Iran’s Influence on the Middle East

July 18, 2008 at 4:25 pm | Posted in Peace Process, Security | Leave a comment

What do all the current threats in the Middle East – the Hamas takeover in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah’s bid for power in Lebanon, political turmoil in Iraq and imminent nuclear weapons in the hands of a radical dictatorship – have in common? Iran.

Those issues are linked by Tehran’s drive for regional hegemony. Iran’s strategy has been in place since the 1979 Islamist revolution, but it has only recently begun to pay off. The often-stated goal of the revolution was to turn Iran into a utopian Islamist society and to spread the revolution throughout the Middle East and the Islamic world in general.

Iran has often been cautious in pursuing its program, especially given the war with Iraq in the 1980s and the possibility of Western opposition. But events have given the regime renewed confidence, and the extreme line taken by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has produced more daring – thus reckless and violent – behavior.

Iran tries to extend its influence in three ways: propaganda and incitement; the promotion of client groups; and the projection of the state’s own power. Iran sponsors radical Islamist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon and among the Palestinians, as well as in other countries. Its two most important clients are Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian group Hamas.

Those organizations are not totally controlled by Tehran and do not have their every move dictated by it, but Iran finances them, provides weapons and training, encourages them to launch attacks, and shapes their ideology. Without Iran’s backing, they would lack most of their power.

The evidence indicates that Iran has urged them to be more aggressive and to launch terrorist attacks and more general offensives.

Take Lebanon, for example. Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group, closely follows Iran’s line. The organization’s head, Hassan Nasrallah, is also the official representative in Lebanon of Iran’s “spiritual guide” or supreme leader – that country’s most powerful official. In 2006, Hezbollah launched attacks on Israel that led to a major war, steps it would never have taken without knowing Iran wanted such actions. Indeed, in an April interview on Al-Kawthar TV, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, Sheik Naim Qassem, said: “Hezbollah, when it comes to matters of jurisprudence pertaining to its general direction, as well as to its jihad direction, bases itself on the decisions of the spiritual guide [Iran’s supreme leader]. … With regard to all the other details – whenever we need jurisprudent clarifications regarding what is permitted and what is forbidden on the jihad front, we ask, receive general answers and implement them.”

Since the end of the summer 2006 war, Hezbollah’s emphasis has been to control Lebanon, though it has also rebuilt its military power. On a number of occasions, Iran has been caught smuggling arms to Hezbollah through Syria and Turkey. Iranian Revolutionary Guards act as military advisers to Hezbollah. Opponents of an Iranian-Syrian takeover in Lebanon, politicians and journalists, have been killed in terrorist attacks. Iran is seeking to turn Lebanon into a satellite state.

The same tactics are employed with the Palestinians. Hamas and the even more extremist Palestinian Islamic Jihad follow Iran’s line. Tehran has publicly urged those organizations to carry out terrorist attacks and, in addition to training and arms, provides examples of anti-Semitic rhetoric duplicated in their propaganda.

This June was a turning point in Palestinian history. Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, expelled its nationalist Fatah rivals, executed many people because of their political views or activities, and made clear its intention of transforming the Gaza Strip into an Islamist state, following Iran’s example.

Many Palestinians and other Arabs state their fear and resentment at the idea that Hamas represents an Iranian effort to seize control of their land and cause. On June 20, Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior member of Fatah’s PLO executive committee, said in a press statement: “Iran helped Hamas to lead a military coup against the legitimate Palestinian leadership and to control the Gaza Strip.”

Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit asserted in a recent speech that Iranian aid to Hamas in Gaza poses a threat to Egyptian security.

Hamas co-founder and former Foreign Minister Mahmud al-Zahar told Der Spiegel in June: “I personally once brought $20 million from Iran to the Gaza Strip in a suitcase. No, actually twice – the second time it was $22 million.”

Two of the Arab world’s top journalists have spoken out on this issue.

Tariq al-Humayd, the editor of the popular Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat, wrote: “The source of the funds is obviously Iran. Today, no one has control over Hamas … except Iran, its economic patron, and Syria,” where Hamas has its headquarters.

Ahmad Al-Jarallah, the editor of Kuwait’s Al-Siyassa, wrote: “By means of Hamas’ takeover in Gaza, the Iran-Syria axis has managed … to sabotage the Israeli-Palestinian peace” and become the main arbiter of regional politics.

On the horizon looms Iran’s nuclear arsenal. If Tehran gets the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, it will rally far larger numbers of radical and terrorist forces to attack the West and moderate Arabs, as well as Israel. Hiding behind its nuclear umbrella, Iran and its allies would be able to attack Western interests without fear of retribution. Iran would block any chance for peace and push the region into decades more of bloodshed.

Events in Iraq, in Lebanon and among the Palestinians reinforce the need to contain Iran and to ensure it does not obtain nuclear weapons.

Article appeared in the Hebrew Watchman on July 19th, 2007; and in the Atlanta Jewish Times on August 13th, 2007

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