After US President Donald Trump’s ill-advised decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, some headlines have noted that Iran’s hard-liners have been empowered as a result. While that may be true — and extremists in Tehran certainly claim as much — it also paints an incomplete picture. Trump’s Jerusalem fiasco has, in fact, also been a boon to President Hassan Rouhani and his administration. In other words, it has in several key ways empowered the Islamic Republic as a whole — and not any particular faction or group.
First, Iran’s political system will now have an easier time realigning its ideological and geopolitical proclivities. This will essentially solidify the executive branch as Iranian stakeholders unify against Trump’s extremist activities in the Middle East. Before the Jerusalem announcement, Tehran was more measured in playing the anti-Israel card relative to its bombast during the presidency of conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013). This was because Iran’s geopolitical goal of escaping American and Israeli-led efforts to render it a pariah required tempering its ideological inclination to spout off anti-Israel tirades, which score brownie points among Arab public opinion.
Rather than being forced to choose between those ideological and geopolitical inclinations, Rouhani’s pragmatic team can now work with other domestic stakeholders to pursue both. Notably, it will be able to do so while maintaining its position on Israel, which is nearly identical to that of former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005): Refusing to recognize Israel, maintaining criticism of the Israeli occupation and double standards, and emphasizing defensive rather than offensive measures against Tel Aviv. Twenty years ago, Iran adopted this position as part of a proposed quid pro quo to end the American-Israeli hostility it was facing. After Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, Rouhani can use this position to widen divisions between Washington and Tel Aviv on one side, and the majority of the world on the other.
For related reasons, Iran’s broader position in the Middle East may now also be strengthened. As a Persian Shiite Muslim minority in the region, the Islamic Republic has long used the anti-Israel card as a way to foster credibility and common cause with Arab populations and Sunni Muslims. This strategy arguably peaked in late 2010, when Arab public opinion ranked Ahmadinejad as one of the most admired world leaders. Fast-forward seven years, and that reservoir of Iranian soft power in the region has vanished, largely due to Tehran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But Trump’s latest train wreck may help reverse this trend. With most of the Muslim world incensed over the American-Israeli-Saudi initiative on Jerusalem, Rouhani can now lead Iran’s efforts to foster condemnation across the Middle East and reconstitute Palestine — rather than Syria or sectarian strife — as the regional fault line. Tehran can thus work to rehabilitate its image among Arab public opinion by openly supporting any peace process accepted by the Palestinians, emphasizing that it does not seek hostility or conflict, and arguing that the problem is continued occupation of Palestinian territory. It will now be comfortable readopting these positions held by Khatami because the peace process is no longer a threat to Iran’s regional standing, directly thanks to the Washington-Tel Aviv-Riyadh troika effectively having killed whatever remained of it.
Finally, the rehabilitation of Iran’s image and standing may not be limited to the region. The swift rebuke from American allies and adversaries alike to Trump’s Jerusalem decision has been ferocious, thereby providing Tehran with an opportunity to further reintegrate itself into the international community as a whole. Rouhani’s measured approach to the region compared to his predecessor, combined with Iran’s demonstrated track record of diplomacy and compromise with the world since he took office in 2013, stands in stark contrast to the trail of tears left behind in Qatar, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere by the US-Israel-Saudi bloc in less than one calendar year. Indeed, the latter’s actions in the Middle East may reinforce a growing global perception that the problem is in their respective capitals, and not Tehran.
Armed with Trump’s Jerusalem debacle, Tehran now has more tools at its disposal to protect itself from increased efforts to isolate it politically and economically. Moreover, the joint American-Israeli-Saudi efforts to create an exclusionary regional security framework at Iran’s expense will likely fall flat since much of the world deeply opposes it, having seen the chaos it has already caused. Now that Iran’s position on regional matters is more (but not entirely) in line with global public opinion, it may help Tehran consolidate its regional and international gains without having to be more stringent on the issue of Palestinian statehood.
The ultimate irony of the Jerusalem debacle is once again that Iran has been given the upper hand without having lifted a finger. Indeed, with the peace process dead, most of the world is blaming Trump, Israel and Saudi Arabia for tearing the region apart. But Jerusalem is only the latest in a long line of missteps over the past year that Iran has capitalized on. This has left Rouhani in a position in which he can now work across the political spectrum to reconnect the Islamic Republic’s ideological goal of opposing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory with its geopolitical goal of avoiding international isolation — with increased international support for both objectives. Iran may not have drawn it up this way, but it will gladly accept the freebies being handed out by Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh.