February 25, 2012
by Avi Melamed
The Iranian nuclear military program and the possibility of a massive military collision in the Middle East are clearly occupying the world’s attention.
These concerns are not groundless. However, is military confrontation inevitable?
In this article, I would like to bring your attention to the fact that at this specific moment, due to the confluence of particular events, the West has a unique opportunity, which, if “played correctly,” could force the Iranian regime – in a completely non-combative way – to put a halt to its nuclear military program.
In order to take advantage of this opportunity, the West must fundamentally understand what is currently happening in the Middle East that makes this moment so unique. They need to know how to maximize the situation to their, and the world’s, benefit; and most importantly – because there is a small window of time – the West must seize the moment to act quickly and decisively.
What is happening right now that offers this unique window of opportunity?
The Iranian regime is under increasing stress. The days that it can continue to manipulate the international community are becoming numbered.
One of the reasons for this pressure is the severe economic crisis inside Iran- a result of the international sanctions the West has imposed on the regime.
There is another very important reason for the Iranian weakness: the Axis of Resistance is beginning to crumble.
What is the Axis of Resistance? A powerful web of allies and proxies developed and sponsored by the Iranians whose major members are: The Assad regime in Syria; Hezbollah in Lebanon; and Palestinian terror organizations in the Gaza Strip including, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees.
What is the military capacity of the Axis of Resistance? Their military is comprised of massive amounts of rockets and missiles, supplied and primarily developed and manufactured by the Iranians and the Syrians. The combined rocket and missile capacity of Iran and Syria, and their proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza, is unmatched by almost any other nation on the planet.
What is the purpose of this massive military build-up? To help Iran in its aspiration to become the dominant superpower in the Persian Gulf; to deter Israel from damaging Iranian interests; to deter Israel from stalling or destroying the Iranian military nuclear program; and to attack Israel in the case of a military confrontation between Iran and Israel or Iran and the West.
The Axis of Resistance is one of Iran’s major assets: This massive military capability is a major card the Iranian regime plays when it comes to its nuclear military program. In the Iranian’s talks with the West and the International community, the regime makes the following crystal clear: If Iran’s vital interests are jeopardized; they have the immediate ability to create a massive eruption in the region by ordering Hezbollah and Hamas to use their arsenals to attack Israel.
What is critical for the West to understand is that there are signs in the Arab world today that indicate that the main proxies in the war against Israel – Hezbollah and Hamas – just might not jump so fast to comply with such an Iranian order. This is the unique window of opportunity.
The main reason for this change in the relationship between the patronIranand the proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, is the crisis in Syria (Syria by the way is both a sponsor and a proxy).
The events in Syria are causing major fissures within the Axis of Resistance, and as a result, its members are facing growing stresses and dilemmas.
Events in Syria and their Impact on the members of the Axis of Resistance
When the uprisings began sweeping the Arab world at the end of 2010, the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he said – Syriais not threatened by the current tsunami because it is the “leader of the Resistance.”
In March 2011, a few months after that reassuring interview, the tsunami indeed reached the shores of Assad’s rule. One year later, Assad is fighting to survive the uprising of the Syrian people. Over 8,000 Syrians – most of them civilians – have been brutally and indiscriminately killed, thousands are missing and thousands are being tortured in Syrian jails.
The uprising in Syria is sliding towards a civil war divided along Sunni-Shiite lines. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood branch in Jordan is openly calling for a military Jihad against Assad’s rule. Similar calls have been made by Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaida. There are reports that Sunni Muslim militants are entering Syria from Iraq, Lebanon and Libya to assist the rebel forces in their fight against Assad’s troops.
How things will play out in Syria is unclear, as is the aftermath of the current uprising.
But three things are certain: Assad has lost his legitimacy in the Arab world; Assad has lost his legitimacy with the West and Syria will never go back to what it used to be.
If the Assad regime collapses this would be a massive blow to Iran. Assad is the primary strategic ally of Iran. Iran has invested huge amounts of money in Syria.
