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  • Writer's pictureShari Goy

Iran's Gaza Gambit: Strategic Choices Between Diplomacy and Riptides in the Middle East



In the complex tapestry of Middle Eastern geopolitics, the recent meeting on the 24th of January between Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi in Ankara has sparked heightened interest and speculation. Against the backdrop of Israel's military campaign in Gaza, the leaders emphasized the need for regional stability during a joint press conference. Turkey's Erdogan declared their commitment to avoiding actions that could destabilize the Middle East further. This diplomatic rendezvous comes at a crucial juncture when tensions in the region have reached alarming levels. The risk for a regional escalation has perhaps never been higher. The war in Gaza has become a focal point, with Turkey and Iran expressing concerns about the humanitarian crisis unfolding. Erdogan, speaking on behalf of both leaders, condemned Israel's attacks on Gaza as "inhumane" and stressed the urgency of establishing a fair and lasting peace in the region.[i]


One cannot overlook the historical context of Iran's relationship with Palestinian factions, particularly its alleged support for Hamas. Accusations of Iran providing financial aid, weapons, and training to Hamas militants amplify the intricate connections between state actors and non-state entities in the region. Meanwhile, recent events add layers of complexity to the regional dynamics. Iran's announcement of a successful advanced satellite launch, raising concerns about its ballistic missile capabilities, raises eyebrows in the international arena. Simultaneously, Iran has recently demonstrated its ballistic capabilities with an airstrike on Erbil in Iraq, on what the Islamic Revolutionary Guard claimed to have been bases of Mossad, and an airstrike on ISIS factions in the Syrian town of Idlib. That missile covered a distance of over 1000 kilometres[ii] and can also be read as flexing the ballistic muscles towards Israel, which is in reach. Coupled with reports[iii] of Iranian and Hezbollah commanders aiding Houthi attacks in Yemen, this further complicates the geopolitical landscape.


As the world watches the tensions in the Middle East rise, key questions arise: Can diplomatic efforts truly influence the trajectory of the Gaza conflict, or are they merely symbolic gestures? Will Iran's proclaimed commitment to de-escalation be reflected in its actions, especially considering its alleged support for groups involved in the conflict? Or will Iran choose the course of regional destabilization, purportedly advancing its strategic interests, and exploit the focus on Gaza as a catalyst to accelerate its nuclear program? Through the lens of Iranian foreign policy, this analysis delves into these complexities, examining the potential impact of regional diplomacy on the broader canvas of Middle Eastern geopolitics.


Hamas' October 7 Attack: Was Iran navigating uncharted waters?


Hamas's assault on Israel on October 7, resulting in the tragic loss of hundreds of civilian lives, shattered the perception of Israel's military invincibility. It marked the first successful invasion of Israeli territory by external forces in decades, leaving many citizens feeling vulnerable. This event exposed the limitations of Israel's once-feared intelligence apparatus, revealing it to be less omnipotent than previously believed. For Iran, this devastating attack represented a victory of sorts. Tehran, a frequent target of Israeli covert operations including the assassination of top Iranian figures, witnessed the limitations of the Israeli defence apparatus and, in the course of the ongoing conflict, proved the effectiveness of its resistance axe. As Israel initiated its war on Gaza, Tehran positioned itself as the standard-bearer for the reinvigorated Palestinian cause, enhancing its reputation in the Middle East. In contrast, Israel's standing plummeted as the conflict turned Gaza into a humanitarian crisis.


The war appears to have provided additional benefits for Iran. At a minimum, it delayed the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, preventing Iran's potential isolation after the Chinese-brokered Iranian-Saudi détente in March. Such an agreement was likely to involve the possibility of a Saudi Arabian civilian nuclear program, strengthening US-SA defence cooperation, and the potential for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians under Saudi influence. The axis of resistance utilized the conflict to showcase its capabilities and expansive influence. Alongside actions by Hezbollah, the Houthis, Iraqi, and Syrian paramilitary groups, over 150 attacks were launched against U.S. military and diplomatic facilities in Iraq and Syria, furthering Iran's interests in the region. Given Iran's funding and training of Hamas, voices have been raised that Iran knew about Hamas' plans in advance.[iv]


However, according to U.S. intelligence assessments[v], it was suggested that Iran was in fact surprised by Hamas's attack. In the intelligence brief to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, U.S. analysts are currently leaning towards an initial assessment that the Iranian government did not directly participate in the attack on Israel. A U.S. official stated, "Iran likely knew Hamas was planning operations against Israel, but without the precise timing or scope of what occurred. Although Iran has long supported Hamas with material and financial support, we have not currently seen anything to suggest Iran supported or was behind the attack."[vi] Nevertheless, the official cautioned that drawing final conclusions at this point would be premature based on the available information. It remains uncertain whether and to what degree Iran truly intends to destabilize the region, as its foreign policy and diplomacy efforts suggest otherwise.


