Iran seeks to preserve regional status quo despite Israel's assault on Rafah

Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian says Tehran reached 'unwritten agreement' with western powers

A mural of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, and late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Tehran. Last month, Iran and Israel directly attacked each other's territory for the first time.
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Iran-backed militant groups across the Middle East have said that an Israeli invasion of Gaza's Rafah would escalate regional tensions.

But Tehran is keen for the conflict in Gaza not to spill over into the wider region, despite an Israeli assault that began earlier this week, sources close to Tehran’s so-called "regional axis” told The National on Wednesday.

Last month, Iran and Israel directly attacked each other's territory for the first time in their prolonged conflict, with Israel's last strike hitting Isfahan three weeks ago.

Since then, tensions have somewhat subsided.

“Despite the latest developments, Tehran's position so far remains committed to the path that has been in place for seven months, which is the tactic of pressure and flexibility,” one of the sources said.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian on Wednesday said there was an agreement to focus on reaching a ceasefire in Gaza.

“There is an unwritten agreement with western parties regarding focusing on the truce in Gaza, and they told us that they would move towards that, and today we are witnessing positive effects,” he was quoted by state media as saying.

He added that there had been “intense contacts by the West with Iran, and their main demand was to call on Iran to exercise restraint”.

“If the Americans and westerners adhere to their promises and the truce, this will pave the way to a sustainable ceasefire,” Mr Amirabdollahian added.

Iran-supported militant groups in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria have attacked Israeli targets as part of a co-ordinated front since the outbreak of Israel's war in Gaza.

They have demanded an immediate ceasefire in the Palestinian territory run by their ally Hamas.

More than 34,800 people have been killed in Gaza by Israeli fire since October 7, the enclave's Health Ministry has said.

The Israeli military began its offensive after Hamas-led militants attacked southern Israel and killed more than 1,200.

Indirect talks between the US and Iran achieved an unannounced truce in Iraq in February. The two countries have since then been trying to expand it across conflict-hit areas of the Middle East.

Pragmatism or escalation

Meanwhile, mediators and negotiators were continuing talks to reach a ceasefire in Gaza after Hamas said it had accepted proposals to end the seven-month-old war.

Israel has yet to officially respond to the proposals ironed out by US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators over the past week.

However, its takeover of the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt this week suggests Israel intends to press on with the war, to achieve its stated objective of eliminating Hamas from Gaza.

“The Iranian stance reflects pragmatism,” another source close to Tehran said on Wednesday.

“Tehran did not deviate from its course in general, except perhaps for what happened in April, when it decided to retaliate for the direct attack on its embassy compound in Damascus with a wave of missiles and drones on Israel,” added the source.

“Otherwise, Tehran is committed to caution and the principle of flexibility, as it did in its secret, indirect negotiations with the US in Muscat last January.”

Although Washington has not commented on those discussions, Iranian state media confirmed the rounds of indirect talks, saying they focused on negotiations for removing sanctions against Iran – thought to be a major motivation for Tehran's increased initiative to mitigate regional conflict.

Despite the desire to preserve the status quo, an all-out invasion of Rafah could escalate the situation.

Israel on Monday began its assault on Rafah despite warnings of possible high civilian casualties in the southern city.

The offensive also pushed the ceasefire talks with Hamas to the brink of collapse after they had reached a critical stage.

The Israeli army ordered Palestinian civilians in the east of Rafah to leave as its troops moved into parts of the territory where hundreds of thousands have taken refuge and are living in makeshift tents.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Friday threatened to extend their attacks on Israel-bound shipping to the Mediterranean after months of strikes on vessels in the Red Sea if Israel launches a large-scale invasion of Rafah, where the biggest remaining Hamas units are based according to Israel.

In Lebanon, local media said the Iran-backed Hezbollah has declared “general mobilisation” to be prepared should Israel decide to expand the war after its Rafah assault.

“I think no one wants to see an escalation. But [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, and the illusion in his head to achieve something, perhaps, is the threat to security and stability,” said Mohammad Saleh Sadeghian, director of the Arab Centre for Iranian Studies in Tehran.

Saud Sharafat, a former senior member of Jordanian Intelligence, said Iran could respond though its proxies but only to an Israeli ground assault on the urban centre of Rafah.

Mr Sharafat, who heads the Shorufat Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Terrorism, said that Iran would not risk direct war with Israel for the sake of Hamas.

“Iran has larger interests beyond Hamas,” he added.

Updated: May 09, 2024, 3:14 PM