Friday, January 30, 2009

Just a sideshow

Emanuele Ottolenghi

When historians revisit Israel's Operation Cast Lead in a few decades, they will no doubt see it as a minor tiff between the warring sides in a broader conflict engulfing the region. Behind two familiar faces engaged in a vicious century-long fight that everyone knows how to solve and no one ever manages to fix, can be found Iran and its allies, on one side, and Iran's pro-Western foes, on the other. Future historians' predecessors might be excused for imagining that this sideshow is the real thing - but the Israel-Hamas war is mostly a human-interest story. The geostrategic epicenter of our era's real conflict lies elsewhere - further to the north and the east. Granted, Hamas did not pull the trigger at the explicit urging of Tehran - unless and until proven otherwise. But Tehran did have a hand in it. After all, if Hamas' rockets gained over 30 kilometers of range during the six-month tahadiyeh (truce), it was thanks to Iranian help, not because Hamas engineers quickly mastered rocket science. And Iran had a gain - once the heartbreaking, if somewhat touched-up, images of death and destruction from Gaza reached people's living rooms, Western audiences and their leaders forgot for nearly a month that Iran's nuclear program was fast approaching a critical threshold. According to nuclear experts, Iran may reach "breakout" capacity this year - a conclusion shared by a French National Assembly report published shortly after hostilities broke out between Israel and Hamas, and ignored by a distracted and distraught public.

That lull in Western attention, though, was as much a consequence of political uncertainty regarding the transition in Washington (and an anticipated change in American policy toward Iran), as it was caused by the fighting. And on the nuclear file, the heat is on again. Oil prices did not skyrocket this time - further proof that the Eastern Mediterranean is not as strategically important to the region as it once might have been. And the EU is about to unleash new sanctions - despite all the crying over Gaza, even European leaders are hard-nosed realists when it comes to national interest.
Iran is now rushing to resupply Hamas - and whether Israel's gains in the field can be translated into an effective international mechanism that stops the flow of arms into Gaza remains to be seen. But very few believe Hamas' victory claim - or, by extension, Iran's. Iran invested capital, political prestige and time in financing, equipping and training Hamas' fighting force. It hoped to achieve in Gaza what it did in Lebanon - to have its proxy stand until the end of the fighting while inflicting painful casualties on its Zionist nemesis. In Lebanon that appeared to have worked - though since Hezbollah's "divine victory" in 2006, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has relied more on bunkers and less on God to stay alive, and the organization lent its southern Hamas cousins only rhetoric, not material help, to replicate that victory in Gaza.

In Gaza, Iran's fighting doctrine did not survive even the first wave of airstrikes. Israel's casualties were extremely low, whereas Hamas sustained more than 1,000 fatalities among its fighters. The melting away of an Iranian-trained force, coupled with the damage done to its Iran-planned terror infrastructure and the degrading of its Iran-supplied arsenal, is a blow to Tehran. If a wider and tighter net is now cast to block arms shipments intended to replenish Hamas, Iran will emerge bruised from this round.

Aside from the tactical results of this skirmish, what will historians say about the broader war?

Three considerations are in order. First, more than ever, the Hamas war forced regional players to take sides and draw clear lines. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf states but Qatar did their best to give Hamas a cold shoulder. They had already muttered their discontent with Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War. This time, their anger was even more palpable - unlike in Lebanon after the Qana tragedy, no amount of carnage instilled a sense of urgency among their leaders to stop Israel's war machine. They offered little more than rhetoric to Hamas - which is considered an even worse traitor than the Lebanese Shi'a. It is, after all, a Sunni Arab movement that turned its back on its brothers to embrace the feared and loathed Shi'ite Persian foe.

That this was the central theme of the story might have been lost in translation - but the fact is that Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, declared in early December that "Iran wants to devour the Arab world." Anti-Egyptian demonstrations in Tehran calling for the demise of his regime were more virulent than the ritual calls of "Death to Israel" and "Death to America." That is why Sunni rulers on the whole cheered for Israel, in spite of themselves.

Secondly, therefore, the divisions in the Arab world come again to the fore, as rulers define and pursue their own interests in narrow national terms, not even paying lip service to pan-Arab unity anymore.

And third, in the tacit if grudging alliance that emerges from all this, between Israel and pro-Western Sunni rulers, it is clear that the prospect of an Iran fomenting Islamist revolutions, wars and insurrections around the region under the cover of a nuclear umbrella is infinitely more terrifying than a Jewish state in the Arab heartlands. This new geostrategic environment should not pressure Israel into unhealthy concessions - the Arabs need Israel's steel against Iran today, more than Israel needs their benevolence.

None of this is new - this Middle East cold war has illustrious predecessors. Divisions in the Arab world have characterized the history of the region for much of the past century. But it is refreshingly out in the open - another sign that this time, Iran got a bloody nose.

Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi is executive director of the Transatlantic Institute, in Brussels, and author of the forthcoming book "Under a Mushroom Cloud: Europe, Iran and the Bomb."

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