The Gaza War and Iran’s Interpretation of Regional and International Orders

The Gaza war occurs in Iran’s interpretation of the regional and international order, and its unexpected costs can also be caused by the incompatibility of the operational environment, as well as the psychological environment resulting from this interpretation.

What stands out in Iran’s interpretation of the regional order is Israel’s growing presence in the region and the normalization of relations between the Persian Gulf Arab countries and Israel. Tehran’s concern in this regard stems from the greater convergence of Persian Gulf Arabs with Israel. This concern results from international developments that cast a shadow on regional developments.

According to this interpretation, regional order is not a separate issue from international order. This interpretation of regionalism is close to the view of Barry Buzan, a British political scientist, that ‘region’ as a unit of analysis is not entirely independent from the international system.

Observing China’s growing activities in the Middle East, Washington has put the strategy of containing China on its agenda, which has significant implications for the Persian Gulf region. In this strategy, America’s regional allies will play a more significant role in securing the region. On the other hand, Israel’s entry into the region’s security mechanisms will prevent the formation of a power vacuum that could be filled by powers such as Iran.

Therefore, Israel was moved from the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) to the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) to have closer cooperation with the Arab countries regarding the threats of Iran and its allies in the region. CENTCOM’s connection with the Persian Gulf countries can strengthen the mutual military, intelligence, and operational relations of the involved parties.

In this regard, for example, on February 3, 2022, former Israel Defense Minister Benny Gantz made an unexpected visit to Bahrain, where he signed a memorandum of understanding to enhance intelligence cooperation, institutionalize training, and formalize cooperation between the two sides. Israel also announced it would appoint a military attaché to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain.

The normalization of relations with the Arab countries and Israel’s military presence in the region in the form of CENTCOM, along with bilateral security and military agreements with these countries with the support of the United States, are a part of Tel Aviv’s measures to confront and contain the Islamic Republic. These actions also fulfill Washington’s desired order in the region. On the other hand, the White House controlled the risk of Iran becoming a nuclear power through the multilateral mechanism of the nuclear agreement. That is why US Secretary of State Blinken said that withdrawing from the JCPOA was a mistake because it had prevented Iran’s nuclear issue from becoming a crisis.

Moreover, the necessity of restraining China’s activities in the region required a certain level of cooperation. Therefore, Brett McGurk, White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and Ali Bagheri Kani, the political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, held indirect talks in Oman in May 2023, addressing nuclear issues (not enriching above 60% by Iran and reducing the acceleration of enrichment high-enriched uranium), as well as certain regional issues such as Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, the release of Iran’s blocked funds and the release of prisoners have been agreed upon.

This understanding, along with the improvement of the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia, was important for Saudi Arabia and the US to advance the project of normalizing relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.

The establishment of a joint air defense system with the participation of Israel and the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and under the guidance of the United States, which would be ideal for the convergence of the Arabs of the Persian Gulf and Israel, is also framed on this strategy. This system bypasses Iran’s capabilities and, if implemented, would strengthen the relations of the Persian Gulf countries with Israel and the United States, in complete contradiction to Iran’s interests. The formation of such a system would mean that the USA would remain a ‘security integrator’ for these countries, creating a kind of ‘balance deficit’ to the detriment of Iran.

The agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia can bring Riyadh more firmly under the security umbrella of the United States. In fact, the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel would facilitate the formation of such a defense system.

Iran’s Interpretation of the Process of Normalizing

Iran has expressed concerns about the normalization of Persian Gulf Arab relations; however, its primary concern is the greater security convergence of the Persian Gulf Arabs and Israel. For example, Tehran condemned the ‘Negev Summit’ and called it “a stab in the back to the oppressed Palestinian people” and “a gift to the child-killing Israeli regime in continuing to kill people and occupy the land.”

On the other hand, Iran considered Israel’s presence in the region and the holding of this summit as a step towards sedition in the region, and Iran declared its readiness to cooperate and expand bilateral relations with the countries of the region to counter what Iran views as the “Zionist-American conspiracy to create discord and instability in West Asia.”

