March 14, 2008
Number 03/08 #04
This Update leads with an important new piece by the top Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi, in which he points out that the current Israeli conflict with Palestinian terror groups, and standoff with Hezbollah in Lebanon, can rightly be seen as a limited war with Iran. He looks at the history of the considerable extent of Iranian involvement in Palestinian and Hezbollah violence against Israel and also makes the important point that a viable Israel-Palestinian two-state resolution will never be possible until Iran is somehow removed from the equation. For this key insight into what is really going on in the Middle East, CLICK HERE. Backing up Halevi, the Sunday Times reported last week that Hamas has admitted that its fighters have been being trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for the last two years.
Next up, this Update provides some contrast to the dominant view in the media that Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s two day visit to Iraq last week was a triumph for Teheran and a slap in the face for the US. For two examples of pieces arguing this point of view, see British commentator Richard Beeston and American columnist Diane West.
First, top independent Middle East reporter Michael Totten, who has spent much of the last few years in Iraq, says the apparently warm welcome for Ahmadinejad is best understood as the normal theatre of pretended friendship and solidarity in the Middle East, and gives some telling examples by way of illustration. He argues that if you look at what the Iraqi and Iranians are actually doing to each other, there is no danger of any sort of Iran-Iraq axis. For Totten’s argument, CLICK HERE.
Pointing to other problems with the “Ahmadinejad’s triumphant Iraq tour” storyline is veteran Iranian exile writer and journalist Amir Taheri. Taheri points out the various ways in which the Iraqi Shiite public and leadership essentially snubbed the Iranian President, which is not at all what Iran expected. He reveals demonstrations against Ahmadinejad, including in Shi’ite areas, were much larger than those in his favour, and Ahmadinejad was unable to meet the leading Shi’ite clerics or visit key Shi’ite shrines, essentially because of hostility to him. For this complete column, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- A senior Kuwaiti strategic analyst says he hopes Israel will bomb Iran’s nuclear program.
- An Iranian student group asks its members to donate a kidney to pay for their assassination of senior Israel figures.
- An Israeli report on the Australian Federal Parliament’s bipartisan motion in support of Israel’s 60th Anniversary of Independence earlier this week. For anyone who has not seen it, don’t miss the highly cogent editorial on the subject from The Australian.
- While there was some speculation in Israel that a lull in rocket fire earlier this week might be the precursor to an informal ceasefire (see here and here), the 30 rockets in the last day seem to have put an end to that hope.
When will Israel and Iran go to war? They already have.
by Yossi Klein Halevi
The New Republic, Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Immediately after the massacre of eight students in a yeshiva library in Jerusalem last week, speculation began within the Israeli security establishment and the media about who had dispatched the lone murderer. Was it Hamas? Hezbollah? Perhaps a new, unknown organization claiming to act on behalf of the “liberation” of the Galilee? In fact, the speculation was pointless. Regardless of the affiliation of the actual perpetrator, the ultimate responsibility for this attack, as for almost all the terror attacks on Israel in recent years, lies with Iran.
The Palestinian struggle is no longer about creating an independent state. It is about being a front-line participant in the Iranian-led jihad to destroy Israel, evolving from a nationalist to a religious war. The thousands of celebrants in Gaza who, following the yeshiva massacre, offered prayers of thanksgiving in the mosques and distributed candies to passersby weren’t only indulging in feelings of revenge for Israel’s recent military incursion but heralding the coming jihadist victory over the enemies of God. A real solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict can only be reached by dealing with its primary instigator: Iran.
Israel’s seventh war began in September 2000, and was launched by Yasser Arafat, who transformed Fatah into a quasi-Islamist movement, nurturing the rhetoric and martyrology of jihad. Arafat no doubt assumed he could manipulate Islamist trappings for nationalist aims. But then he went one step farther: He initiated an alliance with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Until then, Iran’s only client within the Palestinian national movement had been the Islamic Jihad, the smallest of the Palestinian terrorist factions. According to a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, Arafat promised the Iranians that he would turn Gaza into a second southern Lebanon, and Iran began providing weapons and funds to Arafat’s Fatah. But then, in January 2002, Israel intercepted the Karine A, a ship carrying Iranian-supplied Katyusha rockets and mortars and C-4 explosives for use in suicide bombings. Exposed and under international pressure, Arafat severed the connection.
