HOME January-February 2009 Featured Stories Background Information News On The Web



by Yigal Carmon, Yael Yehoshua, Ayelet Savyon, and H Migron



The recent Gaza war was portrayed by the international media as a local military conflict between Israel and Hamas. However, this war, like the 2006 war in Lebanon and various other military and political events in the last three decades in the Middle East have a common denominator — namely, all stem from the conflict between revolutionary Iran and the Saudi Kingdom and the respective camps of each. This conflict is key to understanding the Middle East in the 21st century.

This Saudi-Iranian conflict, whose various aspects — geostrategic, religious, ethnic, and economic — have been affecting the Middle East for the past 30 years, began with the Islamic Revolution in Iran, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Since then, there have been lulls (especially during the era of former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami), but the conflict flared up again after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose to power. The conflict has now escalated into an actual cold war, and is reflected in the emergence of two distinct blocs in the Middle East: the Iranian axis (comprising Iran, Syria, Qatar, Hizbullah and Hamas) and the Saudi-Egyptian camp, with which most of the other Arab countries are identified.

This schism, and cold war, will have a major impact on the local, regional, and international level, severely restricting options for diplomatic activity, to resolve the intra-Palestinian rift, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the problem of a nuclear Iran.

The 2009 Gaza War: Timeline

The Gaza war broke out on December 27, 2008, after Hamas leader Khaled Mash'al refused — reportedly on orders from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki [1] — to attend talks for a Cairo-brokered intra-Palestinian agreement. Instead, he announced in Damascus that the tahdia with Israel had ended and would not be renewed, as his men in Gaza fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel.

As soon as the fighting started, Syria and Qatar attempted to convene an emergency Arab League summit in order to help Hamas. This move was blocked by Egypt and Saudi Arabia at the December 31, 2008 Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo, where it was decided only to conduct international diplomatic activity aimed at stopping the hostilities. According to reports, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said at a closed meeting with E.U. foreign ministers that "Hamas must not be allowed to emerge triumphant from the present confrontation." [2]

Nevertheless, Qatar and Syria persisted in their efforts, setting the emergency summit for January 16, 2009, to be attended by anyone who wished. At this point, a campaign of pressure on the other Arab countries was launched by both sides: Iran, Syria, and Qatar urged them to attend, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt pressed them not to.

This clash ended with a victory for the Saudi-Egyptian camp, in that the summit, held in Doha, was convened in the absence of a legal quorum. [3] To the dismay of some Arab countries, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to attend the summit as an observer. Also present as an observer was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who expressed total support for Hamas. [4]

To reinforce its political victory, the Saudi-Egyptian camp enlisted international support by summoning all European leaders to a special weekend meeting at Sharm Al-Sheikh, on Sunday, January 18, 2009. The summit was attended by the main European leaders, which rallied to show its endorsement of the Saudi-Egyptian camp.

The following day, January 19, an economic summit that had been planned in advance was held in Kuwait, and part of it was devoted to the war in Gaza. This summit was likewise dominated by the Saudi-Egyptian camp. At the conference, Qatar demanded that the resolution of the Doha conference -- which called to revoke the peace agreements with Israel and to withdraw the Arab peace initiative — be endorsed, but Saudi Arabia and Egypt rejected its demand, and the summit ended with no resolutions regarding the war in Gaza.

On January 18, Hamas was compelled to accept the ceasefire declared unilaterally by Israel the day before, as well as Egypt's mediation in the intra-Palestinian talks — two demands it had categorically rejected prior to the war.

It can therefore be said that, unlike the 2006 war in Lebanon and the subsequent clash, in 2008, between Hizbullah and the March 14 Forces, which ended in Lebanon's falling under the control of Hizbullah and the Iranian-Syrian axis, [5] the Gaza war yielded an achievement for the opposite side. It ended with Hamas defeated on the ground and with a political victory for the Saudi-Egyptian camp on the regional level.

