Australia/Israel Review

Essay: The Great Rift

Feb 23, 2009 | Y. Carmon, Y. Yehoshua, A. Savyon and H. Migron

By Y. Carmon, Y. Yehoshua, A. Savyon and H. Migron


The recent Gaza war was portrayed by the international media as a local military conflict between Israel and Hamas. However, this war has, with the 2006 war in Lebanon and various other military and political events in the last three decades in the Middle East, a common denominator – namely, all stem from the conflict between revolutionary Iran and the Saudi kingdom and the respective camps of each. This conflict is key to understanding the Middle East in the 21st century.

This Saudi-Iranian conflict, whose various aspects – geostrategic, religious, ethnic and economic – have been affecting the Middle East for the past 30 years, began with the Islamic Revolution in Iran, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Since then, there have been lulls (especially during the era of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami), but the conflict flared up again after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose to power. The conflict has now escalated into an actual cold war, and is reflected in the emergence of two distinct blocs in the Middle East: The Iranian axis (comprising Iran, Syria, Qatar, Hezbollah and Hamas) and the Saudi-Egyptian camp, with which most of the other Arab countries are identified.

This schism, and cold war, will have a major impact on the local, regional and international level, severely restricting options for diplomatic activity to resolve the intra-Palestinian rift, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the problem of a nuclear Iran.

The 2008-09 Gaza War: Timeline

The Gaza war broke out on Dec. 27, 2008, after Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal refused – reportedly on orders from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki – to attend talks for a Cairo-brokered intra-Palestinian agreement. Instead, he announced in Damascus that the tahdia (calm) with Israel had ended and would not be renewed, as his men in Gaza fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel.

As soon as the fighting started, Syria and Qatar attempted to convene an emergency Arab League summit in order to help Hamas. This move was blocked by Egypt and Saudi Arabia at the Dec. 31, 2008, Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo, where it was decided only to conduct international diplomatic activity aimed at stopping the hostilities. According to reports, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said at a closed meeting with EU foreign ministers that “Hamas must not be allowed to emerge triumphant from the present confrontation.”

Nevertheless, Qatar and Syria persisted in their efforts, setting the emergency summit for Jan. 16, 2009, to be attended by anyone who wished. At this point, a campaign of pressure on the other Arab countries was launched by both sides: Iran, Syria, and Qatar urged them to attend, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt pressed them not to. This clash ended with a victory for the Saudi-Egyptian camp in that the summit, held in Doha, was convened in the absence of a legal quorum. To the dismay of some Arab countries, Iranian President Ahmadinejad was invited to attend the summit as an observer. Also present as an observer was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who expressed total support for Hamas.

To reinforce its political victory, the Saudi-Egyptian camp enlisted international support by summoning all European leaders to a special weekend meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh, on Jan. 18.

The following day, a previously scheduled economic summit was held in Kuwait, and part of it was devoted to the war in Gaza. This summit was likewise dominated by the Saudi-Egyptian camp. At the conference, Qatar demanded that the resolution of the Doha conference – which called for revoking the peace agreements with Israel and withdrawing the Arab peace initiative – be endorsed, but Saudi Arabia and Egypt rejected its demand, and the summit ended with no resolutions regarding the war in Gaza. On Jan. 18, Hamas was compelled to accept the ceasefire declared unilaterally by Israel the day before, as well as Egypt’s mediation in the intra-Palestinian talks – two demands it had categorically rejected prior to the war.

It can therefore be said that, unlike the 2006 war in Lebanon and the subsequent clash between Hezbollah and the March 14 (anti-Syrian) forces, which ended in Lebanon’s falling under the control of Hezbollah, the Gaza war yielded an achievement for the opposite side. It ended with Hamas defeated on the ground and with a political victory for the Saudi-Egyptian camp on the regional level.

The Iranian-Saudi/Shi’ite-Sunni rivalry in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution

The Iranian-Saudi conflict is rooted in Iran’s aspirations to regional hegemony – both geostrategic and religious – which pose a threat to Saudi Arabia. From the onset of the Islamic Revolution era and Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule (1979-89), Iran’s attitude to Saudi Arabia was marked by ideological and political enmity, stemming from the historic religious, social, and ethnic rift between the Sunni-Wahhabi Arab society and the Shi’ite Persian one.

This rivalry, which emanates from revolutionary Iran’s competition with Saudi Arabia for the leadership of the Muslim world, reached its height in 1984, when thousands of Iranian pilgrims rioted in the streets of Mecca, calling for the overthrow of the Saudi regime. The Saudis forcibly quelled the riots, closing Mecca to Iranian pilgrims for several years. The Iranian threat also prompted the Saudis to support former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war.

