The regime-affiliated Iranian Fars news agency published a sensational story this week. According to the Fars report, Saudi Arabia and Israel collaborated in killing Iranian terror-master Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in February. The story is important regardless of whether it is true. It is important because it says something important about the nature of Iran's relationship with Syria. Specifically, it says that Iran views Syria as a vassal state.
If Teheran were not convinced of its control of the Syrian regime, it would never have dared to publish a story that places the Assad regime in an open confrontation with Saudi Arabia. An even partially independent Syria would never go along with such an open challenge to Saudi Arabia.
Syria, of course, is not Iran's only proxy in the Arab world. There is the Hamas regime in Gaza as well. On Thursday the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center released an in-depth report on Hamas's military buildup since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in September 2005. The report notes that Hamas receives arms and funding from Iran and Syria and sends its fighters for extending training at camps in Iran and Syria.
By directly supporting Hamas and by supporting Hamas indirectly through Syria and Hizbullah, Teheran has transformed Gaza into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Iran. While Hamas may have independent interests, the fact is that any independent will Hamas may have had at one time has become entirely subservient to Teheran. This is so because Teheran has rendered itself Hamas's indispensable ally and protector. Without Iran, Hamas would have no staying power.
Then there is Lebanon. The weak Saniora government, which was brought to power by the anti-Syrian and anti-Iranian March 14 Democracy Movement three years ago, is clearly no match for Iran and its proxies. Presidential elections have been held up for five months due to Hizbullah's Syrian- and Iranian-ordered refusal to agree on a compromise candidate. The Saniora government needs Hizbullah's agreement because Iran's proxies have murdered a sufficient number of cabinet ministers and members of parliament to take away Saniora's parliamentary capacity to elect a successor to the Syrian-puppet, former president Emile Lahoud.
The assassination of political opponents in Lebanon, of course, began in earnest with the March 2005 assassination of pro-Western and pro-Saudi former prime minister Rafik Hariri. This week in Washington, Sen. Arlen Specter asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to comment on an interesting Syrian offer. According to Specter, during Jordanian King Abdullah's visit to Washington last month, he suggested that Syria might be willing to rein in Hizbullah and Hamas in exchange for an offer of immunity for President Bashar Assad in the UN's probe of Hariri's murder. Rice rejected the offer, but that is not what is interesting.
What is interesting is that Syria would feel comfortable making what amounts to a confession of control over Hizbullah and Hamas. While at first glance the Syrian offer seems to contradict the assertion that Syria is an Iranian proxy, it actually does no such thing. It shows that Iran is willing to shuffle some proxies around to protect other ones. To protect Assad, for instance, Iran may be willing to have Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal temporarily decamp to Teheran or Qatar or Bahrain. While such a move would have absolutely no impact on Iran's continued control over its proxies, it could neutralize the UN tribunal's threat to the Syrian regime.
To sum up, through its proxy strategy, Iran has taken control of Syria, has paralyzed and is increasingly calling the shots in Lebanon, and has effective control over Gaza, from which it can attack Israel and Egypt at will. And of course, it is the primary sponsor of the insurgency in Iraq.
LED BY Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Sunni Arab states are well aware of Iran's proxy strategy for attaining regional dominance, and they are not pleased. The partial boycott of the Arab League summit in Damascus last month was the Sunni Arab states' way of showing their displeasure with Iran's domination of Syria and Lebanon.
On a more operational level, this week the Syrian media reported that the Syrian oppositionist National Salvation Front run by the Muslim Brotherhood and former Syrian vice president Abd al Halim Khaddam will launch an anti-regime satellite television channel in a few months. Presumably wealthy Gulf kingdoms are bankrolling the project.
Strategically, the Sunni Arab states have voiced varying degrees of interest in building their own nuclear programs to compete with the Iranian nuclear program.
But diplomatic snubs, jihadist television stations with anti-regime bents, and loud plans to build nuclear reactors will not suffice to defeat Iran or even to slow down its bid for regional domination. And the fact is that the Sunni states are aligned with most of Iran's policies. They keep Iraq at arm's length and loudly criticize US operations in the country. They continue to back Hamas and ostracize Israel. And they have taken no substantive stands against Hizbullah's subversion of the Saniora government since the end of the Second Lebanon War.
The main reason that the Sunni Arab countries cannot contend with Iran is that their publics share Iran's jihadist ideology. And their publics share Iran's general jihadist ideology because the Sunni states have indoctrinated their publics to believe in jihad through their state-controlled media.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and their Sunni Arab brothers are in no position to argue with Iran publicly or to confront Iran's Arab proxies because they can't explain to their own people why Iran's bid to destroy Israel and to dominate the world in the name of Islam is a bad thing.
