Amid the Palestine-Israel ceasefire, Iran eyes a strategic win

Gen Hossein Salami, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief, stands next to a picture of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Tehran this month. EPA
Gen Hossein Salami, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief, stands next to a picture of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Tehran this month. EPA

With the ceasefire between Palestine and Israel having come into effect after days-long violence and the death of almost 250 people, both sides are claiming victory over the other. This raises a few questions, including who really won and what constitutes a win.

It is fair to say that there were some gains for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some for Hamas, the group that controls the Palestinian territory of Gaza. But in both cases, victory is likely to be ephemeral rather than lasting. If a strategic victory is in sight, it could be for the Iranian regime.

Mr Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. But over the past few months, he has been under pressure to form a stable government that could, among other things, immunise him from criminal prosecution. The latest conflict began amid efforts to form a government – with or without Mr Netanyahu at the helm. However, Hamas’s aggression – the Iranian-backed group considered to be terrorists by Israel, the US and others incessantly fired rockets into Israeli territory for days – may have effectively rescued his political career.

At the same time, the conflict has proved to be a setback for Israel as a whole. The government has faced global outrage, including in the US, after scores of Palestinian and Israeli civilians – including children – were killed over the past 11 days. While Hamas is also being held responsible, Mr Netanyahu is being viewed as having exposed his country even if it may end up, figuratively speaking, saving his own skin. Moreover, he has shattered any impression that Israel is a regional superpower, as it faced a barrage of rockets from the other side.

In what could amount to another setback for Mr Netanyahu, Palestinians inside Israel reasserted themselves through strikes, protests and a coherent messaging campaign.

Victory is likely to be fleeting and largely superficial for Hamas, too. Its rockets were met with Israeli retaliation that devastated Gaza and left 63 children, 40 women and 25 elderly dead. And regardless of how many rockets it has in its arsenal, the group still cannot claim to lead all Palestinians, be it those living in Israel, in the West Bank or even in Gaza, where people dwell in abysmal conditions.

Indeed, the group failed in its bid to commandeer leadership from the rival Palestinian Authority and marginalise it in the process. As it turns out, it won’t be Hamas that will receive US aid to rebuild Gaza. US President Joe Biden will provide the same to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, instead. Egypt – which, along with other Arab states, played a key role in brokering a ceasefire – will also bypass the group and direct its aid to beneficiaries in Gaza directly.

For its part, Iran maintained its distance from the conflict, despite its enmity with Israel. The Biden administration turned a blind eye to Tehran’s military assistance to Hamas, thereby avoiding confrontation amid ongoing talks in Vienna between Iran and the global powers in their collective bid to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran's Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazem Gharib Abadi, leaves after a JCPOA Joint Commission Iran talks meeting in Vienna earlier this month. EPA
Iran's Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazem Gharib Abadi, leaves after a JCPOA Joint Commission Iran talks meeting in Vienna earlier this month. EPA

The Iranian leadership made a strategic decision to leave Hamas to fight its war with Israel. It reined in Hezbollah, its proxy in Lebanon, and the Syrian front out of concern for its own priorities. Evidently, Palestine is not as much of a priority as is the revival of the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions on the regime – in parallel with rebuilding its relations with the US and the EU.

In other words, Iran decided that Vienna – not Gaza – is what matters more, and resolved to invest in a strategic victory rather than get involved in fleeting ones. Of course, a strategic victory for Iran does not mean that it will forgo any of its levers in the region, one of which is Hamas. Rather, it is being selective when it comes to using them.

Tehran is feeling reassured by the Vienna talks. It is not clear whether the Biden administration will begin lifting sanctions in two weeks, as some reports suggest, or will postpone any such move until after the presidential election in Iran, scheduled for next month. Two things are clear, though: moderates stand almost no chance of winning the election; and regardless of who wins, the Biden administration and the EU are determined to reach a deal with Tehran.

Like in the case of Mr Biden, EU officials fear a nuclear-armed Iran and will go to any lengths to curb its path to a bomb – even though it knows Tehran has enough knowhow to develop one. Both entities know that the regime will not abandon its ideologically driven expansion and regional activities, which extend even to Europe, Africa and Latin America.

Iran has been clear in letting all those concerned know that it will not abandon its policies, but Washington has decided that the real or perceived threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is bigger than the regime’s oppression of its own people and its military expansion outside its borders via proxies.

As Norman Roule, who served in the CIA and directed its Middle East programmes, told me recently, the nuclear deal is going to happen. But will that come at a cost? According to him, the international community has yet to develop a plan to address Iran’s regional activities even after the deal is signed – which includes its support for groups inside Palestine, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The global powers’ determination to return to their nuclear deal with Tehran may be driven by fear – and the regime has been adept at exploiting it. The problem is that it is the Arab countries, which have to live with Iran, that could pay the price. Even as they search for answers, however, it is too early for anyone to declare a strategic victory just yet.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National

Updated: May 24, 2021 12:34 PM

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