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Monday, January 5, 2009

Gaza conflict has everything to do with the power struggle in Iran

By Gregory R. Copley

The escalation in rocket attacks by Hamas forces in Gaza against neighboring Israeli towns over the past 18 months, leading to Israeli retaliation must be viewed in the context of the struggle for power now underway between competing sets of Iranian clerics.

Iran has been the principal financial, logistical, and ideological sponsor of Hamas, and has mostly done so through its assets in Syria and Lebanon, whether using direct Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran) al-Quds special forces, or Iranian-controlled Hizbullah forces in Lebanon. Hizbullah’s military operations against Israel in the 2006 Lebanon War provided a clear model of operations for Hamas’ military operations, particularly by its Executive Force and its Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades.

Iran and its surrogate, Syria, have been the major force supporting Hamas in Gaza, and creating Gaza as a separate entity from the Palestine National Authority (PNA) after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006 and subsequently formed the Government of the Palestine National Authority in March 2007.

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With strong Iranian and Syrian support (and practical, operational support from Hizbullah and al-Quds Brigade teams), Hamas in July 2007 carried out a coup in the Gaza Strip, neutralizing Fatah — and therefore the PNA’s Fatah President (ie: the “head-of-state” of the Palestinian entity), Abu Mazen (Mahmud ‘Abbas) — and the PNA’s military and political power.

Thus, Hamas set up a radical Muslim entity in the Gaza Strip. As a sub-set of this picture, then, it is important to note that the PNA — Palestine — became, in July 2007, essentially two separate and mutually hostile states.

For this reason, the Fatah-controlled West Bank, which remains under President Mahmud Abbas, has been extremely careful during the first week of January to remain quiet on the matter of the Israeli retaliation against Hamas in Gaza. Pointedly, in stark contradiction to Hamas’ fervently Islamist stance, President ‘Abbas attended Christmas services in Bethlehem to highlight the multi-confessional nature of Palestinian society, even though Fatah had itself once played a role in forcing Palestinian Christians into a defensive position against the overwhelmingly Muslim nature of the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) structure.

Within this framework, it is also significant that — while attempting to show solidarity with Palestinian civilians in Gaza, suffering from the current conflict — a number of Arab leaders have been cautious not to support Hamas. Highly-placed sources in Cairo, Riyadh, and elsewhere have indicated that Saudi and Egyptian leaders have quietly expressed the hope that Israel would destroy the Hamas infrastructure before stopping its military operations in Gaza.

The reasoning is clear: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and a number of the Arab states have no wish to see an Iranian-dominated Middle East, with Hamas, Hizbullah, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad operating as satraps of Tehran and Qom.

There is evidence that not all of the Iranian clerical leadership wishes to pursue the same high-risk strategy which Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has pursued, given that his brinkmanship has kept Iran isolated. Moreover, Iranian leaders such as “Supreme Leader” “Ayatollah” Ali Hoseini-Khamenei and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani are concerned that Ahmadinejad’s jingoistic style of politics could see him become more popular than ever when Iran goes to the polls in presidential elections on June 12. Mahmud Ahmadinejad won 62 percent of the last Presidential election vote in June 2005, returning him to office, compared with 36 for former President Rafsanjani.

Ahmadinejad moved quickly, on becoming president, to consolidate his control over the real instruments of power: the IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. He moved, as well, to put his controls onto the regular Armed Forces, essentially making them subordinate to the IRGC. The IRGC status compared with the Armed Forces of Iran can be likened to the status of the SS compared with the Wehrmacht in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s: one is an instrument of a political group; the other an instrument of the state. In modern Iran, Ahmadinejad now appears to be firmly in command of the IRGC, the intelligence and internal security structure (including the paramilitary Basij), and at least nominally in control of the Armed Forces.

As recently as Jan. 4, Ahmadinejad had been using the “new” conflict in Gaza as a vehicle to build a case for regional war. He said, when presenting a bill on economic development to the Majlis, that Israeli “crimes against humanity in Gaza” would be a prelude to “great developments in the region”, stressing that the resistance movement of the Palestinian people and the Gaza inhabitants would be victorious in the near future. Ahmadinejad’s statements against Israel in the current crisis have helped revive support from his traditional power base inside Iran, and while he has been on the defensive politically, because of the rapidly-worsening Iranian economy, he has now been able to offset this — or at least distract from this — by portraying the “real” problem as being the Israeli retaliation against Hamas: a retaliation which he specifically engineered by pushing Hamas into its escalation of rocket attacks into Israel over the past 18 months.

