A harder line on Iran is necessary for lasting Middle East peace

Gulf states may come to see that short-term arrangements made with Iran may not provide sustainable regional security

A serious game plan to advance a two-state solution with unified support from the US and its regional partners would help turn the tide against Iran and those who support it.
A serious game plan to advance a two-state solution with unified support from the US and its regional partners would help turn the tide against Iran and those who support it.

A harder line on Iran is necessary for lasting Middle East peace

More than four months into the war between Israel and Hamas, the human toll continues to mount in Gaza, and the opportunity costs for wider regional stability and prosperity continue to grow.

The Biden administration’s main focus in recent weeks has been pursuing a longer-term ceasefire in Gaza in exchange for more releases of hostages.

While saying it's working to prevent a wider regional escalation, it has also stepped up retaliatory attacks on the Houthis in Yemen and militias in Iraq and Syria, as Iran and its network of regional partners continue to pose a strategic threat to the region.

The main driver of Biden’s emerging approach to the Gaza war is the revival of the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the pursuit of Saudi-Israeli normalisation and the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor introduced last September at the G-20 meeting in India.

The central idea is based on the hope that a longer pause in the fighting before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in early March could provide a foothold for wider diplomatic efforts that produce some pathway to peace.

Sara Gironi Carnevale

Read more: The Middle East stands at a crossroads between two futures


Several challenges to this game plan exist.

First, the key parties to this conflict, Israel and Hamas, may not even come to terms on a short-term deal. It has been more than two months since the last temporary ceasefire and hostage release took place, and the protracted negotiations mediated by Qatar and Egypt with deep US involvement have not yet produced results.

Second, building a bridge between a temporary ceasefire and more ambitious diplomatic moves is easier said than done because of the divisions within both Israeli and Palestinian politics.

A third complication is the many other issues that the United States faces, such as the Ukraine war and the 2024 general election campaign at home, all of which will put pressure on the already strained bandwidth of Biden and his team.

The pursuit of Saudi-Israeli normalisation is among the main drivers of Biden's emerging approach to the war in Gaza.

The Iran Factor

There's a fourth major obstacle to the idea of using a longer-term ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war as a launchpad for wider peace and normalisation efforts in the region: the role that Iran and its so-called "Axis of Resistance" will likely play in using violence to scuttle any attempts to advance towards a two-state solution.

In an appearance at the Doha Forum in Qatar in December, Iran's foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said that Iran does not believe in a two-state solution, saying that it was the only thing that Iran and Israel agreed upon. 

While Israel has worked for decades to undercut the prospects for a two-state solution, Iran has done the same.

Too often, discussions about Arab Israeli peace and normalisation efforts are treated in isolation from Iran's role across the region and what Iran and its regional network of partners have done to scuttle hopes for regional peace and greater integration and cooperation. 

But trying to keep the Iran question and the Arab-Israel issue in separate stovepipes ignores the complicated reality that many of the actors across the region backed by Iran have taken active measures to prevent progress in peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as more recent normalisation efforts between Israel and some Gulf countries.

Some have argued that the 7 October attack was, in part, designed to scuttle efforts to advance a normalisation deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

Iran actively supports Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who reject Israel's right to exist.  It also has built a regional network of militant groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and various militia groups in Syria and Iraq.

Read more: Iran's militant empire

These groups have attacked Israel directly or used various episodes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the current war in Gaza, in their propaganda efforts to give themselves a boost in their own domestic politics.


Read more: Is it the beginning of the end of Hezbollah?

They gain influence across the region by advancing pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel narratives, all of which go against the grain of trends towards peace and normalisation of relations with Israel.  

Add to this mix Iran's ongoing nuclear programme, risking a nuclear arms race in the region and the steps the Iranian regime takes to ship arms and support terrorist attacks across the Middle East.

These actions weaken the broader security of the state system of the Middle East. Taking this wider vantage point, it becomes increasingly clear how Iran's regime poses a threat to long-term Middle East peace and any stepped-up efforts to produce a two-state solution.

Those supporting Palestinian rights and the creation of a state of Palestine would be wise to focus on all of the forces that oppose a two-state solution, including those in Tehran as well as Tel Aviv. 

