Gaza war helps Iran repair image in region—but for how long?

Mekelle:  26 April 2024 (Tigray Herald)

Gaza war helps Iran repair image in region—but for how long?

Israel’s assault on Gaza has in some ways proven to be a boon for Iran, furthering some of its strategic objectives and boosting its reputation in the region. In Nov. 2023, a report by the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy found that an average of 40% of respondents in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria said Iran’s actions have had a positive impact on the war. In Egypt and Syria, such sentiments were expressed by half of respondents.

Polling from the Arab Barometer echoes this trajectory. A Dec. 2023 report indicated that three weeks after the Oct. 7, 2023 Palestinian surprise attack on Israel, Iran’s supreme leader had approval ratings that matched or surpassed those of the Saudi crown prince and the Emirati president. While Tunisia is geographically far from West Asia, public opinion there is often treated as a “bellwether” by pollsters. Indeed, the Arab Barometer has noted that in previous surveys, “Tunisians have had views similar to those found in most other Arab countries.”

The boost to Iran’s reputation comes in the wake of Increasing efforts to widen Arab-Israeli normalization. This has stoked Iranian concerns about becoming isolated and prompted a shift in Tehran’s strategy. Against this backdrop, in his Sept. 2023 address before the United Nations General Assembly, President Ebrahim Raisi laid out Iran’s focus on cooperation with neighboring states while maintaining hostility towards Israel and the United States.

Retained focus on regional diplomacy

Following the Palestinian surprise attack on Israel, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hailed the actions of Hamas. Yet, he also made a point to strongly deny any Iranian role in the assault on Israeli border communities near Gaza. By balancing support for the Iraqi, Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, and Yemeni members of the Iran-led regional alliance network known as the ‘Axis of Resistance’ with his denial of direct involvement in Oct. 7, Khamenei signaled that Iran preferred to avoid a wider conflict. This is while both Israel and the US were warned to limit their actions to avoid expanding the Gaza war.

Khamenei’s actions set the stage for Iran’s broader diplomatic efforts in the region over the past six months. Indeed, the Islamic Republic has taken full advantage of the opportunity pushe fighting in Gaza to further its diplomatic agenda. For instance, contrary to expectations in some quarters, the normalization process with Saudi Arabia has not been derailed. Instead, ties have been strengthened with the Kingdom.

Shortly after Israel’s incursion into Gaza in Oct. 2023, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the phone. This notably marked the first time the leaders had spoken since the two countries agreed to restore ties in Mar. 2023, ending seven years of estrangement. The convergence of Iranian and Saudi interests and cooperation on the Palestinian cause is particularly noteworthy given that the Kingdom is a staunch US ally and has refrained from rejecting normalization with Israel.

The Iranian-Saudi rapprochement progressed further as Raisi traveled to Riyadh in early Nov. 2023 for a special summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on the Gaza war. This marked the first time in over a decade that an Iranian president visited Saudi Arabia. Iran followed up this landmark diplomacy through a mid-February diplomatic tour of Arab countries including Lebanon, where the Iranian foreign minister once again reiterated that there is no desire for a regional war, as well as Algeria, Syria, and Qatar. In addition, Tehran has been pushing for another meeting of the  OIC.

All in all, the bolstering of Iran’s reputation in the region—simultaneous with the hit to the image of the US—may have aided this engagement.

Dynamics during conflict

Historically, Iran has seen its popularity thrive in the Arab world during conflicts between its regional allies and Israel.

This dynamic was evident during and after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. In 2008, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies’ Arab Opinion Index found that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was the most popular leader in the Arab world, followed by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13). The same poll also showed that while 11% of Arab respondents had deemed Iran as one of the two countries posing the greatest threat in 2006, this number decreased to 7% in 2008. At the same, perceptions of the US and Israel as threats increased from 72% to 88% and 85% to 95%, respectively.

However, not long afterwards, Iran’s reputation in the region took a significant hit due to its support for Assad as the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011. The Islamic Republic’s support for the Ansarullah movement—better known as the Houthis—was also damaging. However, this did not stop Tehran from increasing its backing after Saudi Arabia’s 2015 military intervention in Yemen.

As indicated by the 2019/2020 Arab Opinion Index, from 2011 to 2020, Iran came to be viewed as a rising threat in Arab countries. This was even the case in Shiite-majority Iraq, where the same poll found that 91% of Iraqis disapproved of Iranian foreign policy. It was amid this turn of Arab public opinion that relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia—which found themselves increasingly on opposing sides in conflicts in the region— were severed in 2016.

Though Iran’s reputation had not fully recovered prior to the ongoing Gaza war, the Islamic Republic had made some strides toward reducing tensions with Arab states. Beyond the normalization with Saudi Arabia in Mar. 2023, this significantly included renewed engagement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2021 as well as diplomatic efforts made toward restoring relations with Bahrain in June 2023.

Yet, prior to the solidification of a common enemy in Israel, there was little indication that these outreach efforts translated to a warming of public opinion toward Iran in Arab states.

Looking ahead

The longer the Gaza war continues, the more Iran can be expected to strengthen its relationships with Arab governments. If the early reports from the Arab Barometer and the Washington Institute are any indication, Tehran’s response to the war—both diplomatically and with its historical support for Palestine—will continue to gain favor with Arab publics.

On the other hand, as the US continues to support Israel—even as it attempts to restrain Tel Aviv’s most militant actions—America’s standing in the Arab world will likely continue to plummet. Developments such as the US vetoing of an Arab-led and Iran-backed UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza only solidified this reality.

However, peace could pose a unique challenge for Iran while also providing an opportunity for the US. Should Washington emerge as a key leader in a successful and lasting peace process coming out of the Gaza war, it may not only be able to somewhat salvage its reputation, but it could also deprive the Islamic Republic of a shared cause that has proven to be a boon. Indeed, as some observers have duly noted, a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace process could force Iran to either get in line with Arab capitals making peace with Tel Aviv—or risk regional isolation.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button