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Iran and Abu Mazen’s push for Palestine’s full UN membership

This Friday Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will make a bid for his country’s full membership in the United Nations. While Iran has publicly backed this bid, there are significant strategic reasons for why it is likely hoping that Abbas will fail.

As a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause, Iran would be ill-served being seen as publicly opposing Abbas’s plea before the UN tomorrow. Yet Iran’s strategy in the Middle East since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 has been to become a major regional power by opposing the United States’ dominated status-quo. To this end, Iran has come into conflict with Israel, a staunch ally of the US in the region. This calculation of its interests has led Iran to align itself with anti-Israel Islamists, including Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, becoming the leader of what it calls the resistance front. Since Hamas’ rise to power in the Gaza Strip in 2005, this Palestinian faction has become especially valuable for Iran because it could potentially make the regime in Tehran a central player in the decades long Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. A negotiated outcome which includes Iran and its protégé Hamas would significantly raise Iran’s regional and international stature. But the current Abbas-led application for Palestinian membership at the UN disadvantages Iran in two fundamental ways.

First, a Palestinian state led by Abbas’s Fatah party would marginalize Iran’s ally Hamas. Iran and Hamas view Israel as an aggressively expansionist state, and use the powerful images of ever growing Israeli settlements in an ever contracting West Bank to portray Fatah as a feeble and spent force. By transforming Gaza into an armed camp which can militarily resist Israel, Iran and Hamas hope to push back Israel negotiate from a position of strength. Iran’s incendiary anti-Israeli rhetoric and support of Hamas reflects this strategic calculus rather than purely ideological motivations. Fatah’s UN bid has bypassed Hamas almost entirely, meaning that if Abbas’s plan does result in the establishment of a UN-recognized Palestinian state, it would be dominated by Fatah and undermine Iran’s capacity in the region.

Second, the US and Israeli position in the months and weeks prefacing Abbas’s speech at the UN this Friday has made it clear to Iran and Hamas that their rivals are not prepared to make any concessions, at least in the foreseeable future. While US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have continued to insist on a negotiated two-state solution as the only path to full Palestinian statehood, the Fatah leadership has become increasingly frustrated by what it views as America’s seeming inability to play as an ‘honest-broker’. As David Rothkopf, an ex-Clinton administration official and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pointed out in an interview with MSNBC:

“He [Obama] made a clear statement for what is a clear U.S. position and put himself squarely as a champion of the status quo.”

The Abbas bid is thus an attempt at breaking what the Palestinians view as a deadlock by going directly to the international community for support. But with the Arab Spring and other factors making the region much more inhospitable for Israel, Iran does not view the timing as being ripe for a negotiated settlement. On the contrary, at a moment in history when Iran appears to be gaining regional support in its thirty year struggle with Israel, time may be on Iran’s side.

In fact Iran has a much greater interest in seeing Abbas try and fail at the UN. While the Palestinian president may be able to win non-member observer status for his country via the UN General Assembly, it appears highly unlikely that a successful bid in the Security Council would escape a US veto. This is potentially the best case scenario for Iran, whereby a US veto both defeats the Abbas bid and discredits the US as an honest-broker in the region. Not only would this diminish Fatah in its rivalry with Hamas in the eyes of Palestinians and others, it would also strengthen Iran’s calls for resistance to Israel. In the context of the Arab Spring, this is potentially dangerous for the US and Israel, as the former would see its role as regional architect further eroded while the later could face renewed conflict with Iranian proxies.

Ultimately, Iran views the current negotiations for a two-state solution as being inherently asymmetrical, with a weak Palestinian state facing-off against a strong Israeli one with the backing of the West. For Iran and Hamas, Israel’s continued program of building settlements, the disappearing West Bank, and long series of failed negotiations are a confirmation of this. In order to contain what they see as an expansionist Zionist state, Iran and Hamas seek a two-state solution negotiated by a much more aggressive and powerful Palestinian state.  If Abbas’s push is routed in the Security Council by a US veto, it may increasingly become apparent to many that negotiators can no longer afford to exclude Iran and Hamas as central players as this drama unfolds.