Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to annex large stretches of the occupied territories in the West Bank caused Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister to condemn the plan in a video conference organized by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on June 10. Similar condemnation and emphasis on Palestinians’ rights came from Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, followed by some NGOs in Tehran earlier in April.
However, a few days before July 1, the date when annexation is planned to take place, apart from these symbolic diplomatic criticisms, annexation has sparked no significant reaction from high-level Iranian officials. Indeed, the topic has remained almost absent from the main political debates in the country. Even a newly elected hardliner Parliament rallying around revolutionary principals has remained mute on the matter.
There are several factors behind this frosty encounter. Iran views the Israeli control of the West Bank as a de-facto illegal annexation that took place decades ago. According to the Iranian perspective, nothing substantially new is happening. At the same time, the country is facing a massive resource-deficit. It is overwhelmed with fixing economic meltdown, managing troubling crisis with the US, and safeguarding its security gains in Syria and Iraq. On the other hand, Iranian society is immersed in economic hardship and tackling COVID-19 while critical of Iran’s interventions in Syria and Iraq. Therefore, contrary to some speculations, the government has decided to narrow its propaganda machine at home on West Bank annexation.
Above all, the issue of Palestine is no longer Tehran’s immediate priority, as its strategic value is undermined by Iranian growing interests to deter Israel through the Syrian front. Tehran is also no more the same ideological player as of the ’80s when it was seeking to export the revolution at any price. Instead, it decides to engage in regional disputes according to cost-benefit strategic calculus. In this situation, Tehran has limited willingness and capacity to impact the course of events in the Palestinian territories meaningfully.
All of that said, recent developments present two substantial opportunities that could change Tehran’s strategic calculus, and somehow side Iranian leadership with Netanyahu on viewing annexation as a ‘historic opportunity’. The first opportunity connects to the fact that annexation is likely to be a breath of fresh air in the ideological backbones of the ‘axis of resistance’. Iranian revolutionary ideology effectively integrated with Palestinian opposition to Israeli occupation in the ’80s to forge an early narrative of resistance. Having substantial mobilizing power, this reading of resistance narrative successfully structured networks of Iranian-backed militias such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Lebanese Hezbollah. Since 2010, however, resistance narrative experienced a shift characterized by a diminishing role of opposition to the Israeli occupation as its central mobilizing cause. This shift occurred under the shadow of the ISIS threat and the growing sectarian rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia. An updated ‘axis of resistance’ reoriented itself around the protection of holey Shite Shrines in Iraq and Syria. Netanyahu’s annexation plan is bringing up once again the Israeli occupation as an influential mobilizing factor.
Iran’s Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the past three decades has been a staunch advocate of a non-conciliatory policy toward Israel, arguing that the government in Tel Aviv is an illegal occupying entity with which negotiating peace is unrealistic. However, Israel’s enviable international position was effective to corner that view, both among global actors and Palestinian Authorities. Yet, annexation changes these dynamics. As Robert Satloff argues, annexation will shift the status of Israel from ‘legal occupier’ pending a negotiated peace to ‘illegal occupier’ whose actions prevent a negotiated peace. This shift reasserts the credentials of Tehran’s opposition to the peace process in the eyes of many ordinary Palestinians.
There are doubts about the ways people in occupied territories would react, in particular, if they select to proceed with the third round of Intifada. Nevertheless, the above reevaluation of Israeli standing versus that of Iran will likely strengthen Iran’s backed narrative of resistance as a viable solution against illegal occupation. In the absence of a diplomatic horizon, the credibility of Iran’s narrative among the Palestinian population subsequently boosts the social bases for resistance movements. This development is critical, mainly when Tehran’s shrinking financial support to the ‘axis of resistance’ is a threat to its regional influence. More substantial social support to resistance movements is what serves Tehran’s interests at this moment.
Iran’s second opportunity emerges as repercussions of the annexation on Israeli-Arab relations unfold. Pre-emptive Arab condemnations of the annexation have made it clear that proceeding with the plan will impede the process of normalization between the Arab world and Israel, if not cause a reverse. At the same time, with certainty, it will be a new constrain in the Israeli-Saudi security alliance. Tehran has a clear preference for this dynamic because it believes that when the Israeli threat to Muslim World is back on the stage, the Saudi-Emirati job of selling Iranian threat will become tougher.
It is unreasonable to think of a strategic alteration in Saudi and Emirati threat perception regarding Iran. Nevertheless, other Arab states in the Persian Gulf would turn divided between the Iranian threat and the Israeli one as the most destabilizing factor. These changes in threat perception will put Tehran in a position to take advantage, including from possible collective diplomatic initiatives that might take place among Muslim states. That could even end up Tehran establishing contact points with rival Riyadh and Amman. In this way, Israel’s determination to annex the West Bank opens new diplomatic windows for Iran.
Knowing that Tehran follows pragmatic opportunism in its regional security policy, it is not hard to predict that it targets to forge new leverages by measured selective interventions from emerging opportunities. Against this backdrop, the Iranian response to the annexation of the West Bank is likely to include three main aspects.
First, Tehran is likely to revitalize its public diplomacy by doubling down media campaigns to reach out to the Muslim World. This effort happens at a time when the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv expects Israeli public ties with Arab states to weaken further. The 2006 experience showed that with Israeli popularity declining in the Arab world due to bombing in Lebanon, the Iranian popularity started to reach its peak. Given that, Iran would likely seek to capitalize on the rising credibility of its resistance narrative and consistency of its fierce opposition against Israeli occupation to ameliorate Arab public resentment against its policies.
Second, Tehran will further push Palestinian Authorities (PA) and Hamas to consolidate and become a united front. Iranian officials have continuouslycalled for such a unification, and they view the recent developments as an appropriate moment to push in this direction. Whether annexation leads the PA to dissolves or not, the growing stress on the PA legitimacy might oblige it to align with relatively advantageous Hamas. Such an outcome would be a strategic benefit to Iran.
Third, Iran prefers to concentrate its efforts in Syria, where it enjoys strategic advantage while perceiving growing urgencies. As a result, with its recently tighter control over Hezbollah, it is likely to attempt to prevent any significant friction between Hezbollah and Israel from taking place. Hezbollah’s direct collision with Israel at this stage would damage Iran’s required force concentration in Syria. Instead, Tehran seeks a long term approach to derail Israeli Defense Forces operations inside Syria through accelerating logistical and media assistance to Hamas and other Palestinian groups to go for armed uprising.