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Nothing in the Middle East seems normal right now. Israel locks the United States out of cease-fire talks with Egypt over Gaza. U.S.-Saudi relations look increasingly like a marriage that both sides regret getting into in the first place. Egypt’s state media publicly cheers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he bombs Gaza. Saudi Arabia pretends to be unaware of the ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas. Protests against Israel’s bombing campaign are larger in Europe than in the Arab Middle East.
The surprises don’t stop there. Iran’s relative silence on the Gaza war has been deafening: Spanish actors Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem have been more forceful in their criticism of Israel’s Gaza attacks than many Iranian officials.
Iran is usually known for jumping on every possible opportunity to blast Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. The Iranian game plan in the past few decades has been to boost its bid for regional leadership by portraying the Arab states as impotent “servants of American interests” in the Middle East, while portraying Tehran as the true champion of the Palestinian cause — and therefore the leader of the Islamic world.
Fighting between Hamas and Israel in Gaza is usually a political cash cow for Iran’s leaders. But by their own standards, Iranian leaders have remained curiously quiet on the ongoing, month-long fight. Why? Shifting dynamics across the Middle East and a new president in Tehran have changed Iran’s political calculus on Palestine.
Iran has a widespread reputation as Hamas’s main patron, providing the group with rockets and weapons over the past decade. But the relationship between the Palestinian Islamists and the government in Tehran has never been friction free. The Hamas leadership has long complained that Tehran talked a good game, but in practice did little to help the Palestinian Islamist group. Ideologically, there has always been a gulf between the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Sunni group and the Shiite thinkers of Qom. But full-on tensions between these disparate Islamists only broke out with the Syrian Civil War, when Hamas sided early on with the Syrian opposition and Tehran backed President Bashar al-Assad. Tehran viewed Hamas Leader Khaled Meshaal’s break with the Syrian dictator in 2012 as a betrayal after years of providing the group with both financial support and a base in Damascus.
Earlier this year, Hamas and Tehran officially reconciled. “Relations between Iran and Hamas have returned to be as they were before and we have no problem with Hamas,” the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, told a Lebanese television channel. But mistrust remained amid the conciliatory rhetoric, as Iranian officials have told me. Leaders of the Islamic Republic do not have a reputation of forgetting quickly or forgiving genuinely.
It’s not just international politics that affect the Hamas-Iran relationship. The election of Hassan Rouhani last year and the success thus far of ongoing U.S.-Iran diplomacy have visibly tempered Tehran’s public posture on Israel. Iran has gone from questioning the Holocaust under the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to tweeting Rosh Hashana blessings under Rouhani.
The foreign policy team around Rouhani has long favored diplomacy with Washington, and fully understands that toning down Iran’s rhetoric against Israel is necessary to make progress with the United States. Beyond Iran’s changing posture since Rouhani took office a year ago — particularly since diplomacy began anew over its nuclear program — decade-old Iranian negotiation proposals demonstrate both their understanding of Israel’s importance to U.S. foreign policy-making, and their willingness to soften their stance.
For instance, in 2003, Tehran sent a proposal for improved relations with the United States to American officials via the Swiss ambassador to Iran. At the time, Rouhani was Iran’s national security adviser. His current foreign minister, Javad Zarif, was a co-author of the proposal. As part of a grand bargain with Washington, Tehran signaled its readiness to restrain Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. (The Bush administration never responded to the Iranian offer).
But perhaps most importantly, Tehran seems not to mind seeing yet another offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood take a beating. Some in Tehran thought that after the Arab uprisings of 2011, the U.S. had concluded that the Middle East’s future was in the hands of moderate Sunni Islamist national movements — Hamas’s intellectual brethren. For a moment, it seemed that Islamist parties were ready to sweep elections throughout the region. Washington wanted to be on the right side of history.
But to Iran, the United States was tilting towards the wrong Islamic movement. Once in power, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt showed stronger allegiance to its ideological partners in Syria — fighting Tehran’s ally Assad — and spent more time flirting with Saudi Arabia than with Iran. Moreover, Tehran’s suspicion of Washington’s favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood also fit with another idea it believes America has flirted with: that Turkey’s Islamist democracy, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ally Recep Tayyip Erdogan, presents the best model for the region.
For some in Tehran, the current Gaza war –and Arab states’ reactions to it — show Washington was wrong to side with the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. These Sunni Islamist groups lack the popular support to win the political fight for the region’s future. And most importantly, Tehran believes that these Sunni movements cannot compete with Iran’s ability to stabilize and lead the region. Nor do they have the popular backing to balance Iran’s regional or ideological influence.
Whether Tehran’s perceptions of American calculations are correct or not is, for now, irrelevant. The Iranian government has once again demonstrated — this time through silence rather than venomous rhetoric — that to the Islamic Republic, the Palestinian cause is a means, not an end.