Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and the Global Jihad:
A New Conflict Paradigm for the West
The Middle East has undergone revolutionary changes in the last few years that require a serious reassessment of how the region’s myriad problems should be addressed. For most of the 1990s it was the conventional wisdom that the key to regional stability was to be found in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and, as a result, Western diplomatic energies were primarily focused on that area. Moreover, according to this traditional paradigm for viewing the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict was also easily resolvable in a relatively short time-frame; with a diplomatic investment of a few years, it was hoped, it would be possible to conclude a region-wide peace agreement that included Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab states.
However, in the aftermath of the War on Terrorism that began in late 2001, new factors were becoming more prominent in the politics of the Middle East. For example, it has become clear that radical Islamic militancy, which had been organizationally led by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, transferred many of its main centers of operation to the Middle East after the fall of the Taliban regime. This was especially noticeable in the area of western Iraq and in several neighboring countries. Thus, it was becoming increasingly difficult to argue that the Arab-Israeli conflict was the root cause of regional instability. Indeed, the immediate historical roots of radical Islam could be traced to two events that had nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict: the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the 1989 defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan that spawned al-Qaeda.
Now radical Islam is gaining strength among the Palestinians with the victory of Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections of the Palestinian Authority. This was the first time an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood has seized power in the core of the Middle East. The hostility of Hamas toward Israel cannot be ameliorated through diplomacy or by means of a fair territorial compromise. Hamas and its allies completely reject a negotiated solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and align themselves with jihadi organizations across the region. As a result, the Arab-Israeli conflict has become increasingly a part of the much larger struggle between radical Islam and the West.
With the emergence for the first time of a Shiite-dominated Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran sensed that it now has an historic opportunity to emerge as the dominant power in the entire Middle East, projecting its influence to neighboring Shiite communities and reaching out to the Sunni Arab street over the heads of current governments. To neutralize any Western efforts to block its quest for regional hegemony, Iran has been prepared to take all the risks entailed in order to develop an independent nuclear weapons capability, along with an assortment of long-range missile delivery systems, that could shortly pose a threat to Western Europe and eventually to the U.S., as well. The steady increase in its naval power has been intended to provide Iran with the ability to dominate the Persian Gulf and the energy sources of both the West and the rising Asian economies.
Iran’s determination to acquire these strategic capabilities has been facilitated by the steady increases in its annual revenues from oil sales since 2003, as well as the prioritization it has given to these projects. While investing in its missile and naval forces, Iran has spent relatively less on airpower and its land forces, which it could afford to do after the decline of the primary ground threat it had traditionally faced from Iraq along its western border and to a lesser extent from the radical Sunni Taliban regime in Afghanistan to its east.
The Iranian drive for new great power status has been driven by the ideological orientation of its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has rejuvenated the energy behind the original 1979 Islamic Revolution. He has underscored that he firmly believes in an impending Shiite apocalyptic scenario and, as a result, he does not seem to be influenced by the same considerations of deterrence that affected the calculations of the superpowers during the Cold War. He has put in place an Iranian government manned by fellow former Revolutionary Guards, many of whom share his ideological outlook. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – and its Quds Force in particular – has been a critical instrument for spreading Iranian political-military influence across the Middle East, from Lebanon to Sudan, and most recently in Iraq.
It would be a cardinal error to see the rise of Sunni and Shiite militancy as completely separate developments that cannot influence one another and do not cooperate. Iran sought to make inroads with the Islamist regime in Sudan in the 1990s. It has backed Sunni organizations like Palestinian Islamic Jihad for years and is now emerging as the most significant source of support for Hamas. The 9/11 Commission details Iranian cooperation with al-Qaeda. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the butcher of Iraqi Shiites during the insurgency, was provided refuge and support by the Iranian regime when he evacuated Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. In order for Iran to assume a leadership role in the Islamic world, it must reach out beyond the Shiite communities of the world, which account for only 15 percent of all Muslims, and ally itself with Sunni movements, as well.