The attraction of Iran's jihadist ideology for so many Muslims has also helped Teheran expand its army of proxies. Acting as the avant guard of global jihad, Iran has collected otherwise adversarial terror groups in their hours of need and has transformed them into Iranian proxies over time. After the al-Qaida leadership fled Afghanistan in late 2001, for instance, many of its leaders received sanctuary in Iran from which they continued to operate.
The late al-Qaida in Iraq commander Abu Musab Zarkawi received medical care in Iran and entered Iraq from Iran. He received his operational orders from the al Qaida leadership in Iran.
In a recent interview with the Qatari Al-Arab newspaper translated by MEMRI, Ahmad Salah al-Din, who serves as the spokesman for the Iraqi Sunni jihadist group Hamas-Iraq, alleged that al-Qaida in Iraq today is wholly subservient to Iran. Salah al-Din claimed, "We found Iranian toman [currency] at an al-Qaida headquarters that we uncovered. We have also captured Iranian weapons, not to mention audio and video recordings containing announcements by al-Qaida fighters that they had received training in Iranian military camps and that al-Qaida wounded were being transported to Iran for medical treatment."
So too, Iran has a long history of collaboration with Fatah dating back to the early 1970s, when Ayatollah Khomeini's future revolutionary leaders received training in PLO camps in Lebanon. In 1999, as Yasser Arafat geared up his terror armies ahead of the launch of his terror war against Israel in 2000, Iran began funding Fatah terror cells. Today, after sponsoring Hamas's rout of Fatah in Gaza last June, Iran no longer needs to deal with the Fatah leadership. Through Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah it controls Fatah terror cells directly.
IRAN'S POLICY of combining a proxy war strategy with a popular revolutionary ideology is almost an exact reenactment of the Soviet Union's Cold War strategy for fighting the US. Two things, however, distinguish Iran's war against the West today from the Soviets' war against the West in the 20th century. First, Iran is much less powerful than
the Soviet Union was. Second, the Iranian regime is far less open to deterrence than the Soviets were.
As David Wurmser, US Vice President Richard Cheney's former Middle East adviser noted recently at an address before the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, the Iranian regime is motivated by a messianic ideology with a strong apocalyptic component. This renders useless the threat of mutually assured destruction.
The other main distinction between the Soviet war against the West and the Iranian war against the West is that the US-led West embraced a dual strategy of confrontation and containment against the Soviets. Today, the same US-led West follows no coherent strategy for contending with Iran.
The only battleground where Iranian proxies are directly confronted today is in Iraq. After the 2006 Iranian proxy war against Israel, the US largely abandoned its support for the Saniora government. Hizbullah has been permitted to rebuild its forces and its arsenal and to reassert control over much of south Lebanon and to extend its control north of the Litani River. Rather than confront Hamas, at the US's insistence, Israel has done nothing to prevent Hamas's military buildup in Gaza or even to prevent it from continuing its rocket campaign against the western Negev.
Then too, by supporting the defeated Fatah leadership, the US and Israel are indirectly strengthening Hamas. During the Arab League summit, Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas announced that he spends some 58 percent of his US, Israeli and European supplied budget on paying the salaries of 77,000 officials who serve under the Hamas regime in Gaza. So by funding Fatah, which supports Hamas, Israel and the US are strengthening Iran's control of Gaza through its Hamas proxy. They are also facilitating the weaker Fatah's incremental absorption into the Iranian axis.
As for Syria, both Israel and the US consistently ignore the fact that Syria is no longer an independent actor. By effectively adopting the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group's recommendations from 2006, the Bush administration and Israel give credence to the notion that Syria will moderate its behavior if Israel surrenders the Golan Heights, and so encourage Iran to continue its aggression by seeming to reward it.
Then too, while allowing Sunni states to support the Muslim Brotherhood as a presumed counterweight to Iran, Israel and the US ignore the repeated pleas of Syrian Kurds for assistance in their campaign to overthrow the Syrian regime in favor of a federal, anti-Iranian democratic state. The Syrian Kurds receive no assistance from either the US or Israel in their own bid to set up a pro-democracy satellite television station to broadcast into Syria, even as they are violently repressed by the regime.
In the absence of a strategy of confronting Iran either directly or through its proxies, the only coherent course that remains is one of containment. But this option is raft with danger. With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's announcement this week that Iran is introducing 3,000 upgraded centrifuges to its Natanz nuclear installation, it is clear that international sanctions have had no impact on Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. It is also clear that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will be impossible to confront its proxies, who will operate under Iran's nuclear umbrella.
So as Iran progresses forward with its grand strategy for regional hegemony, the West dithers and so assists it. No wonder Ahmadinejad is always smiling.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.