The Iranian-Saudi/Shi'ite-Sunni Rivalry in the Wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution

The Iranian-Saudi conflict is rooted in Iran's aspirations to regional hegemony — both geostrategic and religious — which pose a threat to Saudi Arabia. From the onset of the Islamic Revolution era and Ayatollah Khomeini's rule (1979-89), Iran's attitude to Saudi Arabia was marked by ideological and political enmity, stemming from the historic religious, social, and ethnic rift between the Sunni-Wahhabi Arab society and the Shi'ite Persian one. The Sunnis perceive the Shi'ites as a political sect that seceded from Islam, while the Shi'ites regard the Sunnis, and especially the Wahhabis, as a radical apostate political sect that has taken over the Muslim holy places.

This rivalry, which emanates from revolutionary Iran's competition with Saudi Arabia for the leadership of the Muslim world, reached its height in 1984, when thousands of Iranian pilgrims rioted in the streets of Mecca, calling for the overthrow of the Saudi regime. The Saudis forcibly quelled the riots, closing Mecca to Iranian pilgrims for several years. The Iranian threat also prompted the Saudis to support Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war.

The wave of solidarity with Iran's Islamic Revolution in the Sunni world prompted Saudi Arabia to exert great efforts in strengthening Sunni Islam in general and Wahhabi Islam in particular. To this end, Saudi Arabia acted mainly on two levels: giving massive support to the jihad in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s until the Soviets were defeated, and investing billions of dollars, over two decades and more, in establishing and maintaining schools, mosques, and other educational and religious institutions in Sunni communities worldwide. These efforts reversed much of the popularity of the Iranian revolution.

Saudi-Iranian enmity declined during the term of Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, and declined even more during the presidency of his successor, Mohammad Khatami. During Khatami's presidency, Iran strove to rejoin the international community by relaxing its efforts to export the revolution and by seeking to reconcile with its neighbors in the Gulf.

The Escalation of the Conflict During Ahmadinejad's Presidency

With Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rise to power in 2005, the conflict reemerged, with greater intensity. Ahmadinejad reverted to Iran's previous policy of anti-Saudi hegemony, by pushing the export of the revolution, and promoting a messianic Shi'ite vision that stresses the imminent appearance of the Mahdi and the reestablishment of the great Persian Empire. In his second television appearance following his election, he said: "The message of the [Islamic] Revolution is global, and not restricted to a specific time or place. It is a human message, and it will move forward. Have no doubt... Allah willing, Islam will conquer. Islam will conquer what? It will conquer all the mountaintops of the world." [6]

The message of reviving revolutionary values became a recurring motif in Ahmadinejad's speeches: "In the recent elections, the [Iranian] people proved that they believe in the [Islamic] Revolution and want to see its ideals revived... This revolution was a continuation of the movement of the prophets, and all the political, economic, and cultural goals of the [Iranian] state must therefore be geared towards realizing the Islamic ideals... The followers of this divine school of Islamic thought are doing everything in their power to prepare the ground for the coming [of the Shi'ite messiah, the Mahdi]... It is our duty to guide the people back to these glorious ideals, and to lead the way towards the establishment of an advanced and powerful Islamic society that will be a model [to others]... Iran must emerge as the most powerful and advanced state..." [7]

"The Iranian people, as well as the Iranian government, which has emerged out of the will of the Iranian people, will defend their right to nuclear research and technology... The older people present here surely remember that one of our slogans during the revolution was, 'We will convert the entire world to Islam with our logic.' We are confident that the Islamic logic, culture, and discourse can prove their superiority in all fields over all theories and schools of thought." [8]

In a recent speech at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini marking the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Ahmadinejad said: "Even though the revolution took place in Iran, it is not confined to Iran alone... Even after 30 years, [the revolution] is alive. We are [still] at the beginning of our road, and there are great changes still before us. This great revolution will continue until justice is inculcated [throughout the world]." [9]

Ahmadinejad's declarations about restoring the glory of the Shi'ite Persian Empire in the region, and the revival of the revolutionary rhetoric by other Iranian leaders — all backed by the regime's leading ayatollahs — were perceived by the Arab countries, and especially by Saudi Arabia, as a reemergence of the Iranian threat.