To be sure, Iran's rejection of a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians isn't the main stumbling block these days — especially with an active war in Gaza. 

Israel currently has the most right-wing government in its modern history, a government that includes ministers who regularly reject the idea of creating a Palestinian state. 

Before the war, Gaza was controlled for more than a decade and a half by a group that rejects Israel's right to exist. So, untangling this problem at its core and moving towards a two-state solution is a heavy lift in and of itself. 

However, the current regime in Iran and its regional partners have the capacity to prevent any major attempt by the United States or the international community to revive peace efforts, too, and steps should be taken to insulate against this threat posed by Iran.

Iran's regime poses a threat to long-term Middle East peace and any stepped-up efforts to produce a two-state solution.

Shock absorbers 

It may seem overwhelming to introduce this other factor at a time when there are many unresolved short-term crises and issues.  But building shock absorbers in the broader Middle East to safeguard against Iran's long-term threats is necessary and involves four major steps:

1. Build a cohesive, more integrated regional security network that insulates against the threats posed by Iran. 

For many years, the United States and some key security partners have discussed ideas of creating a more integrated regional security framework in areas like missile and maritime defence, intelligence sharing, counter-terrorism, and cybersecurity. 

Now that Israel has been integrated into the US Central Command area of operation, efforts to step up regional security cooperation to defend against Iran and the Axis of Resistance is key.

Standing strong in unity against Iran and the network of groups it has built across the region over the years is essential for advancing broader Middle East stability. 

A retreat by the United States from the region, as some are proposing in places like Syria and Iraq, would not just destabilise the region – it would also reduce the odds of creating a state of Palestine. 

US troops patrol on the roads of the Syrian town of al-Jawadiyah, in the northeastern Hasakeh province, near the border with Turkey, on December 17, 2020.

Read more: The dangers of a US withdrawal from Syria

2.  Regularly assess the benefits and costs of Iran-GCC diplomatic engagement and create avenues for more conversations that seek to strengthen regional security. 

At some point, Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will likely have to reckon with the fact that short-term arrangements they have reached with Iran — like last March's deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia announced by China — may not provide lasting and sustainable security for the broader region.

This is especially true given that Iran continues to invest in efforts that threaten regional and global security, as we see in the actions by the Houthis for Yemen to target international commercial shipping in the Red Sea. 

In any case, these short-term diplomatic accommodations with Iran will likely face some stress when an inevitable leadership transition happens inside Iran.

3.  Increase a steadier, long-term engagement by the United States and European allies in the Middle East.

For nearly a decade or so, the United States and some European countries tried to shift their focus and resources away from the broader Middle East towards Asia and the rising challenges presented by an increasingly assertive China.

This pivot or rebalance to Asia ignored the reality that the Middle East remained a key centre of gravity in geopolitics.

Gulf states may come to see that short-term arrangements made with Iran may not provide sustainable regional security.

In addition, Russia's second invasion of Ukraine in 2022, after its first invasion in 2014, served to divert even more attention. 

The 7 October attacks and the war that has ensued, along with wider regional instability in the Middle East, points to a need for the United States and Europe to adopt a longer-term approach in the region — one that boosts partnerships with close regional partners from the Gulf to Jordan and Egypt.

These countries have a strong interest in the creation of a state of Palestine as well as in defending against the threats posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

4. Develop a concrete game plan in cooperation with regional partners to establish a state of Palestine. 

As long as the Palestinian question remains unresolved, Iran and its partners across the region will continue to use this issue in efforts to rally the public across the Middle East towards its favour. 

In the battle for public opinion over the Gaza war, Iran and its sympathisers have seized the dominant public narrative, which increasingly looks unfavourably to the policies of the United States and Israel.

A serious game plan to advance a two-state solution with unified support from the United States and its regional partners would help turn the tide against Iran and those who support it.

In order to avoid the mistakes made in the past, the efforts to revive a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict need to pay attention to the role that Iran and the Axis of Resistance have played in destabilising the region and preventing progress on the Arab Israeli front. 

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