OpinionIran in the World PressWhen terror becomes error

When terror becomes error

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The Times: Iran and Syria have violently disordered the Middle Eastern chessboard using their Hamas and Hezbollah pawns. The anxious and, they must hope, futile scamper to reassemble the pieces must be mightily pleasing to both these scheming, nihilistic and intransigent regimes. The Times

Comment

Rosemary Righter

Iran and Syria are delighted at the mayhem in the Middle East — but they have overplayed their hand

IRAN AND SYRIA have violently disordered the Middle Eastern chessboard using their Hamas and Hezbollah pawns. The anxious and, they must hope, futile scamper to reassemble the pieces must be mightily pleasing to both these scheming, nihilistic and intransigent regimes.

Provoking Israel to battle served many purposes at once, both for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of Iran, and Bashir Assad, of Syria. The first is defensive. Their calculation was that the crises in Gaza and Lebanon would take the heat off Tehran and Damascus, where international pressure was making the temperature uncomfortably hot. In this they have, for the time being, succeeded. The world suddenly has more urgent things to do than penalise Iran for its nuclear defiance, indict President Assad and his cronies for their suspected involvement in last year’s murder of the Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri, or even to home in on their abetting of terrorism in Iraq.

The second and broader goal was to reassert leadership of the rejectionist camp committed, in President Ahmadinejad’s gleeful words, to “the elimination of the Zionist stain”. The Hamas kidnapping raid was timed to sabotage the efforts by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to engineer a government of national unity that would have tied Hamas, even if only tacitly and tactically, to accepting Israel’s right to exist — and to make it politically impossible for him to carry out his threat to invite Palestinians to vote on the two-state formula, should Hamas refuse.

The kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit was carried out by the movement’s armed wing that takes its orders from Damascus. Hezbollah’s assault on an Israeli patrol a fortnight later took place the day after Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, on his way home from a stonewalling session in Brussels, dropped in on Hezbollah’s Syrian office. Iranian supplies of arms and “military advise rs” to Hezbollah increased sharply in the weeks before it attacked.

To Israel, both these operations had a single message: do not imagine that withdrawal from Lebanon, from Gaza, or even all the way to your 1967 borders, will ever bring peace, or make you safe. For now, Israel has united as it always must when attacked; but confidence in the Olmert-Sharon Government’s strategy of unilateral disengagement from the West Bank is shaken.

This is an opportunistic alliance; Baathist Syria and Iraq’s Shia theocracy have little in common but the determination to keep America on the back foot, Israel isolated, Palestinian extremists in the ascendant and Arab governments nervous about forming a united front against either perennial troublemaker. The region’s bad boys have once again poked less unreasonable Arab governments in the eye.

Damascus and Tehran, without moving a military muscle, have radicalised popular opinion and demonstrated to the world what mayhem they can, through their proxies, unleash. Iran and Syria deny orchestrating the Hamas and Hezbollah raids, but they neither expect nor wish Arab publics to take these denials seriously. In exultation at Israel’s pain as Hezbollah rockets thump deep within its territory, militant Sunni Arab detestation of Shia’ism has been set aside. Gaza is a sea of yellow Hezbollah flags and Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, has become a cult figure. Syria has the satisfaction of watching Lebanon’s fragile recovery ripped apart.

During its long occupation of Lebanon, Syria nurtured Hezbollah almost as lovingly as has Iran. Knowing that the Lebanese Army is too weak to disarm Hezbollah and that Nato is appalled by the prospect of involvement, President Assad may imagine he can escape censure by recasting himself as peacemaker. An Assad aide had the gall to suggest that if Syrian troops, forced out of Lebanon a year ago in the swell of outrage over the Hariri assassination, were allowed to return, Syria could tame Hezbollah and make Lebanon’s southern border as calm as the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire line on the Golan Heights — from which a grateful world must then force Israel to retreat.

The lives of Lebanese and Palestinians do figure in this cynical equation — not as human tragedy, but as geopolitical opportunity. The greater the damage caused by Israel, the more intense will be the international pressure on Israel to stop well short of crushing Hezbollah; and if even remnants of its militias live to fight another day Tehran will trumpet that as a glorious victory for armed Islam. In this perspective, Condoleezza Rice’s arrival on the scene is a happy harbinger of Israel’s humiliation.

The drama may not, however, play out as Iran and Syria intend. The plot is too obvious, the affront to Arab “moderation” too blatant. Arab governments are far more angered at the “irresponsibility” of Hamas, Hezbollah and the states that created and armed them than with Israel. These engineered confrontations threaten them directly and, this time, they know it and are prepared to join the fire brigade.

Hezbollah, a state within a state, is the enemy of the Lebanese democracy struggling to be born. The Lebanese know it; they refused overwhelmingly to vote for it in last year’s elections and there is the bitterest resentment that Hezbollah has visited renewed destruction on them, in a war that is not their war.

This is the first Middle East war launched under the banner of Islamist terrorism. Arab governments are desperate that it should be the last. Dr Rice made the right moves yesterday, meeting Mr Abbas as well as Ehud Olmert and insisting on reverting to the agenda of a Palestinian state. The rejectionists have overplayed their hand. The majority of Palestinians still support both Mr Abbas, and a two-state solution. Even Mr Ahmadinejad may be getting cold feet, saying yesterday that only dialogue could prevent “a hurricane” sweeping the Middle East. Talk of a “new Middle East” may sound like whistling in the storm; yet storms as severe as this one can change entire landscapes.

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