The Islamic-Arab summit in Riyadh was unanimous in slamming Israel, but the event laid bare some fundamental rifts between Iran and the Arab world on ‘Palestine.’
The joint summit of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in the Saudi capital, the biggest since the Hamas-Israel war started on October 7, took a tough tone against Israel. The final declaration on Saturday rejected Israeli claims that it is acting in "self-defense" and demanded that the United Nations Security Council adopt "a decisive and binding resolution" to halt Israel's "aggression." However, the practical measures pushed by Iran were ignored in the final communique.
Riyadh originally planned to host two separate extraordinary summits but then extended the Arab League summit to include the OIC, a wider association of 57 mostly Muslim-majority states to which the Arab League countries belong. Arab diplomats told AFP the decision to merge the meetings came after Arab League delegations failed to reach an agreement on a final statement. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's trip to Saudi Arabia was the first by an Islamic Republic’s head of state in more than a decade. It was enabled after Tehran and Riyadh formally ended years of hostility under a Chinese-brokered deal in March.
During the meeting, Iran pushed for punitive economic and political steps against Israel over its retaliatory offensive against Hamas but while the participants condemned Israeli forces' "barbaric" actions in Gaza, they declined to approve Tehran’s proposals, highlighting regional divisions over how to respond to the war as fears mount that it could spiral out in other countries. Common belief is that Iran, vocally opposed to warming ties between Israel and the Arab world, nudged Hamas with hundreds of millions of dollars as well as logistical support to start a war so the anti-Israeli sentiments would disrupt the peace process between Israel and the Arab world begun in 2020 with the Abraham Accords. Just weeks before the war broke out, the Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, admitted ties were getting ever closer between Israel and the kingdom.
The Iran-funded militia Hamas attacked Israel on October 7 and killed 1,200 mostly civilians and took over 240 people as hostages. Israel has been pounding Hamas’s targets in Gaza for over a month now seeking to uproot the Islamist group, which has made the war exceedingly bloody, hiding deep among the civilian population and underneath the coastal sliver’s non-military facilities. The Iranian regime praised Hamas as soon as news about the attack emerged and immediately organized street celebrations. While it has refrained from direct involvement in the fighting, its Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni proxy forces have launched more than 40 rocket and drone attacks against American forces in the region, not deterred by a large deployment of US naval forces in the region.
The leaders at the Riyadh summit called for an end to weapons sales to Israel and dismissed any future political resolution to the conflict that would keep Gaza separate from the West Bank. However, the call to cut already established ties with Israel, led by Algeria and spearheaded by Iran, was also rejected, at least by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which normalized ties with Israel in 2020 under the Abraham Accords.
Another point raised by Tehran and rebuffed by Muslim leaders was on the Israeli military. Iran’s President Raisi urged Islamic nations to designate the Israeli army a "terrorist organization" for its conduct in Gaza. Israel blames Hamas for the high death toll, accusing it of using civilians as "human shields." The Hamas-run Health Ministry says over 11,000 have died so far.
Another salient difference between Iran’s stance and those of the Arab countries is the two-state solution. Arab countries insist on a solution based on the borders of June 4, 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, but Iran insists that a Jewish state should not exist at all.
Upon arrival in Tehran, the Iranian president immediately reiterated the regime’s views and even the foreign ministry officially issued its list of “reservations” on the final statement of the summit. "These issues have also been conveyed through an official note by the Islamic Republic of Iran's representation in Jeddah to the Secretariat and will be reflected in the final report of the meeting," foreign ministry spokesman Naser Kanaani said Sunday.
The Islamic Jihad, another Iran-backed Palestinian militant group in Gaza, also issued a statement distancing themselves from the position taken by the Arab-Muslim summit. The group claimed that the final statement showed that all Arab and Islamic countries have abandoned “their duty to defend the national security of the Arab and Islamic world.”
All in all, this was the largest gathering of heads of state to sit under one roof with a common goal, ending the conflict between Israel and Palestinians. However, the question remains whether peace could even be a possibility as long as the Islamic Republic is present to sow discord and stand opposed to any diplomacy with Israel.