Iran’s agreement with the major powers over its nuclear program on 24/11/2013 indicates that when there is an international will, it is possible to achieve political settlements, albeit this remains far-fetched when it comes to the Palestinian question.
The parties to the agreement were able to find common interests: while Iran sought from the agreement to ease the economic embargo imposed on it on account of its nuclear activities, the other parties see the international agreement a step towards curbing the Iranian nuclear threat against their interests in the region and those of the West’s principal ally in the region, i.e., Israel.
The Palestinian issue is not on the agenda of the parties to the agreement for the time being. The Iranian reformist wing is focusing its priorities at present on internal and economic issues. Furthermore, the Israeli side is not in a hurry to reach a solution to the Palestinian issue, in a way that would directly involve Iran and its role, as long as its settlement-building program is proceeding in full swing. Therefore, it is not expected for the nuclear deal with Iran at this stage to directly impact the Palestinian issue.
Moreover, any future arrangements will depend on Iran’s willingness to become involved in future regional arrangements, and the willingness of the major powers to allow Iran to play such a role, and also the cards that each side possesses. Nevertheless, it is not expected in the foreseeable future for any fundamental change to take place in the doctrine of the Iranian political system on considering Israel an enemy, and Iran’s central role in the “refusal front.”
The agreement between the major powers (P5+1) and Iran on 24/11/2013, was a turning point in regional and international relations. But pundits are divided over evaluating the strategic implications of the nuclear deal. Some believe it to be less important than it is being hyped to be, citing the profound disagreements and the provisional nature of the agreement reached. Others see it the beginning of a strategic realignment of regional powers, or as something that is tantamount to acknowledging a higher status for Iran and a lower one for Israel.
The Palestinian issue is one of the things the deal will have either a positive or a negative impact on, given the fact that the regional and international powers participating in the deal are also the same ones closely involved with the Palestinian issue. The repercussions of the deal in the future could take on many possible forms, most notably, the reduced likelihood of military action against Iran: One of the necessary implications of this is creating a regional climate—albeit temporarily—“restraining” the Israeli bid in this direction, because the international community will find any Israeli military action against Iran something inconsistent with the newfound climate.
But this climate cannot conceal the fact that the agreement is only “provisional” for a period of six months. In other words, completely discounting the return to tension is inaccurate. The construct of Iranian-Western-Israeli relations is complex and overlapping, making the evolution of the agreement not far from the evolution of other issues, including the Palestinian issue, yet without the latter being the most important issue in this particular regard.
The reaction of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, describing the agreement as a “historical mistake,” could be in anticipation of expected changes in the strategic status of regional countries in the structure of the balances in the region. This means that the Israeli side will seek to cut its losses from the agreement to a minimum, and maximize its gains to the maximum.
The agreement, despite being temporary and limited so far, has revealed that international will is able to impose its demands, and conclude political deals for any international issue. However, this characterization is unlikely to be repeated in the foreseeable future in the Palestinian issue for two reasons:
1. The Palestinian side did not manage to persuade the international community (especially the parties to the Quartet) that it has “non-negotiable” strategic demands. Instead, it gave them a paradigm of easily backing down every time. This prompted the international will to put pressure on the Palestinian side each time there was a hurdle, only for the latter to comply all too readily. By comparison, Iran, despite the crippling economic sanctions, held on to its right to a peaceful nuclear program, at a certain level of enrichment. In other words, the lesson Iran gives in negotiations is not likely to be repeated in the Palestinian arena, given the balance of power on the one hand, and the profound lack of negotiating experience on the part of the Palestinians, on the other hand.
2. Iran’s mastery of the tactic of “good cop, bad cop” in dealing with the international community, especially the West, with the reformist and conservative wings playing different but coordinated roles. By contrast, the Palestinians presented a model of rivalry among one another, in the hope of making partisan gains, even if this meant relying on foreign powers or financial support from here or there. This has put immense restrictions on both negotiators and resistance fighters equally, and it does not seem that this situation will change in the short term.
In this regional and international climate surrounding the Palestinian issue, one specific question emerges: Will the Iranian-Western deal bring “spoils” for the Palestinian issue, or will it bring “burdens,” or a combination of this or that?
The possibility of influencing the strategic status of the regional powers: In the Middle East, there are regional powers vying for the position of the “core state.” So will the nuclear deal enhance Iran’s position at the expense of that of Israel? Or will Israel obtain military and economic gains to offset what Iran has gained? This was implicit in the statements made by US Secretary of State John Kerry in the visit he made to the region on 5/12/2013, when he said, “I can’t emphasize enough that Israel’s security in this negotiation is at the top of our agenda.” This means making sure that Iran is pushed to the point that Israel wants, while providing the support that Israel believes is necessary, to curb the Iranian threat that Israel over hyped.
However, it is important to point out that the negotiations will go through several stages, and problems might appear from time to time. The negotiations might thus stall or falter, or might steam ahead, which means that every one of the possibilities will entail different results.
However, the starting point suggests that Iran has made some gains, particularly when it comes to easing the sanctions, and receiving recognition of its right to enrich to a certain level (5%). So will the Palestinian issue be among Iran’s negotiating “cards,” and will the nuclear issue be linked to other regional issues, including Palestine, in later stages?
It seems to us that Iran and Israel will converge at a specific point in this regard. Indeed, Israel is not in a hurry to settle the Palestinian issue, as long as settlement building is proceeding at the pace planned for it, and there are no serious international pressure on Israel in this area. Furthermore, Iran does not see the point in putting forward the Palestinian issue at the first and secondary stages of the negotiations, because Iran believes that the nuclear program, the sanctions, the diplomatic boycott, and its relations with the Gulf countries are more pressing issues.
