Expert on Arab affairs Marianna Belenkaya analyses the consequences of Iran's president's death, controversial decisions at ICJ, the future of Saudi-Israeli normalization, and issues with Qatar and Egypt as mediators in Gaza hostage-for-truce negotiations between Israel and Hamas

This week's main event in the Middle East was undoubtedly the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of Iran's President and Foreign Minister. Now, after the funerals, Iran is preparing for the election of a new president. The election campaign could be a litmus test for the direction in which Iranian leadership will head soon. Meanwhile, Iran's neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, are considering how to increase their influence in the region. The easiest way for Riyadh is to normalize relations with Israel after first securing promises from it to start moving toward the creation of a Palestinian state. Israel is not ready for this, but external pressure on it is increasing every day. This includes the expanding list of countries recognizing Palestine and legal actions. For example, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Karim Khan, applied for arrest warrants for the Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister along with leaders of Hamas. Active dissatisfaction with the Israeli authorities is expressed in Washington. According to Arab media, this has even led to representatives of the Biden administration finding common ground with the Iranians. However, the US is still trying to achieve a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip together with Qatar and Egypt, although the role of the latter two countries in the negotiations is becoming increasingly unclear.

The death of Raisi and the and Regional Games

On Monday, it was announced that President of Iran Ebrahim Raisi had died in a helicopter crash. Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the Governor of East Azerbaijan Province Malek Rahmati, Imam of Friday Prayer in Tabriz Mohammad Ali Ale-Hashem, the chief of presidential security, and the pilots were also killed in the crash.

The mourning events stretched over several days. Dozens of foreign delegations arrived to pay their last respects to the president. Ultimately, the funeral displayed Iranian diplomacy's achievements in recent years: normalization of relations with Arab neighbors, strengthened ties with Russia and China, focus on the Caucasus and Central Asia, and consolidation of the so-called "Axis of Resistance."

Russia and China—two permanent members of the UN Security Council, with whom Iran has significantly intensified contacts in recent years—were represented at the funeral by the Chairman of the State Duma of Russia, Vyacheslav Volodin, and the Vice Premier of the State Council of China, Zhang Guoqing. It's not the highest level, but it's still a respectable gesture. Among European countries, only Serbia sent a delegation. Representatives from Belarus also attended. The President of Tajikistan and the Prime Ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia also paid their visits to Tehran.

From the Arab countries, the visit to Tehran by Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry drew significant attention. It was the first visit to Iran by an Egyptian foreign minister since the Islamic Revolution. The two countries severed diplomatic ties in 1980. An attempt to normalize relations was made in 2013 during the brief presidency of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, but after his overthrow, a pause ensued again. Finally, last year, Cairo and Tehran announced that they would move towards the complete restoration of contacts. This occurred in the context of the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, followed by other Arab countries that had been in tense relations with Tehran.

For Israel, the death of Raisi does not fundamentally change anything. The IRGC plays the central role in the confrontation with the Jewish state with the full approval of the Supreme Leader. The president is only the second most important figure in Iran's leadership after the Supreme Leader. The presidential functions are more akin to those of a prime minister. Therefore, no significant changes in Tehran's policy are expected in the near future. However, there are nuances. Whoever occupies the presidential seat will play a role in the election of a new Supreme Leader in the event of the death of the current leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei.

In 2021, Ebrahim Raisi was considered not so much for the presidency but as a successor to Khamenei. Notably, Khamenei was president before being elected as Supreme Leader in 1989. However, Raisi was not the only candidate. Among his competitors, the name of Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the Supreme Leader, was often mentioned. However, publicly Ali Khamenei spoke against the dynastic principle of power transfer to avoid associations with the Shah's Iran. Other players, currently in the shadows, might also emerge.

How the decision on the Supreme Leader candidate will be made is unknown. The Assembly of Experts, consisting of 88 clergy representatives, has the right to elect and dismiss the country's highest leader. However, it is clear that the choice will be made in narrower circles. The future president could have one of the decisive votes, even if he himself does not decide to contend to lead Iran.

Therefore, the upcoming presidential election campaign in Iran will be closely watched. It will serve as a litmus test to gauge Ali Khamenei's mood and help understand what policy Tehran will adhere to in the near future and which players are gaining influence. Although the Supreme Leader promises that nothing will change, whether this is true remains to be seen.

Iranian Axis of Resistance

The funeral of President Raisi turned into a gathering place for representatives of the Axis of Resistance, regional groups to varying degrees sponsored by Iran. The commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hossein Salami, and the commander of the Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, met with the head of the political bureau of the Palestinian movement Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, the deputy secretary-general of Lebanon's Hezbollah, Naim Qassem, as well as representatives of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Houthi movement Ansar Allah, and Iraqi Shiite groups.

