Although the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli leaders have depicted the ongoing crisis in Gaza as part of a larger struggle against Iran and its "proxies," Tehran’s involvement with the Palestinians is rather limited.
Despite their condemnation of Israel’s actions and the waves of pro-Hamas demonstrations across Iran, its rulers have no intention of escalating the crisis, let alone becoming directly engaged.
Instead, their main intention is to use their regional influence in favor of an "honorable truce" that would give the Islamist group a face-saving exit from the war.
While Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has spoken favorably about martyrdom in defense of the Palestinian cause, and tens of thousands of Iranians have reportedly signed up as volunteers to fight Israel, nevertheless Tehran has made it clear that no one will be sent with the sanction of the state.
That was made abundantly clear to a group of such volunteers who had staged a sit-in at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport last week. "Iran’s support [for Palestinians] is moral, and, if you intend to be dispatched, you would be imposing your opinion on the government, which has its own priorities," Davoud Ahmadinejad, a kinsman of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told them.
Indeed, Iran already has its hands full with the evolving situations in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, and the "out-of-area" Gaza crisis does not directly affect the country’s core national-security interests. This is particularly so since Tehran’s leaders are by and large convinced that Israel will not be able to crush Hamas to which, according to unconfirmed reports, Iran provides a relatively small amount of assistance amounting to around 25 million dollars a month.
"This conflict has a 60-year history rooted in the oppression of Palestinian people," President Ahmadinejad said during a recent press conference on the Gaza crisis in which he predicted that the Palestinian resistance "will grow stronger."
That is a view shared by many senior political figures associated with his hard-line faction, such as Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the right-wing daily, Kayhan, who last week predicted that Israel will soon find itself in a "quagmire in Gaza."
The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, similarly predicted a "Hamas victory" made possible by the group’s discipline, resilience, and its "application of lessons learned from the resistance by Hezbollah" in its 34-day war with Israel during the summer of 2006.
Of course, not everyone among the leadership in Iran’s faction-ridden politics agrees about the short- and long-term repercussions for Iran of the Gaza crisis.
"So far, the result is promising and Hamas’s ability to use its anti-tank Staggers to knock out some Israeli tanks is a bad omen for the invading army," said a prominent Tehran University political science professor who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity. He added, however, that Hamas may lose militarily "in the short term" but emerge from the conflict in a strengthened position, especially vis-à-vis its rival, Fatah.
At the same time, however, there is concern that Israel may succeed in imposing a security zone inside Gaza or bisecting it into two or three isolated sectors, not unlike the increasingly fragmented West Bank. The leadership is also concerned that Egypt, if it succeeds in brokering a ceasefire, may yet emerge as a dominant factor in Gaza to Hamas’s detriment, thus tilting the balanced of power there in favor of Fatah.
If that indeed is the result, according to some analysts, such as Morad Veisi, affiliated with the reformist Islamic Participation Front, the net result would be a "new alignment in the Middle East" that would pit "Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan against Iran and its allies."
These considerations have spurred Iran to engage in a flurry of diplomacy designed to bolster Hamas’s chances of gaining an "honorable truce." This has ranged from Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki’s wide-ranging telephone diplomacy to Ahmadinejad’s dispatch of 22 special envoys to Iran’s regional neighbors to enlist diplomatic support for Hamas’s basic demand that any ceasefire include Israel’s commitment to end its economic siege of the territory.
Particularly notable has been shuttle diplomacy carried out by two of Khamenei’s closest advisers, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani (who conferred with Hamas leaders in Damascus this week and ripped the Egypt-French proposed truce as highly defective), and Saeed Jalili, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, to various regional capitals.
Jalili’s trip this past week to Turkey, the scene of huge pro-Palestinian rallies from the outset of Israel’s military campaign, was regarded as especially significant given the warming trend in relations between the two countries, much of it due to Iran’s increasing sales of gas to Ankara and the latter’s growing "eastward" orientation in reaction to the European Union’s (EU) long-standing and apparently increasing reluctance to admit it as a member. It was in Ankara that Jalili announced that Tehran was "prepared to cooperate with the world community to bring an end to the Gaza crisis."
A traditional Israeli ally which has acted most recently as an interlocutor between Israel and Syria, Turkey is now seen by Iran as a key player prepared to wield its influence on behalf of Hamas, in light of the Turkish leaders’ pro-Palestinian statements in the wake of the Gaza crisis.
Iran’s leaders also believe they are reaping the benefits of their blistering criticism early in the Gaza crisis of Arab "inaction" in defense of Gaza and Hamas. Noting that Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Kuwait and Qatar, in particular, have issued increasingly harsh criticism of Israel’s offensive, Iran is taking credit for the evolution of their views even while it intensifies pressure on Egypt to follow a similar path.
Indeed, as repeatedly noted by spokesmen for Iran’s Foreign Ministry over the past week, Tehran is still awaiting a response to a recent offer by Mottaki to provide humanitarian assistance to Gaza via Egypt.