It looks like both the Israelis and Palestinians have sharply veered of the road map to peace this week. Both Hamas and Israel have successfully escalated the violence to the point that an all at war in Gaza appears imminent. But before we start “climbing the mountain of conflict” an analysis of the geopolitical facts will explain the origins of this crisis and perhaps shed light on where it might go from here.
Hamas and Israel have never gotten along. Hamas refuses to recognize Israelis right to exist. Conversely, Israel has designated Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, as a terrorist group. Tensions have flared on both sides since Hamas came to govern Gaza.
Over the past several weeks, jihadists in Gaza have fired approximately fifty rockets into Israel. This has made the Israelis very nervous, as this could present an existential threat to Israel. Israel, after all, is a small state with a small densely packed population. A sustained and accurate rocket campaign could cost Israel many lives. Further, if Hamas or one of the other jihadist groups had armed one of these rockets with a warhead containing a biological or chemical agent, the death toll in Israel would skyrocket and potentially end the Jewish State. From an Israeli point of view, Israel must take the threat these rocket strikes pose very seriously.
Wednesday, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) demonstrated how seriously they take these rocket attacks. Using a precision guided weapon, the IDF assassinated the head of the Militant Wing of Hamas Ahmed Jabari. This killing was part of a large operation called Pillar of Defense. The other targets in Pillar of Defense were different apparatuses in the Hamas missile infrastructure.
The IDF quickly tweeted their success and warned of further action if there was any retaliation from Gaza. Of course, Hamas answered in kind and warned that the Israelis would regret the moment they made this decision. Hamas also began an aggressive missile campaign against Israel.
Additionally, Egyptian government, in the hands of the Freedom and Justice Party (like Hamas an off shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood), recalled its ambassador to Egypt. The Egyptian President Mosari called the Israeli ambassador to launch a formal protest against IDF action in Gaza. Further the Egyptians have called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League and urging the UN Security Council to meet as well.
Outside of Egypt, the Arab Street has remained relatively quiet over this. The usual strong outcry of justice for the Palestinians has not made many waves outside of social media. Even on the social media front, to an untrained eye, most of the outrage appears to come from non-Muslim Westerners. This brings us to the heart of the matter.
Any student of the international system should tell you that as we speak, the international system is undergoing a major shift. The current power structure is realigning itself. Though some might be quick to say that the violence in Gaza is the new face of an old fight, it should be correctly observed as a symptom of power realignment in the international system particularly in this instance the Middle East. A closer look at the rise and fall of a blossoming Middle Eastern power reveals the truth of this theory.
Starting roughly in 2006, Iran has made strives to become a significant regional power in the Greater Middle East. With help of the United States led invasion of Iran’s traditional counterbalance Iraq, Iran found itself with much more freedom to act. The flashy example of this is Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But Iran’s assent is not just limited to dreams of joining the nuclear club. Iran has played a large role in arming insurgents in both Iraq and Afghanistan at the expense of the United States. Further, Iran, taking a note out of China’s playbook, has become willing to do business with anyone particularly those America refuse to interact. As result, Iran has opened markets the United States has excluded itself from. Iran has positioned itself as a regional power.
However, Iran has reached its high water mark so to speak, and Iranian power has begun to decline in the past several weeks. This has led to a shift in the international system. But what accounts for such a rapid decline of a state that some were, and for that matter some still are, calling an existential threat to the United States?
The first point that can be attributed to the decline of Iran is the sanctions. The sanctions have taken a toll on the Iranian economy. Further, Iran’s usual means of evading past sanctions lack the effectiveness these maneuvers have previously shown. The Iranian economy is genuinely reeling from the sanctions.
Iran has made overtures in the past weeks hinting that the state will negotiate. This seems to suggest that Iran’s motives behind the country’s nuclear ambitions was to use the nuclear program for political leverage most likely to cement the nation as a regional power if not hegemon. But that time has come and gone. Today, Iran has adopted a North Korean strategy. Iran, like its rogue state counterpart, appears willing to trade away aspects of its fledgling nuclear program in exchange for economic aid. This is a strong indication Iran’s surge in the late aught’s has come to a halt. Further, this suggests the sanctions are part of the collapse of Iranian power as the nation is searching for relief from the economic pressure it currently endures.