This means that the first and second stages of the negotiations will not address the Palestinian issue in depth. So perhaps the renewed American interest in the Palestinian issue whenever a development takes place in another issue in the Middle East is nothing more than a repetition of an old pattern in US diplomacy that has been sustained for nearly two decades. In other words, suggesting that other issues will not reduce the priority of the Palestinian issue, when it ultimately ends up doing exactly that.
Interestingly, the nuclear agreement runs for six months, which is almost the remaining period before the deadline set by the US Secretary of State in July 2013 for the end of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations as well. This means that the failure of the nuclear agreement could bring tensions back to the region, and weaken interest in the Palestinian issue in favor of interest in the Iranian issue. Meanwhile, the success of the deal could reduce Israeli concerns. To be sure, Iran in the first stages of the agreement (if reached) will be keen on deepening regional and international confidence in its policies, meaning Iran will be restrained in its actions in the Palestinian arena.
The last stage of the nuclear agreement (i.e., the final deal, if the first stage (concluded) and second stage (initiating monitoring and lifting more sanctions) are concluded) could indeed put Arab relations in general, and the Palestinian issue in particular, on the negotiating table. But the Iranian regime will find some hurdles to progressing in this regard:
1. Ideological considerations, which to the Iranian regime is a core dimension in its diplomacy. Since the regime’s doctrine is based on considering Israel an enemy, and Iran’s role as integral in the “refusal front,” changing this attitude cannot be achieved unless this ideological Islamic component declines in favor of the secular pragmatic component, something that is unlikely to happen at present; as it would need a transformation in the structure of the regime and its philosophy. It also needs lengthy preparation, which would mean that the tenets of Iranian policy on Israel would proceed according to their usual pace to some extent, and no radical change would appear in this aspect in the short term.
2. The Palestinian issue at present does not constitute for the Iranian society, especially the reformist wing, an urgent matter. Instead, it is seen as something that follows other internal issues in importance, such as economic conditions, freedoms, and so on. Perhaps the slogans raised during the protests that followed the election of Ahmadinejad demonstrate this explicitly.
Since the economic situation is the most pressing issue for the political regime and the public in Iran, in the short and medium terms, Iranian diplomacy will be keen on avoiding any linkage between the Palestinian issue and the Iranian nuclear program. But Israel will be more interested in making this linkage, in order to put pressure on Iran’s instruments in this regard.
3. Given the deterioration of Iran’s ties with Hamas because of the Syrian crisis, the conservative wing in the Iranian regime has become more embarrassed about clinging on to the Palestinian issue, and linking it to other issues of concern to Iran. This deterioration gave Iran a respite that it can use for some time depending on the length of the negotiations over its nuclear program. Based on all this, the Iranian side is less willing to emphasize the Palestinian issue at this stage, while the Israeli side might be more willing to push the Western powers to link Iranian aid to Hizbullah, the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (PIJ), and Hamas to negotiations on the nuclear program under the title of “counter terrorism.”
This means that the Iranian status will improve at the expense of the Israeli one, albeit in a limited manner at first, without this being guaranteed to continue in the subsequent stages. However, it will make Iran more willing to engage in appeasement when it comes to the Palestinian issue, and might build bridges with the Palestinian Authority, under the title of healing the internal rift in the Palestinian political arena.
The Deal and American Calculations:
When hot issues are rearranged (chronic ones and emergent) in the Arab region, the Iranian nuclear program, the Syrian issue, the gradual American strategic pivot to the pacific region, and the gradual decoupling from oil and gas from the region until 2035, are all issues that come ahead of the Palestinian issue by virtue of the momentum behind each of them.
This means that these issues will put the Palestinian issue on the waiting list once again. The US administration might even soften its criticism of settlement building during the US-Iranian talks, in the hope to conduct an implicit “swap” with the Israel lobby in Congress, i.e., to condone easing the sanctions on Iran in return for turning a blind eye to Israeli settlement activity, or even assassinations or military operation.
The Dream of a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Free Zone:
Some may wager that by “curbing” the Iranian nuclear program on the one hand, and dismantling the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal on the other, that this would open the door to renewed calls for making the Middle East a WMD-free zone. This would be something that would pit Israeli diplomacy against international demands regarding its nuclear program or its other WMD arsenals. It would also promote the Iranian position in this regard, with Iran insisting that its program is for peaceful purposes, and that its doctrine is to “prohibit’ the production of such weapons.
It is too early to talk about direct effects for the nuclear deal on the Palestinian issue. However, the deal gave indications about the possibility of reaching political compromises between Iran and the major powers. Just like the West was reassured about Iran’s nuclear program, Iran kept its right to enrichment and the production of peaceful nuclear energy, while also seeing some of the economic sanctions imposed on it lifted. While Israel will seek to assert its qualitative supremacy and dominance in the region, Iran will seek to become a key regional player, and will continue to deal with Israel in the foreseeable future as an enemy, in line with the doctrinal and political system in Iran.
1. Calling for exposing the Israeli nuclear program, and its threats to the region and international peace and security.
2. Emphasizing the freedom of the countries of the region to possess nuclear program, equally with other countries.
3. Removing the threat of nuclear armament is achieved by first removing nuclear weapons from the only country in the region that possesses them, namely, Israel.
4. Warning that the Palestinian issue must not be part of future deals or compromises in the region that would lead to forfeiting any rights of the Palestinian people.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Prof. Dr. Walid ‘Abd al-Hay for authoring the original draft on which this strategic assessment was based.