Photo: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, also met with Ismail Haniyeh, promising that a day will come when a Palestinian state will be established "from the river to the sea," i.e., at the expense of Israeli territory. On one hand, these are merely words. Yet, they cannot be ignored at a time when much of the international community is actively pushing Israel to recognize the State of Palestine within the 1967 borders. This position is adopted by the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. However, the issue lies with Hamas. Its representatives occasionally declare their readiness to agree to Palestine within the 1967 borders, but they also intermittently suggest the destruction of the Jewish state and mention that the 1967 borders are only temporary. Therefore, Israel must resolve the issue with Hamas and, in an ideal scenario, neutralize Tehran's influence in the Middle East.

The USA and some Arab countries would like all of this, but lately, they prefer the path of normalization with Iran instead of direct confrontation. Meanwhile, they are implementing their own regional projects, which could slightly push Tehran back and tame its regional influence. Much of this hinges on Israel.

In this context, a publication by the Qatari site The Middle East Eye is noteworthy. It reported that just a few days before Raisi's death, secret indirect negotiations between representatives of the USA and Iran in Oman took place. The previous round was in January. Washington was represented by Brett McGurk, Senior Advisor to President Joe Biden for the Middle East, while Tehran was represented by high-ranking diplomat Ali Bagheri Kani. Kani is now the acting foreign minister of Iran, replacing the deceased Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

According to a source, the USA and Iran were close to an agreement. The specific details were not disclosed, but the negotiations revolved around the escalation in the Middle East following the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas on October 7. Nothing new, as from the very beginning, the USA exerted considerable effort to prevent Iran from becoming directly involved in the conflict and worked on restraining their regional proxies. However, The Middle East Eye unexpectedly reports that at the negotiations, both Americans and Iranians shared a common desire to see a change in the Israeli government.

The fate of Saudi-Israeli normalization

Washington's dissatisfaction with the Israeli government is no secret. The war in the Middle East has put Joe Biden's administration in a difficult position, especially in light of the US presidential campaign. Biden's team is facing criticism both from traditional opponents such as the Republicans and from its own electorate—supporters of the Democratic Party. Ending the hostilities in the Gaza Strip is crucial for Biden as he fights to retain the presidency. An additional bonus would be an agreement to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which the Biden administration has been working on for the past two years. The outbreak of war disrupted the signing. Now, the ideal scenario would be if the ceasefire deal becomes part of the package for Saudi-Israeli normalization.

This corresponds to Riyadh's plans. Initially, they were not opposed to agreements with Israel. Still, in the context of the war, it must look like a significant diplomatic victory for the kingdom. Saudi Arabia needs to demonstrate that the normalization of its relations with Israel has brought hope for peace in the region. At this moment, the discussion is still about the same ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. In addition, Saudi Arabia wants to see a roadmap for the creation of the State of Palestine, which Israel would sign off on. The Israeli government does not even want to discuss the potential recognition of Palestine, and this disrupts all plans of Washington and Riyadh.

In this, the Biden administration blames the ultra-right coalition partners of Netanyahu, who are pressuring the Prime Minister. The final hope that Israel could be persuaded has not yet died in Washington, although after meetings with Israeli officials this week, the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was disappointed. However, media publications say the US still has cards to play to increase pressure on the Israeli Prime Minister. What exactly these are is unknown, but it is highly disadvantageous to Israel to quarrel with Washington amid growing international pressure.

Recognizing the State of Palestine and international courts

Israel faces losses on the diplomatic front. This week, three European countries—Norway, Ireland, and Spain—announced their recognition of the State of Palestine. While anticipated, this development was nonetheless unpleasant for Israel, which perceived the move as encouragement for Hamas following their October 7 attack.

European nations, however, emphasize that this is not the case: they condemn the actions of Hamas and continue to support the moderate forces represented by the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah. European politicians have explained that their decision represents solidarity with the Palestinians and expresses discontent with the current Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu specifically.

Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP

"Amid a war, with tens of thousands killed and injured, we must keep alive the only alternative that offers a political solution for Israelis and Palestinians alike: Two states, living side by side, in peace and security," stated Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's rhetoric was harsher, accusing his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu of unleashing a massacre in the Gaza Strip, but his core message echoed the sentiments expressed by Norway. Ireland's stance is similar, with Prime Minister Simon Harris expressing hope that the number of countries recognizing the State of Palestine will continue to grow.

Following the decision of this European trio, the number of UN member states recognizing Palestine has reached 146 out of 193, including 12 EU member states—just under half of the EU's total membership.

