Iran, Israel and Isis
Yassamine Mather looks at the assault on Gaza in the context of the Middle East as a whole
Spreading like a cancer
As the massacre in Gaza continues, time and time again the survivors of the conflict are heard on Middle Eastern and western media complaining about the leaders of Arab countries failing the Palestinian cause. In fact, even in comparison with previous wars, the official reaction by Arab states has been extremely poor. Protestors in many Arab capitals are blaming their own governments for making no effort to stop the bloodshed. In the first week of relentless bombing, the military-led Egypt, under former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, went as far as to blame Hamas for the Palestinian deaths. Naturally then, the border crossings between Gaza and Egypt were kept closed.
Ironically the Arab spring (and its failure) has played a negative role in this. Arab governments seem so preoccupied with their internal problems that they have failed even to give voice to the usual rhetoric of condemnation. According to Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu, “In all the other invasions and assaults on Gaza, there was at least some government that would come out and talk about how what Israel was doing was illegal and show some support. This time around, there’s been nothing. The silence is deafening.”1
Of course, the same is not true about the Arab population. There have been major demonstrations in Middle Eastern capitals, from Tunis to Sana’a. However, those in Cairo have been much smaller than in the past - probably a direct result of the one-year rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, seen as Hamas’s close ally.
Recriminations about Arab reactions to the Gaza massacre have already started. Qatar is accusing Egypt of being an obstacle to a ceasefire at a time when all parties are in Cairo for negotiations. Meanwhile Egypt’s foreign minister accuses Qatar, Turkey and Hamas of undermining his government’s attempts to negotiate a ceasefire. Israel, on the other hand, singles out Qatar as the main provider of arms and funds to Hamas.
Non-Arab Iran has had a turbulent relationship with Hamas over the last few years, but the reconciliation initiated in January 2014 means the Iranian regime appears to be one of only two governments in the region voicing opposition to events in Gaza (Turkey being the other). However, before anyone rushes to congratulate the Islamic Republic, it is worth noting that the Shia government’s relations with Hamas were badly damaged after Hamas supported the uprising against Iran’s ally, president Bashar al-Assad, two and a half years ago. At that time Iran stopped all financial aid to Hamas, estimated to be worth around £14 million a month.
In fact, contrary to scare stories in Tel Aviv and Washington about Iran’s funding of Hamas’s war, Iranian leaders’ talk about Palestine does not match their actions. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei was scathing in his attack on Israel: “This rabid dog, this rapacious wolf, has attacked innocent people, and humanity must show a reaction. This is genocide, a catastrophe on a historical scale.”2 However, earlier in the week, Iranian president Hassan Rowhani and his foreign minister were absent from the state-sponsored pro-Palestine demonstration - probably conscious of the delicate stage of negotiations with the P5+1 powers.
Yes, there have been promises of aid, but so far Iran has delivered very little practical support and it is very doubtful that this crisis-ridden country, its economy destroyed by sanctions, will do much. It is wary of the political risks involved in sending arms - in this crucial four-month extension to negotiations over a nuclear deal it does not want to be accused of ‘aiding terrorism’ by the west.
In Washington the Republican chair of the house intelligence committee, Mike Rogers, claimed last week that the extension of nuclear talks means that Iran will now be able to send financial support to ‘militants’ in the Gaza strip, especially now that the US administration has freed $2.8 billion of oil revenue. And, for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the obstacles to a long-term deal between the US and Iran are no longer limited to Tehran’s nuclear capability. There is the alleged support for Hamas. In fact Iran’s improved relations with Hamas are likely to be temporary. Hamas has close relations with the Syrian rebels, Assad’s opponents, and Iran has no intention of giving up its support for the Syrian dictator. Of course, the reality is that the Islamic Republic’s support for Palestine has always been opportunistic.
However, the $64 million question throughout the Middle East is, where does the Islamic State (formerly Isis) stand on all this? In late June and early July the pro-Israeli press was full of scare stories about Isis cells in Gaza. It was alleged that mourners carrying black flags at a funeral in Gaza were Isis supporters, although, far from being an indication of support for the Islamic State, black flags are a common feature of Muslim funerals.
