The conference took place in Tehran, Iran on February 20–21, 2017. Nearly 80 delegations from around the world and 700 foreign guests and representatives of the pro-Palestinian organizations attended the conference. In addition to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, and Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani were among senior Iranian officials in attendance.
Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech primarily focused on three main actors at the center of the Arab-Israeli peace process: U.S., Iran, and Israel, and their proxies—the regional Muslim countries.
For one to be able to precisely understand Khamenei’s speech and the perspectives he shared about U.S.-Iran relations, or his positions on Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or his grievances toward adversarial relationships between Iran and some Sunni majority countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, one has to first approach this analysis by first understanding Khamenei’s political philosophy on this topic.
In his approach to the Palestinian issue, in Khamenei’s perspective, the U.S.-Iran regional discord is literally between “The Leader of the Free World”—the United States with a regional cause—Israel, and the security of Israel at any cost to the region vs. “The [Self-Proclaimed] Leader of the Muslim World”—Iran with a regional cause at the heart of the Muslim world—Palestine, or the Palestinian cause that entails freedom and self-determination of Palestinians from the “oppressive grips of an illegitimate regime” (Israel).
This freedom, for Khamenei, entails the return of the occupied Palestinian lands to their rightful owners, and the return of the displaced Palestinians or Palestine refugees to Palestine. Khamenei has unceasingly argued that Palestine has historical—that is Biblical and Qur’anic basis for its existence, whereas Israel is a manmade regime created by the imperialists and colonists for one purpose and one reason alone: to create discord and sectarianism among Muslim countries and the Muslim community as a whole, and cause instability in the region. He believes that this strategy has been used by colonizers since the creation of the Zionist regime post WWII.
“Palestine is the wound of the Muslim world” has become the slogan of the Islamic Republic and an ideology that has found deep roots within Iran’s political system. These voices were echoed not only by Supreme Leader Khamenei, but also President Rouhani and other key Iranian leaders at the Palestine Intifada Conference.
Khamenei asserts that the foremost priority of the Muslim world and freedom-seekers is the issue of Palestine and creation of a cooperative spirit that strives toward the highest goal—that is, defending the Palestinian people, their rights, and their justice. However, in his view, the global atmosphere in the world is compliance with the “aggressive, illegal and inhumane Zionist regime.” To Iran’s despair, the global community and regional countries have been unable to attend to their duties and act upon this “humane issue.”
Khamenei expresses grievances that the Muslim world has lost its main focus—that is resistance of the Muslim world against the Zionist regime. At the same time, he believes that the enemy has been able to use strategic tactics to create division among Muslim nations and divide the Muslim community. In his view, instead of using their resources effectively to resist Israel and defend the Palestinian cause, Muslim countries have fought against one another and have engaged in futile conflicts. This has resulted in making Palestinian cause the lowest priority for the Muslim community.
Khamenei asserts that despite the fact that most European and regional countries have abandoned the Palestinian people and their cause, through their resistance, Palestinians have become the “martyrs” of the Muslim faith as they are at the forefront of this battle against the “usurper regime” and its foremost supporter (the United States). Let Israel and the United States know that Palestinians will not give up and this resistance and the fight will continue against this “cancerous tumor” until the liberation of the Palestinian state comes to pass, states Khamenei.
Khamenei sends two stark messages to Israel and the United States in response to their recent meeting at the White House and discussions about the state of Israel and Palestine. Turning his focus to President Trump’s proposal of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Khamenei calls for the protection of the “identity” of the Holy City of Quds. He calls upon preservation and protection of the [historical] identity of Jerusalem as the center for the Abrahamic religions. For Khamenei, the dread of U.S. establishing its embassy in Jerusalem has both political and religious consequences. Politically, this falls back onto the foremost ideology of the Islamic Republic that calls upon resistance toward U.S. CODO (colonization, occupation, domination, and oppression). This is in line with Khomeini-Khamenei’s chief isolationist foreign policy of “Neither East, Nor West,” which calls for absolute political, economic, cultural and social independence from any major power, mainly the United States. Religiously, Jerusalem is the center of the Abrahamic religions and rooted in Islamic history. Hence, the presence of “the Great Satan” who is “the foremost enemy of Islam” is absolutely forbidden. Therefore, preservation of one of the Islamic centers at the heart of the Muslim world may have become Khamenei’s new jihad (internal and external struggle or religious and political fight), in addition to saving Palestinian lands from Israeli occupation.
Khamenei also sends an indirect message to Prime Minister Netanyahu who lauded President Trump’s unconditional support of Israel during their February 17th joint news conference. President Trump seemed to have surprised the Prime Minister when he instructed him, “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.” Khamenei interpreted this as the American President pulling away his support from his protégé. The Iranian Leader views this blatant hesitation of the U.S. President due to the incessant robust resistance of the Palestinian people. Palestinians are the “true martyrs” of Islam, declares Khamenei. It is such an “Islamic resistance” that has weakened the enemies of Islam, he believes. Khamenei views the results of this robust Islamic resistance in the December 23, 2016, UN Security Council Resolution 2334 that restricted Israel’s settlement activities in Palestinian territories.
