Gaza and Iran’s Security Policy

You will not hear me say this often, but Hossein Shariatmadari — Iran’s irascible and intractable editor of the hardline Kayhan daily — makes one important point in this editorial. Although a few months ago Iran’s leader Ali Khamenei referred in general terms to the fact that Iran had been involved against Israel’s previous attacks against Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008), this is the first time that both the Iranian and Palestinian leaderships have officially and unabashedly acknowledged Iran’s military support.

Shariatmadari does not address the question of what has led to this new official posture since his piece is really not about what has brought about this change but a convoluted attack — based on fabricated quotes — on reformists who in his words have been directly or indirectly supported by the Israeli government in order to weaken the Islamic Republic’s support for the “resistance.” What else could the protestors’ chant — Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon, I give my life to Iran” — in the post-2009 election environment have meant but “playing in the wolves’ team,” Shariatmadari asserts. But what Shariatmadari takes for granted is that the hardline position on the need for Iran’s support for resistance in Palestine has not only been vindicated but become common sentiment as well.

This is a debatable assumption since one of the basic disagreements between those in Iran who have called for a less confrontationist foreign policy, and those who continue to push for an offensive or aggressive foreign policy (siast khareji-ye tahajomi), has been over Iran’s role beyond the Persian Gulf region. While the former does not see Iran’s involvement in broader regional issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as serving the long-term interests of the country, the latter argues that regional links will check Israeli threats and enhance Iran’s standing vis-à-vis the United States. While the former worries about the additional threats an offensive foreign policy — which it calls adventurist — will bring for Iran, the latter insists that the only deterrent to international “bullies” is a show of strength and resolve combined with just a pinch of Nixonian madman posture.

But the decision on the part of Iran to publicly own up to its military and financial support for Hamas does hint at the possibility that the hardline position may have become consensus at least for tactical purposes as Iran prepares to re-engage in nuclear talks with the United States within the 6-world power (p5+1) framework.

As I mentioned in a previous post on Iran and Gaza, Tehran’s initial response to the Israeli attack was rather cautious and conceding of Egyptian leadership. The chair of the Parliament’s National Security of Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, went as far as to say that Iran had nothing to do with Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel. But in the span of a couple of days — surely after a meeting of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) — a decision was made to not only announce Tehran’s financial and military support, but also state the country’s pride in doing so. Similar language used by Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and IRGC commander Mohammad Jafari — both members of the SNSC — suggests prior coordination.

This was done despite at least one warning in the press that the Gaza attack was “an Israeli conspiracy to destroy the opportunity for talks between Iran and the West.” It was also done despite worries that the war was mostly about testing the Iron Dome and deterrence against Iranian missiles. I am unable to access the editorial in the daily Jomhuri-ye Eslami from a few days ago, but if I remember correctly, it said something like Israel now knows a lot more about Iran’s capabilities than the other way around.

Despite these concerns, Iran’s assertive posture is probably the result of the calculation laid out by Sadeq Kharrazi, deputy foreign minister in the reformist era and current publisher of “irdiplomacy”, a website dedicated to foreign policy. He suggests that Iran’s concrete support for Hamas essentially steers attention away from Iran’s conduct in Syria and towards the “paradoxical behavior” of the “traditional leaders of the Arab World and Turkey” which “do not take any measures to militarily support the Palestinians while they continue to send ships filled with ammunitions and arms to Syria’s opposition.”

But his hopes, which I think also underwrite Iran’s openly supportive posture towards Gaza, are as follows:

The complicated crises of the Middle East and its equations are becoming more complex day by day, and one cannot confront them with the policies of the past. The US and other world powers must know that the equation of the Middle East region will not be solved without the presence of all regional powers. Perhaps one of the objectives of the Zionist regime behind attacking Gaza was to weaken or delay the possibility of dialogue between Iran and the US—and to overshadow it—but it seems that the crisis in Gaza, more than ever before, proved to Obama that he needs to interact with Iran as the proponent of dialogue, revolutionary and Jihadist ideas in the region, so that part of the problems of the region, from Syria to Gaza, can be solved with Iran’s support.

Bottom line: the Islamic Republic is making a point that it is part of a variety of problems in the region; making it part of the solution to these problems will require a different US approach.

This is an argument that Kharrazi, proponent of a grand bargain with the US, has been making for a long time. The glitch in this argument is that US policy makers have remained unimpressed with Iran’s regional clout either because they do not find it impressive enough (despite trumpeting it for domestic purposes), or because they think Islamic Iran is structurally unable to be helpful in wielding its clout. They have instead opted for isolating Iran through a ferocious sanctions regime.

Now, with Gaza, the Islamic Republic is making the same argument in a more concrete fashion. The problem of course is that in the Middle East, playing hardline usually begets hardline.

Nevertheless, hardline is what Tehran has decided to play at this moment and public announcements about Iran’s military support for Hamas in spite of presumably crippling sanctions should be viewed as a statement — bluster or not — regarding the failure and even danger of policies that try to bring about regional security at the expense of Islamic Iran’s insecurity.

– Farideh Farhi is an independent researcher and an affiliate graduate faculty member in political science and international relations at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.