The religious-ideological threat was compounded by Iran's attempt to position itself as a regional military superpower, and by its determination to develop nuclear capabilities in addition to its long-range missile capabilities. Iran's insistence on developing nuclear technology despite international opposition was perceived by the Sunni Muslim world as a threat to it.

Iran Extends Its Influence Into the Arab World

Another factor contributing to the conflict was Iran's effort to increase its influence throughout the Arab world. Iran's activity in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime, and the rise in the Shi'ites' status in that country after the war, intensified Saudi fears, and the fears of other Sunni countries, about the emergence of an "Iranian/Shi'ite crescent" in the very heart of the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia responded by increasing its support for the Sunni minority in Iraq, for various Muslim and Christian forces in Lebanon, and for others who were confronting Iranian threats in their territory (e.g. in Yemen, Sudan, and Palestine).

The military and political achievements of Hizbullah, Iran's proxy in Lebanon, during the 2006 war and in the 2008 Doha agreement (which de facto gave Lebanon to Hizbullah's control) were likewise perceived as part of Iran's bid for regional hegemony — especially in light of statements by Iranian officials. Iranian Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani said after the signing of the Doha agreement: "We see this political victory in the regional arena as a harbinger of [even] greater victories..." He added that Nasrallah had "carried out some of [Khomeini's] teachings." [10]

After the Lebanon war, Saudi-Sunni concerns about Iran's growing aspirations for regional dominance came under more intensive and open discussion in the Arab world. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit said that the Iranians "were trying to spread [their influence] and impose their idiosyncratic ideology over the region." [11] He also accused Iran of "trying to use Arab cards to realize interests and goals that are not Arab," [12] and said, "It is necessary to ensure that Iran does not become a nuclear military power." [13]

Similar concerns were also voiced in the Saudi and Egyptian press. In the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh, Saudi columnist Muhammad bin Ali Al-Mahmoud described Iran's policy under Ahmadinejad, stating: "The change in the Iranian arena has led to the emergence of a Nazi-like atmosphere [there, and to the voicing of] empty slogans that are [even] more violent and bombastic [than those heard] during the first [Iranian] revolution [of 1979]... [14] Sadly, the Iranian threat is not just a theoretical [construct] whose nature and course is a matter of debate among scholars. It has become a reality, and there is no difference between the model [represented by] the terroristic Al-Qaeda and the one [represented by] the Iranian party in Lebanon [i.e., Hizbullah]..."

Al-Mahmoud warned about Iran's "octopus-like expansion," saying: "Iran wants to control the region, not by spreading its ideology... but by maintaining armed organizations [in Arab countries]... it violates their loyalty to their homelands, replacing it with loyalty to Iran. This, especially since Iran is a country that does not spread tolerance or a culture of moderation, but... a culture of one-sided hegemony, as part of a racist effort to impose a kind of occupation..." [15]

In an article in the Saudi government daily Al-Watan, Saudi columnist 'Ali Sa'd Al-Moussa wrote that the Arab countries were being subjected to "Persian colonialism," as evidenced by the Iranian "cantons and districts on the map of the Arab world..." He added: "Iran has become a major and central player in Arab politics... Today we are seeing new signs of Persian colonialism. This is a [new], more advanced colonial model: We are no longer talking of troops occupying [certain] regions or of flags [flying] over public buildings. The colonialism of the modern era is manifested by the submission of [various regional forces to Iran]... Iran chose [regions] on the Arab map and attacked them without [even] pulling the trigger. Its entire plan is being implemented by Arabs." [16]

The Emergence of the Iran-Syria-Qatar-Hizbullah Axis

As part of Iran's bid for regional hegemony, a political and military axis has formed, comprising not only Iran and the Shi'a in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, but also various Sunni forces that have an interest in opposing Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It was during the 2006 Lebanon war that a distinct Iran-Syria-Qatar-Hizbullah axis first emerged to oppose the Saudi-Egyptian camp. [17] At a later stage, this axis expanded to include Hamas, which has in recent years received increasing support from Iran, as well the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Lately, Syria and Iran have been striving to add Turkey to their ranks, and have met with some cooperation on the part of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. [18]

