via Lobe Log

By Richard Javad Heydarian

The recent war in Gaza has been portrayed as a political dividend for the main protagonists, namely Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Egypt’s Mohammad Morsi, and the Hamas leadership in Gaza, despite the tremendous psychological, infrastructural and humanitarian costs borne by innocent civilians, especially the Palestinians.

As Hamas and other militant groups bombarded Israeli cities with rocket attacks, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s enormous show of force — by mobilizing all elements of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) against Gaza — allowed him to shore up greater support among a rattled Israeli populace, crucially ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections. On the other hand, Hamas — and other militant groups such as the Islamic Jihad — were able to claim victory by not only circumventing Israel’s sophisticated ‘Iron Dome’ missile defense-shield system, and preventing a ground invasion by the IDF, but also because they may have finally gained enough leverage to end the Israeli-imposed siege on Gaza, which has resulted in a protracted humanitarian crisis in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. As for the Islamist president of Egypt, he was able to considerably boost his international profile and domestic popularity by leveraging the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong ties with Hamas and his country’s strong military ties with the US so as to strike a lasting truce.

After three decades of strategic irrelevance/acquiescence, Egypt has once again become an indispensable nation in the region.

Yet, what is missing from this mainstream narrative is how Iran — increasingly isolated in recent years — has actually been vindicated by the most recent Gaza crisis. While the first decade of the 21st century witnessed the dramatic rise of Iran as a regional power, largely precipitated by the US-led elimination of anti-Iranian rulers in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, the advent of the Arab uprisings — beginning with the late-2010 Tunisian revolution and the early-2011 Egyptian revolution — have presented a mixed package of some initial strategic gains, but steady and gradual decline overtime, most especially after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011. Although Iran benefited from the downfall of leading US allies in Egypt and elsewhere, while sensing some opportunity in the Bahraini and Yemenis revolutions across the Arabian Peninsula, its image and popularity — especially among the Arab populace – took a nosedive when it threw its weight behind the embattled Baathist regime in Syria.

With leading regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar portraying Iran’s support for Bashar Al-Assad as a cynical attempt to maintain a sectarian, Persian-led ‘axis of resistance’, Tehran has been gradually sidelined, prompting the Sunni Hamas leadership — with strong ties to the dominant Muslim Brotherhood faction within the Syrian opposition — to seek patronage elsewhere, especially in Ankara and Doha. In effect, the Arab uprisings have not only overshadowed Iran’s 3 decade-old support for the Palestinian cause, and empowered rising powers such as Turkey and Qatar, but they have also ideationally relegated Tehran to a new pejorative status of a non-Arab, non-Sunni state, perceived to be standing against a democratic uprising in Syria.

However, the recent crisis in Gaza has brought the Palestinian issue back to the center of popular political discourse across the Islamic world. Thus, it has indirectly reminded everyone of Iran’s continuous support for the Palestinian resistance – a long-time basis of Tehran’s popularity among the Arab street. Also, the crisis has slightly diverted attention from the ongoing civil war in Syria, where Iran — in the eyes of many Arabs — has been heavily implicated due to its support for the Assad regime.

The fact that this time Israel balked from repeating its brutal 2008-2009 military campaign against Gaza is a testament to the shifting balance of forces on the ground. Sure, the advent of Arab uprisings  — giving birth to more populist/pro-Palestinian post-revolutionary leaders — may have placed a new element of constraint upon Israel’s strategic impunity: its ability to re-shape the immediate strategic environment, through a combination of economic coercion, diplomatic obstructionism, and brutal military force, without considerable costs. It is also true that regional powers Turkey, Egypt, and Qatar have provided considerable economic and political support to Hamas, forcing Washington to exert growing pressure on Israel to cease military operations against Gaza. But, without Iran’s concrete military-logistical support, Hamas would have never been in a position to deter an all out Israeli invasion, especially under the current hawkish leadership in Tel Aviv. After all, no regional power, aside from Iran, has dared to directly support Hamas in military terms. Neither Qatar nor Turkey wishes to jeopardize crucial strategic ties with the West by doing so, while Egypt — the second largest recipient of US military aid – is still too vulnerable to take on Israel and/or jeopardize ongoing negotiations vis-à-vis Western economic assistance, either through bilateral mechanisms or international organizations such as the IMF. Iran’s position as the leading revisionist force in the Middle East has provided it a unique wiggle room to prop up Hamas-led resistance in Gaza.

It was the Iranian-designed/made Fajr-5 missiles — scoring an unprecedented success rate (reportedly ranging between 15 to 40 percent) against the Iron Dome system — that gave Hamas and other militant groups not only an element of deterrence against a total Israeli invasion, but also a crucial bargaining chip to force Israel back to the negotiating table to end the siege of Gaza – and perhaps even kick-start negotiations over the future of Palestinian statehood. Hamas’ ability to strike missiles as far as Tel Aviv is a major game-changer, thanks to Iran’s ballistic technology. No wonder, after the conclusion of a truce between Hamas and Israel, Khalid Mishaal, one of Hamas’ most important figures, formally thanked Iran for its role in arming and financing Gaza during the war.

This is perhaps why Iran stands as a major beneficiary of Israel’s recent truce with Hamas.

- Richard Javad Heydarian is a Philippine-based foreign affairs analyst, specializing on international security and economics. He can be reached at jrheydarian@gmail.com