Significantly, Israel may well have continued to refrain from such a strong military response as the present action — the Israel Defense Force Operation Cast Lead, which began on Dec. 27 — if it had not considered the fact that the incoming Barack Obama Administration might have been less supportive of its security position than the now-outgoing administration of President George W. Bush. However, there can be little doubt that Hamas has been responding to Iranian (ie: Ahmadinejad) pressures for more than a year, attempting to force Israel into a military retaliation which would presage a wider conflict which in turn would benefit Ahmadinejad’s position inside Iran, regardless of the physical outcome on the ground in Gaza or elsewhere in the Levant.

Certainly, one option cannot be ruled out: Hizbullah and al-Quds units could resume rocket attacks on Israel from Lebanon as a means of widening the present conflict, and to distract Israel into a second front. It seems clear that Hizbullah and al-Quds units have rebuilt their capabilities since the 2006 war with Israel, and have learned distinct lessons from that conflict.

Hamas has no other strategic supporter, in real terms, than the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah bloc. Thus, Hamas is beholden to Iran, which controls that bloc. That is not to say that the Hamas leadership is not in total sympathy with the escalation against Israel over the past 18 months to two years, but Hamas has certainly been emboldened and empowered by Iran. And the only instruments which Iran has been able to use, effectively, to bypass the isolation of Gaza has been its own forces (the IRGC al-Quds operatives), and those with which it either controls, such as Hizbullah, and the Syrian intelligence networks, or influences, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is clear, for example, that the 122mm Grad rockets being used by Hamas against Israeli towns could only have been supplied by a foreign state, almost certainly Syria operating at the behest of Iran. Clearly, Hamas has a ready supply of the Russian-made Grads, and on Dec. 30, alone it fired barrages against the Israeli cities and towns of Beersheba, Ashdod, Kiryat Malachi, Rahat, Ashkelon, Sderot, and in the dining hall of Kibbutz Miflasim. Other towns, including Netivot and Kibbutz Zikim (south of Ashkelon), have also taken hits from Hamas rockets.

Hamas has been using, for its longer-range rocket attacks, Kassam, multiple-tube-launched BM-21 Grad (Russian for “hail”), and Katyusha multiple-launch rocket systems. The Grad has a range of only some 20km, as does the Kassam-4 variant (the longest-range Kassam). Some forms of the multiple-launch rocket systems which are called Katyushas (and the Grad is in this category) have longer or shorter ranges. The 122mm Syrian-manufactured Katyusha artillery rocket, for example, which carries warheads up to 30kg (66 lb), has a range of up to 30km (19 miles).

Israeli sources have repeatedly mentioned that they expect rocket attacks from northern Gaza to reach cities such as Ashdod, the fifth largest city in Israel and Israel’s largest port, accounting for 60 percent of the country’s imported goods. IDF sources believe that Iranian technology has doubled the range of the Grad rocket system. The ability of Hamas, then, to hit truly strategic targets — as well as the humanitarian civilian targets it has been rocketing for some two years — would put high emphasis on the IDF’s mission to destroy all Hamas capabilities in Gaza.

Assuming IDF success in destroying all effective Hamas capabilities in Gaza, Fatah — as well as other observers — must be contemplating whether Fatah could fill the vacuum in the Gaza enclave, bearing in mind that the legislative elections of January 2006 roundly rejected Fatah because of its decades of corruption under the late Yasir Arafat’s rule. Absent that prospect, Gaza could be forever lost to the PNA, or at least effectively isolated from the Palestinian mainstream.

Whatever happens there in the longer-term, in the shorter-term Iranian President Ahmadinejad has a commitment to escalate the conflict which he has been promoting for some two years. This may, if it backfires, give his opponents at home the opportunity to remove him, and Iranian sources indicate that this is a distinct possibility in the months preceding the next presidential election on June 12, 2009.

Iranian Government sources have indicated that while they are anxious for normalization with the West, and particularly the U.S., they do not want such an event to take place — including the presence of a U.S. mission of any kind in Tehran — done in such a way that it would appear like a victory for Ahmadinejad, making it appear as though he had forced “the great satan” (the United States) to “sue for peace” with Iran.

At that point, it would make the removal of Ahmadinejad almost impossible, especially given the fact that his tight control of the security apparatus means that his safety is more assured than those of his rivals.

Gregory Copley is President of the International Strategic Studies Association.

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