Ever since the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December of 2017, the Palestinians have withdrawn from American efforts to negotiate peace, insisting that the United States is no longer capable of serving as an impartial mediator in the conflict. The Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, has already announced its opposition to President Trump’s peace initiative, even though the plan itself has yet to be presented. As a result, the United States has been steadily increasing its pressure on the Palestinians, in an attempt to bring them back to the negotiating table. In January 2018, the United States announced that it would be making drastic cuts in its funding of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNWRA). On March 23rd, the United States passed the Taylor Force Act, withholding economic aid to the Palestinian Authority until it suspends its “pay for slay,” policy. On August 24th, it was announced that the United States would be cutting another $200 million in aid for Palestinians in the West Bank in Gaza, but despite all of these punitive measures taken against the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas is still refusing to cave to American pressure.
It is becoming more apparent that punitive measures are not bearing, at least thus far, positive results in bringing about stability or peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, or for that matter, the Palestinians and the Palestinians. We may need to understand that the resilience of the Palestinian Authority is much stronger than we had previously assessed. We may have to conclude that the measures the United States has undertaken until now to unilaterally coerce, punish, or otherwise humiliate the Palestinians into coming to the negotiating table, will most probably fail. The Palestinian Authority, so it seems, does not respond well to humiliation. History shows that this approach has seldom, if ever been successful; on the contrary, it has time and time again, led to resentment often culminating in violence. Additionally, this approach greatly underestimates the resolve of the Palestinians. In a conflict that has already exceeded 70 years in duration, the Palestinian’s ability to wait should not be underestimated, especially when they already feel that they have very little to lose.
We also need to understand that the Palestinians are far from unified, with the major split being between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Much of Mahmoud Abbas’s current rigidness is the result of Palestinian infighting, as the Palestinian Authority is currently struggling to maintain its position as the sole legal representative of the Palestinian people, a position that Hamas has openly (and violently) challenged for. Hamas notably uses the fact that the Palestinian Authority cooperates with, and recognizes, Israel to smear Abbas as a “collaborator with the Zionist regime.” Additionally, the growing sense of despair in Palestinian society has further weakened Abbas’s position, as many in the West Bank are becoming more sympathetic to Hamas and its militancy. This is why it would be extremely difficult to coerce Abbas into negotiations. Already appearing weak in his powerlessness to stop the proliferation of Israeli settlements or Trump’s Jerusalem decision, Abbas simply cannot afford to compromise anymore without undertaking the risk of jeopardizing his legitimacy and power of Palestinian Authority. Additionally, even if Israel or the United States were to make a breakthrough with Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, it is almost assured that Hamas will attempt to undermine those efforts fearing that it might be left behind.
To summarize so far: the Palestinian Authority lead by Mahmoud Abbas has remained resilient in the face of extraordinary economic and political pressures imposed on them by the United States. The bad news for the Trump administration is that given the current situation, the prospects for a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians are not particularly favorable at this time, even with the United States pushing heavily on the Palestinians to take a deal. In short, the United States may be underestimating the resolve of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinians to oppose the United States demands, and it may need to consider a different approach.
Just as the United States may have underestimated the resolve of the Palestinians, it might similarly be underestimating the resolve of the Islamic Revolutionary Regime in Iran to oppose the United States demand to reshuffle the nuclear agreement in a way that would completely abolish the Iranian nuclear option. On July 14, 2015, six world powers, including the United States, agreed to a nuclear deal with Iran, removing the most damaging of economic sanctions. The hope was that constructive engagement with the world would improve Iran’s economic fortunes and shift the leadership away from its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Those who saw the deal as a diplomatic milestone lauded the effort, while others who saw that it did not do enough to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions loathed the agreement. One of the deals most vocal critics from the outset was Donald Trump.
The deal helped boost Iranian oil exports, but did little to improve the livelihoods of most Iranians, and unemployment remained in the double digits. Additionally, Iranians were growing increasingly frustrated with Iran’s growing involvement in conflicts throughout the Middle East while they lived in squalor at home. Widespread protests in Iran broke out in late December 2017, and proceeded for nearly two weeks before a crackdown by security forces put an end to the demonstrations. While some speculated that these protests were indications that the regime was weakening, time would show that it has actually remained relatively stable despite its economic woes, showcasing a chilling ability to crack down on public dissent and retain power; after all, this is not a western democracy, but an Islamist theocracy.
While the determination of this regime in the realm of self-preservation should not be understated, more severe challenges lay ahead for Tehran. On May 8, 2018, Donald Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran, with the first round of reimposed sanctions starting on August 7, affecting Iran’s aviation and automotive sectors, in addition to its trade in gold and currencies. The second round of reimposed sanctions began on November 5, and is predicted to have a far more devastating effect, targeting Iran’s financial system, as well as its oil and shipping industries. The Iranian rial is now historically weak compared to the US dollar, as it now costs 144,000 rials to purchase a single dollar. As a result, imports are becoming more expensive and inflation has soared to around 30 percent. Meanwhile, the cost of living for Iranians in terms of food, transportation, housing, and medicine, continues to rise, as efforts made by the Iranian regime to right the economy have yet to show results.
However, despite the extraordinary pressures placed on Iran, the compliance or collapse of the current regime is not guaranteed by any means, as Iran continues its destabilizing activity across the region. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have remained defiant in the face of renewed sanctions, vowing to resist and overcome them. Additionally, the Iranian government has used the issue of sanctions to ferment anti-American sentiment as it bolsters its own support. This is one of the key ways in which these sanctions could backfire, as many in Iran see the new sanctions as a direct assault on their livelihoods. Instead of pushing Iranians to reject the current regime, US sanctions might end up driving Iranians into the arms of the regime, emboldening Iran to take an even more aggressive stance in its foreign policy.
Iran is very much captive to inflexible political and religious ideologies, which makes moderation and compromise incredibly difficult without risking its own legitimacy. Additionally, when authoritarian regimes face internal challenges, they tend to deflect the pressure to external enemies. Rather than crippling the will of the Iranian regime, the United States might have bolstered it, as the Iranian regime can now further consolidate legitimacy on the basis of its opposition to America. As with the Palestinians, the United States cannot simply coerce or humiliate Iran into compliance without facing the potential for severe blowback, as authoritarian regimes typically rely on maintaining an image of strength to survive. While renewed sanctions on Iran have undoubtedly hit the regime hard, they will almost certainly fight back, in one way or another, before showing any willingness to enter into an intensive dialogue with the present administration over the nuclear deal.
Defying such intense pressure from the United States may appear to be irrational in “Western” eyes. However, both the Palestinian Authority and the regime in Iran ultimately rely on projecting an image of strength to protect their legitimacy. Actions taken by the United States that threaten that image can expect to be met with fierce resistance, because for these entities, a threat to their image can also be a threat to their very survival. It is in this way that these actors are behaving rationally: they are both pursuing self-preservation.