Ironically, Hamas was initially more reluctant than Fatah to enter into an Iranian alliance, precisely because the Sunni Hamas takes religion more seriously than Fatah and was loathe to accept the authority of the Iranian Shiites. But that squeamishness ended three years ago with a formal alliance, orchestrated by the Damascus-based Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, and today Hamas is an integral part of the Iranian war against Israel. Iran has trained hundreds of Hamas operatives–and, according to the former intelligence chief, continues to fund individual members of Fatah’s Al Aqsa Brigades. Iran’s goal is twofold: to extend its influence in the Arab world, and to transform itself, via proxies, into a frontline confrontation state with Israel.
The jihadist war against Israel has shifted from one front to another–suicide bombings inside Israeli cities until 2004, Katyushas on Haifa in the north in 2006, and now Katyushas on Ashkelon in the south. All are battles in the same war. So far, it is a war without an all-encompassing name, and that linguistic failure reflects a larger Israeli failure to treat this as a unified conflict. We still refer to the suicide bombings of 2000-2004 by the Palestinians’ misnomer, “the second intifada”–which falsely implies a popular uprising, like the first intifada, rather the orchestrated slew of terror attacks that it was. Awkwardly, we call the 2006 battle against Hezbollah “the second Lebanon War,” a name that places the conflict in the wrong context–the first Lebanon War against Palestinian nationalist terrorism in the early 1980s rather than one more front in the Iranian war against Israel. And now we are calling the daily rocket attacks against southern Israel “the war of the Qassams,” even as the Qassams are augmented by the far more deadly Katyushas
In contending with Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel is trying to treat the symptoms, rather than the cause. Not surprisingly, it finds itself repeatedly stymied in efforts to stop the attacks on the home front. All of Israel’s options in dealing with Hamas seem unbearable. Allowing rockets to continue to fall on southern towns creates despair among Israelis, who see their nation’s sovereignty unraveling. Engaging in limited but costly military operations in Gaza, as Israel did last week, creates international outrage and little lasting security gain. Re-conquering Gaza and its dense refugee camps will result in a devastating number of causalities, both among Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians. And even if Israel succeeds in destroying the Hamas infrastructure, Israelis will confront the same dilemmas that forced them to leave Gaza two years ago.
A ceasefire with Hamas–which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems to be implementing even as he denies it–may well be the worst option of all. Hamas will likely use that interim period to turn itself into a second Hezbollah, equipped with Iranian weapons. And when Hamas feels empowered to break the ceasefire and resume its attacks, Israel will face a far more formidable enemy.
To deal effectively with the jihad requires an awareness that Israel is in fact at war with the Iranian regime, which manipulates proxies along Israel’s borders, supplying them with weapons and training, and energizing them with the promise of imminent victory.
Understandably, Israel has avoided a confrontation with Iran, which could result in the most devastating war Israel has fought. But as the siege around Israel’s borders tightens and as the Iranian nuclear program quickens, that direct confrontation becomes increasingly likely.
According to a just-released strategic assessment by the Israeli intelligence community, 2008 will be the “Year of Iran.” The Lebanese government, warns the assessment, could collapse in the coming months, allowing Hezbollah to take power. Meanwhile, Hezbollah and Hamas are considering a coordinated rocket assault on Israeli population centers, almost all of which are within rocket range of either group. And, according to the strategic assessment, sometime within the coming year, or by early 2009 at the latest, Iran will achieve nuclear capability. The threat that emerges from the intelligence assessment may well be the most acute that Israel has ever faced.
Following the yeshiva massacre, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown speculated that the gunman was attempting to “derail” the peace process. Brown’s implication, widely shared in the West, is that the best way to defeat the jihadists is to create a Palestinian state.
But a viable Palestinian state living peacefully beside Israel will not be possible without disconnecting Iran from these groups who are attacking Israel on its behalf. This may require destabilizing the Iranian regime–hopefully through intensified sanctions against its nuclear program, and by military force against its nuclear installations if sanctions fail. Without stopping the momentum of the Iranian-led jihad against Israel, the appeal of Hamas among Palestinians will grow. So long as the international community tries to create a Palestinian state without seriously confronting the jihadists, Iran and its proxies will continue to make peace impossible–not by “derailing” negotiations, but by making those negotiations irrelevant.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Adelson Center for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
© The New Republic 2008
Michael J. Totten
‘Contentions” Blog – 13.03.2008
Abe already blogged about this, but I wanted to follow up on Diana West’s fretting in the Washington Times about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent trip to Iraq, where he was supposedly given a warm reception by the Baghdad government. “[O]ur Iraqi allies have welcomed our Iranian enemies right into it.” Not so fast. Iraq and Iran are two Shia-majority countries. They share a long border and a terrible history, as Abe pointed out. They should be expected to have relations of some kind, and the more civil the better considering the depth of hatred Iranian Persians and Iraqi Arabs have for each other. Another full-blown war between Iraq and Iran is in the interests of no one.
In any case, a meeting, a few agreements, and a photo op don’t make these two countries an axis. Iran supports insurgents that for years have been trying to destroy the Baghdad government using terrorism, guerilla warfare, assassination, and sabotage. Who can seriously believe after all this–not to mention the centuries of conflict that preceded it–that the two governments actually like each other? Baghdad may formally welcome Ahmadinejad, but certainly not his proxy armies.
But let’s put that aside for the sake or argument and assume Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be a quiet Iranian sympathizer. What about Iraq’s president?
“Mr. Ahmadinejad was greeted with multiple kisses from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani,” West notes before saying “Blech.” Talabani is not only Iraq’s president. He is also the political leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the staunchly secular leftist political party with its home base in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya. The PUK provides funds and materials to at least two exiled Kurdish Iranian political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan whose explicit goal is the destruction of the Islamic Republic regime in Tehran. Each of these parties has their own private army. One crossed into Iran recently and fought the regime in the streets during an uprising in the city of Mahabad. The idea that the secular, leftist, and Kurdish Jalal Talabani supports the theocratic, rightist, and Persian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while at the same time funding and supplying revolutionaries who cross the border, doesn’t make sense.
If you want to know the truth, pay close attention to what Middle Easterners do, not what they say. At least some elements in each of these governments hope to remove the other from power by force. Their making nice in front of the cameras is no more meaningful than Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shaking Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn.
Middle Eastern leaders go through the motions of being nice to each other all the time when what they’d really like to do is pull out a dagger. Last May, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the international tribunal to try the killers of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is not directed at “sister Syria.” Of course he doesn’t believe that, but that’s diplomacy for you. Almost everyone in Lebanon knows the Syrian regime was complicit in Hariri’s murder, as well as the murders that have picked off Siniora’s allies in parliament and the media one by one ever since.
I rented an apartment just around the corner from Siniora’s residence in Beirut, and I couldn’t walk anywhere near his house while using my cell phone. The signals are jammed. Cell phones can detonate car bombs. Siniora knows very well that he might be next and doesn’t think of Syria as anything like a brother or sister–at least not while the murderous Assad regime is in power.
In From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman tells the story of Christian militia leader Camille Chamoun receiving flowers from his arch enemy Yasser Arafat while he was laid up in the hospital. During this time they both hoped to kill each other. “These two men,” Friedman wrote, “had sent so many young men to die in defense of their own personal power and status, and now they were sending bouquets. That was Beirut.”
It is not just Beirut. It is the whole Middle East where smoke, mirrors, and false friendships are normal.
Diana West correctly notes that some Middle Eastern leaders claim to be American allies while fomenting jihad. Well, yes. Of course. They do the same thing to each other.
New York Post, March 8, 2008
IT had been billed as a “triumph” for the Islamic Re public and “a slap in the face of the American Great Satan.” However, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two-day state visit to Iraq last weekend showed the limits of Iranian influence in the newly liberated country.
Weeks of hard work by Iranian emissaries and pro-Iran elements in Iraq were supposed to ensure massive crowds thronging the streets of Baghdad and throwing flowers on the path of the visiting Iranian leader. Instead, no more than a handful of Iraqis turned up for the occasion. The numbers were so low that the state-owned TV channels in Iran decided not to use the footage at all.
Instead, much larger crowds gathered to protest Ahmadinejad’s visit. In the Adhamiya district of Baghdad, several thousand poured into the streets with cries of “Iranian aggressor, go home!”
The visit’s highlight was supposed to be a pilgrimage to Karbala and Najaf, the “holiest” of Shiite cities in Iraq. There, Ahmadinejad was supposed to become the first Iranian government leader since 1976 to pray at the mausoleums of Imam Hussein and Imam Ali.
In the end, however, the tour was canceled amid reports that Shiite pilgrims, including thousands from Iran, were planning to demonstrate against his presence at the “holy” cities.
A more important reason motivated Ahmadinejad to drop his planned visits to Najaf – his failure to arrange an encounter with the leading ayatollahs of the “holy” city, especially Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the leading Shiite clergyman. For a president who claims that he’s the standard-bearer of a global Shiite revolution, that was one photo-op to die for.
