What Makes Ahmadinejad Smile
The assault in Gaza has boosted Iran's hawks and hurt moderate Arabs who were tilting toward Israel.
Explaining the size and scale of Israel's actions in Gaza, several prominent Israelis have argued that the real enemy they are taking on is not Hamas but Iran. The historian Michael Oren, who is currently serving as a press officer in the Israeli military, has argued along with Yossi Klein Halevi that "the operation against Hamas represents a unique chance to deal a strategic blow to Iranian expansionism." The logic is that Hamas is an Iranian client. Crush its military might and you will weaken Tehran and set back its agenda. But is that actually happening?
First, Hamas is not Iran's pawn. For decades Iran actually preferred and funded another Palestinian faction, Islamic Jihad. Recently, Hamas has been taking funds and weapons from Iran, but that does not mean it also takes orders from it. Hamas's provocations and its decision not to renew the ceasefire probably took place without direction from Tehran. But more important, how exactly have Israel's military actions weakened Iran? "Iran does not have tangible assets in Gaza or the Palestinian territories," says Vali Nasr, the author of "The Shia Revival." "It's a misunderstanding to think of its strength in that way. Its real influence in the Arab world comes from its soft power, the reputation it has built as the defender of the great Arab cause of Palestine."
Look at the effects of the invasion. Moderate Arabs are on the defense. Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt despises Hamas—seen as an offshoot of its own outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. But after blaming the Islamists in the first few days of the Israeli assault, Mubarak has now hastily joined in the condemnations of Israel. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are similarly backtracking. This is a repeat of their reaction during Israel's 2006 war with Hizbullah.
If moderate Arabs have been quiet, the Iranians have been speaking up everywhere. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has noisily denounced Israel's actions. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has attacked Arab regimes for not responding to their people. "Today the heart of the Egyptian, Jordanian and the people of other Islamic countries is overwhelmed with sorrow," he said in a statement released Dec. 28. "Now, I ask the scholars … of the Arab world and the chiefs of the Egyptian Al-Azhar center, 'Isn't it the time to feel the threat facing Islam and Muslims?' " Hizbullah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, went further. "I'm not calling for a coup d'état," he said recently, addressing the Egyptian people (and their army), "but go talk to your leaders and tell them you do not accept what is happening in Gaza."
Men like Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan don't have to worry about winning elections, so they can merely stay quiet. If you want to get a sense of where public opinion now stands in the region, listen to the only democratically elected leader in the Arab world. The prime minister of Iraq, America's staunch ally, Nuri al-Maliki, has called on all Arab and Muslim countries to "cancel their diplomatic relations and stop all contacts—public and private—with this murderous regime, which continues its painful aggression against peaceful, unarmed civilians." Iraq's most respected religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, praised by many American neoconservatives, issued a fatwa last week describing the Israeli attack as "vicious" and calling on all Arabs and Muslims to "take practical steps in order to stop this cruel aggression."
Israel's military actions undercut a tide that had been moving in its favor. Over the last two years, countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have come to recognize that their major regional concern is the rise of Iran—and on that issue, they are allied in their interests and perspectives with Israel. In other words, on the major strategic issue of the day, Israel is moving into a tacit alliance with moderate Arab states for the first time in its history. This soft alliance has been encouraged and nurtured by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But its weak point is Arab public opinion, and Iran has always understood this. Tehran's strategy to undermine this alliance is to signal to the Arab public that it is the chief defender of the Palestinian cause and so cannot be an enemy of the Arab people. The real enemy, Tehran signals to the Arabs, is their own regimes.
Within Iran also, the balance is shifting. The moderates are now silent. Reformist newspapers display photographs of dead Palestinian babies on their front pages. "One month ago, the great debate in Tehran was about low oil prices and economic mismanagement," says Nasr. "Now it's about Palestine and the anger in the Arab world. President Ahmadinejad would rather have the current conversation."
Israel believes that the lesson of its 2006 war with Hizbullah was to improve its military tactics. And its superb defense forces have adapted well. But by crushing Gaza militarily, Israel might actually be giving Iran's mullahs the ideological issue they thrive on. That might be the political lesson of this war.