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US shift on Jerusalem presents Iran with a strategic opportunity

People come together to protest against US President Donald Trump’s announcement to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel [PalestineGN/Twitter]

As the repercussions of US President Donald Trump’s highly controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital continues to reverberate across the region and beyond, there is much concern and uncertainty about the long-term impact of this decision.

Most of the analysis has focussed on the apparent “demise” of the two-state solution following Trump’s decision to dissent from a long-established US position of neutrality on Jerusalem. This impression has been reinforced by a senior official in the US State Department who stressed the irreversibility of Trump’s decision.

But to be fair the two-state solution has been little more than a red herring embedded in a wider so-called peace process which has been moribund for years. The basic uncomfortable fact is that the current US administration changed US policy on Jerusalem precisely because it knew there would be little meaningful resistance to it.

Perfunctory and meaningless Arab opposition aside, even the position of the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is ultimately disingenuous in so far as Turkey is unlikely to completely sever ties with Israel.

Read: What does Trump’s Jerusalem decision actually mean?

The most important issue in terms of opposition to Trump’s move revolves around the decisions of the only state with a consistent and comprehensive anti-Israeli strategy, namely the Islamic Republic of Iran. Provided it plays its cards right, Iran stands to gain not only in the context of its bitter geo-strategic rivalry with Israel, but also in terms of defeating Saudi-led efforts to isolate it.

A consistent strategy

Beginning with the Madrid Conference of late 1991, which led to the Oslo Accords in 1993, Iran consistently opposed diplomatic and political initiatives to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the grounds that they simply would not work.

The Iranian position is premised on the basic assumption that on account of Israel’s huge political and diplomatic advantages – not least the powerful Israeli lobby in the US – any “peace” deal necessarily involves disproportionate and unreciprocated Palestinian concessions.

Should the Palestinians resist escalatory Israeli demands and insist on their legitimate rights (as some Palestinian factions have done) then the so-called “peace” process will inevitably grind to a halt. In a nutshell that is precisely what has happened.

Read: The Arab failure on the Jerusalem issue

While many Arab analysts and observers have consistently questioned Iran’s motives for adopting such an uncompromising stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these same analysts have failed to take sufficient stock of the complex strategic, political and diplomatic environment which has shaped the Iranian position.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran has advanced a successful policy in so far as it has compartmentalised its position within a broader adversarial posture vis-à-vis the Jewish state. Whilst ideologically the Islamic Republic is committed to the destruction of Israel, in practical terms it is locked into a conventional geostrategic conflict with the Jewish state centred on the Levant, but which occasionally spills outside the region.

It is in this context that Iran can capitalise on the US shift on Jerusalem by refocussing regional and international attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a view to energising Palestinian resistance. But the obstacles are formidable and any over-reach can potentially undermine the Iranian position.

Liberating Jerusalem?

Officially Iran’s reaction to Trump’s decision has been low key, with Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi describing the decision as “ill-thought out” and “dangerous”. Qassemi also reiterated the established Iranian position that fragmentation and discord in the Arab and Muslim worlds allows the US to undertake such bold steps.

At a deeper level, Iranian analysts and strategists have pontificated on the rationale behind Trump’s decision, with one analyst describing it as an attempt by the capricious US president to “radicalise” the issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Alleged Arab complicity in the latest development, specifically focussing on Trump’s unofficial diplomacy with the new Saudi leadership, has loomed large on Iranian assessments of the US shift on Jerusalem. Ideologically-motivated Iranian analysts have discerned a clear Saudi hand in Trump’s decision and see it as part of a broader Saudi alignment with the strategic priorities of the Jewish state.

By emphasising its steadfast and consistent opposition to negotiations with Israel, the Islamic Republic can further undercut Saudi Arabia by exposing the new Saudi leadership’s breathtaking folly of embracing Donald Trump.

It is also an opportunity to assert leadership in the face of Turkish competition, as demonstrated by Erdogan’s strong position on the issue. While Turkish-Israeli relations are currently at a low ebb, nonetheless, as evidenced by the resolution of previous disputes, bilateral ties are sufficiently strong to withstand the current war of words between Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

These advantages notwithstanding, nonetheless Iranian strategizing will be complicated by on-the-ground dynamics, including a tentative Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and Palestinian apathy in the face of an apparently permanent Israeli occupation.

To make matters worse recent studies suggest the majority of the Palestinian people have little faith in the Islamic Republic, not only in terms of the credibility of its Palestine policy, but more broadly in the context of Iran’s regional role. Absent a genuine interaction with Palestinian public opinion, Iran cannot realistically expect to play a leadership role on the issue.

Nevertheless, Trump’s “radicalisation” of the issue, centred on the definitive end to the two-state solution as a viable conflict resolution strategy, enables Iran to continue to exert a significant impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, through skilful diplomatic and political manoeuvring the Islamic Republic may even succeed at restoring the centrality of the Palestinian issue to regional political discourse.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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