Iran’s diplomatic island amidst turbulent waters


In the last couple years, Iran engaged in extensive diplomatic efforts to address concerns about its nuclear program. Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, plus the European Union) led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. The deal aimed to limit Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. After the JCPOA, Iran sought to improve diplomatic ties with the international community. However, the United States' withdrawal from the agreement in 2018, followed by the unilateral reimposition of sanctions, strained Iran's relations with Western countries.[vii] As a consequence, Iran’s has oriented its foreign policy has towards Russia and China. In recent diplomatic manoeuvres, Iran has strategically shifted its stance since March 2023, opting for regional appeasement through a Chinese brokered landmark détente agreement with its long-standing Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia.  Iran solidified its geopolitical position by becoming the ninth full member of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), marking a significant stride in its eastern-oriented foreign policy. Furthermore, with the beginning of the year 2024, Iran has joined the BRICS-alliance. These moves were hailed as a triumph against American hegemony and a step toward bolstering multilateralism, particularly within the Triangular Alliance forged with China and Russia against Western influence. Unsurprisingly, indirect negotiations with the United States, aiming for a partial lifting of US sanctions and a return to the nuclear negotiating table by mid-October didn’t lead anywhere.


Iran reacted cautiously to the events of October 7th. While Teheran claimed that the attack was an act of Palestinian self-defense, it was still denying any prior knowledge or involvement. Expressing concerns about a potential escalation in the Gaza conflict, Iran issued threats to Israel. These warnings were made with the fear that Israel might proceed with its war on Gaza, thereby escalating tensions in the region. Despite these threats, Iran primarily pursued a diplomatic path. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian engaged in a diplomatic offensive, visiting Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.[viii] While conveying messages to Israel about the consequences of its actions in Gaza, Iran maintained a delicate balance, refraining mostly from direct military involvement to avoid potential U.S. intervention and maintain regional stability until the recent missile exchange with Pakistan. This nuanced approach shows Iran's cautious navigation of its role in the ongoing crisis, where the established negotiation-diplomatic element seems to have persistently resisted one of the biggest crises in the region. Further, during recent discussions between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ebrahim Raisi in Turkey, a commitment to avoid actions jeopardizing Middle East stability was agreed upon, with a primary focus on containing the escalating crises in Gaza and Yemen. Despite Turkey's condemnation of Israel's actions in Gaza, the maintenance of commercial ties drew criticism at home and in Iran. This multifaceted diplomatic strategy shows Iran's ability to resolving conflicts through dialogue and alliances, emphasizing diplomatic paths and ties over a reliance on military power alone. Iran has faced periods of international isolation and economic sanctions, impacting its diplomatic standing. Efforts to engage in dialogue and negotiations without the west, have been central to addressing these challenges. Iran’s trust in promises of the West is low and the current situation enhances the wave of uncertainty, that threatens to collapse over the Middle East.


Changing course: Is Iran steering into direct confrontation with Israel?


An assertive state can reveal its unease. In under 24 hours, Iran deviated from its cautious approach adopted since the Gaza Strip conflict. Between January 15 and 16, the government initiated a series of strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan. The recent missile attacks are viewed as reactions to the escalating conflict in Gaza and attacks on Iranian interests and allies in the region, raising concerns about a broader regional confrontation.[ix] In Iraq, Iran-backed militants targeted the al-Asad air base, resulting in U.S. personnel evaluations. However, they also posed a high-stakes gamble, perceived as a potential miscalculation by experts, leading to a diplomatic crisis with Islamabad and subsequent retaliation on Iranian territory on January 18, accompanied by strong protests from Baghdad. Further, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Lebanon's Hezbollah commanders are reportedly present in Yemen, actively guiding and supervising Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, as indicated by information from four regional and two Iranian sources. This does not come by surprise as Iran is leading the "Axis of Resistance", referring to an alliance of Iran and its regional allies, including groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, and the Houthis in Yemen. This coalition opposes what it perceives as external threats, particularly from Israel and the United States. Iran plays a pivotal role, providing support and forging alliances to counter common adversaries, shaping the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.


