As for last week’s mini-war between Israel and Hamas, the members of Hamas are Sunni fundamentalists; it therefore seems it would be only natural for the Sunni world to support them. But Iran, from the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979, saw organizations such as Hamas as tools to help them undermine the Sunni rulers, who control most of the Arab world.
Iranians understood that they could not stand up to the Arab world militarily, so Iran looked for Arab causes to support, which would demonstrate to the Arab masses that their rulers were weak and unable to solve problems, such as Israel’s existence in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world, and the tyranny under which Arabs live.
First, the Iranians took over the Israel issue. For many years, Arab rulers had talked about defeating Israel but kept failing, thus heaping shame and humiliation on the Muslims — in Middle Eastern culture, a fate worse than death. So Iran took on the Israel issue, which is, at best, peripheral to Shi’ites. For Shi’ites, the supposed holy status of Jerusalem is a Sunni innovation. The “holy status” was invented by hated Sunni rulers about 50 years after Muhammad’s death, and thus to Shi’ites is an illegal innovation. Iran seems to have calculated that if it made this Sunni issue its own, and it stood up to the Israelis, it might gain the support of the Sunni masses against their rulers, and thus help Iran destroy these Sunni rulers and thereby win an important battle in their unending 1,400 year war against the Sunnis.
In Lebanon, moreover, Iran created Hizbullah, a Shi’ite military organization – actually an arm of the Iranian military — which eventually fought Israel to a standstill in 2006. This was a huge public relations boost for Iran: no Sunni leaders had ever before managed to best Israel. Almost no Arab rulers complained about Israel going into Lebanon, while at the same time the head of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, instantly became a folk hero in many parts of the Arab world.
For Iran, Gaza was an opportunity too good to pass up. Iran developed ways of supplying Hamas with weapons to use against Israel, making use of Egypt’s marginal control of the Sinai Peninsula that abuts Gaza. Over the past few years, Iran has supplied Gaza with missiles and rockets that could hit Tel Aviv, and has brought Hamas operatives to Iran for training.
After the so-called ceasefire, Ismail Haniyeh, one of Hamas’s senior political leaders, went out of his way to thank Iran for its help. Thereafter, Iran dispatched a ship with missiles to resupply Hamas with missiles.
Egypt, by contrast, appeared not to want trouble on its border with Israel, and worked with Israel to rein Hamas in. Egypt’s fundamentalist Sunni ruler from the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Morsi, did not, as one might have expected, side with Hamas — a sub-branch of the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood — against Israel. Morsi seems to have many reasons for avoiding a conflict:
- Egypt’s economy is collapsing; Morsi needs American economic support or he will not be able to feed his people.
- If Egypt attacked Israel, Israel might destroy Egypt’s military, which currently is no match for Israel’s; so it is in the Egyptian military’s interest to keep the peace.
- Even though, upon assuming power, Morsi replaced its leaders, if Morsi fights Israel, his military — which is still in place from the days of Hosni Mubarak, which benefits from American military largesse and which controls vast parts of the economy — might overthrow him.
- Morsi wants to consolidate his power at home, and then, after becoming a modern pharaoh, push the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda not only to re-Islamize Egypt, but also the rest of the Muslim world. This plan may be tall and clearly long-term, but ever since the Muslim Brotherhood’s founding in 1928, that has been its main goal. Morsi is himself a senior member of the Brotherhood.
- The timing of Hamas’s attack on Israel put Morsi in a bind: even though he had not yet consolidated his power, if the situation had gotten truly out of hand, Morsi might have been forced into confronting Israel.
Combining all of these reasons, Morsi won the day: he mediated between Hamas and Israel, stopped the conflict from zooming out of control, and pacified the Americans who would now feel required to continue the economic, military and even political support Morsi so desperately needs to keep his sweeping new authoritarian powers beyond the reach of any check or balance. By not getting into a war with Israel, Morsi kept the Egyptian military at bay.