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."

The ideologizing of hatred, like the ideologizing of religion, can empower millions of alienated, working-class Arabs who feel psychologically adrift in the world of the early 21st century. Israel won its audacious military reputation during the age of Arab state armies. Because Arabs never believed in their own secular states, their armies were never very good in the first place, and thus Israel had no trouble impressing the world in its wars against them. But at the sub-state level of movements like Hamas or Hezbollah, the Arabs very much believe in their cause, and thus Israel has a real challenge on its hands.

How do you fight unconventional, sub-state armies empowered by ideas? You undermine them subtly over time, or you crush them utterly, brutally. Israel, unable to tolerate continued rocket attacks on its people, has decided on the latter course. Our own diplomacy with Iran now rests on whether or not Israel succeeds. We need to create leverage before we can negotiate with the clerical regime, and that leverage can only come from an Israeli moral victory—one that leaves Hamas sufficiently reeling to scare even the pro-Iranian Syrians from coming to its aid. In defense of its own territorial integrity, 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.

And yet the one place where Moslems are cynical about Iran is in Iran itself, where the regime relies on a narrow base of support amid a state that (despite its vast oil reserves) is in economic shambles. Thus, the supreme irony of the Middle East is that the place where anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism are least potent is in the Iranian heartland. Public opinion-wise, Egypt and Saudi Arabia constitute more dangerous territory for us than Iran. Iran’s benign relationship with the Jews, in particular, stretches from antiquity through the reign of the late Shah.

The Greater Middle East hangs on a thread: it could either explode into direct warfare between Israel and Iran, or it could evolve for the better after the Teheran regime is undermined by public opinion, triggered at least initially by continued low oil prices. Given the historical record, the current level of hostility between Israel and Iran may not be the last word in regional geopolitics. For there are cataclysms to come, and the real battle for the soul of the region may be fought in Iran itself.

For the moment, now that Israel has launched a war, we need it to succeed, rather than be compromised by the kind of ceasefire that allows Hamas to regroup. If that happens, our leverage with Iran will be further reduced, with negotiations yielding little. But once Israel does succeed, then we will need to bear down on it hard, in the service of negotiations with both Arabs and Iranians. If he is smart, President-elect Barack Obama will now be quietly rooting for Israel.

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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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