The wave of solidarity with Iran’s Islamic Revolution in the Sunni world prompted Saudi Arabia to exert great efforts in strengthening Sunni Islam in general and Wahhabi Islam in particular. To this end, Saudi Arabia acted mainly on two levels: Giving massive support to the jihad in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s until the Soviets were defeated, and investing billions of dollars, over two decades and more, in establishing and maintaining schools, mosques and other educational and religious institutions in Sunni communities worldwide. These efforts reversed much of the popularity of the Iranian revolution.

Saudi-Iranian enmity declined during the term of Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and declined even more during the presidency of his successor, Mohammad Khatami.

The escalation of the conflict during Ahmadinejad’s presidency

With Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rise to power in Iran in 2005, the conflict re-emerged, with greater intensity. Ahmadinejad reverted to Iran’s previous policy of anti-Saudi hegemony by pushing the export of the revolution, and promoting a messianic Shi’ite vision that stresses the imminent appearance of the Mahdi and the re-establishment of the great Persian empire. In his second television appearance following his election, he said: “The message of the [Islamic] Revolution is global, and not restricted to a specific time or place. It is a human message, and it will move forward. Have no doubt… Allah willing, Islam will conquer. Islam will conquer what? It will conquer all the mountaintops of the world.”

The message of reviving revolutionary values became a recurring motif in Ahmadinejad’s speeches: “In the recent elections, the [Iranian] people proved that they believe in the [Islamic] Revolution and want to see its ideals revived… This revolution was a continuation of the movement of the prophets, and all the political, economic, and cultural goals of the [Iranian] state must therefore be geared towards realising the Islamic ideals… The followers of this divine school of Islamic thought are doing everything in their power to prepare the ground for the coming [of the Shi’ite messiah, the Mahdi]… Iran must emerge as the most powerful and advanced state…”

Ahmadinejad’s declarations about restoring the glory of the Shi’ite Persian empire in the region, and the revival of the revolutionary rhetoric by other Iranian leaders – all backed by the regime’s leading ayatollahs – were perceived by the Arab countries, and especially by Saudi Arabia, as a reemergence of the Iranian threat.

The religious-ideological threat was compounded by Iran’s attempt to position itself as a regional military superpower, and by its determination to develop nuclear capabilities in addition to its long-range missile capabilities.

Iran extends its influence into the Arab world

Another factor contributing to the conflict was Iran’s effort to increase its influence throughout the Arab world. Iran’s activity in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime, and the rise in the Shi’ites’ status in that country after the war, intensified Saudi fears, and the fears of other Sunni countries, about the emergence of an “Iranian/Shi’ite crescent” in the very heart of the Arab world. Saudi Arabia responded by increasing its support for the Sunni minority in Iraq, for various Muslim and Christian forces in Lebanon, and for others who were confronting Iranian threats in their territory (e.g. in Yemen, Sudan and the Palestinian areas).

The military and political achievements of Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, during the 2006 war and in the 2008 Doha Agreement (which de facto gave Lebanon to Hezbollah’s control) were likewise perceived as part of Iran’s bid for regional hegemony – especially in light of statements by Iranian officials. Iranian Majlis (parliament) Speaker Ali Larijani said after the signing of the Doha Agreement: “We see this political victory in the regional arena as a harbinger of [even] greater victories…”

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Gheit said that the Iranians “were trying to spread [their influence] and impose their idiosyncratic ideology over the region.” He also accused Iran of “trying to use Arab cards to realise interests and goals that are not Arab,” and said, “It is necessary to ensure that Iran does not become a nuclear military power.”

Similar concerns were also voiced in the Saudi and Egyptian press. In the Saudi government daily al-Riyadh, Saudi columnist Muhammad bin Ali al-Mahmoud described Iran’s policy under Ahmadinejad, stating: “The change in the Iranian arena has led to the emergence of a Nazi-like atmosphere [there, and to the voicing of] empty slogans that are [even] more violent and bombastic [than those heard] during the first [Iranian] revolution [of 1979]… there is no difference between the model [represented by] the terroristic al-Qaeda and the one [represented by] the Iranian party in Lebanon [i.e. Hezbollah]…”

Al-Mahmoud warned about Iran’s “octopus-like expansion,” saying: “Iran wants to control the region, not by spreading its ideology… but by maintaining armed organisations [in Arab countries]… It violates their loyalty to their homelands, replacing it with loyalty to Iran.”

In an article in the Saudi government daily al-Watan, Saudi columnist ‘Ali Sa’d al-Moussa wrote that the Arab countries were being subjected to “Persian colonialism.”

The emergence of the Iran-Syria-Qatar-Hezbollah axis

As part of Iran’s bid for regional hegemony, a political and military axis has formed, comprising not only Iran and the Shi’ites in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, but also various Sunni forces that have an interest in opposing Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It was during the 2006 Lebanon war that a distinct Iran-Syria-Qatar-Hezbollah axis first emerged to oppose the Saudi-Egyptian camp. At a later stage, this axis expanded to include Hamas, which has in recent years received increasing support from Iran, as well as from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Lately, Syria and Iran have been striving to add Turkey to their ranks, and have met with some cooperation on the part of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mu’allem spoke of the “strategic alliance” among members of the Iranian axis, saying: “Our relations with Iran are strategic, and our relations with Turkey are also strategic, and we hope that our relations with the Arabs will be [strategic] as well… We are acting in accordance with our interests and in the service of the Arab national cause and national security. To this end, we are coordinating with Iran and Turkey, and we are not ashamed of this… We coordinate [our efforts] towards our common goal – [which is finding a way] to protect the Palestinian resistance and the national resistance in Lebanon, by creating [strategic] depth for them.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spoke in a similar vein in a September 2008 interview with Iran’s al-Alam TV: “The strategic ties [between Syria and Iran] have proved to be of importance for the region in recent decades, but their real results have emerged [only] in the last 10 years. These include the victory of the resistance in Lebanon, and the unswerving fortitude of the resistance in Palestine since the intifada, which began in 2000… This underscores the importance of [Syrian-Iranian] cooperation and the correctness of the political policy of Syria and Iran…”

The Gaza war deepens the schism between the two camps

Just prior to the outbreak of the Gaza conflict, the two camps engaged in reciprocal verbal attacks. Syria and Iran accused Saudi Arabia and Egypt of pursuing a pro-Israeli and pro-American policy and of sabotaging the efforts of the resistance movements. Saudi King Abdallah was branded by Syria as an “infidel” and “collaborator with the Imperialist Satan,” while Egyptian President Mubarak was called a “traitor” and a “tyrant” who should be assassinated like former president Anwar Sadat. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for their part, claimed that Iran and Syria were striving to destabilise the region by interfering in internal Arab affairs and by nurturing the resistance movements in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian Authority. They stressed that Syria was trying to divide the Arab ranks and was assisting Iran – a non-Arab country – in taking over the Middle East, to the detriment of Arab interests.

After the war, the Iranian leaders boasted of the support they had given to Hamas – whose actions, they claimed, corresponded to the goals of the Islamic Revolution. Iranian Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani said that both Hezbollah’s victory in 2006 and Hamas’ victory in Gaza were fruits of the “great tree” that is Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

Iranian Guardian Council Chairman Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said in a recent Friday sermon in Teheran: “[In 2006], the host of Hezbollah [fighters], inspired by Islamic Iran, managed to deliver a crushing blow to Israel, to America and to the other Western countries supporting Israel. Now the same thing has happened in Gaza. Wherever Iran has a toehold, it will save and rescue [the Muslims]…”

The pro-Saudi camp, for its part, accused Hamas of serving Iranian and Syrian interests rather than those of the Palestinians. Mubarak declared that “Egypt will not let anyone make political profits and increase their [regional] influence at the expense of Palestinian blood.” Egyptian Foreign Minister al-Gheit accused Iran of using its Arab proxies to bargain with the US and further its own ends. In an interview with al-Arabiya TV, he said: “All non-Arab hands should be kept off the Palestinian cause, and even some Arab hands.” He added, “Iran… seeks to grab as many Arab bargaining chips as possible, in order to tell the next US administration: ‘If you wish to discuss any subject – especially the security of the Gulf or Iran’s nuclear dossier – you will have to speak with us…’” Al-Gheit made similar statements in 2007, when he said that Iran’s activities had encouraged Hamas to carry out the Gaza coup, and that this “threatened the national security of Egypt, which is only a stone’s throw away from Gaza.”

Senior Palestinian Authority (PA) officials likewise pointed to Iranian involvement in Gaza. PA Presidency Secretary-General al-Tayyeb Abd al-Rahim stated that Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had told the Hamas leaders to resume the resistance, and to keep Egypt from playing any role in the Palestinian dialogue. This, al-Rahim said, was why Hamas refused to renew the tahdia and to continue the dialogue with Fatah. PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abd Rabbo said that Hamas was advancing a regional conspiracy to turn Gaza into an independent entity separate from the West Bank, and to establish an Islamic emirate there, supported by Iran.

