Thursday, March 8, 2012

Post #206 - What We Thought We Knew

Stratfor Global Intelligence this week reported a new wrinkle in the range of scenarios regarding the aftermath of an Israeli strike on Iran. In an article entitled "Hamas Rule Out Fighting for Iran," their Geopolitical Diary (March 7) predicted a shift in the kind of surrogates Iran might be able to command in such a circumstances:

Salah al-Bardewil
A senior Hamas leader said Tuesday that the Palestinian Islamist movement would not fight against Israel on behalf of Iran, the Guardian reported. The British daily quoted Gaza-based Hamas politburo member Salah al-Bardawil as saying, "If there is a war between two powers, Hamas will not be part of such a war." Al-Bardawil went on to say that Hamas has never given its "complete loyalty" to Iran, and that their relationship "had been based on common interests."

Stratfor has never put much stock in the speculation that Hamas would automatically jump into the fray if Israel were to conduct a military strike against Iran's nuclear program. However, Hamas publicly stating that it will not fight against Israel on behalf of Iran is extremely significant.

First and most obviously, it means that Israel may not have to worry as much about attacks against its southern flank in the event that Israel takes military action against Iran. But even more significant, the statement underscores Hamas' efforts to join the mainstream of Sunni Arab politics in the wake of the Middle East unrest and the electoral gains of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. Not only is Hamas being courted by different Arab states, particularly Egypt and Jordan, it is trying to take advantage of the emerging climate within the region to gain recognition as a legitimate political entity.

In order to do so, the group appears to have come to the conclusion that it must distance itself from some of its patrons. In January, Hamas began criticizing the Iranian-allied Syrian regime after the crackdown on protesters, and in February the group moved its politburo-in-exile out of Damascus. With Hamas now declaring its unwillingness to fight on Iran's behalf, these moves are signs of the significant obstacles in Iran's path as it attempts to become a major player in the Middle East.

Hamas ensignia
While Iran can exploit many divisions and rivalries throughout the region, ultimately the Islamic republic's influence is necessarily limited by facts outside its control. Iran’s dominant ethnicity, culture and language is Persian, and its dominant religious sect is Shia Islam. This places severe constraints on the degree to which it can penetrate a largely Sunni Arab Middle East. Likewise, there are many Arab actors who share certain interests with Iran, but they are not ready to unequivocally align with the Iranians due to the damage this sort of alliance could do to their relations with the West and elsewhere.

This situation works well for those who seek to contain an assertive Iran, i.e., the United States, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Arab states in general. From Washington's perspective, the rise of Sunni Islamist groups (mostly the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded forces) in the Arab world serves as a strong counter to Iranian expansionism. Conversely, Sunni Arab Islamism is at odds with American interests in the region, and Iran's own efforts to contain that movement serve U.S. interests.

This emerging fault line between Arab Sunni Islamism on one side and Iran and its Arab allies on the other is extremely unstable and liable to change, with the Syrian regime's long-term prospects for survival very much in question. However, the fault line does exist and is not going anywhere. With the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq complete and the removal of several reliable allies from power during the so-called Arab Spring -- chief among them Hosni Mubarak in Egypt -- U.S. influence in the region appears to be waning. However, the careful manipulation of actors on either side of that fault line could give the United States the tools it needs to secure its interests in the Middle East in the decades ahead.

If nothing else, this new development shows once again that the Middle East is a volatile area where the sands can shift with each new storm. Might it be that a resolution of US-Iran relations will lie in the reduction of the power of both countries?

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