Thu, Jul 20, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Iran's pre-emptive strike against the West

Rather than waiting for the world to impose sanctions, Tehran provoked a distracting crisis in the Middle East

By Edward Luttwak

Iran's quarreling and competing leaders have decided, by their acts, to reject the offer by Europe and the US of a nuclear reactor, aircraft spare parts, economic cooperation, and more in exchange for giving up uranium enrichment. Many people hoped that Iran's leaders, despite their extremism, would accept the offer if only to avoid sanctions -- which are sure to come even if China and Russia refuse to support them in the UN Security Council. The US and Europe are united this time, and can effectively cut off Iran from world banking, bar Iranian leaders from traveling to the West, and stop exports to Iran of everything but food and medicine.

Instead of waiting passively for sanctions, Iran's leaders decided to start a Middle East crisis by organizing attacks against Israel. Their aim is to discourage the US and the Europeans from starting another crisis -- financial markets and everyday politics in Europe can tolerate only so much conflict. They may also hope to shatter the unified EU-US position that now exists.

Moreover, Iran's claim to leadership in the Muslim world is being undermined by the conflict in Iraq, where Iran supports the Shiite militias that are killing Sunnis. Every bloody day of bombings and executions in Iraq reminds Arabs that the Iranians are neither Arab nor Sunni. But attacking Israel unites Muslims and gains Arab gratitude.

Iran's move was prepared in a series of meetings with both Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Khaled Mashal, Hamas' overall leader, who lives under Syrian protection in Damascus, traveled to Tehran, where he received some US$50 million in badly needed cash. Although an offshoot of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, whose Arab financial supporters loathe the Ayatollahs, Hamas decided to cooperate in Iran's scheme because it was diplomatically isolated and cut off from Western funding due to its refusal to recognize Israel.

Retaliation

Hamas acted by increasing rocket attacks on nearby Israeli territory, and by launching a raid into Israel itself, killing two soldiers and capturing another. That provoked Israeli retaliation, starting the Gaza end of the crisis that Iran wanted. As for the impact on lives in Gaza, Hamas -- like the late Yasser Arafat -- has again shown itself to be more devoted to the idea of Palestine than to the welfare of Palestinians.

It was far more costly to get Hezbollah to serve Iran's strategy. While it retains a heavily armed, salaried, and uniformed guerilla/terrorist force of some 5,000, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has been striving for years to build Hezbollah into a legitimate political party and the main representative of Lebanon's Shiites. This effort was so successful that Hezbollah now has two ministers in the government.

But to be accepted by other Lebanese, and to some extent even to retain the support of fellow Shia, Hezbollah had to agree to join the Lebanese consensus on the priority of reconstruction and economic recovery after years of civil war. That meant avoiding a war with Israel.

Hezbollah is under order by the UN Security Council to disarm and disband its militia, but it claimed that even after Israel's full withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, it needed its weapons to continue to liberate "Lebanese territory." That refers to a tiny fragment of land, the so-called Sheba farms, declared by UN inspectors to be in Israel, but which Hezbollah claims as part of Lebanon.

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