Initially, Ahmadinejad asked that Sistani visit him at a villa that once housed the Iranian consul-general in Najaf. This is because Ahmadinejad, as Islamic Republic president, mustn’t acknowledge the supremacy of any cleric apart from Ali Khamenei, the Iranian “Supreme Guide.” Under Iranian protocol, the president goes to the “Supreme Guide other mullahs must go to the president.
But Sistani wasn’t prepared to go to Ahmadinejad. That would have acknowledged the superiority of a secular position to a clerical one, something no grand ayatollah would do.
Eventually, a compromise was found: Ahmadinejad was to call on Sistani supposedly because the ayatollah was in poor health. This was to be an exercise in “visiting the sick,” highly recommended in Islam.
At the last minute, however, Sistani’s entourage insisted that there should be no pictures and that neither side should issue a statement at the end of the planned 20-minute meeting. This would’ve deprived Ahmadinejad of his photo op and prevented him from claiming Sistani’s support for the Iranian policy in Iraq. The only solution was for Ahmadinejad not to go to Najaf at all.
The Iranian thus ended up like a devout Catholic leader who goes to Rome but fails to visit the Vatican or call on the pope.
He had already been obliged to cancel a visit to Samarra, where the “Hidden Imam” disappeared in a well on 941 AD. Ahmadinejad had hoped to visit the ruins of the golden-domed Mausoleum of the Two Imams that was bombed by al Qaeda in 2005 and 2006 and announce a plan to rebuild the mausoleum.
The project is of special importance to Ahmadinejad, who claims to be in direct contact with the “Hidden Imam.” (Last year he told his Cabinet that the “Hidden Imam” had accompanied him to the United Nations and filled the General Assembly’s hall with a green light during his speech.)
But two days of demonstrations against Ahmadinejad’s planned visit by the people of Samarra forced him to strike the city off his itinerary.
Nor did Ahmadinejad’s presence in Baghdad go as smoothly as he’d hoped. A good part of the Iraqi political elite, including Cabinet ministers and members of the parliament, boycotted functions held in his honor. Tehran has branded the boycotters as “Saddamites and Sunnis in fact, a good number of Shiite politicians, including the leaders of the Fadila (Virtue) Party, also stayed away.
Protest marches against Ahmadinejad weren’t limited to predominantly Sunni Arab cities such as Mosul, Kirkuk and Fallujah. Thousands of people also turned out in Shiite-majority Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, to oppose the visit and condemn the Islamic Republic’s intervention in domestic Iraqi affairs.
The visit’s political side was equally disappointing for Ahmadinejad. He failed to persuade the Iraqi leaders to stop negotiations with America on long-term arrangements ensuring US commitment to new Iraq for several more years. Nor did he succeed in obtaining cast-iron guarantees that new Iraq won’t seek to renegotiate aspects of the 1975 Treaty with Iran. (Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told an interviewer last year that the treaty, signed by Saddam Hussein, doesn’t reflect the interests of the Iraqi people.)
Ahmadinejad’s visit also failed to produce results on such perennial Irano-Iraqi problems as the fate of thousands from both sides who remain missing in action since the 1980-88 war, and plans for reopening the Shatt al-Arab border estuary to allow a revival of maritime transport in that corner of southwestern Iran.
The Iranian visitor failed on another issue close to the heart of Iran’s ruling mullahs: the handover of some 4,000 members of the Mujahedin Khalq (People’s Combatants), an armed Marxist-Islamist group who live under US protection in a camp northeast of Baghdad. The Iraqi leaders paid lip service to the idea of getting rid of the “terrorists” but offered no timetable for expelling them, let alone handing them over to Tehran and certain death.
Ahmadinejad had come to Iraq to show it was an Iranian playground. He ended up by showing that Iran’s influence in Iraq is widely exaggerated.
To be sure, Tehran exerts influence through a number of Shiite militias it has recruited, trained and financed for years. And some insurgent groups depend on Iran as their main source of weapons, especially sophisticated explosive devices. Iran also remains Iraq’s biggest trading partner and the second-biggest investor in the Iraqi economy. Iranian pilgrims account for more than 90 percent of all foreign visitors in Iraq.
Yet the visit highlighted one crucial fact: Few Iraqis wish to see their country dominated by the Khomeinist regime in Tehran.
Iraq proved too hot for Ahmadinejad. He had to get out as fast as he could.