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Trump gives Iran a golden opportunity to mobilise the Islamic world against Washington

Trump's Jerusalem decision has the potential to derail efforts to present Iran as the main problem of the Middle East and put Saudi Arabia's friendship with Israel in the spotlight

US President Donald Trump's announcement recognising Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest site, as Israel's capital, has sparked worldwide condemnation as well as outrage in Palestine and many Muslim countries.

Against this backdrop, Iran's response is of particular interest, given that it is the most radical anti-American and anti-Israeli state in the region, is ruled under Islam, which is an inseparable element of the country's political structure, and exerts a high level of influence in the region.

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Seizing the opportunity

Trump's move came at a peculiar time when Saudi Arabia and Israel – Iran's arch enemies – were paving a path toward closer and even open relations with each other. The converging interests of the two countries have resulted in the emergence of an informal, unannounced alliance between them that aims to confront, and if possible, topple the Iranian regime.

The Israelis, the Saudis, and Trump have relentlessly singled out Iran as the source of the region's evils. Interestingly, however, Trump's Jerusalem decision has the potential to derail the Saudis' and Israelis' efforts to present and sustain Iran as the problem of the Middle East.

As expected, Iran seized the opportunity to return the question of Al-Quds (Jerusalem) to the top of the problems that the Islamic world faces. A 11 December editorial in the weekly Sobhe Sadeq, the political organ of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards that reflects the views of Iran's deep state, was titled, "Palestine returns as the number one problem of the Islamic world."

Trump's Jerusalem decision has the potential to derail the Saudis’ and Israelis’ efforts to present and sustain Iran as the problem of the Middle East

The lengthy editorial quotes Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Lebanon's Hezbollah, calling the US move the second Balfour Declaration, the public statement issued by the British government during World War I that led to the formation of Israel in 1948.

The editorial intimates that the Americans' recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital could bury hopes for the formation of a Palestinian state for good.

The editorial argues that "Trump's move … became possible as a result of the betrayal of Palestine by several leaders of the Islamic states". In a clear reference to the Saudis, the editorial asserts that, "by having covert and overt relations with the Zionist regime, [those leaders] shamelessly sold out the oppressed Palestinians to the Zionists". 

The editorial concludes that Trump's move "is proof that negotiations with the Zionist regime would not get anywhere" and that "the Palestinians should return to an Intifada (uprising) and jihadi struggle to obtain their rights to exist and to live".

Ali Akbar Wilayati (R), advisor for international issues to Iran's supreme leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, listening to exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus on 8 August 2010 (AFP)

Political objectives

The Iranian government will undoubtedly seek to escalate the issue with words partly due to its religious belief system, but also in pursuit of three political objectives.

First, to establish its position in the Islamic world as the leading government supporting the Palestinians, the idea of Al-Quds belonging to the Palestinians, and confronting the US and Israel.

Second, to put the Saudis in an awkward defensive position. In recent years, in order to confront Iran, Saudi Arabia has pressed hard to present itself as the leader and representative of the Islamic world.

Iran will defend the Palestinian cause in words, will fund Palestinians who are prepared to fight against Israel, but will not get involved in a fight with Israel or the US over Palestine

Now, given that confronting Iran is their first and foremost foreign policy priority, the Saudis must work in tandem with the most anti-Muslim administration in US history, as well as Israel. This, in the aftermath of the Americans' move regarding Jerusalem, will present Iran with a golden opportunity to manoeuvre around those relationships and portray the Saudis as traitors to the Islamic world.

Third, to mobilise the Islamic world against the Trump administration, which continues to pursue ever-toughening policies against Tehran.

The plan ahead

The effectiveness of this approach depends on the level of actions and reactions of Israel and the Palestinians. Hamas politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh has called for a third Intifada in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

If such an uprising were to occur, Iran would likely come out stronger and the Saudi-Israeli plan to strike at the Iranian government would fail. The second Intifada took five years (2000-2005) to conclude, during which reportedly more than 3,200 Palestinians and 800 Israelis were killed.

If the current crisis does not continue, the issue of Palestine will be of no Arab leader's concern. Therefore, in the absence of the emergence of a movement in Palestine, Iran’s plans will be short-lived.

But Iran could target US interests in the region, given that there are a reported 2,000 American troops in Syria and 5,000 in Iraq.

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Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a prominent Iran-backed militia that has been a significant player in eradicating Islamic State group (IS) as an organisation in Iraq, warned on 7 December that Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could become a "legitimate reason" to attack US forces in Iraq.

Some may argue that Iran could use its proxies to wage an asymmetric war on US forces, like it did when the Americans maintained a large military presence in Iraq. This is unlikely.

The presence of US forces and their establishment in Iraq in the aftermath of the US invasion presented a serious military threat to the Iranian government in its backyard. Meanwhile, for the first time, the Iraqi Shia majority had the chance to seize power.

Iran could not let that opportunity be missed, as it was able expand its strategic depth in the region covering a crescent including Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Was that strategy simply sectarian in nature, as many experts have tried to explain? No.

Shia Iran has supported – and still does – Palestinian "Sunni" groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Iranian strategy should be explained in the framework of realpolitik, rather than religion or sectarian values.

Limits to support for Palestine

The Iranian government would not enter a war for ideological reasons. This is particularly true regarding a war with the US. Iran has made the decision not to fight the Uinted States. A glaring example is the 1982 developments in Lebanon.

In June of that year, Israel launched a massive attack on Lebanon, which led to the death of thousands of people. The most heart-rending incident occurred in September, when former Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon allowed Christian Maronite militiamen to massacre over 800 Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Israel's stated aim was to force the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) out of Lebanon.

Iran, occupied with a war with Iraq, was engulfed in revolutionary fervour, especially among the youth. A group of Iranian volunteer Revolutionary Guards were deployed to Syria to participate in the war against Israel.

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Ali Sayad Shirazi, then commander of the Iranian Ground Force, says in his memoirs, "On June 26, 1981 we met with Imam [Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Revolution] to report what we had done [in Lebanon]. … [He] listened to our reports and all of a sudden said, "If the troops that you have deployed there bleed one drop of blood, I will not be responsible. Tell them to return at once. … We were stunned".

Iran will defend the Palestinian cause in words, will fund Palestinians who are prepared to fight against Israel, but will not get involved in a fight with Israel or the US over Palestine.

Additionally, the Iranian government has not forgotten that during the war with Iraq, the PLO supported Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and, during the Syrian war, even its ally Hamas turned its back on Tehran and supported the overthrow of key Iran collaborator Bashar Assad.  

Shahir Shahidsaless is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist writing about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East, and the US foreign policy in the region. He is the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. He is a contributor to several websites with focus on the Middle East as well as the Huffington Post. He also regularly writes for BBC Persian. He tweets @SShahisaless.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A portrait of US President Donald Trump burns during a demonstration in the capital Tehran on 11 December 2017 to denounce his declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.