This week, U.S. President Donald Trump initiated a dramatic shift in Middle Eastern policy, defying the appeals of both European and Arab allies in order to declare that his government officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Although Trump stopped short of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, he indicated that this move would take place in the coming years.
In previous U.S.-led peace talks between the two groups, the status of Jerusalem had always been left to the final stages. Trump’s move alters the approach to these peace talks, and some observers conclude that it makes the successful conclusion of those talks virtually impossible before they have begun. But the potential impact of the move has ramifications that extend well beyond the Israel and Palestine. It may also affect the longstanding tensions among regional power players, including the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran has long used the Palestinian issue as a rallying cry for Muslim unity under the banner of the Islamic Republic. In the interest of promoting that message in recent months, the Iranian regime has made concerted efforts to repair its relations with the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. In line with Tehran’s tendency to use the Palestinian issue as a tool of state propaganda, leading Iranian officials quickly seized upon Trump’s announcement. Reuters quoted Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as attributing the decision to the “incompetence and failure” of the Trump administration
These relations point to the ability of the Islamic Republic to bridge natural sectarian differences when doing so serves a larger goal such as the development of an “axis of resistance” against Western influence and U.S.-allied regional powers like Saudi Arabia. Hamas, like the leaders of the Saudi kingdom, is Sunni, whereas Iran is a Shiite theocracy more naturally aligned to Shiite terrorist groups like Hezbollah.
And Iran’s own Tasnim News Agency highlighted comments from Ali Shamkhani, the head of the Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, in order to outline Iran’s position on the matter.
“Muslim countries should unanimously condemn this conspiracy that violates the rights of the oppressed people of Palestine and paves the way for the continuation of the occupation by the Zionist regime,” he said, adding that Iran considers Jerusalem to be an inseparable part of Palestine.
Shamkhani also pointed to concerns about the possible emergence of new conflicts, saying that the U.S. and Israel will be held accountable for the instability and insecurity that results from Trump’s announcement.
But other reports indicate that Tehran is not just warning of such instability but is actively trying to instigate it. The Washington Free Beacon issued a report on Thursday describing threats from top Iranian officials regarding reprisals against the U.S. and Israel. Via state media, Khamenei declared, “Without a doubt, the Islamic world will stand against this conspiracy, and with these actions, the Zionists will be hit harder. And dear Palestine, without a doubt, will eventually be freed.”
Trump’s announcement seemed to prompt an upsurge of this rhetoric, but it is a familiar type of rhetoric among Iranian officials and Iranian propaganda networks. Tehran routinely calls for the outright destruction of the state of Israel, and last year the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps displayed long-range ballistic missiles painted with the phrase “Israel must be wiped out” in Hebrew.
The current situation may nonetheless prove helpful in spreading the reach of that familiar rhetoric, and there are indications that it is being used as a means of solidifying relations with other regional powers that have been gravitating toward Iran and away from its Western adversaries. The Middle East and North Africa Financial Network reported on Wednesday that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had spoken with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan shortly after Trump’s announcement and that both had reiterated Khamenei’s call for Islamic resistance, as well as saying that the Palestinian issue would be a leading priority for both governments.
At the same time that the announcement has created common cause for this and similar fledgling alliances, it has also created a challenge to the emergence of alliances that are motivated by mutual concern about the expanding influence of the Islamic Republic.
Iranian officials have begun using the latest developments in an attempt to undermine these states’ reputation in the broader Muslim world. The Reuters report on Khamenei’s response quoted him as saying that Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council “work against Islam” by virtue of their longtime alliance with the government that announced its new view on the status of Jerusalem this week.
But as much as this rhetoric poses a threat to countries like Saudi Arabia, it remains to be seen whether that threat outweighs the threat that they perceive as coming from Iran’s intrusions into the affairs of its neighbors. U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas and well-known Iran hawk, suggested otherwise, according to the Washington Examiner. The report quotes him as saying that the worsening tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia may have actually provided the Trump administration with an opening for its move, because the Arabs may prove willing to accept it in order to continue the trend of unified opposition to Iran’s expansionism.
But the full extent of that unity remains undetermined, as does the status of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which spans a proxy war in Yemen and a number of other flashpoints of sectarian competition.
Reuters ran a report on Thursday that opened with the declaration that Iran had come out on top in the wake of a political competition in Lebanon, but the details painted a picture that was less clear. On one hand, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri did revoke his resignation on Tuesday, which he had announced last month after traveling to the Saudi capital of Riyadh. But whereas this may indicate that the Saudis backed down from an effort to instigate a political crisis in the sharply divided country, the Reuters report also notes that the Iran-backed paramilitary Hezbollah had offered “appeasing” language about its role in Lebanon after welcoming Hariri’s return. This may suggest that Riyadh’s gambit with Hariri paid off, even if not to the extent it had hoped.
Nevertheless, a conciliatory promise from Hezbollah can hardly be said to represent a meaningful contraction of Iranian influence in the region as a whole. Indeed, there are numerous indicators that that influence continues to expand. PBS Newshour issued a three-part report this week about Iran’s influence over Iraq, noting that the boundaries between religious, political, and paramilitary influence are often blurred.
That being the case, the religious significance of Trump’s Jerusalem announcement may further inflame the sentiment of those Shiites throughout the region who look to Iran’s clerical leadership. But at the same time, the current extent of that influence raises serious questions about what Sunni powers might be willing to tolerate in the interest of retaining friendly or collaborative relations with the Trump administration, Israel, and other entities that are committed to pushing back against the advance of the Islamic Republic of Iran.