Saudi Arabia, for its part, has been trying to pry some of Iran's Sunni allies away from it. [19]

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem spoke of the "strategic alliance" among members of the Iranian axis, saying: "Our relations with Iran are strategic, and our relations with Turkey are also strategic, and we hope that our relations with the Arabs will be [strategic] as well. Our relations with Qatar are strategic, as are our relations with 'Oman, Algeria, and Libya, and we hope that in the future this [framework will expand] to include additional [countries] as well... We are acting in accordance with our interests and in the service of the Arab national cause and national security. To this end, we are coordinating with Iran and Turkey, and we are not ashamed of this... We coordinate [our efforts] towards our common goal — [which is finding a way] to protect the Palestinian resistance and the national resistance in Lebanon, by creating [strategic] depth for them." [20]

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad spoke in a similar vein in a September 2008 interview with Iran's Al-Alam TV: "The strategic ties [between Syria and Iran] have proved to be of importance for the region in recent decades, but their real results have emerged [only] in the last 10 years. These include the victory of the resistance in Lebanon, and the unswerving fortitude of the resistance in Palestine since the Intifada, which began in 2000... We see before us a black slate dotted with bright spots that were once tiny but are now steadily increasing in size. This underscores the importance of [Syrian-Iranian] cooperation and the correctness of the political policy of Syria and Iran. Many countries that once objected to this policy are now beginning to realize its correctness, and to pursue a similar policy themselves..." [21]

The 2009 Gaza War Deepens the Schism Between the Two Camps

Just prior to its outbreak, the two camps engaged in reciprocal verbal attacks. Syria and Iran accused Saudi Arabia and Egypt of pursuing a pro-Israel and pro-American policy and of sabotaging the efforts of the resistance movements. Saudi King 'Abdallah was branded by Syria as an "infidel" and "collaborator with the Imperialist Satan," while Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was called a "traitor" and a "tyrant" who should be assassinated like Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for their part, claimed that Iran and Syria were striving to destabilize the region by interfering in internal Arab affairs and by nurturing the resistance movements in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian Authority. They stressed that Syria was trying to divide the Arab ranks and was assisting Iran — a non-Arab country — in taking over the Middle East, to the detriment of Arab interests. [22]

After the war, the Iranian leaders boasted of the support they had given to Hamas — whose actions, they claimed, corresponded to the goals of the Islamic Revolution. The leaders also leveled harsh criticism at the Saudi-Egyptian axis. [23] Iranian Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani said that both Hizbullah's victory in 2006 and Hamas' victory in Gaza were fruits of the "great tree" that is Iran's Islamic Revolution. [24] Iranian Expediency Council Chairman Hashemi Rafsanjani declared at a rally that "the residents of Gaza, [just like] Hizbullah, have managed to defeat the army of the Zionist regime thanks to the beneficial influence of Iran." [25] Guardian Council Chairman Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said in his Friday sermon in Tehran: "[In 2006], the host of Hizbullah [fighters], inspired by Islamic Iran, managed to deliver a crushing blow to Israel, to America and to the other Western countries supporting Israel. Now the same thing has happened in Gaza. Wherever Iran has a toehold, it will save and rescue [the Muslims]..." [26] The Iranian daily Kayhan, which is close to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, stated that Israel's war on Hamas had created a new Middle East, and had proved that the entire alliance consisting of Israel, the U.S., the European Union, Egypt and Saudi Arabia could not defeat a small organization like Hamas, despite the use of massive military force. [27]