The normalization of Saudi relations with Israel would mean a green light for some other Arab countries allied with Riyadh to join this process, which worries Iran. The normalization of Saudi relations with Israel is part of a regional plan, in return for which Riyadh will receive more security guarantees from America and the right to enrich uranium locally.On the other hand, the plans presented regarding the end of the Gaza war also indicate the establishment of a technocrat government under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

In order to prevent the convergence of Arabs and Israel, Iran began to improve relations with Saudi Arabia.

Iran sends this message to the countries of the region, including Saudi Arabia, that the normalization of relations with Israel and intensifying the process of convergence with it cannot guarantee their security, and the only way is to cooperate with Iran. Accordingly, Iran has announced that it is seeking to form a regional alliance with the participation of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman.

Iran was also trying to offer the Arab countries another alternative to the process of convergence with Israel with the ‘Hormuz peace initiative,’ which was proposed by Rouhani’s government. However, the first meeting in this regard, which was supposed to be held on the sidelines of the recent General Assembly meeting, was canceled.

Gaza War in Iran’s Interpretation of the International Order

The coordinates of the Gaza war can be identified in Iran’s interpretation of the international order and its governing faults. Based on the interpretation of the establishment’s perspective (Hakemiyat), we are witnessing the emergence of active global and regional geostrategic faults caused by the great powers‘ competition of naval and land strategies. On a global scale, three considerable geostrategic faults are active in the West and East of Eurasia, which is probably the source of the current policies of the powers since these faults affect global and continental security.

According to Ayatollah Khamenei, this development is the result of the failure of American hegemonic policy, which is manifested in the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan and the defeat in the wars in Syria and Iraq. He also considers the rise of China and the United States‘ policy of containment necessary. 

Rahim Safavi, Ayatollah Khamenei’s senior adviser, said in his October 30, 2023 speech at the Xiangshan Forum: “The western geostrategic fault is far more chaotic and critical than the eastern fault. The strategic actors of this fault are America and Europe as naval powers with the support of NATO in the face of the power of Russia in conflict, and they are working to dominate Ukraine and join Ukraine to the European Union and possibly NATO. The geographical range of this fault starts from the Barents Sea in the Arctic Ocean and eastern Finland to the countries separated from the former Soviet Union and joined NATO to the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, and with Finland and Sweden joining NATO.”

In this view, the eastern geostrategic fault between the United States and the aligned states in East Asia and the Pacific Ocean, as well as America’s maritime strategic allies, has been formed for the economic blockade of China and the dominance and control of East-West naval trade. China and Russia, as the most significant land powers, have stood up with all their might to get out of this challenge, break the blockade, and achieve space expansion and development of trade, economy, and even political development. 

According to Safavi’s words, the third geostrategic fault is the Mediterranean fault to West Asia. Although this fault is a regional one, the public opinion of the nations of the Islamic world and some Arab and Islamic countries, as well as the public opinion of the world’s freedom-seekers, have focused on this fault. Independent countries and governments and the front of the resistance support the Palestinians‘ legitimate defense of their land and demand an end to this war. According to his belief, the West, in the sense of the USA and NATO, is the source of the tension in these three faults.

The IMEC Corridor is one of the projects that has direct and indirect connections with all three faults. Iran believes the Al-Aqsa storm operation casts doubts on this proposal.

This corridor was proposed at the G20 Summit under the supervision of the United States. If completed, it would connect India to the southern countries of the Persian Gulf by sea and to Israel and the port of Haifa by land, turning this port into a crucial transit and maritime hub.

Therefore, the Al-Aqsa Storm poses profound strategic insecurity for the future of this corridor, which is the commercial and economic annex of America’s plans in the region, competing with China’s influence and its ‚Belt and Road Initiative.‘ It was on this basis that following the attack by Hamas, Ebrahim Raisi announced that America would not achieve its goals in the new Middle East. Mohsen Rezaei, the former IRGC commander-in-chief, also considers the Gaza war to control the region, which aims to open routes to East Asia from America. In fact, he implicitly refers to the IMEC corridor, which he calls the attack of Hamas and Yemen’s Houthis as a disruption to this corridor.

