How Iran has helped Israel’s growing foothold in the Middle East

04 Nov 2020

How Iran has helped Israel’s growing foothold in the Middle East

By Kourosh Ziabari

November 4, 2020

It might not be good news for Iran, but Israel is solidifying its foothold in the Middle East, cozying up to more Muslim, Arab nations that have long stopped thinking of the Jewish state as an existential threat. The surprise announcement on the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in August, followed by a similar deal between Israel and Bahrain in September, lifted the veil on the new realities of the region, ushering in fresh alliances and shifting paradigms.

It’s out in the open that Iran and Israel are sworn enemies, and although they never engaged in any direct confrontation, they have been the two belligerents of a full-blown proxy conflict and rhetorical matchup since the 1979 revolution. Rather than being driven by national interest, their rivalry is steeped in ideological leanings, which is quite unorthodox for a showdown of this magnitude.

But if we admit the Iran-Israel enmity as a de facto ingredient of life in the Middle East, we need to also take note that this entrenched mutual animus has been one of the incubators of the recent deals that have swept the headlines recently, with perhaps others on the horizon.

The Islamic Republic frequently condemns Israel as the main source of discord in the Muslim world, refusing to lend credence to its United Nations member state status, deriding it in international forums, and calling for its destruction — even sometimes straying into Holocaust denial.

Moreover, keeping Lebanese and Palestinian militia groups on Israel’s doorstep bolstered by filling their coffers with generous financial aid and stocking up their inventories with missiles and bombs has constituted the other quintessential Iranian strategy in this Cold War-style vendetta.

Iran’s insistence that it should lead the fight against Israel and be the foremost advocate of the Palestinian cause, coupled with its rollercoaster relationship with the majority of Arab states in its immediate neighborhood and beyond, has often imparted the impression to Arabs that the Islamic Republic is interfering in their affairs. For most Persian Gulf and Arab League states, Palestine is an Arab world issue, not one to be appropriated by the “alien” Iran. 

Even the Palestinian public, whom Iran claims to be taking up the cudgels for, don’t view it the way it wishes to be perceived. A public opinion poll commissioned by the Washington Institute in 2015 found only 29 percent of West Bank residents and a mere 13 percent of Gazans believed Iran’s policies in the region were “very good,” while 45 percent of those in the West Bank and 43 percent in the Gaza Strip rated Iran’s policies as “fairly bad” or “very bad.”

More recent polls expose elevated antipathy among Palestinians, and even degrees of hostility toward Iran for what Palestinians, like many in the Arab world, believe is its malign influence.

Fifty-eight percent of Palestinians, as reflected by a new Zogby Research Services poll, share the view that it is important for Iran to withdraw from conflicts in the Arab countries. Surprisingly, 50 percent of Palestinians support President Donald Trump’s abrogation of the JCPOA and 31 percent of them say the remaining signatories should scrap it altogether and enforce sanctions on Iran. This is where the hostility brews, largely attributable to Iran’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and its role in inflating the jihadist groups in Palestine, which not all the Palestinians sympathize with.

Today, as Israel’s isolation in the Arab world is traded off with burgeoning friendships, the Islamic Republic leadership should muster the courage and acknowledge that its policies have had a boomerang effect in short-circuiting Israel’s growing foothold in the Middle East, if this is to be construed as detrimental to the self-determination of Palestinians.

The two Persian Gulf states that have formalized their relations with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords, namely the UAE and Bahrain, are the ones that have in the recent years been gravely antagonized by Iran, despite the fact that in an ideal world, they should be close allies on account of indispensable commonalities and shared interests, including cultural and economic nexuses.

The UAE, for instance, is home to as many as 600,000 Iranian expatriates, according to informal estimates, and the megalopolis of Dubai is a voguish rendezvous for Iranian businessmen, professionals, and holiday-makers. In 2019, at the height of the pulverizing U.S. sanctions, Iran was one of the top trading partners of UAE and the second destination of its exports after India, occupying a 12.3 percent share of its exports market.

Bahrain, also, has maintained close cultural relations with Iran since its independence in 1971, mostly defined by people-to-people interactions. Nearly 70 percent of Bahrain’s population are Shia Muslims, underpinning a special spiritual synergy between the two peoples. Persian is widely spoken across the island kingdom that hosts a 100,000-strong ethnic minority known as Ajam of Bahrain with Iranian pedigrees, and thousands of Bahrainis visit Iran annually for pilgrimage to the holy Shia sites in Mashhad and Qom.

By turning a blind eye to these realities that can crystallize into amicable relations connecting the Islamic Republic and the constellation of Arab states in its proximity, Iran has opted for holding to its ambition of “exporting the revolution” — a ploy that has time and again played out to be counterproductive instead of raising Iran’s profile.

Indeed, Tehran’s Arab world agenda has been lackluster and exceptionally malfunctioning. Iran has incited anti-state violence and funded networks of saboteurs and militants in Bahrain, while supplying the Houthi rebels in Yemen with drones that they use against targets on the Saudi Arabian soil. That has cultivated full-throated hostility toward Saudi Arabia, which has included refusing to apologize over and repair the damages caused by a revolutionary mob’s attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in 2016 and aggressively proliferating Shia ideology in Sunni-majority countries like Morocco, which convinced it to cease diplomatic relations with Iran.

Iran has not yet woken up to the reality that its offensive pursuit of patronizing policies concerning the Arab world has swapped it with Israel as the primary perceived threat to the integrity and stability of Middle East and North Africa in the eyes of regional leaders, pushing more Arab states into the arms of Israel.

If it is genuinely the intention of Iranian government to turbocharge the Palestinian people’s quest for statehood and help them live more dignified lives, it should understand that its regional foreign policy, one that has unnerved the Arab leaders about a latent and growing Iranian threat, has done exactly the opposite: debilitating the Palestinian cause.

Emboldening Israel, expediting marriages of convenience between Israel and Arab states in the region that might have little incentives for forging close ties with Tel Aviv absent an Iranian menace and eroding Palestinians’ chances for achieving sovereignty and reclaiming their rights are upshots of Iran’s approach to its relations with the Arab world. To be sure, Iranians should blame themselves for the explosive momentum of Israel in finding new anchors of influence in the region.

Yet, this doesn’t mean Iran’s brinkmanship in the Middle East should eclipse decades of occupation, disenfranchisement and suppression Israel has imposed on the Palestinians in cahoots with certain Arab states that have been comfortable with being indifferent to the suffering of their fellow Arabs in lands where they are being treated as interlopers and outcasts.

But the bottom line is that to ensure Palestinians are entitled to the rudiments of civil and social rights and political participation, the community of nations should allow the Palestinians, not other parties, to take the lead in expressing themselves and making known what they are campaigning for. Arabs, Iranians, Israelis, and others are not qualified to make the decisions Palestinians should make about their future on their own.