As Palestine’s Friends Fall Away, Iran is the Last Man Standing

For years, one issue has united countries across the Muslim world: Palestinian Liberation. Countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan and Albania may have little in common, but their support for the Palestinian cause in all strata of society has been consistently loud and clear. But now, as the US strives to push through a peace deal viewed by many Palestinians as a humiliating annexation plan, these supporters are showing where their loyalties truly lie. In doing so, they threaten to push Palestine into the arms of its last remaining loyal friend: Iran.

Palestine’s Geopolitical Alliance Outlook

Outwardly, Palestine’s traditional allies are still on side. The EU and the African Union rejected Trump’s “Deal of the Century.” The Arab League, a union of 22 nations that includes Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, denounced Trump’s deal as laying the foundation of apartheid, rather than a genuine two-state solution. Behind the scenes, though, many of these countries are wavering. 

“Arab regimes in the Gulf are much more interested in cultivating a discreet, but close relationship with Israel because of their shared concern with Iran, than they are in supporting the Palestinian issue,” Says Dov Waxman, Professor in Israeli Studies at UCLA. The “geopolitical and diplomatic reality,” he warns, is that Palestinians feel increasingly neglected by an international community that’s letting them down.

Saudi Arabia’s Palestine Dilemma

Of all these supporters, Saudi Arabia is in the most awkward position. Being a visible and public ally to Palestine is an important part of the Kingdom’s self-styled image as being a supposed guardian of Islam and protector of the faithful all over the world. At the same time, the country’s ambitious Crown Prince is looking to diversify the economy away from oil. This makes Israel – one of the region’s economic superpowers ⁠- too big a potential partner to ignore. 

In a 2018 interview with the Atlantic, Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman broke with years of Saudi foreign policy to acknowledge Israel’s right to their “own land.” In private meetings, he is reported to have criticized the Palestinian Authority over a perceived lack of willingness to negotiate with Israel. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Israel share an important mutual friend: the US. Working together is inevitable, even if all three nations find it politically expedient to play down these relationships back home. 

“The Saudis are trying to say one thing in Washington and another thing in the Middle East, and it’s not working out very well,” says Hady A. Amr, former Deputy Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under President Obama. 

Growing Ties Between Saudi Arabia and Israel and Serious Tensions With Iran

This duality isn’t new. Behind the scenes, Saudi Arabia and Israel have been quietly working together to normalise relations for years. This was inspired partly by their shared resentment of Obama, who cooled ties with both countries while alarming Gulf State despots by showing support for pro-democracy protesters during the Arab Spring⁠ ⁠— Trump and Obama’s approaches “could not be more different”, says Amr.

Bringing the crisis to a head, though, is the mounting tension between Iran and its three shared enemies: the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

Ever since President Trump withdrew from the Iranian Nuclear Deal in 2018, diplomacy in the Gulf has been spiraling into chaos, edging the region closer to inter-state war. The US and Iran publicly taunt and threaten each other, even flirting with the possibility of maritime conflict. Tehran also funnels its aggression into proxy conflicts with Israel and Saudi Arabia, the most destructive example being Yemen.

When the US assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January – with the help of Israeli intelligence ⁠- many feared this would spark all-out conflict, one that would place Palestine firmly in the line of fire. “The Soleimani attack could have sparked a war, which could have opened a Hezbollah Israel front. We could still see something like that going forward,” says Amr.

“The world is concerned about the possibility of world war, but not Palestinians,” shrugs Shaher Haroun, Deputy General Manager for Palestinian Society for Care and Development in Al’Amari, a 70-year-old refugee camp near Ramallah in the West Bank. War, or something very similar to it, has long been the daily reality, he says. “We are used to it”.

Palestinians may dismiss the Iran-US tensions as bluster, but it’s already playing out in their own backyard

As the wording of Trump’s deal makes clear, the US “vision” is less about peace and prosperity than removing an inconvenient barrier to recruiting Israel’s neighbors into a coordinated effort to contain Iran. The document even lumps together the grievances and priorities of Israel and Saudi Arabia (which does not yet officially recognise Israel as a state), suggesting that Iran’s strategy to “encircle” both countries would be averted by better collaboration between Israel and its Arab neighbours following a peace treaty.

Saudi Arabia Praises Some of Trump’s Palestine Peace Plan, Iran Denounces ‘Devilish’ Plan

While he stopped short of endorsing a document that essentially absolves Israel and blames Palestinians for all facets of the ongoing conflict, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince expressed support for President Trump’s efforts. Likewise, State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, praised some “positive elements” of the peace plan, while Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud announced the Kingdom’s intention to develop relations with Israel following a deal.

Iran, on the other hand, seized the opportunity to proclaim support for Palestine. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei strongly and publicly denounced Trump’s plan, tweeting (in Farsi): “The devilish and vicious policy of America toward Palestine called the ‘deal of the century’ will never materialize…all Muslim nations will confront them and will not let it materialize.” 

