Iran pulling strings to create Mideast turmoil

What do all the current threats facing the Middle East — the Hamas takeover in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah’s bid for power in Lebanon, political turmoil in Iraq and imminent nu- clear weapons in the hands of a radical dictatorship — all have in common? Answer: Iran.

While these issues all have their local roots, they are also linked by Tehran’s drive for regional hegemony. Iran’s strategy has basically been in place since the 1979 Islamist revolution, but it has only recently begun to pay off. The often-stated goal of the revolution was to turn Iran into a utopian Islamist society and then to spread this revolution throughout the Middle East and the Islamic world in general.

While all Iranian leaders voice basic support for this program, the country has often been cautious in pursuing it, especially given the long war with Iraq in the 1980s and the possibility of Western opposition. But now a number of events have given the regime renewed confidence, and the extreme line taken by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also produced more daring and, thus, both reckless and violent behavior.

Iran tries to extend its influence in three ways: through propaganda and incitement, by promoting client groups and projecting the state’s own power. Today, Iran sponsors radical Islamist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and among the Palestinians, as well as in other countries. Its two most important clients are Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian group Hamas.

While this is not to suggest that these organizations are totally controlled by Tehran and have their every move dictated by it, Iran largely finances these groups, provides weapons and training, encourages them to launch attacks and shapes their ideology. Without Iran’s backing, they would lack most of their power.

The evidence indicates that Iran has been urging them to be more aggressive and to launch terrorist attacks and more general offensives.

Take Lebanon, for example. Hezbollah, the large Shi’a Muslim group, closely follows Iran’s line. The organization’s head, Hassan Nasrallah, is also the official representative in Lebanon of Iran’s “spiritual guide” or supreme leader — that country’s most powerful official.

In 2006, it launched attacks on Israel that led to a major war, steps it would never dared have taken unless Hezbollah’s leadership knew that Iran wanted such actions. Indeed, in an April interview on Al-Kawthar TV, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Naim Qassem told his interviewer that “Hezbollah, when it comes to matters of jurisprudence pertaining to its general direction, as well as to its jihad direction, bases itself on the decisions of the ‘spiritual guide’ [Iran’s supreme leader]…. With regard to all the other details — whenever we need jurisprudent clarifications regarding what is permitted and what is forbidden on the jihad front, we ask, receive general answers and implement them.”

Since the end of the summer 2006 war, Hezbollah’s emphasis has been to seek control over Lebanon, though it has simultaneously rebuilt its military power. On a number of occasions, Iran has been caught smuggling arms to Hezbollah, through both Syria and Turkey. Iranian Revolutionary Guards act as military advisers to Hezbollah.

Opponents of an Iranian-Syrian takeover in Lebanon, both politicians and journalists, have been systematically murdered in terrorist attacks. Clearly, as many Lebanese have noted, Iran is seeking to turn Lebanon into a satellite state.

The same tactics are employed with the Palestinians. Hamas and the even more extremist Palestinian Islamic Jihad follow Iran’s line. Tehran has publicly urged these organizations to carry out terrorist attacks and, in addition to training and arms, provides them with examples of openly anti-Semitic rhetoric duplicated in their propaganda.

This June was a turning point in Palestinian history. Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, expelled its nationalist Fatah rivals, executed many people because of their political views or activities and made clear its intention of transforming the Gaza Strip into an Islamist state, basically following Iran’s example.

Many Palestinians and other Arabs publicly state their fear and resentment at the idea that Hamas represented an Iranian effort to seize control of their land and cause. On June 20, Yasser Abed Rabbo, senior member of Fatah’s PLO executive committee, said in a press statement that “Iran helped Hamas to lead a military coup against the legitimate Palestinian leadership and to control the Gaza Strip.”

“Iran supports those hostile powers in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories in order to serve its regional interests on the expense of the peoples and nations of the region,” Abed Rabbo said.

Similarly, in a recent speech, Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit asserted that Iranian aid to Hamas activities in Gaza posed a threat to Egyptian national security.

Two of the Arab world’s top journalists have also spoken out on this issue. Tariq al-Humayd, editor of the popular Arabic daily, Asharq Alawsat, wrote, “The source of the funds is obviously Iran. Today, no one has control over Hamas … except Iran, its economic patron, and Syria,” Iran’s ally and the place where Hamas has its headquarters.

Ahmad Al-Jarallah, editor of Kuwait’s Al-Siyassa, noted: “By means of Hamas’ takeover in Gaza, the Iran-Syria axis has managed … to sabotage the Israeli-Palestinian peace” and become the main arbiter of regional politics.

Make no mistake — this is only the beginning. On the horizon looms Iran’s nuclear arsenal. If Tehran gets this ultimate weapon of mass destruction, it will rally far larger numbers of radical and terrorist forces in attacking the West and more moderate Arabs, as well as Israel.

Hiding behind its nuclear umbrella, Iran and its allies will also be able to openly engage in attacks on Western interests without fear of Western retribution. Finally, if Iran gets the upper hand, it will block any chance for peace and push the region into decades of more bloodshed.

This is why the details of events in Iraq, Lebanon and among the Palestinians do not detract from, but indeed reinforce, the need to contain Iran and especially to ensure that it does not obtain nuclear weapons.

Ehud Danoch is consul general of Israel to the Southwestern United States and served previously as chief of staff to Israel’s deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs.