By Huma Kashif
As Israel launched a ground incursion into Gaza and as the casualties mounted among both Palestinian and Israeli civilians, a larger power struggle taking shape in the Middle East, pitting the United States against Iran.
The U.S. has had a long-standing and impactful presence in the Middle East, building strong alliances with various partners, including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. On the other hand, Iran, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, has actively aimed to enhance its influence in the region and solidify its domestic authority by undermining American alliances in the Middle East.
Iran’s Involvement in the Gaza Conflict: A Regional Power Struggle
Iran has denied direct involvement in the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7, 2023, in Israel, where Hamas fighters killed approximately 1,400 people and kidnapped more than 200. U.S. officials and others have stated that it’s too early to determine Iran’s exact role in the violence. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has praised the attacks and referred to Israel’s subsequent assault on Gaza as “genocide.” The Palestinian casualties have sparked large protests against the Israeli offensive across the Middle East.
Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since October 7 have resulted in the deaths of more than 3,780 people, according to the United Nations. Iran has also issued threats of “preemptive” action against Israel if it continues its offensive. The situation escalated further as Israel and Hezbollah engaged in daily artillery and rocket exchanges. Israel established a buffer zone near its border with Lebanon and began evacuating its citizens from the area. Israel also targeted key airports in Syria, a long-standing adversary of Israel and a country with strong ties to Hezbollah. These actions have brought Israel, one of the United States’ closest allies, dangerously close to a wider war with a coalition backed by Iran.
Over the past few decades, Iran has aimed to expand its regional influence by capitalizing on differences between the U.S. and Israel. In Lebanon, Iran played a significant role in establishing Hezbollah in the early 1980s, supporting deadly attacks on the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. In Iraq, Iran expanded its influence by forming alliances with Shiite factions following the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, as he was a significant rival to Iran. Within Syria, Iran and Hezbollah contributed to the Assad regime’s efforts to gain the upper hand in the ongoing civil conflict by offering weaponry, intelligence, and troops. In Yemen, Iran provided backing to Shiite rebel factions engaged in combat against the government, which received support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Iran’s Support for Palestinian Militants
Iran has been supporting militant groups in the Palestinian territories since the 1980s. In the early 1990s, Iranian forces and Hezbollah trained Hamas fighters in Lebanon. Iran increased its aid to Hamas during the Second Intifada, a violent Palestinian uprising from 2000 to 2005, and again after Hamas’s electoral victory in Gaza in 2006. Iran also provided weapons and funds to Hamas during its armed conflicts with Israel in 2008-09 and 2014. Iran has established a regional network that includes Syria and Lebanon. The Israel-Palestine conflict plays a central role in Iran’s regional strategy, aiming to create divisions between Israel and its neighbors and complicate U.S. relations throughout the Arab world. The ongoing Israel-Hamas war appears to be achieving these objectives.
Recurring conflicts in Gaza have perpetuated the salience of the Israeli-Palestinian issue in Middle Eastern politics. This ongoing fighting and tension have advanced Iran’s objectives of undermining U.S. and Israeli relations with Arab rivals like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
The United States achieved a significant diplomatic victory by brokering the 2020 Abraham Accords, in which Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. In response, Iran announced a deal to restore diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in March 2023, seven years after their ties were severed. After this announcement, U.S. officials attempted to broker an agreement formalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, the Gaza war has put this effort on hold. Some analysts have speculated that Iran may have encouraged Hamas to attack Israel for this reason.
Diplomatic Challenges on the Horizon
The Israel-Hamas war presents substantial diplomatic challenges for the United States. Israel’s bombings, threatened ground invasion, and restrictions on aid to Gaza have energized its enemies and created additional tensions with its partners.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced the Israeli assault as a “massacre,” while Qatar has blamed Israel for the violence. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi characterized Israel’s campaign as “collective punishment” of the people of Gaza. The strained diplomatic relations among some partners became more apparent after Hamas accused Israel of causing an explosion outside a Gaza hospital on October 17. Although Israel and the U.S. maintained that Palestinians might have caused the explosion inadvertently, anti-Israel demonstrations quickly spread across the Middle East. Shortly before President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel on October 18, Jordan canceled his planned summit with el-Sisi, Jordanian King Abdullah II, and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.