Several days before Israel launched its Gaza offensive, the editor of the Egyptian daily al-Gumhouriyya, MP Muhammad Ali Ibrahim, published a series of articles under the title “Hamas-Damascus-Iran – The New Axis of Evil.” Once the Israeli offensive had begun, Ibrahim wrote: “Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Teheran have decided to put the Palestinian cause and its martyrs into Iran’s hands. However, everyone is forgetting one important point – namely, that we will not hand over our people’s capabilities to lunatics who hide out in Syria and who fire not a single bullet at Israel… There is a plan to set the entire region ablaze, and to kill as many Palestinian and Lebanese martyrs as possible, in order to expose the helplessness of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the [entire] moderate Arab axis…”

After the war – The schism between the two camps is an acknowledged fact

The Western media has largely ignored the new reality in the Middle East – namely, the schism and the escalating cold war between the two camps – as well as the far-reaching political implications. However, in the Arab world, this reality has become a publicly acknowledged fact, and is being intensely discussed.

Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Na’im Qassem explained that Hezbollah was proud to belong to the Iranian axis, which was hostile to the US and its Arab supporters. He stated: “In today’s world, there are two mutually opposing camps – the camp of the US and its allies, and the camp of the resistance and its allies. The important point is that the American camp, which includes Israel [and is characterised by] corruption, aggression and monopoly, is a hostile camp, and we, the resistance camp, must therefore oppose it staunchly and forcefully… [Our camp] will emerge triumphant…”

Qassem added: “Some thought that if they malign us [by calling us] allies of Iran, Syria, and Hamas, it would bother us. [Well], let me say that you can add Chavez and Bolivia [to the list of our allies], and all the free peoples in the world. We will [all] form a united front against the US and Israel…”

Dr. Majed Abu Madhi, columnist for the Syrian government daily al-Ba’ath and lecturer at the University of Damascus, argued that the war in Gaza had exposed not only the rift in the Arab world between the regimes that support the resistance and those that oppose it, but also the conflict between the rulers who object to the resistance, and their peoples who support it. He wrote: “It has become patently clear which countries support the resistance. It has also become patently clear which [Arab] regimes are the ones that the US calls ‘moderate’ – [those that] oppose the resistance and even conspire against it… We have discovered a gap – nay, a deep abyss – between the wishes of the rulers [who reject the resistance] and those of their people [who support it].”

The Saudi camp: Iran is responsible for the rift in the Arab world

The pro-Saudi camp accused Iran of causing the rift in the Arab world. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said that the current disagreement among the Arabs was the result of “intervention by non-Arab forces” in Arab affairs – referring to Iran. During the Kuwait economic summit, Egyptian President Mubarak likewise hinted at Iranian interference, when he accused “internal and external” forces of dividing and weakening the Arab world.

Editorials in newspapers associated with the Saudi-Egyptian camp stated that Iran was sowing division in the Arab world as part of its plan to achieve regional hegemony, and accused Arab forces such as Syria and Qatar of cooperating with this plan. Osama Saraya, editor-in-chief of the Egyptian daily al-Ahram, wrote: “Like the Persians in all [past] eras, the contemporary [Iranian] clerics think that [all] the Arabs, from the ocean to the Gulf, are a bunch of camel herders or ignoramuses. [Therefore, they think] that they can still market illusions that hide their true intentions, which are to take control of our region and to annex it to the empire they hope [to reestablish]….” The editor of the Egyptian daily al-Gumhouriyya, MP Muhammad Ali Ibrahim, wrote in his daily column: “Iran’s ideology advocates eliminating [all] nationalities and national borders… The problem with the Iranian ideas is that [Iran] has passed them on to its followers in the Middle East… And the most dangerous [problem] with this Iranian philosophy… is that it calls for establishing states within states… This philosophy has indeed borne fruit in some parts of the Arab world. We have several examples of this: Hezbollah won the elections in Lebanon, and its state [within a state] was naturally stronger than Lebanon [itself]. [Furthermore], its militias were stronger than the government’s armed forces. [The same thing] has happened with Hamas… [and with] the Shi’ites in Bahrain… In Kuwait, Egypt, and Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood is using its representation in parliament to try and take over the government and the leadership of the state… It is a dangerous and destructive idea to sacrifice the country for the sake of religion…”

The “Trojan Horse” – Qatar’s role in consolidating the Iranian axis

It should be noted that Qatar has played a crucial role in exacerbating the rift in the Arab world by initiating the Jan.16, 2009 Doha summit, to the dismay of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Qatar’s inviting of Ahmadinejad to the summit against the will of several Arab countries (such as the UAE, which responded by cancelling its participation) clearly identified the summit as a convention of the Iranian-Syrian axis. The summit’s pro-Iranian and anti-Saudi orientation was underscored by the fact that it called on Egypt to revoke its peace agreement with Israel, and on Saudi Arabia to withdraw its peace initiative.