The relevance of the IMEC corridor is in reducing the importance of the North-South corridor for India and making the future of Chabahar port doubtful. The North-South Corridor, which makes the port of Chabahar important, in addition to increasing Iran’s geo-economic and geo-political weight, is also important in the sea economy, which is a severe concern to Ayatollah Khamenei. Based on the sea-oriented development policies which he announced on November 7, 2023, the seas, especially the open seas and oceans, are rich reserves and resources for the development of science and technology, increasing work and wealth, providing vital needs and producing authority and a suitable platform for civilization. “Iran, with its privileged geographical position and being located between two seas and having thousands of kilometers of beaches as well as islands and many capacities, it is necessary to have an effective presence on the coast, offshore, sea and ocean and use it as a driving force in the development and to achieve a worthy regional and global position.”

The final link of the US plan is the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Al-Aqsa storm suspends this process and introduces new demands into the parties‘ calculations.

On the other hand, the creation of the Ben Gurion Canal, connecting the Gulf of Aqaba to the Mediterranean Sea, could increase the importance of the IMEC Corridor, while reducing the importance of the Suez Canal. It should be noted that the Ben Gurion Canal from the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, by the Port of Eilat in Israel, begins at the Israel-Jordan border and passes through the Negev highlands, then heads north again to bypass the Gaza Strip and connect to the Mediterranean Sea.

The ambitious project aims to map a route from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, echoing historic initiatives such as the Suez Canal, which has been a pivotal sea route since the 19th century. The proposed canal reflects Israel’s aspirations to claim a share in global trade dynamics and an ongoing effort to expand its geopolitical influence. This narrative has been part of the region’s history since Israel’s founding in 1948.

These aspirations explain why the port of Eilat was attacked in the recent war and why Egypt strongly opposed the evacuation of Gaza.

It seems that with the Gaza war, Israel will try to occupy the north of Gaza and the coasts of Gaza with the Mediterranean. Therefore, Israel will be able to take control of the Mediterranean coast of Palestine, which has a share of gas reserves, while also guaranteeing the security of the Ben Gurion corridor.

Iran thought that with the improvement of relations with Saudi Arabia, this country would reconsider the normalization of relations with Israel, and the Gaza war would bring about a fundamental change in this regard.

However, the words of Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Investment, Khalid Al-Falih, that the normalization of relations with Israel is on the table even in the midst of the Gaza war, show that this is a strategic priority for Riyadh.

It should be noted that Saudi Arabia wants regional stability to advance the 2030 vision. This makes it easier to pursue its goal of diversifying the Saudi economy and reducing reliance on oil exports. The threat of escalation threatens its progress in this regard. The Saudis would like to take advantage of Israel’s dynamic economy, just as the UAE has since the signing of the Abraham Accords.

In a telephone conversation after the outbreak of the Gaza war, Mohammed bin Salman and Joe Biden stressed the importance of working towards a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians once the crisis subsides, building on the work already conducted between Saudi Arabia and the United States in the recent months. This shows the progress of the normalization process after the subsidence of the crisis.

Based on this, Iran’s preference is to maintain the conflict between Arabs and Israel. In this regard, Alireza Panahian, a cleric close to Ayatollah Khamenei, head of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s ‘think tank for universities,’ said in a television program on November 10, 2023: “Zionism will not disappear with the destruction of Israel. Now, Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah and our leader (Ayatollah Khamenei) are eroding the war so that its roots are burned. Now Seyed Hassan Nasrallah and our leader (Ayatollah Khamenei) are eroding the war (in Gaza) so that the roots (of Israel) are burned.”

Neither the elimination of Israel nor the complete resolution of the conflict serves Tehran’s interests. Instead, Israel’s endless clashes with Iranian-backed forces are what satisfies Tehran strategically. Therefore, Iran prefers not to enter into a direct war with Israel.

Iran is aware of the damage caused by direct war. Even after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani by the US, according to the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps‘ Aerospace Force (IRGC-AF), Amir Ali Hajizadeh, Iran did not engage in such a conflict with the US due to the dangerous consequences of direct war.

However, Iran believes that the Gaza war has changed the geopolitical map of the world, reshaping the regional and international order that Iran wants. Future developments will reveal to what extent this interpretation will fit the post-war operational environment.