Long arm of Iran reaches Gaza, Syria; builds Eastern Mediterranean foothold

by Charles J. Mouratides

Peacemakers have been looking in all the wrong places.

It’s holiday time and I would hate to rain on anybody’s parade now that the Israel-Gaza ceasefire has been declared and seems to be holding. But to morph a ceasefire into long-term peace, as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton wishes, we must adjust our focus radically – and our hopes. 

Hilary was seen shuttling among the centers of local power: Ramallah, Cairo and Jerusalem.

Really, now… Ramallah? The powerless Fatah leader Abbas is further marginalized with each action taken by Hamas. Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi demonstrated his usefulness to the U.S. so that Egypt’s military may continue receiving $2 billion in aid. And, of course, Netanyahu required no convincing to seek an end to Palestinian terror.

But even as Israel sighed with relief for avoiding a Gaza ground offensive; even as the Gazans celebrated pretending they gained from the crisis they created, and even as the U.S. turned victorious to the Thanksgiving table, ships with new Iranian missiles were headed for Gaza. The Fajr 5 rockets being transported are of the type that reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during the recent air attacks.

(click map to enlarge)

Wondering why the arrival of new war supplies at a time of ceasefire? Because whether it is Hamas’s rockets raining over Jerusalem or the unending civil war in Syria, the instigator of conflict is not in the centers of power visited, and the goals of war have little to do with the Palestinians.

If it were up to Ramallah and Egypt, Hamas would not have even begun its sudden, suicidal game of shooting rockets to Israel. Most countries in the region weren’t looking for trouble, either – each for its own reasons.  So, what is the source of present and possible future strife, the real player?                                                                                            

It’s Iran, by far the most populous (79 million) and strongest Muslim military power in the Middle East. And, with the present Islamist regime, West’s options seem limited: Satisfy or silence Iran.

A Game Changer?
Iran has not been idle. Through war and other tactics, it has been cultivating a new strategic front in order to pressure Europe, Israel and the U.S.  Iran is developing a new area of influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, obviously seeking to introduce a game changer. This strategy is Iran’s response to the economic boycott threatening to bury its nuclear ambitions, to the military noose formed by American warships in Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz, and to the U.S. presence in the Mediterranean. It also provides Iranian access to the newly-found rich energy resources off the coasts of Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.

Iran’s Eastern Mediterranean strategy utilizes a troubled territory in chaos, Gaza, and a troubled country in chaos, Syria.

Consider the following from among a huge number of similar developments:

1.     Iran, despite religious differences with Hamas, has been supplying weapons to Gaza, according to Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Islamist Hamas. The Islamist Jihad in Gaza has also been reported to have received Iranian weapons. Iran’s majority is Shi’ite Muslims while Gaza is Sunni.

2.     Iran’s supreme spiritual and political leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, anditsparliament speaker, Ali Larijani, criticized Arab leaders for failing to help arm Hamas in Gaza. Larijani said his country was “honored” that it could help Palestinians with “material and military aspects.”

3.     Iran, since 1993, has been a strong financial supporter of Hamas’s administration as it pledged two years later to cover all of Gaza’s financial deficits indefinitely.

4.     Iran announced that it has also transferred rocket technology to Gaza, especially the Fajr 5 which has a 385-pound payload and can travel 50 miles. Iran is studying the effectiveness of Fajr 5 rockets and of Israel’s defensive ‘Iron Dome’ in case Iran itself uses the rocket against Israel.  Iran has also armed Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

5.     “Our problem is not our border with Gaza,” said Israel’s Ambassador to the U. S., Michael Oren. “Among the rockets being fired at us are the Fajr 5 rockets, which come directly from Iran. We know that Hamas terrorists have trained with the Iranians.”

6.     The Iranian ship that recently carried rockets for Gaza changed its name and flag as it entered the Red Sea where two Iranian warships are stationed permanently. It was met there by small Sudanese boats that regularly reach Egypt’s Sinai desert coast from where weapons are transported to Gaza through underground tunnels. To disguise the true nationality of ships and to circumvent the international boycott, Iran pays fees to Polynesian nation Tuvalu (11,000 people) to register Iranian ships under Tuvalu’s flag.

Law of Unintended Consequences
Gaza is one client state providing foothold to Iran in the Eastern Mediterranean. Another is the Levantine state of Syria where President Bashar Al-Assad is enthroned.
Here are a few highlights from the Iran-Syria history and the law of unintended consequences:

1.    “The Iran-Syria alliance grew out of common cause and common enemies,” writes Professor Jubin Goodarzi in The Iran Primer. Although Iran is a Persian theocracy and Syria is an Arab secular, socialist state, the two have created a strong, 35-year-old bond based on three goals: To fight against a common rival, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; to check Israeli advances in Lebanon, and to prevent American attempts to enter the Middle East.

2.    “Iran and Syria have a joint mission to create a new world order on the basis of justice, humanity and belief in God,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told visiting Syrian Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Abrash in 2010 as a premise for future actions.

3.    Iran has announced that it will not allow the overthrow of al-Assad. In 2011 and 2012 Iran sent warships into the Eastern Mediterranean, first time in almost 30 years.

4.    Earlier than anticipated, Iran has already begun construction of an oil pipeline to Syria, through Iraq which is now a close ally of Iran. Isn’t the U.S. glad to have eliminated Pres. Saddam Hussein, an avowed enemy of Iran, and thus turned Iraq over to a “new” regime? In accomplishing that, the U.S. suffered in Iraq 4,488 dead and 33,184 wounded, and spent $3 trillion in direct and indirect costs as estimated in theWashington Postin 2010.

5.    Early in 2012, Israel’s Haaretznewspaper reported that Gen. Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s commander of the elite overseas operations Quds Force, joined what the newspaper described as Syria’s “war room” managing army maneuvers against opposition forces.

Existing conditions in Syria and Gaza, Lebanon increasingly in the hands of Hezbollah, and Egypt under Muslim Brotherhood rule, make Israel’s regional power absolutely vital to European and U.S. interests in the world’s center of energy resources. Accordingly, conditions do not paint a hopeful picture for peace unless political power in Iran falls into moderate hands.

Finally, in the unlikely event of a quick overthrow of al-Assad, an anti-Western faction is likely to replace him. Iran’s influence and Russia’s nuclear naval base in Syria’s Tartus port will make sure of that. And thus Iran would maintain a footprint on the entire Levantine coast of the Eastern Mediterranean, from Turkey’s southern border to Israel, and then along the coast of Gaza.