Tehran is putting both its money and its munitions where its mouth is.

Iran already supports Hamas, a fundamentalist political organisation and militant group that has controlled the Gaza strip since 2007, and to an even greater extent, its rival, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Iran supplies the PIJ with weapons, combat training and millions of dollars in cash, keeping the militant group engaged in active conflict with Israeli forces for years. The PIJ fired several hundred missiles towards Tel-Aviv in November 2019 alone. 

‘The Islamic Republic Sees Supporting Palestinian Groups as its Duty’

In response to Trump’s proposed peace plan, Khamenei publicly promised to step up support for Palestinian militants. “We believe that Palestinian-armed organizations will stand and continue resistance. The Islamic Republic sees supporting Palestinian groups as its duty,” he said. 

Iran has plenty of reasons to meddle in the Palestinian territories. First and foremost, it’s a strategically useful way to get at Israel by, as Amr puts it, using local militant groups “as levers to turn on and off when they’re needed.” The uptick in violence in Gaza following Soleimani’s killing suggests that Iranian revenge could indeed be a factor.

“Iran has an incentive to see an escalation on the Israeli-Palestinian front and to ensure that Israel’s southern border isn’t too quiet. Just to kind of remind Israel that it also has the ability to directly strike back,” says Waxman. “But obviously, the other reason for that escalation in violence is a response to Trump’s peace plan.” 

On a larger scale, taking over the reins as champions of the Palestinian struggle means challenging another major rival: Saudi Arabia.

“The Palestinian issue is a good issue for Iran to position itself as a kind of defender of all Muslims, and to generate popular support across the region,” says Waxman. “That is related to Iran’s desire to present itself as a kind of pan-Islamic power and to mobilize popular support, which is related to its long-standing historical rivalry with Saudi Arabia.”

Iran Wants to be Seen as an Islamic Power, Not Just a Regional Power

In other words, Iran wants to be seen as an Islamic power, not just a regional power. By positioning itself as the only Muslim nation left standing up to America and Israel while defending the rights of Palestinians, it intends to step into Saudi Arabia’s shoes as the foremost Islamic power. 

This comes at a particularly sensitive time for US-Palestinian relations; one which throws Saudi’s muted response into sharp relief.

In 2018, the Trump administration announced that it would cut all funding and support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which provides assistance and protection for over 5.5 million Palestinian refugees, and withdrew over $200 million in support to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, citing concerns about Hamas’ influence in the region. 

Washington also abandoned all semblance of neutrality in the Israel-Palestine conflict, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and closing the de-facto Palestinian Consulate. The contentious decision triggered days of protests in Gaza, with dozens of deaths and over 1000 people injured. Tehran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zariff, was quick to denounce the US embassy opening as “a great day of shame.” He accused the Israeli government of “massacring countless Palestinians in cold blood.”

Things have got so bad that the Palestinian Authority recently announced plans to cut ties completely with Israel and the US. According to Amr, this represents a dangerous U-Turn from the Obama administration, which made sure to keep in regular contact with the PA, despite tensions between the two sides. 

“At least we kept the lines of communication fully open and would regularly try to take positions that were bridging gaps between the Palestinian Authority and Israel,” he says, warning that Trump’s insistence on breaking all “long-standing international norms” has undone any genuine progress the US previously made in the region, undermining “three-quarters of a century of US international policy.” 

“Right now, what we have is a president that seeks to ignite nationalism around the world in his own political interests. And I don’t think it’s helpful to anyone,” he adds.

In the meantime, it’s little wonder if Palestinians caught in the middle drift into Iran’s orbit.

Trump Has Cut Off Palestinian Avenues of Democratic Change

By leaving the Palestinian Authority out of negotiations, Trump made it clear that their democratically elected bodies have no influence over the future of Palestinians’ land. Illegal Israeli settlements continue to proliferate in the West Bank with impunity, and Israeli President Netanyahu recently announced plans for thousands of new homes in occupied East Jerusalem. Waxman suggests that this indicates that Israel views the peace proposal as the US giving the green light to annex more of the West Bank. By contrast, Ariel Shannon pulled all Jewish settlers out of Gaza in 2005 amid mounting security concerns. Seen in this light, it’s hardly surprising that today, militant groups in Gaza enjoy support from around one third of the Strip’s residents.

However nefarious Iran’s motives, Palestinians are running low on options. The US has chosen Israel, loud and clear. Riyadh increasingly sees them as a hindrance, not a priority. The Arab world is losing interest. Not that Palestinians seem surprised; tell an inhabitant of Ramallah how passionately people in Riyadh or Amman champion their cause and you’ll get a raised eyebrow or a cynical smile. 

Palestinians are painfully aware that, despite being half the planet’s cause célèbre for generations, international outrage has failed to improve the situation on the ground. As friends fall away and combatting Iran becomes the region’s number one priority, it’s increasingly clear who they can ⁠— and can’t ⁠— rely on.