The alliance with Syria has enabled Iran to build a de-facto stronghold in Lebanon, via Hezbollah. This allows Iran direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. The downfall of the Assad regime would mean that Iran will lose its land bridge to the Mediterranean and to its biggest outpost in the region – Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The alliance with Syria- always thought as the “heart of the Arab world” – has enabled Iran to “become part of the Arab world” both on a tactical and practical, and no less important – on a somewhat emotional level.
If Assad should fall, whoever comes to power in Syria is expected to be much less friendly, to say the least, towards Iran, than Assad.
And most disturbing to Iran is that the downfall of the Assad regime might be an inspiration to the Iranian people and spark a new popular uprising. Reports of evolving unrest within Iran are growing as Parliamentary elections are right around the corner – scheduled for the beginning of March.
Considering the above, it is no wonder that the Iranian regime is doing whatever it can to save Assad’s rule including providing the regime with money, oil, commodities, weapons, advisors, etc. The Iranians have even sent forces from their Elite Revolutionary Guard Units to assist Assad’s troops to quell the rebellion.
The Iranian regime gives lip service to the Arab world and presents itself as the defender of the Arab cause and of Muslim interests. However, the majority of the Arab world doesn’t buy it. In the eyes of the majority of Arabs, the Iranian regime is a brutal, dangerous and cynical regime. The participation of the Iranian regime in the massacre of the Syrian people is the ultimate proof.
The Arab world will shed no tear should the Iranian regime fall.
If the Assad regime collapses this would be a massive blow to Iran’s proxy in Lebanon– Hezbollah. Syria is Hezbollah’s lifeline – Iranian and Syrian supplied weapons travel in huge caravans to Lebanon through Syria.
Similar to its patron, the Iranian regime, Hezbollah is making efforts to save the Assad regime. In many public speeches, Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has urged the Syrian people to stand by Assad. Nasrallah describes the uprising in Syriaas an “Israeli-American plot.” Only a couple of weeks ago, without blinking Nasrallah said “Nothing is going on in Homs” while footage shows the city reduced to rubble under the endless barrage of weapons relentlessly and mercilessly fired by Assad’s forces.
Hezbollah’s support for Assad does not end with rhetoric. According to reports, Hezbollah militants were killed, as they, were fighting side by side Assad’s army against the rebels. Hezbollah ordered that they be buried secretly in an attempt to hide Hezbollah’s support and involvement.
The majority of the Syrians are Sunnis. They will never forget, nor will they ever forgive, Hassan Nasrallah for supporting the cold-blooded massacre of over 8,000 (and counting) Syrians – whom most are Sunnis. With Assad gone, Hezbollah may very well find itself confronting massively armed enraged Sunni militants at the same time Hezbollah’s weapon supply route is cut. Nasrallah has been hiding in a bunker since the 2006 war. He is not hiding from Israel. He is hiding from the Sunnis because he knows they will take any opportunity they can to eliminate him.
Lebanon, held hostage by Hezbollah, is already on the verge of a massive inner eruption and Hezbollah may just find itself facing the full wrath of the Lebanese people. Even the Shiites in southern Lebanon, the stronghold of Hezbollah, recently and brazenly renounced the organization following Nasrallah’s recent statement: “nothing is happening in Homs.” Following that statement Hezbollah’s flag was burned. This scene, just a few short years ago, was unthinkable.
Hezbollah could find itself fighting for its lives – and the Lebanese will once again find themselves drowning in bloodshed.
Hezbollah is under a lot of stress and confronts a serious dilemma. In a recent public speech, Nasrallah hinted at that dilemma announcing that “Iran does not expect Hezbollah to attack Israel automatically in a situation of an Israeli-Iranian confrontation…Iran respects Hezbollah’s free decision“.
Here is Hezbollah’s dilemma:
Iran invested billions of dollars in Hezbollah and mostly in its huge arsenal of rockets and missiles. The dozens of thousands rockets that Hezbollah posses are not supposed to rust. They are supposed to be used upon Iran’s order. If Hezbollah fails to comply with such an order, Nasrallah could lose more than his position.
