“The Fight with Hamas Caught Iran by Surprise”

With all the discussion of Egypt and Qatar, one major player has gone under the radar – Iran. Dr. Eldad Pardo explains their take on the war.

“Hamas’ conduct is leading it to oblivion,” says Iran expert Dr. Eldad Pardo • The Iranians are very concerned about the success of Iron Dome • Contrary to what critics in Israel are saying, the hits Hamas is taking and events in Syria are a defeat for the Iranians 

The Israelis spoiled the plan. Hamas rocket attack. Photo: Flash90

With all attention focused on the exchange of blows between Israel and Hamas, everyone seems to have forgotten about an important player behind the scenes. Again and again we hear of the same actors – Egypt, the United States, Turkey and Qatar – but in the meantime Iran has once again slipped under the radar. Even worse, discerning observers can see that the Gaza conflict and rise of ISIS have replaced the Iranian nuclear threat as the main focus of the Israeli government and security establishment.

The relative silence of the Ayatollahs only increases the suspicion regarding Iranian involvement in present hostilities. “The Iranians are playing a very dangerous, subversive and damaging role in the Middle East,” says Dr. Eldad Pardo, an expert on Iran at Hebrew University and head of the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education. According to Dr. Pardo, “From the First Lebanon War, from 1983 to 2000, [Iran] is the one that prevented us from retreating until Barak decided on a unilateral move. Iran had a role in the al-Aqsa Intifada. What’s taking place in Syria – that’s also because of Iran. If there wasn’t Iran, there would be no war with Hamas.”

Hamas Surprised Iran

So what’s the meaning of Iranian silence? According to Pardo, the present conflict in Gaza has caught the Iranians by surprise and it was clear that they were surprised at the beginning of Protective Edge. Pardo believes that the Iranians do not want Hamas to fire off all their rockets at this stage. The Gazan terrorist organization is a convenient strategic asset for the Iranians when they need to use it – but right now they don’t.

“Hamas is in trouble,” says Pardo. “Gaza is a small strip of land. On the one side, you have Egypt and the energetic and vigorous al-Sisi, who’s trying to solidify his rule as much as possible and to a great extent opposes Iran. On the other side, you have Israel. Hamas’ conduct is leading it to oblivion. At the end of the day, it’s not that strong a force, and what keeps it alive is the fact that the Israelis prefer the Palestinians divided, or it’s not willing to go in, rule Gaza and lose soldiers on the way.

“As far as the Iranians are concerned, Hamas has to survive. The question is what it needs to do to survive the present crisis. I assume the Iranians, because they’re more clever, would prefer Hamas sit quietly and weather the present crisis, assuming that something will change in their favor, such as al-Sisi being deposed or the like. After all, things change quickly in the Middle East.”

Others have also noticed the Iranians’ low profile. Last Thursday (21.8) Bloomberg unearthed a Pentagon report which stated that Iran’s public statements to the media about its military capabilities have been less provocative since Rouhani came to power. “Tehran’s strategic messaging about its military capabilities through the mass media has been less strident since Rouhani took over,” it said. “Widespread publicity of major military exercises, previously the norm, has been minimal.” But while it’s been toning down its threats, the report goes on to say that Iran has strengthened its military presence in the Straits of Hormuz. This includes an increasing number of anti-ship ballistic missiles, small and effective submarines and assault vessels.

Against the background of the nuclear talks, this raises the possibility that Iran had a hand in the deterioration of the region into violent conflict, with the goal of diverting attention from itself. As you explained yourself, this is a state which is known as a destabilizing force?

“On the contrary, if it turns out that they’re connected to the conflict, this will weaken them. Recently the dead-line for the nuclear talks was extended [until the 24th of October – E.G.] because Iran didn’t meet the benchmarks given them. This extension is very convenient for them because the Iranians, by my estimation, don’t want to finalize a deal but they also don’t want not to finalize a deal – they want to create a situation of tension on the one hand and on the other hand ensure the sanctions are not so severe.”

What do the Iranians want when they look over at the War in Gaza?

“Ten days after Protective Edge began, when Iron Dome proved itself, the Iranians started to become very tense,” states Pardo. “So they were quick to stress how Iranian missiles are effective and Israel is panicking form this and so forth.” But these declarations don’t change the fact that Hamas is acting against Iranian interests: “Iranian policy is to turn Iran into a major power, and eventually into the number one power. As part of this, they’re interested in taking over the Middle East. That’s been their policy for many years and it looks like it will continue, at least as long as Khameini is alive. But in contrast to other states in history, the Iranians are not in a huge hurry. This isn’t Blitzkrieg. They work slowly but surely. This is why there are also missteps, such as Syria and Hamas.”

