Exploiting war in Gaza to sabotage diplomacy in Vienna

Final preparations are made before US President Barack Obama's speech to Israeli students on March 21, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. [Getty]
6 min read
27 May, 2021
Analysis: Pro-Israel US Republicans are intent on using the recent conflict in Gaza to scupper diplomatic efforts by the Biden administration to salvage the Iran nuclear deal.

The geopolitical consequences of this month's Gaza-Israel war have yet to be realised. However, one thing is for sure.

The Republicans are intent on exploiting this latest escalation in violence to try to sabotage the Biden administration's quest to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough in reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly called the Iran nuclear deal.

After the crisis escalated, with global attention shifting from the situation in East Jerusalem to Gaza, scores of Republican politicians began drawing links between Hamas’s firing of rockets and the nuclear talks in Vienna.

"Republicans are intent on exploiting this latest round of violence to sabotage Biden's quest to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough in reviving the JCPOA"

Their argument is as follows: Hamas is Iran’s "proxy," thus any sanctions relief to Tehran will inevitably lead to a stronger Hamas, posing an increased security threat to Israel.

On 13 May, 44 Republican Senators wrote a letter to President Joe Biden, calling on him to "immediately" end his diplomatic efforts in Vienna to salvage the JCPOA.

"Over the past couple days, Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, who are funded by Iran, have launched a series of rocket attacks into Israel," read the letter. "They are targeting Israeli civilians and cities, including Israel’s capital Jerusalem."

Palestinians return to the rubble of their homes destroyed by Israeli airstrikes on 24 May 2021 in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. [Photo by Fatima Shbair/Getty Images]
Palestinians return to the rubble of their homes destroyed by Israeli airstrikes on 24 May 2021 in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. [Getty]

On 17 May, the former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley tweeted: "I bet if Biden warns he is pulling out of Iran deal negotiations if Hamas doesn’t stop the air strikes, the war would suddenly come to an end. #IranSupportsHamas."

On 21 May, Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh gave a televised address in which he thanked Iran, "who did not hold back with money, weapons, and technical support."

In response, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took advantage of Haniyeh’s remarks to, once again, slam the JCPOA. "America is about to supply Iran with billions of dollars in sanctions relief to continue this," said Washington’s former chief diplomat.

"For America’s security, and for that of Israel, this is dangerous."

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There is no denying that Iran sponsors Hamas. Tehran’s help to the Palestinian group has come in various forms over the years, from moral support to arming and funding. Iranian officials are open about this relationship. 

In fact, on 21 May, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised Hamas and other Palestinian factions for their fight against Israel and called on all countries in the Islamic world to aid Palestinians with military and financial development.

The Islamic Republic’s relationship with Hamas goes back to the period following the Madrid Conference of 1991, from which the George H.W. Bush administration excluded Tehran. This move prompted the Islamic Republic to invest in relations with Palestinian resistance groups.

But Hamas does not have Iran’s government as its only source of external patronage. Turkey, Qatar, and Malaysia have also developed positive relations with Hamas and provided the group with assistance in various ways, even if limited to diplomatic and/or economic support unrelated to the arming of the group.

"US lawmakers and their allies in the media see this month's fighting in Gaza as a unique chance to make Iran envoy Rob Malley's already-difficult diplomatic agenda more challenging"

But even if one assumes that Iran is Hamas’s most important state sponsor, that is not grounds for labelling Hamas as Tehran’s "proxy."

Although Iran has influence over Hamas, that does not mean that Tehran necessarily controls Hamas like it does other groups such as the Fatemiyoun Brigade (an Afghan Shia militia that Iran's government deployed to Syria to fight for the Assad regime).

Over the past decade, Hamas has broken from Iran on certain sensitive regional issues to take its own positions that sometimes ironically align the group more closely with Washington and Arab Gulf states.

Two examples include the Syrian uprising, in which Hamas sided against the Iranian-supported regime in Damascus, and the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, in which Hamas supported Riyadh’s war against the Iranian-backed Houthis.

Republican House Conference Chair Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), joined by fellow House Republicans, speaks on the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians on May 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. [Getty]
Republican House Conference Chair Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) voices support for Israel on 20 May 2021 in Washington, DC. [Getty]

Ultimately, arguing that Hamas will make decisions vis-à-vis Israel based on demands from Tehran is to misrepresent the Palestinian group’s relationship with Iran. 

Stating that the latest confrontation between Hamas and Israel was merely an Iran-Israel "proxy" war drastically oversimplifies the situation.

Facts about Hamas and Iran aside, the US lawmakers and their allies in the media, who in principle oppose the 2015 nuclear accord, see this month’s fighting in Gaza as a unique chance to make Biden’s Iran envoy Rob Malley’s already-difficult diplomatic agenda more challenging.

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"Republicans opposed to diplomacy with Iran are certainly capitalising on the bloodshed in Israel-Palestine to undermine the prospects of a US return to the JCPOA," Dr. Assal Rad, a senior research fellow at the National Iranian American Council, told The New Arab. "But on both counts, their objectives are aligned because they thrive on conflict."

Can this Republican push to link Hamas to the Vienna talks succeed in sabotaging the Biden administration’s efforts to reconstitute the JCPOA? 

It seems unlikely, so long as the Biden administration is genuinely committed to bringing Washington back to the nuclear deal. At the end of the day, Biden could use his executive authority to bring the US into the landmark accord, as former president Barack Obama did six years ago.

"Their efforts are about shaping narratives and portraying Biden as indifferent to Israeli security and blindly committed to restoring the JCPOA regardless of the perceived cost"

Thus, the Republicans are in no position to directly prevent Biden from reversing Trump’s decision to unilaterally pull Washington out of the JCPOA in 2018. But their efforts are about shaping narratives and portraying Biden as indifferent to Israeli security and blindly committed to restoring the JCPOA regardless of the perceived cost.

This talking point against Biden will be weaponised by anti-diplomacy lawmakers who are working to ensure that no US-Iran détente occurs in the post-Trump era. As Dr. Rad put it, "It’s important to keep in mind the connection between those who are both opposed to diplomacy with Iran and offer no criticism of Israeli violence or violations of international law."

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Indeed, for the Biden administration, a much greater commitment to diplomacy and even-handedness in foreign policy decision-making is necessary to convince the world that America is truly dedicated to multilateralism and a rules-based international order.

Holding Israel accountable for its violations of international law and working to salvage an accord that all other permanent members of the UN Security Council plus the international community support would be two positive steps for the White House to take.

Doing so would add some degree of credibility to the new US leadership’s rhetoric about human rights, the rule of law, and diplomacy.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero