On Feb. 18, 1979, just a few days after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the triumphant return to the country of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a private plane landed in Tehran at dusk carrying Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian leader was the first foreign dignitary to visit Tehran after the revolution, and he seemed buoyed by hopes that the historic events would provide him with momentum in his own liberation struggle. “I felt as if I was landing in Jerusalem,” he later told Iranian reporters.
The next day, the Israeli trade mission was handed over to Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. “Today, we are witnessing the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran and tomorrow we shall be the victors in Palestine,” an ebullient Arafat declared. “We shall liberate the land of Palestine under the leadership of Imam Khomeini.”
Even before returning to Iran, Khomeini had cleverly identified the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the issue that would allow him to rally the Muslim world and expand the appeal of his revolution beyond his Shiite sect. And ever since 1979, the Palestinian cause has been at the center of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional preeminence.
At any other time, U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel would therefore constitute an opportunity for the two regional powers to one-up each other in opposition to the move. These days, however, Saudi Arabia and Iran are too busy fighting each other to offer significant pushback to Trump’s decision.
While Iranian support has not delivered Jerusalem to the Palestinians, the cause has served Iran’s regional ambitions well. In 1979, Iran launched a yearly Jerusalem Day to broadcast its support for the Palestinians and named the elite expeditionary unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) after the holy city. It has also extended its influence into the Arab world by arming and financing the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese organization Hezbollah.
In the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, even Saudi Arabia seemed ready to present a common front with Iran on the issue of Palestine. Following Arafat’s visit to Tehran, a headline in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai al-Aam on Feb. 19 read: “Saudi Arabia praises the Iranian revolution.”
Yes, you read that right. Before Saudi Arabia and Iran started ripping the region apart, Riyadh seemed ready to work with Iran’s new leadersBefore Saudi Arabia and Iran started ripping the region apart, Riyadh seemed ready to work with Iran’s new leaders, even as their friend the Shah had just been removed. Quoting the Saudi newspaper Al-Nadwa, Al-Rai al-Aam said Saudi Arabia had warned against any moves that would undermine the “courageous stance taken by Iran in support of the Arab nation and its struggle against the Zionist enemy.”
Before Saudi Arabia and Iran started ripping the region apart, Riyadh seemed ready to work with Iran’s new leaders
Needless to say, this was a short-lived moment, which ended when the Saudis realized the danger Khomeini posed to them — but it was indicative of the mood in the region at the time, just a decade after the searing defeat of the 1967 Six-Day War. The Saudis tried to keep up with the Iranians’ rhetoric and posturing: After initially indicating tepid support for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s peace accords with Israel in 1978, they reversed course by early 1979. Arafat, emboldened by Khomeini’s support, led the charge against Egypt with other hardliners, like Syria, also a Khomeini ally. In April 1979, Saudi Arabia cut ties with Egypt and its information minister excoriated Sadat for his decision to “exchange diplomatic representation with the Zionist enemy, without taking into consideration the minimum demands.”
But constrained by its alliance with the United States, Saudi Arabia never fully backed an armed struggle against Israel. It always preferred to offer diplomatic initiatives, from the peace plan put forward by King Fahd in 1982 to King Abdullah’s 2002 peace initiative. This was part of Saudi Arabia’s effort to build up its image as a consensus builder and a regional leader that could deliver the rest of the Arab world for a comprehensive peace with Israel.
Today, the Saudis are even more constrained — not only by their alliance with Washington but by their almost singled-minded focus on beating back Iran, for which they need U.S. support. There have also been numerous reports about Saudi-Israeli security cooperation in the face of Iran, a bigger strategic priority than the symbolism of defending Jerusalem. Perhaps as a way of keeping Saudi Arabia in line, the White House for the first time chided Saudi Arabia for the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen within an hour of Trump’s Jerusalem announcement. The kingdom did issue a statement after the Jerusalem decision, expressing “great disappointment” and “serious consequences” after such an “irresponsible and unwarranted step.” But there’s been little else.
As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Robert Satloff detailed in Foreign Policy, a delegation from his think tank visited Riyadh as Trump’s move on Jerusalem unfolded — but heard nary a word about it from numerous Saudi officials and only a brief complaint from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself. Perhaps the Saudis were being polite to visitors, but politeness didn’t stop King Abdullah from once calling on visiting American officials to “cut off the head of the snake” in reference to Iran.
That’s not to say that Saudi Arabia and its allies aren’t concerned by the impact Trump’s latest move could have in the region. Before the announcement, King Salman spoke to the U.S. president to warn him that the Jerusalem designation would be a gift to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali KhameneiKing Salman spoke to the U.S. president to warn him that the Jerusalem designation would be a gift to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, according to Saudi sources. Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, Turki al-Faisal, echoed that line when he wrote that Trump’s decision “has also emboldened Iran and its terrorist minions to claim that they are the legitimate defenders of Palestinian rights against Israel and America’s imperialist aims.”
King Salman spoke to the U.S. president to warn him that the Jerusalem designation would be a gift to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei
Meanwhile, Iran has already tried to use Trump’s Jerusalem decision to gain diplomatic and political leverage over its rivals. On Dec. 13, at a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), 57 Muslim nations rejected Trump’s decision and called on the world to recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. But while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attended, along with other heads of state, Saudi Arabia sent a lower-level delegation.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did not let that fact slip by unnoticed, tweeting: “Inspired by very high level participation at extraordinary OIC summit, despite handful of telling exceptions.”
But can Iran really carry the banner of defender of Jerusalem for all Muslims, after sponsoring ruthless Shiite militias in Iraq and propping up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through the intervention of the IRGC and Hezbollah at devastating cost to civilians in a majority Sunni country?
On the Friday following Trump’s announcement, Hezbollah staged large protests in the southern suburbs of Beirut, featuring the usual chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” The party’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called for a new intifada and appealed to all resistance parties to unite against Israel. And yet his party has not organized further protests since then — an indication perhaps that after years of fighting across the border in Syria, Hezbollah’s base is tired and harder to rally.
The day after Trump’s announcement, a video circulated of the Iraqi Shiite militia leader Qais al-Khazali standing on the Israeli-Lebanese border decked out in his military fatigues, in the company of Hezbollah fighters, pointing down at the Israeli towns of Metulla and Kiryat Shmona. “We … declare our total readiness to stand together with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause against Israeli occupation,” he says in the video.
Whereas there would have been applause and support in the past for such a move from across the region, much of the Arab world has soured on Iran. Hezbollah’s decision to intervene in the Syrian conflict, together with Iran, helping an authoritarian regime in its violent crackdown of a majority Sunni country, has eroded the group’s claim of leadership in the resistance against Israel. In 2008, just two years after the 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel, a poll found that Nasrallah was the most popular leader in the Arab world, followed by Assad and then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The days when Shiite leaders enjoyed such cross-sectarian popularity are over — for now.
The pull of Jerusalem still endures. It was once described as “the flower of all cities” in a famous song by the Lebanese diva Fairouz, and it remains the one issue that can still unite people across the Arab and Muslim world. But today, when it comes to the holy city, Iran and Saudi Arabia are both hobbled by their geopolitical rivalry. And the Palestinians once again find themselves alone.