Iran’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one of the most important aspects of Iran’s foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a complex combination of ideology and pragmatism, Vali Kaleji writes.
In his article, Dr. Vali Kaleji, a Tehran-based expert on Central Asia and Caucasian Studies, postulates that for a better understanding of Iran’s current approach to the bloody war between Israel and Hamas, the main axes of the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran regarding this old conflict in the Middle East should be identified. Iran doesn’t recognize the existence of a country called Israel, unlike its position toward the United States. Indeed, Iran is against any plan for peace and reconciliation with Israel. Instead, Iran supports holding a referendum with the participation of all the main native inhabitants of the Palestinian land, including Muslims, Christians and Jews, in order that they may exercise the right to self-determination and decide upon their type of political system. This plan, which stands in complete contradiction with the plan of forming two independent states of Israel and Palestine, has not been proposed or supported by any other country in the world, including the Arab and Islamic countries. However, Iran’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reflects a complex combination of ideology and pragmatism, especially amid the current bloody war between Israel and Hamas. Iran has preferred that the dimensions of the war remain limited to Gaza and not extend to Lebanon and Syria. Indeed, Iran believes that numerous Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria, especially the killing of several senior commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), are aimed at instigating a direct conflict between Iran and the United States.
Many news items and analytical articles are published on a daily basis about Iran’s policy toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, especially against the backdrop of the bloody ongoing war between Hamas and Israel. However, ambiguity remains and questions persist regarding Iran’s perceptions and approach to this old conflict in the Middle East. What does Iran want and what is the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli hostilities from Iran’s point of view? Also, what are the similarities and differences between Iran’s perception and approach to this conflict and those of other Islamic countries, including Arab and non-Arab states?
Before answering the aforementioned questions, it should be noted that during the Pahlavi period, unlike since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran maintained close relations with both the Israelis and Palestinians. Although Iran opposed the United Nations plan to establish the state of Israel in 1948, “de facto” relations were formed in the early 1960s. On the one hand, Israel’s first political strategy was to establish relations with non-Arab states through its “periphery doctrine.” As a means of balancing pan-Arabism and outflanking its hostile Arab neighbours, iranicaonline.org writes, the strategy served to enhance Israel’s security and economic ties, as well as reduce regional isolation. Iran and Turkey had a key role and place in this strategy. On the other hand, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, despite supporting the rights of the Palestinian people, refused to accompany and participate in either the Arab countries' war or the Arab oil embargo against Israel. Israel and Persia enjoyed close ties, particularly beginning in the 1960s, resulting in an informal strategic alliance. According to iranicaonline.org, “While seeking close ties with the West and striving for modernisation, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1941-79) viewed Israel as a natural ally.”
However, after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in February 1979, Iran’s foreign policy changed fundamentally. Only eight days after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, Iran cut off all official relations with Israel, including official statements, state institutes, and events on February 19, 1979. The Israeli Embassy in Tehran was closed and handed over to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). When Yasser Arafat arrived in Tehran on Feb. 17, 1979, he was hailed as the first “foreign leader” invited to visit Iran, mere days after the victory of the revolution, and he declared he was coming to his “own home.” Ayatollah Khomeini announced the last Friday of Ramadan – the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting (sawm) – as “Quds Day” and also declared Israel an “enemy of Islam” and the “Little Satan” alongside the United States, which was dubbed the “Great Satan”. In the official literature of the Islamic Republic, Israel was referred to as the “Zionist Regime”. Iran stopped accepting Israeli passports, and the holders of Iranian passports were banned from travelling to “occupied Palestine”. Starting in the early 1980s, Iranian athletes were banned from competing with Israeli athletes in all sports competitions.
This sharp anti-Israel stance continued after Ayatollah Khomeini; his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Israel a “cancerous tumour” that should be removed from the region. Iran’s anti-Israeli policies peaked with the denial of the “Jewish Holocaust” during World War II during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2013).
1.Iran doesn’t recognize the existence of a country called Israel, unlike Iran’s position toward the United States. In fact, Iran accepts the existence of the United States, but has no diplomatic relations with Washington. This position is similar to Pakistan’s stance as the only country in the world that does not recognize Armenia as a state. For this reason, any contacts and negotiations between Iranians and Israelis are prohibited and the holders of Iranian passports are banned from travelling to “occupied Palestine”. Indeed, since the beginning of the 1980s, Iranian athletes have been banned from competing with Israeli athletes in all sports competitions. While there have been direct and indirect negotiations between Iranian and American officials over the past four decades, Iranian citizens are not prohibited or restricted from traveling to or staying in the United States. Iranian and American athletes, especially in the field of wrestling, have competed against one another in the soil of the two countries. Therefore, despite the severance of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington after the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, there is a fundamental difference between Iran’s approach to the United States and its stance on Israel.
2. Since the Islamic Republic basically does not recognize a country called Israel, Iran wants all Palestinian refugees since the establishment of Israel in 1948 to return home. In this regard, Iran does not recognize any borders which acknowledge Israel’s existence, including the 1967 borders drawn following the Arab-Israeli six-day war, which have served as the basis of the peace plan envisioning the formation of Israel and Palestine as two independent states.
3. Following the return of all Palestinian refugees to within the pre-1948 borders, Iran supports holding a referendum with the participation of all the main native inhabitants of the Palestinian land, including Muslims, Christians and Jews, in order that they may exercise their right to self-determination and determine their type of political system. This plan, which is in complete contradiction with the plan of forming Israel and Palestine as two independent states, has not been proposed or supported by any other country in the world, including the Arab and Islamic countries.
4. Iran is against any plan for peace and reconciliation with Israel. For this reason, in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, decided to sever diplomatic ties with Egypt due to its signing of the Camp David Accords with Israel. In this regard, when the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) agreed in 1993 on a plan to implement a two-state solution as part of the Oslo Accords, leading to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Iran opposed it. This approach underscores the main difference between the Iranian position and the approach of the international community, including the United States, EU, Russia, and also Muslim countries like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and the UAE; these all support the idea of a two-state solution. The Palestinian embassy in Tehran is at the disposal of the Palestinian Authority (PA), however, although Hamas has an office in Tehran as well.
5. Iran clearly supports the Palestinian armed groups, especially the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Gaza. In fact, Iran defines these groups as part of the Axis of Resistance (Mehvare Moghavemat) in the Middle East, which also includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar Assad’s government in Syria, Shiite militia groups in Iraq like Kata’ib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades), Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), the Hashd al-Sha’bi and also Ansarallah (the Houthis) in Yemen. A very important point is that, unlike Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is a Shia group, Palestinian groups such as Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) are Sunni. This will help Iran counter accusations of Shiite expansion, especially the notion of a “Shiite Crescent” (Shiite Arc) in the Middle East, a term that was coined in 2004 by King Abdullah II of Jordan. It should not be forgotten that Iran does not have a warm and close relationship with the Palestinian secular groups in the West Bank, especially the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah), due to their compromising approach and interaction with Israel.
6. Iran has always had a strong critical reaction to the identification and development of Islamic countries’ relations with Israel and in this regard, Tehran decided to sever diplomatic ties with Egypt in 1979 due to its signing of the Camp David Accords with Israel. For this reason, Iran has strongly opposed the Abraham Accords in recent years, which have led to the normalisation of Israeli relations with the UAE and Bahrain. Tehran condemned the Abraham Accords, calling it “a stab in back of the oppressed Palestinian people” and “a gift to the Israeli regime”. However, four decades after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Egypt is the only Islamic country whose diplomatic relations with Iran have been severed due to the recognition and establishment of relations with Israel. In other cases, the recognition and diplomatic relations of other Islamic countries (Arab and non-Arab), including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, Turkey, the Republic of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have not led to the termination of Tehran’s diplomatic relations with these countries. Most experts believe that the recent bloody war between Hamas and Israel played an important role in stopping the process of normalizing relations between Israel and Islamic countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
If one keeps in mind the six principles mentioned, Iran’s foreign policy approach to the recent bloody war between Hamas and Palestine can be analysed better. In this war, Iran has continued its political support for Hamas; even in the middle of the war, Esmil Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, went to Tehran to meet senior Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Khamenei. However, Iran has refused to directly intervene in the war and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the most loyal and closest proxy militia in the Middle East to Iran, has also refrained from launching large-scale military attacks on Israel. Indeed, Iran has repeatedly emphasized that these groups, including Hamas, are not proxies and act independently.