Number 53 ● 26 December 2012
IRAN'S DILEMMAS FOLLOWING 'OPERATION PILLAR OF DEFENSE'
Israel's 'Operation Pillar of Defense', launched on 14 November 2012 with the killing of Ahmad Jabari, commander of the military wing of the Hamas movement, led to certain regional and geopolitical changes. Despite the callenge of identifying long term effects at this early stage, it may be fair to say that Egypt's mediation in the recent conflict seriously concerned Iran. Iran feels it was pushed aside in spite of its historical and material support for Hamas.
Egypt's mediation in general and President Mohammad Morsi's involvement in particular were seen by Tehran as strengthening the ideological bond between Hamas and Egypt, beyond instrumental considerations. The Iranian leadership is well aware of the ideological connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, which is reflected in Hamas' founding charter (Article 2). Furthermore, Iran sensed Egypt exerted a stronger influence on Hamas, particularly in light of Iran's ongoing support for the unpopular Assad regime in Syria and Hamas' decision to abandon its offices in Damascus.
In fact, Egypt and Iran were not the only regional players jockeying for influence over Hamas. Other regional leaders like the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, also offered to mediate but were rejected because it was perceived they were too biased in favor of Hamas. Therefore, Egypt's exclusive role as mediator added substance to the Iranian perception that Egypt's influence with Hamas was growing stronger.
Tehran's concern following 'Operation Pillar of Defense,' that Morsi's influence with Hamas may come at Iran's expense, stands in sharp contrast to Iran's initial enthusiasm for Morsi's election in June 2012 and its early expectation that the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood would lead to the renewal of full diplomatic relations between Iran and Egypt (see Iran Pulse no. 29). In an early show of support, Iran's IRNA news agency was quick to declare that "Morsi's election as president is in fact the victory of Hassan al-Banna," the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood (IRNA, July 1, 2012). Egypt's president was also honored during his visit to Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit held in August 2012. Iranian media outlets widely reported the fact that Morsi was the first Egyptian president to visit Iran in thirty-three years.
Yet President Morsi's role as mediator in the recent Israeli-Hamas conflict was viewed with suspicion and criticism in Tehran. Alongside praise for Hamas' achievements in the conflict with Israel, the Iranian media did not shy away from expressing its disapproval with President Morsi's mediation by claiming he was motivated by foreign interests and serving the regional ambitions of the US. Egypt's president was also accused by some Iranian media outlets of exploiting the recent conflict in Gaza to strengthen his position in domestic Egyptian politics and project the Muslim Brotherhood's influence in the Arab world (Ebtekar, November 27, 2012). An editorial published by the daily Jomhuri ye Eslami even depicted President Morsi as a dictator who strives to impose his power over the country and the judiciary, and compared him with his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak (Jomhuri-ye Eslami, November 27, 2012). The newspaper E'temad also expressed its disappointment with President Morsi's recent political maneuvers which it said were governed by "a scent of dictatorship" (Etemad, November 27, 2012).
The Iranian media's reactions to Egypt's regional status in general and President Morsi's role in particular were directly related to a prevailing sense of "loss of vital dividends" on Iran's part. In other words, Tehran viewed Morsi and Egypt as gaining regional political capital at Iran's expense. Consequently the Iranian media emphasized Iran's ongoing military, financial and ideological aid to Hamas. This unusual emphasis on Iran's support for Hamas has been an exception to Tehran's general tendency to refrain from disclosing its role in asymmetrical conflicts in the Middle East and in other regions. It should therefore be noted that the regional changes resulting from 'Operation Pillar of Defense' are just one part of Iran's foreign policy calculus. Tehran's set of considerations are closely tied to the ongoing events in Syria (see Iran Pulse no. 52), its involvement in Lebanon, as well as its current tension with Turkey, and the mutual hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia, especially in relation to Bahrain (see Iran Pulse no. 45). But above all Tehran's major concern is its relations with the West, especially in light of the economic sanctions related to its nuclear program.
It is also important to note that Iran's present position regarding the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its support for the Hamas movement, is rooted in the ideology of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic, who tied his opposition to Israel with a strong aversion to Muhammad Reza Shah's (1979-1941) sympathetic foreign policy toward Israel and the United States. Since Khomeini's rise to power, Israel has been an instrumental feature in Iranian foreign policy. The post-revolutionary regime frequently uses anti-Israeli sentiments in the region in attempts to bridge its differences with the Sunni-Arab world. Accordingly the Iranian leadership is inclined to ignore certain historical events following the 1979 revolution. For example, Iran chooses to omit from its historical records the fact that the PLO sided with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war (1981-1988). Tehran's unconditional support of the organization as well as its leader, Yasser Arafat, included financial aid for training, and the symbolic handing over of the former Israeli consulate offices in Tehran to the PLO following the fall of Shah's regime in 1979. At first glance the PLO siding with Iraq may seem negligible, yet given the importance of the Iran-Iraq war in the Iranian post-revolutionary national ethos and collective memory, this example illustrates that the Islamic Republic's position on the Palestinian grievances stems as much from geopolitical expediency as ideology.
Iran's efforts to expand its influence in the international arena have produced achievements, most notably in Latin America and Africa. However, in the Middle East, Iran's efforts to maintain its regional influence have been challenged by the events in Syria and their impact on Iran's relations with Lebanon and Turkey. For these reasons, soon after the announcement of the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, dispatched the Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, to visit Lebanon and Turkey. The main objectives of his trip were: (a) strengthening Iran's ties with factions of the Palestinian leadership which had drifted in light of Tehran's support of the Syrian President, (b) attempting to free members of the Revolutionary Guards that were captured by Syrian rebels, (c) reducing the level of tension with Turkey and strengthen bilateral relations with Ankara, and (d) strengthening ties between Hezbollah and Hamas under Iran's guidance (BBC in Persian, November 24, 2012). Khamenei's decision to dispatch Larijani, the Speaker of Parliament, rather than the Foreign Minister Ali Salehi, reveals the importance of the Office of the Supreme Leader which serves as dual mechanism – over and above the Ministry of Foreign Affairs -- for conducting Iranian foreign policy.
In conclusion, Iran's efforts to project its influence in the Muslim world and the Middle East will continue to leave its mark on the Palestinian struggle, despite the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's arrival on the scene, and perhaps even as a result of it. Iran's position toward Israel will probably remain unchanged in the foreseeable future, especially since it serves both an ideological and instrumental dimension in Iran's foreign policy. Thus, it appears that the changes resulting from 'Operation Pillar of Defense' will encourage Iran to direct more effort toward preserving its essential interests in the Middle East, which appears to include Hamas. It seems that the realist adage that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," will continue to serve as an important motif in the regional balance of power in the foreseeable future■
Tel Aviv University, Ramat-Aviv 61390, Tel Aviv P.O.B. 39040, Israel
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Iran Pulse No. 53 ● 26 December 2012
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