x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Iran kept on the sidelines in Gaza conflict

As foreign ministers filed into Gaza on solidarity missions, Iran's top diplomat was left waiting for permission to travel from Egypt via the Rafah border crossing, in what amounts to an embarrassing snub.

Iran has been watching enviously as Arab rivals and Turkey dispatch foreign ministers on solidarity missions to Gaza, the besieged Palestinian enclave Tehran once valued as a loyal protectorate on Israel's front line.

Iran's top diplomat hopes to follow in their footsteps this weekend. But Ali Akbar Salehi is still waiting for permission to travel from Egypt, which controls the Rafah border crossing into southern Gaza. Cairo has already rejected his application, an Iranian conservative news website, Entekhab, reported on Tuesday.

If so, it is an embarrassing snub to Iran, although its regional influence has been eroded by the Arab Spring, its support for Bashar Al Assad's regime and western sanctions over its controversial nuclear programme.

Hamas astutely jumped the Iranian ship after the Arab uprisings and dismayed Tehran by sympathising with the rebellion against Mr Al Assad. Hamas then moved into the orbit of the mainstream Sunni Arab world, which was keen to lure it away from Shiite Iran.

"The changed dynamics of the region [have] made Iran irrelevant or of no use at this moment," Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, wrote on LobeLog, a foreign policy blog. All "eyes and pressures" are instead on Egypt's president Mohammed Morsi, who played a key role in last night's truce between Israel and Hamas.

When Israel launched its last devastating onslaught against the bottled-up enclave of 1.7 million Palestinians in Hamas-ruled Gaza four years ago Iran, despite being isolated internationally, took centre stage. The Islamic republic was the main link in an "axis of resistance" against Israel that included Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas.

This time, Ms Farhi wrote, "no one is asking for Tehran's help and few are blaming it for emboldening Hamas".

Four years ago, Israel portrayed its offensive against Hamas as a means to curb Iran's regional influence. At the time, Israel's president Shimon Peres declared Gaza must not become a "satellite of Iran". Mr Peres on Tuesday accused Iran of "trying to encourage" Hamas "to continue the shooting, the bombing, they are trying to send them arms".

The use by Hamas and Islamic Jihad of Iranian-engineered Fajr-5 rockets that have struck near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem has left Iran open to charges of stirring the conflict.

The head of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, Gen Mohammad Ali Jafari, said yesterday that Tehran had supplied Gaza with the technology for the missiles to be "rapidly produced" there, but had not supplied any actual rocket hardware.

His remarks provided rare insight on Iran's weapons support for Gaza militants, a topic Tehran usually sidesteps but now seems proud to declare.

Even so, Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Israel, said: "It's hard for Israel to make much of the Iranian angle this time around when Hamas has so clearly distanced itself from Tehran."

Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Birmingham University in England, agreed: "There's no way Hamas is looking to Iran as a major backer now and I doubt Iran has played a major role in the development of the conflict."

Other observers said it was unlikely Iran would provide a pretext for war with Israel at a time when sanctions-strapped Tehran is gearing up for fresh nuclear negotiations with six world powers, including the United States.

Hamas, meanwhile, has also made clear it would not join a regional war on Iran's side, should Israel attack the Islamic republic's nuclear facilities. "It's made life a little more difficult for Israel because if Hamas were still very close to Iran it would be easier to isolate Hamas," Mr Javedanfar said.

Instead, newly elected governments in Egypt and Tunisia are supporting Hamas, as is Turkey, an erstwhile ally of Israel, and Qatar, a small but energy-rich country with big geopolitical ambitions.

Unlike Shiite Iran, Hamas's new friends are fellow Sunni Muslims, valued allies of Washington and rivals of Iran. All have been active diplomatically since Israel launched its aerial assault against Gaza last week, in contrast to Israel's last devastating war against Hamas four years ago when the Arab world largely failed to act.

Like Iran, Hizbollah has remained on the sidelines, pledging support for Hamas but showing no appetite to fire rockets at Israel.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, yesterday lambasted "governments of Islamic, and particularly Arab, countries in the region" for failing to deliver an appropriate response to the Gaza crisis. Some, he maintained, "have even not verbally condemned the Zionists".