While Khamenei celebrates this victory, he expresses grievances over the loss of vision of the Muslim world—that is ultimate freedom of Palestine. Today marks one of the most difficult global and regional circumstances, Khamenei states. The many existing crises in the region within Muslim countries have caused a decline in the support of the Palestinian issue and the “holy ideal of freeing Quds.” Instead of focusing on this issue, Muslim countries are dealing with sectarianism. By lauding the “Islamic resistance” of Lebanon, he calls upon other Muslim countries—who have sold their soul to the enemies of Islam—to reevaluate their priorities and set aside discord among Muslim nations. Khamenei calls Hizbollah a true example of resistance at the forefront of this Islamic jihad.
Implications for the United States
The resistance Khamenei seems to propose is a “strategic resistance”—a resistance that requires careful planning, extensive preparation, and stout execution. This is where concerns are elevated about Khamenei’s proposals because what the extremist factions in Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, and other parts of the Muslim world are hearing is planning a robust resistance against Israel and/or the United States, including preparation for military engagement.
As I have mentioned in my book, “The Political Ideology of Ayatollah Khamenei,” Supreme Leader Khamenei uses the Palestinian cause to create an alliance within the Muslim world with Iran as the leading nation. This serves Iran’s interests on several levels: 1) Muslim unity: Despite Palestine being a majority Sunni nation, and Iran a majority Shia country, the Islamic Republic is not fighting for a Shia or Sunni cause but for an Islamic cause. Hence, Iran is perceived as a unifier of Sunni-Shia Muslims, and not a divider. 2) Regional leadership: The Palestinian cause gives Iran another reason to exert regional power and, at the same time, gives Iranian people an external cause to fight for. 3) Military, political, and economic might: The Arab-Israeli conflict, civil war in Syria or Yemen, fighting “terrorism” in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the region provide Iran legitimate reasons for strengthening their military capabilities, including their missile program, build political alliances with critical global actors including Russia, and find venues to become an economic power.
While resistance and resilience of some Palestinians against Israel have added to the complexity of the Arab-Israeli peace process, what Supreme Leader Khamenei seems to overlook is that not all Palestinians agree with his notion of Iranian support or interference in their internal affairs. One can understand that in his mind, Khamenei compares the Palestinian freedom to the freedom of Iranians from the grips of the Pahlavi regime and its “kufr master”—the United States. However, Palestinians do not seem to unanimously share the vision and ideology of the Islamic Republic. But for Khamenei, the majority of Palestinians are in line with the ideology of an “Islamic resistance.” For him, while there is no tangible victory yet, this resistance has kept and will continue to keep the “Palestinian cause” alive until “the Zionist regime is obliterated (naboud shaved).”
No one can deny that the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict has given rise to a major humanitarian crisis. The United National Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) reports that “Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services. Nearly one-third of the registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.5 million individuals, live in 58 recognized Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.” UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period of 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”
Perhaps it is such facts and statistics about human devastation that those supporting the Palestinian cause find legitimacy to Khamenei’s statements. At the same time, no one can deny the legitimacy of Israel’s trepidations about its security concerns as a non-Muslim state in the heart of the Muslim world in a volatile region. Iran’s incendiary anti-Semitic rhetoric and inflammatory language to describe the Israeli regime and often calling for its destruction, coupled with Iran’s military support for Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, not only escalate the existing conflicts in the most vulnerable place in the Middle East, but also pose existential threats to Israel. PM Netanyahu has voiced concerns that often Iranian ballistic missiles are inscribed in Hebrew, “Israel must be obliterated.” Such acts on behalf of Tehran only corroborate the Iranian threat posed to Israel. If Iran indeed pursues peace in the Middle East and seeks a peaceful resolution to Arab-Israeli peace process, then they ought to reconsider their rhetoric and actions that may incite violence.
With hopes of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and promoting peace and security in the region, the 2016 Resolution 2334 proposed a two state solution, stating: “The Resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a fundamental interest of the EU. The EU’s objective is a two-state solution with an independent, democratic, viable and contiguous Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors.”
During their February joint appearance, President Trump told Prime Minister Netanyahu, “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.” To some domestic and international audience, President Trump seemed to be backing away from a two-state solution that would give Palestinians their own state. On February 19th, Tehran Times responded, “Trump’s controversial positions, coupled with the Israeli regime’s right-wing government and the Palestinian Authority’s idleness, have left many Palestinians infuriated as they see all paths to independence and peace blocked.”
This would be an advantageous time for U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and Trump’s Senior White House Advisor, Jared Kushner, to collaborate with EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, to form an international delegation that will include all the major players to negotiate and broker Mid-East peace. President Trump has repeatedly stated his confidence in Kushner’s ability to negotiate peace between Arabs and Israelis. I wish him all the best as he attempts to consider the perspectives of all the players into consideration as he devises his strategy.
This analysis was conducted based on Khamenei’s speech in its original Persian Farsi available at http://farai.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=35712