Hamas itself categorically denied Egyptian security claims that “terrorists” have infiltrated Sinai through Gaza tunnels. According to Hamas, there is no Islamic State presence in the Gaza strip. And in fact the jihadists’ official position is that fighting the ‘infidels’ takes precedence over fighting Israel. Responding to a question regarding the group’s position vis-à-vis the current conflict in Gaza, an Islamic State spokesman said: “The greatest answer to this question is in the Qur’an, where Allah speaks about the nearby enemy - those Muslims who have become infidels - as they are more dangerous than those who were already infidels.” There must be “priority” given to “fighting those who have become disbelievers over conquest of Jerusalem”, since “Jerusalem will not be freed until we get rid of the idolaters, such as the wealthy families and the players appointed by the colonial government who control the fate of the Islamic world.”3 This was shocking to many, coming as it did so soon after Isis’s claim to lead Muslims worldwide. Many Islamists must have expected the new caliphate to be in forefront of the Palestinian struggle against the Zionist state.
This deprioritisation prompted political attacks on the Islamic State. In response, the group’s spokesperson, Nidal Nuseiri, reiterated the need to ensure that “Bayt al-Maqdis” (Jerusalem) belongs to believers and claimed the destruction of Israel was central to the holy war Isis was waging. However, this required a “systematic approach” and a “process that will take many stages”. Some of those “stages” - building a firm base for an Islamic state in Iraq, and using it as a springboard to wage war in Syria and Lebanon - have already been achieved. But he said a number of other criteria still needed to be fulfilled before challenging Israel directly.
Among them, Nuseiri said, the US, Israel’s greatest ally, needed to be weakened politically and economically via attacks on the American mainland, as well as against US interests in Muslim countries. Additionally, the Islamic State needed to expand its borders to cover all of “greater Syria” (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and possibly Gaza). After all this had been accomplished, the new caliphate would be in a strong position to take on Israel directly. In other words, as Palestinians are massacred, the Islamic State will do nothing to help them. It will continue its efforts to ‘purify the religion’ by killing fellow Muslims, and by attacking innocent Christians in Iraq and Syria.
All this was music to the ears of conspiracy theorists in Iran and Iraq. The Iranian agency, Fars News, quoted Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency turncoat, who said: “British and American intelligence and the Mossad worked together to create the … Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant using a strategy called the ‘hornet’s nest’. The plan was devised to protect Israel from security threats by diverting attention to the newly manufactured regional enemy: Isis.”4
In the good old days of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s official news agency played a crucial role in starting false rumours, which were then repeated by government officials and the rest of the Iranian press and media as fact. Clearly the agency has returned to its old practices and this time pro-Maleki Iraq and the official press in Syria have also picked up on its ‘revelations’ about the Islamic State.
Of course, the Iranian government believes it can take the moral high ground and attack the jihadist group as part of its ‘anti-terrorism’ campaign. This allows Iran to side with the Shia government in Baghdad and the Alawite dictator in Damascus, pretending it is not just a campaign against its Sunni opponents.
Meanwhile, Israel has at last admitted what everyone already knew: there are no grounds for believing Hamas ordered the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers murdered on June 12 - the incident seized on by Tel Aviv to launch its latest war, part of the strategic campaign to eventually drive out millions of Palestinians from a ‘greater Israel’.
Now it is confirmed that the initial Israeli attack against Gaza had nothing to do with that incident: it was an attempt to sabotage the deal between Hamas and Fatah, to isolate Hamas and punish Fatah for the rapprochement. However, this plan has already failed. As early as July 10, the Israeli press was reporting missiles being launched against Israel by groups linked to Fatah. Amin Maqboul, secretary-general of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, claimed that Palestinians are united against the Israeli assault, rejecting the idea that the war will result in the collapse of the agreement between Fatah and Hamas. He said: “We all know that the main Israeli goal has been to break up the national unity reconciliation. We will respond by strengthening our unity and reconciliation.”
All this has led to the Zionist press launching a campaign against Fatah. This quote from Arutz Sheva sums it up: “The ‘moderate’ Palestinian leadership has shown its true colours. It sides with the terrorists, not with Israel.”5