The conflict in Gaza raised concerns about a potential direct confrontation between Iran and Israel. While Hezbollah threatened to join the conflict, hard-liners in Iran as well urged direct intervention.[x] Despite the aggressive rhetoric, there are several reasons why Iran is likely to avoid a full-scale war with Israel. First, political divisions have risen in Tehran since the eruption of the conflict, particularly between hard-liners and moderates, influence the stance on direct intervention. Moderates caution against it due to potential consequences. The support for a direct intervention does not only lack within political elite but also on the domestic shore. Unlike the war with Iraq in the 1980s, Iran cannot mobilize its society for a new war, given declining support for the political system. Regardless of Iran’s ties to the members of the axis of resistance, Hamas and Hezbollah are viewed as nonstate allies rather than direct proxies. Iran’s control over these groups is at best limited. Further, Hamas's successful attack did not alter Iran's strategic perspective on Israel.[xi] The event, while rattling Israel's deterrence strategy, doesn't provide Iran with any real opportunity to challenge Israel militarily. Observing Iran’s past diplomatic efforts, it values its relationships with Moscow and Beijing, both of which have not declared full support for Hamas. In mid-November, Reuters reported that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, informed Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, that due to the Iranian government receiving no prior warning of the attack on Israel, Iran would not engage in the war on behalf of the Palestinian group.[xii] Last but not least a direct military engagement would significantly decrease the defence capabilities of Iran and its proxies and thus diminish the effectiveness of the resistance-axis.


Khamenei's reluctance to participate in war is significantly influenced by his realistic approach to regional conflicts, diverging from Western viewpoints. Based on his tenure during the Iran-Iraq War, he recognizes the severe consequences of war, especially with the U.S., leading Iran to adopt a more measured response following the assassination of Gen. Qassem Suleimani by the United States. This cautious behaviour aligns with his broader strategy in managing regional crises. Over two decades ago, when Iranian diplomats were killed by the first Taliban emirate in northern Afghanistan and public sentiment leaned toward major intervention, Khamenei, along with Hassan Rouhani, who was heading the Supreme National Security Council at the time, played a crucial role in preventing escalation. While Iran is reluctant to join the war and all eyes focused on Gaza, there are voices advocating for an accelerated nuclear program as a strategic tool to prevent the destruction of its allies.


Is Iran using its nuclear threat as its last lifeboat?


Amidst the complexities of the Gaza War, the question of Iran's nuclear aspirations emerges as a critical focal point. Iran holds a potential trump card in its advancing nuclear program. Despite the ongoing Gaza crisis, Iran faces a delicate balance. On one hand, it might calculate that Israel and the U.S. are too preoccupied with the Gaza situation to risk an attack on Iran. On the other hand, Iran must weigh the potential breakout in its nuclear program against its already struggling economy, facing the impact of U.S.-led economic sanctions.

Iran's nuclear program, rooted in the 1950s, has evolved as a symbol of nationalism and national prestige. Iranian officials view nuclear progress as a long-term goal, showcasing their nation's advancement on the international stage. The Trump administration's withdrawal from the nuclear deal inflicted economic challenges, leading to a significant devaluation of Iran's currency and a surge in inflation. The ongoing nuclear negotiations serve as a crucial avenue for mitigating the impact of sanctions on Iranians' livelihoods. With an internal political atmosphere marked by tension following the 2022 protests over enforced hijab, Iran seeks to avoid further crises. The government aims to prevent the return of its nuclear file from the IAEA to the UN Security Council, even as its cooperation with the IAEA faces challenges. Nasser Kanaani, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, acknowledged on October 29 that nuclear negotiations would continue, but he hinted at the possible impact of the Gaza war.[xiii] While Iran adheres to the agreement to continue talks, Kanaani suggested that the Gaza crisis could influence the pace of negotiations regarding Iran's nuclear advancements and potential sanctions relief. Despite positive affirmations from Teheran, the cooperation between Iran and the IAEA remains difficult with many of the outstanding question still being unresolved.


