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.
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.