On the other hand, Nasrallah knows that if he does comply with the Iranian order, he will bring catastrophe upon Lebanon. And worse than that, Hezbollah following a massive confrontation with Israel, could find itself severely weakened, and at the total mercy of the Sunnis. The Sunnis may use that opportunity to take their revenge on Hezbollah – and it will be merciless.
Similar to Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy is under stress – Hamas.
Hamas and Syria
As events in Syria have evolved and the suppression of the Syrians turn more and more brutal, Hamas has also found itself under stress and facing a serious juncture.
Assad is the patron of Hamas. Hamas Headquarters have been located in Syria. Hamas was warmly hosted by the Assad government.
Hamas is actually an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and ideologically and operationally, defines itself today as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood movement could not stand silent in the face of the massacre of thousands of Syrians – most of whom are Sunnis. The Muslim Brotherhood, therefore, strongly condemned Assad (as I said earlier, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan openly called for a militant Jihad on Assad’s rule.)
Hamas found itself trapped between its affiliation with and loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand and its dependence on Assad’s hospitality and support on the other hand. The Hamas leadership did everything it could to “hold the stick at both ends.” But, the Pressure on Hamas steadily increased.
The Arab world harshly criticized Hamas for staying silent in light of the Assad regime’s brutality. While President Assad demanded that Hamas officially and publicly stand by him.
The pressure became so intolerable that the Hamas leadership needed to choose a side. They chose to flee the sinking Syrian ship. They turned their back on Assad.
Today Hamas leaders are surveying and travelling the region looking for alternative hosts in the Arab world.
Hamas’ Inner Turbulence
Leaving Syria was only the beginning of even greater problems for Hamas.
With the leadership of Hamas turning their back on Iran and Syria, the ever-present, yet rising tension, between the Hamas leadership outside the Gaza Strip and the leadership inside the Gaza Strip quickly evolved into an open and public rift.
Traditionally, the Hamas leadership in Syria took a tougher line when it came towards violence towards Israel. They pressured Hamas inside the Gaza Strip to continue the attacks onIsrael regardless of the suffering the residents of Gazawould experience as a result of the Israeli response to such attacks. On the other hand, the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip is directly held accountable for the suffering of the citizens of Gaza. Hamas is likely to lose power if it is perceived as a ruler that launches attacks on Israel regardless of the suffering the residents of Gaza experience as a result of the Israeli response to such attacks.
The traditional roles within Hamas have been reversed.
Khaled Mashaal, the leader of Hamas, who was based in Syria, finds himself in a difficult position. He has left his host country. He has distanced himself from the warm embrace of the Syrians and the Iranians. He’s now looking for alternative host in the Arab world.
Mashaal needed a new strategy.
He turned to the Israeli-Palestinian issue as a means to find his way and redefine his relationship and in the dramatically changing political landscape of the Arab world.
Khaled Mashaal, as the leader of Hamas, agreed to the concept of “Palestinian peaceful resistance” against Israel. Khaled Mashaal, as the leader of Hamas, also agreed that the Prime Minister of the transitional Palestinian reconciliation government would be Mahmuod Abbas, the Chairman if the Palestinian National Authority and the leader of Fatah.
The problem is that the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip does not agree with Mashaal’s decision and is taking a different route.
Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister of the Hamas self-declared government in the Gaza Strip took a tour of the Arab world himself. He arranged a formal visit to Iran, in spite of the fact that the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood told him not to. During his tour Haniyeh, reaffirmed Hamas’ commitment to the militant resistance and reassured the Iranian leader that Hamas is dedicated to continuing the war against on Israel until Israel is destroyed.
Haniyeh is clearly trying to keep his options open – including the connection withIran. Iranis the major sponsor of Hamas – and the Iranian regime does not give free meals. As with Hezbollah inLebanon, the thousands of rockets that Iran provided Hamas with in the Gaza Strip are not supposed to rust, upon the Iranian order they are to be launched against Israeli cities.
Hamas’ inner friction goes beyond the Mashaal – Haniyeh separation.
For the first time in its history there is even the possibility of an inner “divorce.” Reliable reports indicate that the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade – the military wing of Hamas is also experiencing a split.
