Politics & Policy

The Source of Mideast Strife

Iran’s nefarious influence can be seen throughout the Middle East, most recently in Gaza.

The victims of the latest Israel–Gaza flare-up have been buried, the wounded treated, and the damage totaled up. As the consequences of the conflict are being dealt with, it is now time to address the causes. There is a bigger picture to be examined here:  Gaza, like so many other Middle East conflicts, was the handiwork of an irresponsible Iran.

The Islamic Republic is destabilizing the entire Middle East. Gaza, Syria, an insurgency in Bahrain, a war of attrition in Yemen, and dysfunction in Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq all reek of Iranian interference. Iran is not the only destabilizing (f)actor; the region is replete with competing groups, states, and contrasting ideological movements. But Iran is the largest, and owing to its “Twelver” ideology, its nuclear ambitions, its irresponsible threats, and its use of force — internally and externally — it must be seen as a regional, if not international, threat.

Few, however, seem willing to expose Iran as the culprit behind the recent turbulence; its role is treated as an open secret. So beguiled is the international community by Iran’s nuclearization and by the rhetorical games it plays with Israel that many other of Iran’s destructive policies slip beneath the radar.

Take Sudan, Iran’s arms-trafficking hub. Weapons from Iran enter Port Sudan and slither their way north through Egypt to Gaza, or west to the Maghreb, or remain in Sudan. Iran is also engaged in Shia missionary activities, paying for Shia conversions, while cozying up to Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, the architect of the Darfur genocide. In Syria, Iran’s deployment of Hezbollah fighters, al-Quds advisers, and untold amounts of money and weapons will ensure that Assad’s fall from power is long and bloody. As for Bahrain, Iran is consolidating its power on the island and training Hezbollah and the so-called Sacred Defense in the tactics of asymmetrical warfare — the dark arts of killing civilians by bomb.

Why are Iranian fingers spoiling so many pies? Its superiority complex, coupled with its colonizing ideology, makes it feel destined to be a regional superpower. Yet despite its power quest, Iran is not seeking transformation so much as it’s trying to defend an untenable status quo. It does not want regional change; it is afraid of that. It expects that change will, if unchecked, knock on its own door.

If Israel and Hamas sue for peace, if the Assad regime is toppled and Lebanon maintains its stability, and if Bahrain’s reforms end its recent conflagrations, Iranian regional power will be sapped and its ability to deflect public opinion from its mounting domestic problems will be reduced. Iranians are weary of having to endure yet another year of economic hardships, a valueless currency, enormous taxation on gasoline, and a lack of political liberty. So Ahmadinejad, the ayatollahs, the Basij militia, al-Quds, and the Revolutionary Guards are clutching at straws. They want to keep the region festering so they can stay politically aloft. They need to keep it in a turbulent state so they can imprison their critics at home.

In the months preceding the Gaza fighting, there were indications that Hamas and Israel were approaching a permanent truce. Gershon Baskin, a key Israeli negotiator in the prisoner swap that freed Gilad Shalit after five years, reportedly had been given a completed draft agreement just hours before the latest conflict erupted. Why then did battle ensue?

Hamas’s 2011–12 evacuation from Damascus, after citing the regime’s murder of civilians, and Iran’s unabashed reinforcement of Assad exposed an ideological tension, resulting in the former’s decision to end its support to Hamas, estimated as high as $20 million a month. Hamas responded by dissolving three paramilitary units that were directed by Tehran and by establishing a new, more unified command, the al-Aqsa Protectors, based out of Gaza’s interior ministry. Iran was not about to give up its Israel pressure point, however, and instead of taking that $20 million per month and reinvesting it in its own national economy, it diverted the funding to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), an enemy of Hamas and Israel.

It is PIJ that launched an attack against an Israeli armored personnel carrier, wounding four and initiating the latest episode of violence. PIJ fired the first dozen rockets into Israel, and Israel escalated. Unwilling or unable to distinguish between groups, Israel punished Hamas, assassinated Ahmed al-Jabari, chief of the Gaza security wing of Hamas, and hit some 25 targets of opportunity. The war was on. PIJ then slipped into the background as Israel and Hamas faced off.

Such nuances are lost in the press. Spectators saw Iranian rockets soaring to Israeli targets and assumed a continued Iran-Hamas relationship. Sure, Hamas deployed Iranian-built Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets. But that was what they had on hand; they had been delivered before the Hamas-Iran split. The idea that the origin of weapons indicates a political affiliation is simply misleading. Consider that the second-most-prevalent rockets that Hamas fired — and the ones that caused the most damage to Israel — were Russian-made Grads. If the weapons-origin argument were valid, that would mean Russia was also supportive of the Hamas campaign. It wasn’t, of course.

No, the rockets that Hamas held in its stocks were from 2009–10. Although Israel’s interdiction of the MV Francop, which contained an Iranian consignment of some 11,000 rockets and mortars, was a major blow to the Islamic Republic’s arms trafficking, it was reported that two similar-sized vessels successfully landed in Port Sudan in December that same year, and four others during 2010.

On November 21, in the heat of the Hamas–Israel conflict, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius noted that “Iran bears a heavy responsibility” for the unrest in Gaza “since there are long-range weapons . . . and these are Iranian weapons.” What Fabius failed to point out, however, is that it is not the weapons that hoist the burden of responsibility onto Iran’s shoulders. It is the Islamic Republic’s exploitation of Palestine and its sacrifice of Palestinian lives for its own political ends.

But this is not the most important issue, because the Gaza violence was actually a sideshow, a sheath to conceal a more pressing struggle: Syria.

More than 40,000 casualties and no end in sight. Syria’s civil war has been prolonged by enormous financial, military, and political support from Iran and its Hezbollah proxies. The al-Quds Force has assumed control of Syria’s security apparatus, and Hezbollah is waging a counter-guerrilla war because Iran cannot allow the Assad regime to collapse; it has invested too much political energy. Victory by the opposition would undermine Iran’s geopolitical position, fracture its lines of communication with Hezbollah, reduce its ability to pressure Israel, eliminate a vital link in its “Shia crescent” (Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon), diminish its ability to outflank its true targets (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman), and deny it projection into the Mediterranean.

This is why Iran is hedging its bets and mounting pressure on Bahrain, the most vulnerable Arabian Gulf state and the smallest, both in territory and in population. Not only is Bahrain’s opposition on Iran’s payroll, but its leaders, Ali Salman and Qasim al-Hashimi, take their orders from the Grand Ayatollah: orders that concern when and where to “demonstrate,” the level of sociopathic behavior (tame or riotous) that “demonstrators” should practice, and, most important, when to escalate to clandestine paramilitary operations, such as the multiple-bomb attacks in early November.

Iran is also calling up its old partners for producing Bahraini instability — the Military Wing of Hezbollah Bahrain (MWHB) and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB) — and is supporting the rise of new, more entrepreneurial saboteurs such as Sacred Defense in conducting bomb, arson, and small-arms attacks against civilians, police, and civil authorities.

Iran is responsible for an assortment of regional convulsions. Just how many people will die to satisfy its superpower lusts we cannot know. What is certain is that far too much blood has already been spilt, and it is time to confront the Islamic Republic before its influence is magnified and reinforced by nuclear weapons. If the road to peace in Jerusalem, Damascus, and Manama runs through Tehran, it cannot be the road less traveled.

In Washington, Obama’s reelection campaign froze the administration’s conduct of foreign affairs while the clouds of regional conflict gathered. Now the U.S. is rapidly losing its regional credibility, and it has yet to develop a strategic awareness to finally constrain Iran.

Here is a five-point proposal for doing just that:

First, empower Turkey. This means cutting the red tape and bolstering Turkey’s land, sea, and air defenses. If NATO drags its feet, go around it. Turkey needs to be ready to countervail Iran.

Second, using an empowered Turkey, fully arm the Syrian rebels and facilitate the liberation of Syria, even if this entails a Turkish invasion of northern parts of the country and a likely set of skirmishes with Iranian forces.

Third, act comprehensively to isolate Hezbollah politically, economically, and militarily — not just Hezbollah in Lebanon, but the entire organization. They are a proxy of Iran and follow Iranian doctrines. They have been deployed to suppress Iranian dissidents in 2009, have organized violence in Bahrain, and are a vital element in Assad’s arsenal.

Fourth, fully engage and empower Hamas at the expense of PIJ by working to establish a functioning national dialogue between the PLO and Hamas. Hamas needs to be removed from terror lists and to have channels of communication with it established. This should also involve inducing Israel, Hamas, and the PLO to sit down and negotiate a final settlement. There are bigger issues at stake; Israel and Palestine need to be aware of them.

Finally, Bahrain must be protected from Iran. For too long Bahrain’s allies were content to allow the small kingdom to bear the brunt of Iranian aggression. Now, however, the stakes are too great and the pressure too pronounced for the U.S. to sit on the sidelines of Arabian history.

— Mitchell A. Belfer is editor of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies, Metropolitan University, Prague.

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