The international response to the Israel-Palestine conflict has seen various nations express their concerns and offer perspectives on the situation. Russian Ambassador Vass ily Nebenzia has characterized the conflict as a catastrophe of “biblical proportions.” He emphasized the growing civilian casualties and destruction in Gaza, highlighting the difficulties in providing humanitarian assistance during active hostilities. Nebenzia stressed the need for an immediate ceasefire and urged the Security Council to prioritize ending the bloodshed while seeking a diplomatic solution based on the UN-endorsed two-State framework.
China’s Ambassador, Zhang Jun, reiterated the strong support expressed in the General Assembly’s recent resolution for a humanitarian pause. He called for an immediate ceasefire and urged Israel to lift its siege on Gaza. Ambassador Zhang emphasized the fragility of the Middle East peace process and the risk of it collapsing. He encouraged both sides to abandon the use of force and commit to ending the cycle of violence. Zhang warned that continued violence could escalate into a military catastrophe with far-reaching regional consequences.
Lana Zaki Nusseibeh, the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the UAE to the UN, underlined the unequivocal call in the General Assembly’s resolution for an immediate humanitarian truce. She expressed concern about the erosion of the international order and urged the Security Council to respect the expressed will of the majority of the world. Nusseibeh called for a ceasefire, the restoration of humanitarian aid to Gaza, and diplomatic efforts to secure the release of hostages.
Iran’s Cautionary Signals and Readiness for Escalation
Iran has warned Israel of regional escalation if the Israeli military conducts a ground invasion in Gaza as the war with Hamas enters its second week. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian stated on October 15, 2023, “If the measures aimed at immediately stopping the Israeli attacks that are killing children in the Gaza Strip end in a deadlock, it is highly probable that many other fronts will be opened. This option is not ruled out and is becoming increasingly more probable.”
The United Nations estimates that nearly half of Gaza’s population, around one million people, have been forced from their homes due to the Israeli military’s preparations for an expected ground invasion. Tehran has rejected claims of direct involvement in the Hamas assault on Israel.
Iran is recruiting volunteer fighters, and Quds Force commander Esmail Qa’ani recently coordinated militias operating within Tehran’s “axis of resistance” to define Iran’s self-image. On Tuesday, the UN General Assembly’s Emergency Special Session is set to resume, with dozens of countries yet to speak out on the current crisis in Gaza. A large majority of Member States voted for a humanitarian truce to end the fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas.
During the Security Council meeting, Riyad Mansour, the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine at the United Nations, expressed his gratitude to the UN agency briefers for their passionate appeals for action. He stressed the imperative for the United Nations to intervene and save the lives of Palestinians in Gaza. Mansour painted a grim picture of the situation, highlighting that over half of Gaza’s population has been forcibly displaced and lives in perpetual fear. He also drew attention to the extensive damage to homes and the disturbingly high number of casualties, particularly among children. Mansour made reference to a leaked document that indicated Israel’s potential plans to move Palestinians from Gaza to tent cities in Sinai, emphasizing the pressing nature of the crisis. He urged the global community to take immediate action to halt the ongoing assault on the Palestinian people…
Therefore, the Israel-Palestine conflict stands as a deeply intricate and highly sensitive issue, carrying substantial regional implications. The reactions of international actors underscore their profound apprehensions regarding the escalating humanitarian crisis and the looming specter of broader regional instability. Within this context, the United States and Iran are engaged in a meticulous and strategic response, recognizing this conflict as an integral part of their overarching struggle for influence in the Middle East.
The ongoing hostilities also bring into focus an overarching question: which nation will ultimately assert itself as the dominant power, or hegemon, in the Middle East? The situation is ever-evolving, marked by its inherent unpredictability, underscoring the need for sustained diplomatic endeavors and unwavering international attention. The pursuit of a peaceful resolution remains imperative to curtail further escalation and lay the groundwork for stability in this critical and volatile region.