After the war ended, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal thanked Qatar for its support for his movement during the fighting. In a speech in Doha, he said: “Two weeks ago, we came to you and asked you to stand by our side, and today we thank Qatar, its emir, and its people [for responding to this request].”

Galal Dweidar, former editor-in-chief of the Egyptian government daily al-Akhbar, characterised the Doha summit as “a conference in support of the Persian [expansionist] ambitions” and called Qatar “a Trojan horse designed to pave the way for the Shi’ite Persian invasion of [the lands belonging to] Muhammad’s nation and the Sunnis.”

Two camps, two contrasting approaches to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

Iran’s and Syria’s support of the “resistance”, as well as Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s support of a peace agreement with Israel, can both be understood in light of the Iranian-Saudi schism.

The Saudi camp’s opposition to Hezbollah during the 2006 war, and its opposition to Hamas during the Gaza war, were both part of its conflict with Iran. Likewise, the Saudi camp’s determination to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is meant to strengthen its position vis-à-vis Iran and its allies. Egypt is demanding to sponsor the intra-Palestinian dialogue and the current arrangements between Gaza and Israel, in order to prevent Iran from taking over Gaza via Hamas. Saudi Arabia, for its part, is striving to promote its peace initiative with Israel as a strategic option that will consolidate its position vis-à-vis the Iranian axis – at the same time as this axis attempts to undermine the Saudi position through its support for the resistance against Israel.

In fact, the Iranian axis has called for revoking all initiatives for peace with Israel and all manifestations of normalisation with it – which it terms “collaboration” by the Arab regimes with Israel and the US. As part of this approach, Qatar and Mauritania announced at the Doha summit that they were severing ties with Israel. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei even equated the moderate Arab leaders who maintain ties with Israel to the Jews at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, who were considered to be his enemies. In a letter to Hamas leader Isma’il Haniyeh, Khamenei said: “The Arab traitors must realise that their fate will be no better than that of the Jews at the Battle of al-Ahzab [i.e. the Jews of the al-Quraidha tribe who were killed for allegedly conspiring against the Prophet].”

The Iranian axis contends that the correct course of action vis-à-vis Israel is resistance. President Assad declared the Arab peace initiative “dead,” and coined a new phrase by defining the resistance as “a way to achieve peace,” explaining that “peace without resistance is surrender.” Editor of the Syrian government daily Teshreen, Samira al-Masalma, explained that the disagreement between the camps was profound and could not be bridged: “The dispute between the Arabs is no longer a matter of different positions or different approaches to the solution, as was the case in the past. [Today,] the dispute is about the fundamentals… According to one position, there is no peace without resistance, while according to the other, surrender is the key to peace and resistance is but meaningless ‘adventurism.’”

Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Qassem said: “We believe in resistance as a means [of bringing about] liberation and change… [for] the land and the people cannot be liberated from the force of arrogance [i.e. the US] and from its pampered protectorate, Israel, in any other way… We carry out this resistance with our own hands in order to take back our rights. We do not [intend to count on] the [UN] Security Council or the superpowers; we will liberate our lands with our [own] weapons, as we did in the past and will [continue] to do [in the future]… The resistance we mean [to carry out] is military, and we say to the world: We will arm ourselves more and more, and we call to arm all the resistance [movements] that fight the enemy who occupies the land…”

The Saudi-Egyptian camp, on the other hand, opposed the resistance strategy, and rejected calls to sever ties with Israel or withdraw the Arab peace initiative. The Saudi foreign minister said, “The Arab initiative is still relevant,” adding that it “places Israel under considerable pressure.” Some even called for a return to the original version of the Saudi peace initiative, before amendments were introduced in 2002 in response to demands by Syria, such as a clause acknowledging the Palestinian right of return. An editorial in the Lebanese daily al-Mustaqbal stated: “The Arab peace initiative, especially in its original form, before it was injected with Syrian-Lahoudian corruption during the 2002 Beirut summit [meaning the inclusion of the “right of return” for the Palestinian refugees], was a comprehensive strategic vision… Lasting peace is a condition for the success of the programs for reform in all the Arab countries. For the sake of all this, the Arab peace initiative was and still is alive and well, and is the only strategy that the Arabs can propose in today’s world.”

Y. Carmon is President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI); Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI; A. Savyon is director of MEMRI’s Iranian Media Project; and H. Migron is a research fellow at MEMRI. © MEMRI (, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.



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