Neutralized the Iranian Gaza-based rocket arsenal. Iron Dome in action. Photo: Flash90

The Middle East is a dog-eat-dog world

Protective Edge exposed the complexity of the forces operating in the Middle East. Thus, in spite of obvious Israeli fears, and in spite of mutual statements about the importance of “resistance”, we see that Hizballah is not in a hurry to assist Hamas beyond sporadic and unattributed rocket fire. The fight with Jihadists in Syria and the strengthening of ISIS, which has led to violent clashes between these and Hizballah, is one reason. But Dr. Pardo says there are others.

“The situation is different in the north. I’m not sure Hizballah is interested in abductions right now. It’s not the same situation like with Hamas, for whom the Palestinian prisoners are a burning issue. There’s also the national element. You need to remember that the world is organized by countries, and in this respect there’s a difference between Lebanon and Israel. These are two different countries and Hizballah sees it that way, too. As far as the Palestinians are concerned this is their country. So it’s true that ideologically, as Muslims, they’re all against us, but it’s a matter of priorities. Since the ‘Arab Spring’ and the Syrian Civil War, Hamas is on a new place on that list. Right now forces in the Middle East see the danger differently. We know that Israel hasn’t been considered a real enemy for many in the Middle East for a while.”

Although it appears that two main axes coalesced during Protective Edge – Turkey-Qatar-‘Muslim Brotherhood’ against Saudi Arabia-Egypt-Emirates-Jordan – Pardo argues that “there aren’t really coalitions. Everyone for themselves. And even when there are coalitions, they’re very fluid.” Thus instead of two main power blocs, there are several powers, sometimes working in concert and sometimes against each other.

Where is Iran on this new map of alliances?

“You need to remember that Qatar is very close to Iran, more than people tend to think, and the Muslim Brotherhood [which is also supported by Qatar – E.G.] is close to Iran. In addition, Turkey and Iran work together on many things – and they’re all at odds over Syria, which has caused a rift. During the ‘Arab Spring’ there was a camp of radicals squared off against the camp of people in favor the status quo and democrats. Iran tried to hijack the revolutions that were taking place. In Syria, for instance, today people don’t remember that in the beginning it was a non-violent revolution, and that due to Iran and Russia it became a bloody civil war, which also strengthened the radical Sunnis and radical Shiites.

“While Turkey encouraged the rebellion against Assad, Iran encouraged Assad against the rebellion. And Qatar, because it’s close to Iran, joined the anti-Assad camp later and less enthusiastically than the rest of the Gulf States. This may be an Iranian strategy: to force the opposition to be radical and thus turn people off, strengthening Assad’s hand.”

The situation became even more complex with the rise of the Sunni ISIS. In the Iraq war, Pardo explains, the common denominator was opposition to the Americans and that’s what created all the alliances: “Many of the activities against the Americans were not necessarily done by the Shiites but by Sunnis who came from Syria, with Iranian coordination, to Iraq. So it’s clear this is a double game.”

Like Iran, Qatar is also spinning several plates at once. “Qatar has connections with Iran while at the same time maintaining American bases and even contacts with Israel. Thus they’re playing a game that contradicts itself all the time.” For this reason, Pardo argues, all we can do right now is speak of momentary coalitions, such as the Egypt-Jordan-Saudi-Israel one, but not count on any long lasting arrangement.

“At a deeper level, the ties between Israel and Jordan are stronger. Not at the level of personal trust, but in terms of geostrategic interest. But when it comes to Egypt, it’s less possible to say this. It’s true that until now al-Sisi has aligned with Israeli interests, much better than in Mubarak’s time, but it may be that in the long run he’ll change his tune. I respect the opinion of those who say that Egypt has very serious challenges and that stability is crucial for them. They have the project of a canal parallel to Suez, and they also need to renew tourism. Therefore Egypt will not go back to being Israel’s enemy anytime soon. But it’s certainly possible that al-Sisi will collapse from the serious challenges it faces or at least become weaker, and then Sinai will be reopened to weapons and the like. So Israel’s policy is the right one, but like any policy, it’s a gamble.”

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The US could have deterred Iran more effectively. Dr. Eldad Pardo

America – Not A Paper Tiger

Pardo’s description shows just how much the Middle East is riven with chaos. One of the guilty parties for this situation, according to Pardo, is Obama’s America: “One of the things people forget is that the United States won the Iraq War. This is a big thing, as the significance is that America is a power who’s not afraid to invade and get its hands dirty. It’s the difference between a paper tiger and a real one. This is in contrast to the situation before that, when America ran away from Mogadishu and other places.”

So what’s happening now?

“We need to remember that America has a very powerful air force. But instead of deterring the Iranians they went in the conciliatory direction. If they had done it three-four years ago, then we wouldn’t have ISIS, and Syria and Iraq would be democracies. They didn’t do it.”

Nowadays, the whole Middle East is paying the price.

English translation by Avi Woolf.

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