The pro-Saudi camp, for its part, accused Hamas of serving Iranian and Syrian interests rather than those of the Palestinians. Egyptian President Mubarak declared that "Egypt will not let anyone make political profits and increase their [regional] influence at the expense of Palestinian blood." [28] Egyptian Foreign Minister Abu Al-Gheit accused Iran of using its Arab proxies to bargain with the U.S. and further its own ends. In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV, he said: "All non-Arab hands should be kept off the Palestinian cause, and even some Arab hands." He added, "Iran... seeks to grab as many Arab bargaining chips as possible, in order to tell the next U.S. administration: If you wish to discuss any subject — especially the security of the Gulf or Iran's nuclear dossier — you will have to speak with us..." [29] Abu Al-Gheit made similar statements in 2007, when he said that Iran's activities had encouraged Hamas to carry out the Gaza coup, and that this "threatened the national security of Egypt, which is only a stone's throw away from Gaza." [30]

Senior Palestinian Authority officials likewise pointed to Iranian involvement in Gaza. PA Presidency secretary-general Al-Tayyeb 'Abd Al-Rahim stated that Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had told the Hamas leaders to resume the resistance, and to keep Egypt from playing any role in the Palestinian dialogue. This, Al-Rahim said, was why Hamas refused to renew the tahdia and to continue the dialogue with Fatah. [31] PLO Secretary-General Yasser 'Abd Rabbo said that Hamas was advancing a regional conspiracy to turn Gaza into an independent entity separate from the West Bank, and to establish an Islamic emirate there, supported by Iran. [32]

Several days before Israel launched its Gaza offensive, the editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Gumhouriyya, MP Muhammad 'Ali Ibrahim, published a series of articles under the title "Hamas-Damascus-Iran - The New Axis of Evil." [33] Once the Israeli offensive had begun, Ibrahim wrote: "Hamas, Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Tehran have decided to put the Palestinian cause and its martyrs into Iran's hands. However, everyone is forgetting one important point — namely, that we will not hand over our people's capabilities to lunatics who hide out in Syria and who fire not a single bullet at Israel... There is a plan to set the entire region ablaze, and to kill as many Palestinian and Lebanese martyrs as possible, in order to expose the helplessness of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the [entire] moderate Arab axis... [34]

After The War — The Schism Between the Two Camps is An Acknowledged Fact

The Western media has largely ignored the new reality in the Middle East — namely, the schism and the escalating cold war between the two camps — as well as the far-reaching political implications. However, in the Arab world, this reality has become a publicly acknowledged fact, and is being intensely discussed.

Nasrallah's deputy Sheikh Na'im Qassem explained that Hizbullah was proud to belong to the Iranian axis, which was hostile to the U.S. and its Arab supporters. He stated: "In today's world, there are two mutually opposing camps — the camp of the U.S. and its allies, and the camp of the resistance and its allies. The important point is that the American camp, which includes Israel [and is characterized by] corruption, aggression, and monopoly, is a hostile camp, and we, the resistance camp, must therefore oppose it staunchly and forcefully... [Our camp] will emerge triumphant. It is impossible to express solidarity [with the Palestinians] without supporting the resistance... Today, Gaza is the very embodiment of resistance. Everyone who supported Gaza [during the war] is on the side of the resistance, while everyone who did not support it, but was against it, is on the side of the U.S. and Israel..."

Qassem added: "Some thought that if they malign us [by calling us] allies of Iran, Syria, and Hamas, it would bother us. [Well], let me say that you can add Chavez and Bolivia [to the list of our allies], and all the free peoples in the world. We will [all] form a united front against the U.S. and Israel..." [35]

Dr. Majed Abu Madhi, columnist for the Syrian government daily Al-Ba'ath and lecturer at the University of Damascus, argued that the war in Gaza had exposed not only the rift in the Arab world between the regimes that support the resistance and those that oppose it, but also the conflict between the rulers who object to the resistance, and their peoples who support it. He wrote: "It has become patently clear which countries support the resistance. It has also become patently clear which [Arab] regimes are the ones that the U.S. calls 'moderate' -[those that] oppose the resistance and even conspire against it. In addition, there is another kind of division, [namely,] between countries where the position of the government and the political leadership is aligned with that of the general public, and countries in which the position of the government and the leaders is at odds with that of the public. We have discovered a gap — nay, a deep abyss — between the wishes of the rulers [who reject the resistance] and those of their people [who support it]." [36]

