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The Iranian Veto on Mideast Peace

Author: Greg Bruno
January 8, 2009

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In the political calculus driving Israel's war with Hamas in Gaza, Iranian ambition has emerged as a critical--if not always clearly defined--variable. In Washington, President Bush has supported Israel's strike as necessary self-defense, though some analysts believe an Israeli defeat by Iran-supported Hamas would embolden Tehran and weaken prospects for U.S. diplomacy in the region. And while Israel publicly stresses the need to tackle Hamas rocket fire, analysts, including CFR's Steven A. Cook, note Israel's desire to reassert its dominance following the disastrous 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Launching its attack in the final hours of the reliably pro-Israeli Bush administration, writes CFR Senior Fellow Michael Gerson in the Washington Post, is no coincidence, either.

Iran's mullahs, meanwhile, have followed up the rearmament of Hezbollah by demonstrating an interest in influencing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. Hours after Israel launched "Operation Cast Lead" on Hamas targets, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, blasted the "horrific atrocity of the Zionist regime," lashed out at the Bush administration for "complicity in the large crime," brushed aside European governments for "their indifference," and chastised the "silence" of Arab regimes--Egypt and Jordan chief among them. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also weighed in (IRNA), and an Iranian general has called for an oil embargo against the West (Straits Times) to protest Israeli action. As the Wall Street Journal observes, attention on Gaza "could become a convenient distraction" for Iranian leaders besieged by worsening economic news at home.

Yet parsing Iran's broader goals--and discerning its ability to implement them--remain points of departure in foreign policy circles. Some analysts see a clear connection between Israel and Iran in Gaza. As Robert D. Kaplan writes in the Atlantic, Israel's attack on Iranian-backed Hamas--considered a Foreign Terror Organization (FTO) by the U.S. government with a stated aim of destroying Israel--"is, in effect, an attack on Iran's empire." Israeli intelligence sources from 2003 estimate that Iran contributes $3 million to Hamas annually (PDF). But other observers say ties between Iran and Hamas are less substantive than Israel claims. William O. Beeman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, argues that isolation of Gaza in recent years has effectively limited Iranian material support, a belief shared by Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in a new interview with CFR.org. According to a November 2008 Congressional Research Service report (PDF), Hamas reportedly received about 10 percent of its funding from Iran in the early 1990s but has since turned to "wealthy Persian Gulf donors and supporters in Europe and elsewhere."

Crisis Guide: The Israeli-PalestinianThere is more agreement on how the various outcomes in Gaza will ripple across the region. For Israel, defeat is not an option, though analysts differ on how victory might be defined. Surrounded by forces hostile to the Jewish state, some believe Israel must reassert the military dominance it lost in Lebanon in 2006. Haaretz columnist David Grossman suggests a cease-fire would better suit Israel's strategic aims. For the United States and the incoming Obama administration, a victory is also seen as essential. As former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk suggests, a convincing defeat of Hamas could lead Iran to reevaluate its support (NYT) for terrorists and even prompt a change of course on its nuclear program. An Israeli defeat and a Hamas victory, on the other hand, could bolster Iranian influence and ambitions in the Arab world, some analysts argue.

Outside of those who believe Egypt should be forced to take control of Gaza (FOX), most analysts agree the United States must broaden its regional strategy to help stem the violence. Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland suggests Washington should reach out to its moderate Arab allies in the region "put on the spot by Israel's Gaza onslaught." One possible avenue of cooperation, Hoagland suggests, is to begin selling civilian nuclear technology to the United Arab Emirates as a show of goodwill in the region. Mohammad Yaghi, a Palestinian political expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agrees that the only way out of the impasse is to encourage moderate Arab states to push Hamas into a peace deal. Yet as one Egyptian official tells the International Crisis Group, countering the influence of Iran and other actors will also be key. "The situation in Gaza has more to do with Hamas's relations with the region than confrontation with Israel," he said.

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