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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, middle, visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility in April, 2008. (IRANIAN PRESIDENT’S OFFICE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, middle, visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility in April, 2008. (IRANIAN PRESIDENT’S OFFICE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Trita Parsi

Gaza is testing the limits of Iran’s Mideast ambitions Add to ...

It is clear who the losers of the Gaza war are. At the end of this latest round of fighting, Gaza will be even more devastated; the dignity of its people even more trampled upon and Israel’s security and international legitimacy further eroded. Disparity between Israel and Gaza will grow wider (Gaza has a per capita income of $1,483 compared to Israel’s $31,000) and the seeds of the next war will have been sown.

But who will benefit from this war? And is it, as some have suggested, a precursor to Israeli military strikes against Iran?

Many analysts have connected the fighting in Gaza to Iran. Salman Masalha writes in Haaretz that “the current operation can be called ‘the little southern Iranian operation,’ since it’s designed to paralyze Iran’s southern wing.” According to Walter Russell Mead , a successful Israeli military campaign in Gaza can create a window of opportunity for Israel to strike Iran. But, he warns, “This window will not stay open forever.” Gerald Seib at the Wall Street Journal concurs .

The logic is that in order to minimize the repercussions of a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Israel should first take out Iran’s deterrence and retaliatory capabilities, such as the rockets controlled by Hamas. Once these have been destroyed, Iran’s escalatory options will have been significantly reduced and its ability to enlarge the conflict diminished.

There is a basis for this inkling. In the summer of 2006, at the height of Israel’s war with Lebanon, then-Israeli deputy defense Minister Ephraim Sneh gave credence to the suspicions of wider Israeli war plan. “War with Iran is inevitable,” he told me. “Lebanon is just a prelude to the greater war with Iran.”

But, as in 2006, Tehran’s main retaliatory capabilities are not in Gaza, they are in Lebanon. Any “prelude” to a war with Iran would have to include Lebanon and Iran’s ally, Hezbollah. If fighting flares up on the Lebanese border before spring of 2013, then Gaza may have less to do with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection bid and Hamas’ rockets and more to do with the “inevitable” war with Iran. If the Lebanese border remains calm, then this fight likely isn’t about Iran.

Yet, even though this may not be about Iran, the Iranian regime views itself as one of the winners of this war. For the first time since December, 2011, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is once again the central conversation in the region, not the Arab spring and not the massacres in Syria. It’s the old Middle East that once again rears its face in the New Middle East.

Since the Arab spring reached Syria, Tehran’s soft power in the Sunni Arab world has been in sharp decline. Arguments about the necessity of the “arc of resistance” against the United States and Israel have not resonated with the Arab masses, who have been more concerned with the slaughter in Syria – and Iran’s perceived role therein – than with resistance against Israel.

Tehran has been on the defensive. Its intentions and self-proclaimed commitment to the “oppressed Muslim masses” have been tested. In the eyes of many, it has failed the test: Its cries of support for the Palestinians have rung hollow as it has sided with Bashar al-Assad’s even more brutal slaughter of Syrians.

Now, the focus is shifting away from Iran and to the “winners” of the Arab spring. Now, their commitment to a new foreign policy for a New Middle East will be tested. Will Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood pursue a more assertive policy vis-a-vis Israel compared to that of former president Hosni Mubarak? If there is more continuity than change in Egypt’s Israel policy, how will that affect Mr. Morsi’s apparent bid for regional leadership – or his hold on power at home?

Will Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s new role as the champion of the Sunni Arabs following his aggressive opposition to Mr. Assad survive if he fails to re-adopt his pre-Syria assertiveness against Israel’s Gaza policy? If he fails, will it prove that Mr. Erdogan’s Syria policy has weakened the “arc of resistance” and strengthened Israel regionally? Tehran certainly seems to hope that this will be the conclusion many in the region will reach.

This does not mean, however, that Iran instigated the conflict. Mindful of Hamas’ break with Syria and Iran earlier this year, Tehran’s influence over the Palestinian organization is limited -- and most likely not sufficient to compel Hamas to start a war with Israel for the sake of Tehran’s regional ambitions. Rather, Tehran has once again demonstrated its ability to take advantage of missteps by its rivals rather than its ability to actively drive developments in the region to its own advantage.

Tehran’s celebratory mood may be premature, however. The Middle East remains an orderless region. The geopolitical pendulum swings swiftly – the rise and decline of states is not measured in decades and centuries, but in months and years. A few weeks from now, we may be back in the New Middle East.

Trita Parsi is the author of “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran” and “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States.” He is the president of the National Iranian-American Council.

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