Yet while Iran seeks greater influence in the Sunni-dominated states, the Iraq War has exacerbated Sunni-Shiite tensions across the Middle East, leading Sunni leaders like Jordan’s King Abdullah to openly talk about the dangers of a Shiite crescent encircling the core of the Middle East. And in anticipation of a U.S. pullback from Iraq, the Saudi Arabian leadership has voiced its concern regarding the prospect that Iraqi Shiites intend to ethnically cleanse Iraq of its Sunni minority population with Iranian backing.
As a result, the Sunni-Shiite rivalry is likely to emerge as the central axis of conflict in the Middle East in the years to come. Given this new strategic context, the U.S. and its Western allies have enormous leverage with the threatened Sunni Arab states. As a consequence, the West does not have to pay for their cooperation in Israeli coin. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s continuing support for radical jihadi movements among Sunnis needs to be carefully monitored and addressed.
It is striking that while these revolutionary changes are transpiring, many Western policy-makers seem to be locked into ideas for stabilizing the Middle East that were conceived more than a decade ago under completely different regional circumstances. This problem was particularly glaring in the report of the Iraq Study Group Commission, chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, that sought to accommodate Iran (as well as its Syrian ally) and increase pressure on Israel to reach a settlement with its most radicalized neighbors.
From the analysis that follows, new principles of Western policy become necessary that reflect the new realities of the Middle East:
- Iran is more determined than ever to achieve regional hegemony in the Middle East and is fueling regional instability across the entire area. It is a cardinal error for the West to believe that Iran can be turned into a status-quo power by addressing a series of political grievances that its leadership may voice (or by apologizing for Western colonial policies toward Iran in the past). Iran’s role in the UN-sponsored “Six-Plus-Two” talks over Afghanistan in the late 1990s (with the U.S., Russia, and Afghanistan’s neighbors) cannot be compared to its intended role in Iraq. In the Afghan case, Iran had an interest in the containment of a radical Sunni state under the Taliban, where Shiites were only a minority. In the Iraqi, case in contrast, Iran is threatening to dominate a Shiite-majority country. In any case, after 2001, Iran’s limited contacts with the West did not prevent its leadership from sheltering elements of al-Qaeda.
- The primary threat to the Sunni Arab states now clearly comes from Iran. The residual Arab-Israeli conflict is not their utmost concern. Indeed, Israel and the Sunni Arabs may have many common threat perceptions. The resulting coincidence of their security interests may not be sufficient to produce any diplomatic breakthroughs in the peace process, where wide gaps remain between Israel and the Palestinians on all the core issues, but it might warrant low level discussions between Israel and its neighbors about how to address the threats that they face.
- There is no short-term diplomatic option for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As long as the present wave of radical Islam continues and successfully dominates Palestinian politics, it is extremely unlikely that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will produce any long-lasting agreements. Further Israeli unilateral pullbacks, in the absence of a Palestinian negotiating partner, are likely to strengthen the grip of radical Islam on Palestinian society and vindicate the success of radical Islam across the region as well. This is precisely what happened with the Gaza Disengagement in August 2005.
- The stabilization of the Middle East requires the neutralization of any of the components of the current radical Islamic wave. In this sense, it doesn’t matter if Sunni or Shiite organizations are defeated, for the failure of any one of the elements in the present wave will weaken the other elements as well. The defeat of Hamas among the Palestinians or Hizballah in Lebanon would constitute an enormous setback for Iran. Today, Ahmadinejad’s Iran is the main source of regional instability across the Middle East, both directly and indirectly, through proxy organizations that it supports.
- Israel has a continuing need for defensible borders. With the rise of both Sunni and Shiite terrorist capabilities around Israel, the Middle East has become a more dangerous region. Deterrence of these organizations may be very difficult to achieve. Under such conditions, were Israel pressured to concede the Jordan Valley, for example, it would likely expose itself to a steep increase in infiltration to the strategic West Bank, including weapons and volunteers, and thus face the same experience it had with the Philadelphi corridor after the Gaza pullout. At the same time, the vacuum such a move created would increasingly attract global jihadi groups to Jordan, thereby undermining the stability of the Hashemite kingdom, and ultimately the region as a whole.