Iran’s Clenched Fist: The Lessons of Gaza and Their Implications for Obama’s Agenda

For Arabs and Muslims, as well as for Israelis, the fine nuances of President Barack Hussein Obama’s inaugural speech were not simply a matter of his obvious ability as a communicator: Subtle meanings and hints were read into every line and phrase, particularly those directly or indirectly addressing our regional concerns. To many, Obama remains an enigmatic figure. With George W. Bush—whether one admired the sweep of his ambitions in Iraq and across the Muslim world, or saw them as terrible folly—there was a sense of clarity, of lines of division drawn in sharp relief; now, the initial message from Washington reflects both competence and ambiguity. The speech included a warm call for reconciliation with the Muslim world, based on “mutual interest and mutual respect”—but also a hard-edged message to terrorists and destructive regimes, “we will defeat you.” Thus, an opportunity is being offered for the regional players to decide whether to present the U.S. with an open palm or a clenched fist.

It is in this context that we should view the significance of the fighting and the attendant human tragedy in Gaza. On the face of it, Hamas’s conduct and Israel’s response can easily be made to fit into a familiar ancient template: Here are the sons and progeny of Abraham, once again going at each other, as they have been doing since time immemorial: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, cat and dog, an eternal conflict beyond human remedy. Yet this version of the story (often latched onto by the Israeli right wing, which uses it to lambaste the useless naiveté of peacemakers) does not sit comfortably with what actually happened.

True, Hamas challenged the IDF, stupidly, to an unequal duel; true, elements in the Arab world, incited by the bloody images on Al-Jazeera, cheered them on (but stayed out—as even Hezbollah did). But as the struggle evolved—despite its horrifying imprint on the civilian population, caught in the crossfire—it became clear that the other half of the Palestinian people, distressed and angry as they may have been, quite simply did not see this as their fight. They felt acutely the pain of their sisters and brothers in Gaza; but they did not stir. (And in response, as the war drew to a close, Hamas reverted to terrible acts of repression, to prevent Fatah from undermining its grip on the Gaza Strip.)

Moreover, at least at the governmental level, and perhaps beyond it, many in the Arab world saw the unfolding drama, not in terms of an Israeli-Palestinian battle, but rather as the second time that Iran, acting by proxy, had ignited a brutal conflict in the region. Thus, Iran’s huge investment in arming its agents in Lebanon—the Fajr 5 and Fajr 7 missiles in Hezbollah’s possession, which can strike most of Israel; as well as the effort to provide Hamas with fresh capacities, even beyond the standard-issue Iranian (or Chinese) Grad rockets used this time—these are quite literally Iran’s “clenched fist,” to borrow Obama’s phrase. The message could not be clearer. If Iran does get the bomb—even if it does not choose to use it directly to destroy Israel (and thus fulfill the Mahdi’s suicidal vision)—new Gazas and Lebanons, involving wars and violent takeovers, may become the regular experience of the region. Iran will grow bolder; her rivals weaker, demoralized, or cornered into pursuing a nuclear program of their own. The offer of an open palm is legitimate, and should be welcomed by all who fear for the region’s future; but there should be no illusions as to how it will be met.

Here is one fresh example: Speaking at the January 16 Friday sermon, one of Iran’s most powerful (and outspoken) clerics, Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati (according to the translation provided by MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute) had this to say about Egypt, Israel, and specifically, Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni:

Every time I see that woman’s face, I wish somebody would waste a bullet on her. I watched her say… First, she goes and shakes hands with the Egyptian president. Shame on him for shaking a woman’s hand—especially an enemy.… I hope that the day will come—as conveyed in a message by our leader—when we all celebrate the victory of Hamas in Jerusalem.

Lovely. So much for the open palm. Unless the planned talks with Iran, a desirable tool in their own right, include a sense of what are the expectations of the civilized world, such speeches are bound to create, quite quickly, a jarring dialogue of the deaf.

This is not necessarily, however—and this, too, should be crystal clear—a call to put military action, such as an all-out strike, above other options. All that it implies is that with people who nurture such attitudes, it is useful to come to the table with some means of persuasion in hand. Here is one set of options: During his maiden speech as president of the EU, the prime minister of the Czech Republic made the point that his detailed economic agenda has now been derailed by two factors: “gaz” and Gaza. Puns aside, he had a point, and there may be a link between them, leading back to Iran:

  • The Russia-Ukraine natural gas crisis, which has led to freeze-outs all over Eastern and Central Europe, is one example of a problem that could be turned into a diplomatic tool. Few things are as important to the Russian leadership as the future disposition of Ukraine, the largest and most influential of the post-Soviet republics, bar Russia alone; Moscow is obsessed with what seems to be the loss of everything the czars had garnered since the seventeenth century. For the U.S. to move into this fray with creative and flexible ideas is one possible way to seal a larger “package” with Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin—a deal that should include a change of course on Iran.
  • As regards the postwar “regularization” of the Gaza crisis, it already includes—in the U.S.-Israeli memorandum of understanding, as well as in the commitments offered by the European leadership during their meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday—an outline for monitoring the sea lanes leading from Iran to the shores of Egypt or Sudan, wherefrom the weapons sent to Hamas are being forwarded. This, like a similar measure to prevent gunrunning to Hezbollah in Lebanon, is rooted in international mandates—UN Security Council Resolutions 1701 and 1860. With some of the capabilities in the Northern Arabian Sea already there to counter the recent spate of Somali piracy, here is another tool. If used wisely and with a degree of steely determination, as Israel showed in 2001 when it intercepted the Karine-A with a load of Iranian weapons on its way to Gaza (back then, the importers were Yasir Arafat’s “security forces”), this kind of assertive action could intrude into the wider balance of things and demonstrate to Iran one more cost of the clenched fist.
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