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How Iran may figure into this new war in the Middle East

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is denying any involvement by his country in the Hamas attack on Israel last weekend, although Iran has been known to supply weapons and other support to the group. He is, however, praising the militant group's brutal assault, but why?

TRITA PARSI: They like to leave the impression that they have more to do with these things than they necessarily do. It goes back to their claim for leadership in the Middle East and the Islamic world, which means their audience is not the Western audience. Their audience is the population in the Middle East.

MARTIN: That's Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute. It's a think tank that says it wants to promote restraint in America's foreign policy. Parsi was born in Iran, raised in Europe and works in the U.S. And as a scholar, he is focused on Iran's role in the region. So we decided to get his take on how Tehran is handling this moment. And I started our conversation by asking him whether he's seen any evidence that Iran did have a role in planning the attack.

PARSI: Well, so far, there isn't any evidence that they had any operational involvement. That, however, is different from the fact that the Iranians have supported Hamas both financially and militarily. On that, I don't think there is any doubt. But there's a significant difference between whether they're supporting them militarily and whether they were involved operationally in this - helping plan it, etc. or even giving a green light. So that's a very important distinction.

MARTIN: Is there any way in which it would be in Iran's strategic interest for Hamas to attack Israel?

PARSI: Certainly. Right now, the Biden administration was working very hard to get a normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. An agreement that at its core is aimed at Iran in order to create an anti-Iran alliance. The Iranians are clearly very much opposed to this. So is there a motive? Certainly. Does that prove culpability? That's obviously a very different story.

MARTIN: What is Iran's current posture toward Israel? And is there any difference between the way the Iranian leadership views Israel and the way the Iranian public views Israel?

PARSI: So the Iranian leadership has, over the course of the last 40 years, adopted a position that essentially denies Israel's right to exist, do not believe that Israel is a legitimate state, believe that it's a colonial invention in the Middle East and sees this and has tried to reframe the Palestinian issue from what it used to be, which was an Arab nationalist cause, to an Islamic cause. Why? Because Iran is not an Arab nation, but it very much wants to have a leadership role in the broader Islamic world. The Iranian public, I think, is standing quite differently on this issue. I think every poll I've seen suggests strong empathy and sympathy for the Palestinian cause. But here's the big difference - they can sympathize with the Palestinian cause while still believing it is not Iran's fight, and as a result, have been quite skeptical and critical of Iran's involvement in this issue.

MARTIN: So a U.S. aircraft carrier is now in the region in response. What is your sense of how Iran views this development?

PARSI: I don't think the Iranians are looking for an open warfare. I think the regime in Iran has been an extremely dire situation. We have seen how people have massively protested against them, and they know very well that they are not popular in the slightest. They have managed to remain in power, but I don't think they have remained in power with a lot of confidence, and I think as a result, they're quite worried. I don't think it is in their interest - particularly mindful of the fact that they just struck a deal with the United States for certain de-escalation and a prisoner swap - to look for major escalation. However, there is nevertheless a significant risk that this will lead to a much larger war that will drag in the United States and Iran.

MARTIN: What is your advice to the administration, should they choose to take it?

PARSI: Well, I think our friend here is actually to try to rely on international law. What Hamas did was a war crime. I don't see how it actually benefits the region or the United States to, on the one hand, insist that we have to uphold the rules-based order, but on the other hand, in this situation, say, yes, Israel has a right to defend itself, but a right to defend itself does not negate that there also are laws of war that have to be abided by. So collective punishment, things of that nature, those are violations of international law. I don't think we're doing ourselves or Israelis any favor of giving a green light for all those kinds of violations of international law, however horrible it is what Hamas has done.

MARTIN: Trita Parsi, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PARSI: I appreciate it. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LILY & MADELEINE'S "GOODBYE TO ANYONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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