By Arab News
By Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
It has been announced that Ebrahim Raisi will attend the Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Riyadh on Sunday to discuss Gaza. This will be the first visit by an Iranian president to Saudi Arabia since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2012. The inclusion of Iran in the meeting on Gaza stems from the desire to make the Islamic Republic part of the solution and not part of the problem. However, there is a major trust issue between Iran and the Arab Gulf states and they each look at events from a zero-sum perspective. Will Raisi convince the Arab states that Iran has good intentions and cares for the well-being of the Palestinians, rather than using them as a card to improve its position vis-a-vis its neighbors and the US?
Iran has been invited to the Gaza discussion because its neighbors realize that, if it were not included and left isolated, Tehran could act as a spoiler. The Iranian participation should be examined against the Arab backdrop. Dennis Ross wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times last month that several Arab officials had told him they wanted Israel to eradicate Hamas because they perceived any win for Hamas as being a win for Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Here, it is important to analyze the Arab position.
Gaza is a dilemma for Arabs. On the one hand, they feel for the Palestinians and want a just solution to this problem, but on the other hand they despise Hamas. Arab states view Hamas as a dangerous actor. Its political wing is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and its military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, is linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and is part of the much-loathed “axis of resistance.”
When Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah gave his speech last week, he said that a win for Hamas was a win for the Palestinians and for surrounding Arab countries. He indirectly sent assurances to Arab states, insinuating that if Israel suffered a setback and did not achieve its objectives, then it would be forced to come to the negotiating table to discuss a state for the Palestinians, something it has been avoiding for years.
While meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Arab states expressed the need for a ceasefire and the resumption of negotiations to reach a two-state solution. However, according to sources, they wanted to keep Iran out of it and they also had divergent views on the role of Hamas.
The ideal scenario for many Arab states as well as the US would be as follows: Israel takes out Hamas and the Arabs then negotiate a two-state solution, taking the Palestine card away from Iran. However, things are not as simple as that. Iran cannot be ignored, as it can very much play the spoiler. It can complicate the situation for everyone. One thing is for sure: neither Iran nor the Arab Gulf states want war. Iran would probably want a situation from which it can improve its negotiating position with the US and the Arab states.
As the tragedy in Gaza unfolds, Arabs are realizing more and more that the Palestinian question cannot go unanswered and that the current situation is not sustainable. They want to find a solution; however, they have many questions regarding Iran. Will Iran accept the two-state solution? If Israel suffers a setback, will that reinforce the axis of resistance and increase Iran’s grip on Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen? Will Iran’s belligerence increase? The other issue is: If a political settlement is conceived in which Palestinians are given a sovereign state but part of the deal is to dismantle Hamas, would Iran accept it? Would Iran accept losing the Hamas card in exchange for the overall well-being of the Palestinians?
Obviously, if a deal is to be conceived with Israel, it will be difficult for Hamas — or at least its military branch that is affiliated with Iran — to remain in charge of the Gaza Strip. Would Iran accept the disbandment of the Al-Qassam Brigades? If so, what would it want in return? It is important to understand that Hamas, like Hezbollah, acts as deterrence for Iran against Israel. If it were to go, Iran would need to be compensated. What would it ask for in return?
If Iran convinces the Arab states that it is part of the solution and not part of the problem, then there is a good chance that together they can create a front that can pressure the US to seriously push Israel to accept a two-state solution. Nevertheless, Iran has to present a clear political vision. Its declared aim is to liberate Palestine. If the Palestinian problem is solved, what would its position be on other files?
The US also does not want war. President Joe Biden is trailing Donald Trump in the polls in major swing states and a prolonged war would definitely not help him. Accusations of supporting a genocide against Palestinians do not sit well with the principles Biden wants to convince the electorate he stands for. He needs a solution.
In a way, if the Arabs and Iran were to agree on a solution, it would make life easier for the US. Despite the unequivocal US support for Tel Aviv and the emotional attachment that both the president and secretary of state have for Israel, they also want a solution and they know that the occupation is not sustainable. Though submarines and destroyers have been dispatched to the region, the US hopes not to use them.
So, what should Raisi present to the Arab states in order to appease them? What kind of reassurances do they need? Iran has to have a clear position on whether it will accept the Arab Peace Initiative. It also needs to explain what its endgame is with the Houthis, the Shiite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah and Bashar Assad. For example, will it pressure Assad to accept UN Security Council Resolution 2254 to end the Syrians’ suffering?
On the other hand, Iran needs to be clear about what security guarantees it wants in return. Saudi Arabia is very well positioned to offer Iran security guarantees. Tehran has always asked Riyadh for its position in case of a confrontation with Israel. The Kingdom could always give Iran a guarantee that it would close its airspace as a result of any Israeli aggression on Iran, but in return Tehran would have to cooperate with Saudi Arabia on the region’s files — and the most pressing file today is Palestine.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.