Dispatch January 2009

Iran's Postmodern Beast in Gaza

"Israel has, in effect, launched the war on the Iranian empire that President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, in particular, can only have contemplated."

Israel has just embarked on a land invasion of the Gaza Strip after a week of aerial bombing. Gaza is bordered by Egypt, and was under Egyptian military control from 1949 through 1967. And yet in a startling rebuke to geography and recent history—and in testimony to the sheer power of audacity and of ideas—the mullahs in Teheran hold more sway in Gaza today than does the tired, Brezhnevite regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Gaza constitutes the western edge of Iran’s veritable new empire, cartographically akin to the ancient Persian one, that now stretches all the way to western Afghanistan, where Kabul holds no sway and which is under Iranian economic domination.

Israel’s attack on Gaza is, in effect, an attack on Iran’s empire, the first since its offensive on Iranian-backed Hezbollah in 2006. That attack failed for a number of reasons, not least of which was Israel’s poor intelligence on Hezbollah: historically, its intelligence on the Palestinians has been much better. Moreover, this attack seems more deliberately planned, with narrower, publicly stated aims – all in all, a more professional job. But there is a fundamental problem with what Israel is doing that goes to the heart of the postmodern beast that the Iranian empire represents.

To start with, Hamas does not have to win this war. It can lose and still win. As long as no other political group can replace it in power, even as some of its diehards can continue to lob missiles, however ineffectually, into Israel, it achieves a moral victory of sorts. Moreover, if Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement tries to replace Hamas in power, Fatah will forever be tagged with the label of Israeli stooge, and in the eyes of Palestinians will have little moral legitimacy. Israel’s dilemma is that it is not fighting a state but an ideology, the postmodern glue that holds together Greater Iran.

Whether it is the sub-state entities of Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the Mahdi movement in Shiite southern Iraq; or the hopes, dreams, and delusions of millions of Sunni Arabs, principally in Egypt, who feel a closer psychological identity with radical Shiite mullahs than with their own Pharaonic Sunni autocracy, Iran has built its dominion on a combination of anti-western ideas and the dynamic wiliness of its intelligence operations (which, in turn, are a reflection of a civilization more developed and urbanized than that of the Arabs). Iran’s message of anti-Semitism and hatred toward the United States plays well across sectarian lines in the Sunni Arab world, which identifies its own fatigued, uninspiring, and detested rulers with the side of the U.S. and Israel. Sunni Arabs hate their own rulers, but despairing of changing their own lot, they channel that hatred toward us: thus the potency of the Iranian message. A nuclear weapon will only supply Iran with more prestige among the Arab lumpen faithful.

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Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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