered support from any other government.

Indeed, some critics of Iran question the Islamic Republic's embrace of a popular referendum as its preferred solution to the Palestinian question, since the regime has consistently rejected putting any issues directly to Iranian voters since 1989. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in April reaffirmed his opposition to holding domestic referendums. 

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is opposed to referendums at home but Tehran wants one to be held on the Palestinian question. (WANA via Reuters)

Iran's total rejection of Israel is manifested by its public support for armed Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. These groups are part of what Tehran characterizes as the Axis of Resistance, an informal coalition also said to include Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, Shiite militia groups in Iraq and the Houthi movement in Yemen.

A significant point to note is unlike other movements in the axis, which are Shiite-led like Iran itself, the two Palestinian groups from Gaza are dominated by Sunni Muslims. Their presence helps to undercut Arab criticism that Iran's foreign policy is driven by the goal of promoting Shiite Islam.

From Tehran's point of view, the Israel-Hamas war has already advanced several important aims.

First, it has halted the Saudi-Israeli normalization drive. Tehran had earlier condemned the Abraham Accords as "a stab in back of the oppressed Palestinian people." An implicit aspect of the U.S.-led effort was to bring together Israel and the Persian Gulf states as common foes of Iran. This strategy to isolate Tehran has been undermined both by the Gaza conflict and by the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia that was brokered by China in March.

Second, the conflict has badly damaged Israel's image and prestige, both by showing its vulnerability and by spotlighting its bloody brutality toward Palestinian civilians. The conflict will also tie up Israel's resources and attention for a long time, meaning that it will be less able to carry out acts of sabotage or assassinations inside Iran.

Yet despite Iran's support for Hamas, it is clear that Tehran does not support widening fighting beyond Gaza at this stage. It has refused to directly intervene in the conflict, and Hezbollah, its most loyal proxy force along Israel's perimeter, has refrained from large-scale attacks. At the same time, though, Tehran insists its militia allies are not proxies and act independently.

Due to a complex combination of ideology and pragmatism, the Iranian leadership prefers that the current conflict remain limited to Gaza and not spill over significantly into Lebanon and Syria. The war is already advancing Iran's goals without sucking it into a wide-ranging conflict that could easily escalate out of control.

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