But sanctions do not entirely count for the decline of Iranian power. Iran stood at the threshold of a sphere of influence, perhaps even a soft empire, extending from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. More than just sanctions would need to bring down this reconstituted Persian Empire.
To this we must recall that war is truly a life or death struggle, and defeat in war has real consequences for the vanquished. Iran has just lost a war. Iran bet its power and prestige on al Assad’s Syria. Though al Assad has not lost control of the entire country, one can no longer say that there is a government in Syria controlling the legitimate monopoly of violence. Instead, al Assad is the biggest warlord on the block but with daily challenges to his power, his control over Syria is waning.
Iranian power will go down with al Assad, as well. Iran gambled on a dangerous hand and lost. The Syrian Civil War has revealed rollback is possible with Iran. Now Iran will see its sphere of influence shrink as it has proven it can lose.
Quite clearly Iranian power has begun a decline. Right now it is difficult to say how much it will decline, but judging by Iran’s actions, one can safely assume that Iran will play a severely decreased role in the region.
Turning back to the present blood feud between Hamas and the IDF, the decline of Iranian power explains why Gaza has reemerged as a flashpoint. Further, understanding the decline of Iranian power will help project what course not only this new Gaza conflict will take but also the Greater Middle East as a whole.
First, it should be noted, along with supporting insurgents to hamper American ambitions, Iran has also supported Islamic insurgents who would fight against Israel. The two most prominent of these groups are Hezbollah, the Shi’ite insurgency movement in Lebanon, and Hamas. On the surface, the IDF strike against Hamas could be described as the removal of the threat of “assured destruction”, so to speak. In other words, Pillar of Defense suggests that without having to worry about Iranian retaliation for attacking an Iranian surrogate, Israel can move more freely against Hamas.
But at deeper level of analysis, Iran and Israel appeared locked in a tense “cold war” during the period of Iranian ascension. For Israel, this became a struggle of life and death. Fearing that Israel would not have the opportunity to utilize a second strike force in the event of a nuclear exchange, Israel needed to exert resources to countering Iran. With the bulk of the IDF strategic weapons tied up to retaliate against Iran, Israel could not afford to spare resources to fight a smaller and more manageable threat.
Therefore, as Iran becomes less powerful, Israel will have more freedom to act. Because Iran has lost the power it needed to challenge the Jewish State, Israel can address concerns it did not have the strength to address just a few weeks ago. Instead of dealing with purely existential challenges, Israel can act on its preferences. This situation seems analogous to the United States position immediately following the Cold War. As Israel has survived its “cold war” with Iran, within the confines of the Greater Middle East, Israel will more than likely sit as the unipolar power of the region.
What exact policies this will entail would greatly lengthen this post. Although the specific policies of the actors involved will be explored in the next few days, for the time being, let it suffice that Israel holds the power in the Middle East. It should be expected of the Jewish State that it will act on its preferences since there are no other regional hegemons to challenge Israel for regional supremacy. This, of course, is not a good situation for a key region like the Middle East to find itself in and will require more analysis in the days to come.
In summation, violence has erupted in Gaza. At the time of this writing the situation seemed quite ready to go to omnishambles. But unlike past feuds between the Palestinians and Israelis, this has a different source. This week’s violence was not the result of Palestinians desiring autonomy form Israel or Israel’s desire to build additional settlements in Palestine. The present conflict has grown out of a declining Iran. As Iran has grown weak and forced to end its “cold war” with Israel, the Israelis find themselves the unchecked power of the region. As a result, Israel can engage in activities like Pillar of Defense with little consequence. As long as the Middle East remains unbalanced we should expect, Israel to do as it pleases. Israel can freely engage in new conflicts, conflicts to pursue its own preferences, now that its “cold war” with Iran is over.