From a formal perspective, declarations recognizing Palestine change nothing. It's hard to disagree with the United States' position that the creation of a Palestinian state can only result from negotiations with Israel, on whom the Palestinians depend for nearly everything, from security to basic services. However, the more countries that recognize Palestine, the greater the pressure on Israel to engage in negotiations. This pressure could also manifest as economic sanctions and legal decisions, which are already happening today. In November 2012, Palestine attained observer state status at the UN, which opened the door to the International Criminal Court. Everything that happens in the Palestinian territories also falls under the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice at the UN. Both courts are located in The Hague and are currently considering lawsuits against Israel.

The week began with a statement from the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Karim Khan, who requested arrest warrants for the Prime Minister and Defense Minister of Israel, along with the leaders of Hamas. It ended with an order from the International Court of Justice, which ruled that Israel must cease its military operation in Rafah. If refused, the issue may be brought before the UN Security Council. The consequences of all this could also include sanctions from the UN Security Council and problems for Israel's contacts with many Western countries.

Currently, the United States provides protection for Israel in the Security Council by vetoing almost all anti-Israel resolutions and also preventing this body from approving the recognition of Palestine as a full member of the UN. However, the US has its own interests. They do not want to stand alone with Israel if all their partners, especially those in NATO, take a different stance.

The opinions of their Middle Eastern allies are also important to the Americans. All Arab countries unanimously and unequivocally demand the creation of a Palestinian state. At the latest Arab League Summit, it was decided that they would lobby for the recognition of Palestine among the international community.

Egypt, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, among others, welcomed the European trio's decision. Riyadh stated this "confirms the international consensus regarding the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination."

Problems with intermediaries

Amid this negative backdrop for Israel, it was announced that in the coming days, CIA Director William Burns will travel to Europe to meet with the head of Israel's Mossad and the Prime Minister of Qatar, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani. They will attempt yet another negotiation for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This news followed a decision made on Thursday by Israel's military cabinet to continue negotiations that were suspended about two weeks ago.

There is little hope for success, although Israel is ready to make concessions. The main one is the number of hostages that could be released in the final stage of the deal. During the last round of negotiations, Israel insisted on the release of 33 hostages—women, female soldiers, men over 50, and men with serious health problems. This was already a step down from the initial demands. Hamas claims that they do not have such a number of living hostages meeting the mentioned criteria. Currently, the proposal for the first stage includes returning 18 living hostages and 15 bodies to Israel.

Tensions between Israel and the mediators, each pursuing their own interests, complicate the negotiation process. It seems that the Israelis do not know what to grasp or whom to rely on, while the mediators, in turn, are dissatisfied with Israel.

In early May, Hamas unexpectedly announced its readiness to sign an agreement. However, it turned out that their vision differed from what Israel had agreed to during previous rounds of negotiations. The Israelis suspected that the mediators—Qatar and Egypt—had acted behind their backs. At that time, Cairo played the main role in the negotiation process, while Doha had stepped back, stating that it was reconsidering its role as a mediator. This was due to both frustration over the lack of progress in the negotiations and resentment towards criticism of Qatar by Israeli politicians. Yet, it turned out that dealing with Egypt was no easier for Israel.

On Wednesday, the American TV channel CNN, citing sources, reported that the Egyptian side altered the terms of the deal, which was unknown not only to Israel and the USA but also to Qatar. According to CNN, a high-ranking deputy head of Egyptian intelligence, Ahmed Abdel-Khalek, orchestrated the incident. In response, Cairo took offense and stated that the dissemination of such information was a tactic used by those who themselves shirk from making decisions by shifting responsibility onto mediators—a veiled hint at Israel. CNN's information coincided with a publication on the Elaph website citing an Israeli source, stating that Israel decided to return to Qatar's mediation because it believes that Doha has more influence over Hamas than Cairo.

The fact that Cairo is offended is evidenced by the uncertainty of whether the Egyptian delegation will participate in the meetings in Europe under the auspices of Burns and, if so, at what level. Previously, Abbas Kamel, the head of Egyptian intelligence, always joined Burns and the Qatari Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the Axios website asserts that the Egyptians are still actively involved in the negotiations and do not intend to stop, as the situation in the Gaza Strip directly affects their interests. Without Egypt, whose borders adjoin the Gaza Strip, it is unrealistic to address security issues. Against this backdrop, the Qatari Foreign Ministry representative Majed al-Ansari also confirmed that the mediation efforts of Doha, Cairo, and Washington are continuing.

How all this will end is unclear, but it is obvious that it has become too complex for Israel to consider all regional configurations in a way that does not harm its interests. All international players want a prize in the form of a lull in the Middle East, but it is Israel that will deal with the consequences of the decisions made.