Before the October 7 Hamas attacks, Iran and the U.S. had scheduled direct talks in Oman at the end of October. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had approved these talks after indirect negotiations resulted in the release of five Americans from Iranian jails in September. These releases were in exchange for unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues, transferred from South Korea to Qatari banks.[xiv] Kanaani's statements imply two key points. Firstly, Iran does not tie its nuclear negotiations solely to regional developments or the fate of the "Axis of Resistance." Secondly, while Iran's strategy for advancing nuclear negotiations remains unchanged, regional tensions could be exploited in its favour. However, Iran is cautious not to escalate tensions to the point of derailing talks or triggering a broader conflict. Rafael Grossi, director-general of the IAEA emphasized on October 20 that there is no direct correlation between the Israel-Hamas war and Iran's nuclear program.[xv] He underscored the distinction between nuclear material and nuclear weapons.


The latest IAEA report indicates that Iran continues to build up uranium enriched to 60 percent, exceeding the limits set in the 2015 nuclear deal. However, Iran has not accelerated the rate of enrichment to this level. The report notes Iran's possession of over 128 kilograms of 60 percent enriched uranium by the end of October, theoretically sufficient for three atomic bombs if further enriched to 90 percent. Additionally, Iran holds more than half a ton of 20 percent enriched uranium.[xvi]


Iran could exert pressure on the U.S. and Israel by intensifying its nuclear activities, potentially constructing nuclear weapons. Such a scenario risks triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, particularly as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has expressed intentions to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does.[xvii] Thus far, Iran has carefully calibrated its nuclear advancements to maintain vigilance among adversaries without provoking a major response. It is in the collective interest to ensure that the Gaza war does not lead to a new nuclear crisis in the Middle East. Therefore, a serious development of an Iranian nuclear weapon seems unlikely, considering its usual more pragmatic approach to foreign policy.


Charting diplomatic waters and avoiding potential storms


Shortly after the recent reciprocal missile exchange, Iran and Pakistan declared their intention to reinstate diplomatic relations.[xviii] This announcement reflects a concerted effort to mend relations and foster de-escalation in the region. In conclusion, amidst the intricacies of the ongoing conflicts and geopolitical tensions, the recent diplomatic dialogue between Iran and Pakistan emerges as a beacon of hope for regional stability. The commitment to reinstate diplomatic relations, as announced in the joint statement, reflects a positive stride towards de-escalation.  However, a prudent analysis of Iran's strategy is warranted, considering its affiliations with the axis of resistance and recent assertive actions. While Iran's broader regional diplomatic engagements hint at a possible inclination toward dialogue over confrontation, this must be approached with caution. Notably, these diplomatic initiatives align with Iran's direct engagement in the conflict, challenging a simplistic view that confines its actions solely to proxy involvement.Iran has to make a decision: Navigating between storms or sailing the serene seas of diplomacy.  Nevertheless, it's important to acknowledge that this dichotomy may oversimplify Iran's complex strategic landscape. Throughout history, Iran has demonstrated a nuanced approach that transcends binary choices, often finding unconventional paths that defy traditional categorizations. In one way or another, the diplomatic strategies have often been accompanied by a well weighed element of military force or state-power. While some may question the efficacy of this age-old strategy of non-strategy, it has endured and yielded results for a considerable duration. The possibility lingers that this approach, which has weathered the test of time, may continue to shape Iran's geopolitical course successfully. In the pursuit of regional power, there could be a perceived need for Iran to consider taking some level of diplomatic responsibility and contemplating the articulation diplomatic goodwill and tolerance. As the political landscape evolves, it remains uncertain whether a more transparent and assertive approach might be deemed essential for Iran to address the intricacies of international relations more effectively. This commitment flows several ways. Instead of boycotting talks with crucial actors involved in the recent war and conflict, Western countries should ride the diplomatic wave if it wants to be part of a sustainable solution to the Gaza War. As the world observes the complex dynamics in the Middle East, the willingness of nations to engage in constructive discussions, despite different ideological currents, becomes a key determinant of future outcomes.


Shari Goy is an independent geopolitical analyst with a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from institutions in Switzerland and Morocco. She is currently completing her Master's in Conflict Resolution and Security Policy at Tel Aviv University and Sciences Po Lille. Her research delves into Iran's nuclear negotiations and economic diplomacy.



Bibliography

 

[i] Al Jazeera. (2024, January 24). Turkey, Iran agree on the need for regional stability amid Israel’s war on Gaza. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/1/24/turkey-iran-agree-on-need-for-regional-stability-amid-israels-war-on-gaza

[ii] Haaretz. (2024, January 20). Iran Launches Advanced Satellite as Regional Tensions Spike Over Israel's War in Gaza. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/2024-01-20/ty-article/iran-launches-advanced-satellite-as-regional-tensions-spike-over-israels-war-in-gaza/0000018d-269e-daf5-a1bf-a6dee2380000

[iii] Reuters. (2024, January 21). Iranian and Hezbollah commanders help direct Houthi attacks in Yemen. By Samia Nakhoul and Parisa Hafezi. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iranian-hezbollah-commanders-help-direct-houthi-attacks-yemen-sources-say-2024-01-20/

[iv] The Wall Street Journal. (2023, October 8). Iran Helped Plot Attack on Israel Over Several Weeks. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/world/middle-east/iran-israel-hamas-strike-planning-bbe07b25

[v] CNN Politics. (2023, October 11). Initial US intelligence suggests Iran was surprised by the Hamas attack on Israel. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2023/10/11/politics/us-intelligence-iran-hamas-doubt/index.html

[vi] CNN Politics. (2023, October 11). Initial US intelligence suggests Iran was surprised by the Hamas attack on Israel. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2023/10/11/politics/us-intelligence-iran-hamas-doubt/index.html

[vii] Kali Robinson, "What Is the Iran Nuclear Deal?" Council on Foreign Relations, last updated June 21, 2023, 2:25 pm (EST), https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-iran-nuclear-deal

[viii] Le Monde. (2024, January 21). How Iran reassessed its regional strategy after Hamas's attack on Israel. Retrieved from https://www.lemonde.fr/en/international/article/2024/01/21/how-iran-reassessed-its-regional-strategy-after-hamas-s-attack-on-israel_6451462_4.html

[ix] Reuters. (2024, January 21). Middle East missile attacks raise Gaza escalation risk. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israeli-strike-damascus-kills-iranian-guards-official-source-regional-pro-syria-2024-01-20/

[x] Haaretz. (2024, January 16). Iran Says It Attacked Israeli 'Mossad HQ' in Iraq to Avenge the 'Killing of Its Commanders' Amid Gaza War. Reuters & Ben Samuels. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2024-01-16/ty-article/iran-says-it-attacked-israel-mossad-hq-in-iraq-to-avenge-the-killings-of-its-commanders/0000018d-116d-d71c-ad9f-53ef2bb80000

[xi] Le Monde. (2024, January 21). How Iran reassessed its regional strategy after Hamas's attack on Israel. Retrieved fromhttps://www.lemonde.fr/en/international/article/2024/01/21/how-iran-reassessed-its-regional-strategy-after-hamas-s-attack-on-israel_6451462_4.html

[xiii] Stimson. (2023, November 28). Will the Gaza War Affect Iran’s Nuclear Strategy? Iran will have to balance between using the Gaza crisis to advance its nuclear program without also provoking a major response. Retrieved from https://www.stimson.org/2023/will-the-gaza-war-affect-irans-nuclear-strategy/

[xiv] Business Insider. (2023, September 12). US to release $6 billion of frozen Iranian oil revenue as part of prisoner release deal. Filip De Mott. Retrieved from https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/currencies/biden-iran-nuclear-deal-ranian-oil-revenue-frozen-prisoner-swap-2023-9

[xv] Stimson. (2023, November 28). Will the Gaza War Affect Iran’s Nuclear Strategy? Iran will have to balance between using the Gaza crisis to advance its nuclear program without also provoking a major response. Retrieved from https://www.stimson.org/2023/will-the-gaza-war-affect-irans-nuclear-strategy/

[xvi] Stimson. (2023, November 28). Will the Gaza War Affect Iran’s Nuclear Strategy? Iran will have to balance between using the Gaza crisis to advance its nuclear program without also provoking a major response. Retrieved from https://www.stimson.org/2023/will-the-gaza-war-affect-irans-nuclear-strategy/

[xvii] Foreign Policy. (2023, August 24). Bibi Isn’t Serious About Preventing a Regional Nuclear Arms Race. Benjamin Netanyahu has long warned of the perils of a nuclear Middle East. Now he seems willing to allow Saudi nukes in exchange for normalization. By Azriel Berman. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/08/24/netanyahu-saudi-mbs-nuclear-enrichment-arms-race/

[xviii] Al Jazeera. (2024, January 22). Iran and Pakistan rebuilding diplomatic ties following tit-for-tat strikes. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/1/22/iran-and-pakistan-rebuilding-diplomatic-ties-following-tit-for-tat-strikes

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