Hamas and Iran
When it comes to Iran, Hamas faces the following dilemmas:
If Hamas refuses to comply with an Iranian order to launch missiles on Israel, the Iranian regime has alternatives.
In the above scenario Hamas may find itself in a war it doesn’t want; a war that could jeopardize Hamas’ rule in the Gaza Strip. If Hamas wants to prevent other organizations from obeying Iran’s order to strike, Hamas needs to assert its leadership, which could very likely result in Hamas openly battling other Palestinian organizations inside the Gaza Strip. The scenes of Palestinians butchering one another will severely damage Hamas’ attempt to be portray itself as a reliable and accountable entity and will damage Hamas’ major campaign to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the world.
If Hamas complies with an Iranian order to launch an attack on Israel, it jeopardizes its relationship with the Arab world.
If the attack results in a war that brings another catastrophe upon the people of the Gaza Strip, Hamas will be perceived in the Arab world as a Sunni Arab movement that sacrifices Sunni Arabs for the sake of the despicable Iranian Shiite regime.
An additional dilemma for Hamas is that if it complies with an Iranian order to launch an attack on Israel, it puts the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt in a difficult position. As the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt rises to power, they are expected to deal with Egypt’s enormous domestic challenges. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military leadership are demanding that Hamas play a stabilizing role. The last thing they need is a war in the Gaza Strip that will spark huge popular demonstrations in the streets and chaos in Egypt. Hamas is inEgypt’s backyard and Hamas cannot afford itself a confrontation with the strongest political factors in Egypt. Moreover, Hamas cannot afford a confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, clearly one of the emerging central powers in the Arab world.
Hamas is severely fragmented and under stress, is quickly moving towards a pivotal junction in which the organization will have to make strategic decisions.
The Unique Window of Opportunity
The dilemmas facing the allies and proxies of the Iranian regime are disrupting the Iranians plans because they are weakening its bargaining power and it ability to maneuver and manipulate. As a result, today there is a unique window of opportunity which has the potential to force the Iranian regime in a non-combat way to stop its nuclear military program.
This opportunity is confined to a short window of time.
The West should maximize this opportunity by leading a multi-level effort which includes:
Increasing the sanctions imposed on the Iranian regime
Speeding up the downfall of Assad and strengthening the Sunni-Syrian-Lebanese axis. This would isolate Hezbollah from Iran.
Putting pressure on the Lebanese government to disarm Hezbollah The effort should be led by the Saudis and the Gulf states who are massively invested in Lebanon. In return for Hezbollah’s disarmament, the Gulf States will support Lebanon in building modern and efficient power plants to meet Lebanon’s severe and growing energy crisis.
Developing a relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt based upon reciprocity and mutual needs. The Muslim Brotherhood agrees to restrain Hamas in the Gaza Strip in return for long-term massive international financial and economic aid to Egypt.
The West Must Act Quickly and Decisively: The Time is Now
The Axis of Resistance –Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas have been the main source of instability in the region for the last generation. The Iranians ability to activate this axis is used time and time again by the Iranian regime as card in order to ensure that it continues undeterred in its quest to have a nuclear military program. Should Iran achieve its nuclear ambitions they, and their proxies, will continue to dictate the agenda in the Middle East even without firing one shot. Should Iran not achieve its ambitions to be a nuclear military power, they, and their proxies, will need to find their way in a rapidly changing Middle East– one that is not particularly fond of them.
The Axis of Resistance is cracking and the West has to seize the opportunity and to speed up the disintegration of this Axis, thus neutralizing the ability of the Iranians to ignite the region at the snap of their fingertips.
If the West acts strategically and swiftly it will ensure its major interests:
It will force Iran to stop its nuclear military program in a non-combative way.
It will rehabilitate the image of the West and mainly the USA’s image of a “sinking power” in the eyes of the Arab world
Iran will not be able to present a military threat to the West.
The lack of a military nuclear umbrella will prevent Iran’s ability to threaten the West’s major source of oil.
Iran will lose its ability to continue to generate instability through the axis of resistance
Will the West recognize the opportunity and act swiftly and decisively?