The Saudi Camp: Iran Is Responsible for the Rift in the Arab World

The pro-Saudi camp accused Iran of causing the rift in the Arab world. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal said that the current disagreement among the Arabs was the result of "intervention by non-Arab forces" in Arab affairs — referring to Iran. [37] During the Kuwait economic summit, Egyptian President Mubarak likewise hinted at Iranian interference, when he accused "internal and external" forces of dividing and weakening the Arab world. [38]

Editorials in newspapers associated with the Saudi-Egyptian camp stated that Iran was sowing division in the Arab world as part of its plan to achieve regional hegemony, and accused Arab forces such as Syria and Qatar of cooperating with this plan. Osama Saraya, editor-in-chief of the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, wrote: "Like the Persians in all [past] eras, the contemporary [Iranian] clerics think that [all] the Arabs, from the ocean to the Gulf, are a bunch of camel herders or ignoramuses. [Therefore, they think] that they can still market illusions that hide their true intentions, which are to take control of our region and to annex it to the empire they hope [to reestablish]... You must stop spreading your religion [in other countries, and confine these efforts] to your land alone. You must respect the [other] Muslim countries and the treaties signed between the Sunnis and Shi'ites [in which they agreed] to refrain from spreading [their respective] religions and from taking over [each other's] lands." [39]

The editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Gumhouriyya, MP Muhammad 'Ali Ibrahim, wrote in his daily column: "Iran's ideology advocates eliminating [all] nationalities and national borders... The problem with the Iranian ideas is that [Iran] has passed them on to its followers in the Middle East... And the most dangerous [problem] with this Iranian philosophy... is that it calls for establishing states within states... This philosophy has indeed borne fruit in some parts of the Arab world. We have several examples of this: Hizbullah won the elections in Lebanon, and its state [within a state] was naturally stronger than Lebanon [itself]. [Furthermore], its militias were stronger than the government's armed forces. [The same thing] has happened with Hamas... [and with] the Shi'ites in Bahrain, who are wreaking havoc in their country [in an attempt to establish] a Shi'ite state alongside the Sunni Bahraini kingdom. In Kuwait, Egypt, and Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood is using its representation in parliament to try and take over the government and the leadership of the state... It is a dangerous and destructive idea to sacrifice the country for the sake of religion..." [40]

"The Trojan Horse" — Qatar's Role in Consolidating the Iranian Axis

It should be noted that Qatar has played a crucial role in exacerbating the rift in the Arab world by initiating the January 16, 2009 Doha summit, to the dismay of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Qatar's inviting of Iranian President Ahmadinejad to the summit against the will of several Arab countries (such as the UAE, which responded by canceling its participation) clearly identified the summit as a convention of the Iranian-Syrian axis. The summit's pro-Iranian and anti-Saudi orientation was underscored by the fact that it called on Egypt to revoke its peace agreement with Israel, and on Saudi Arabia to withdraw its initiative for peace with it.

After the war ended, Hamas leader Khaled Mash'al thanked Qatar for its support for his movement during the fighting. In a speech in Doha, he said: "Two weeks ago, we came to you and asked you to stand by our side, and today we thank Qatar, its Emir, and its people [for responding to this request]."

Galal Dweidar, former editor-in-chief of the Egyptian government daily Al-Akhbar, characterized the Doha summit as "a conference in support of the Persian [expansionist] ambitions" and called Qatar "a Trojan horse designed to pave the way for the Shi'ite Persian invasion of [the lands belonging to] Muhammad's nation and the Sunnis." [41]

Al-Ahram editor Osama Saraya wrote in a similar vein: "By calling the Doha summit, Qatar hoped not only to undermine all the Arab actions, but also to deepen the rift among the Arabs and to put the joint Arab action in the hands of the axis of destruction and evil... [i.e. in the hands of] the Iranian axis — whose role was exposed and rendered completely transparent during the recent events in the region, and in the wake of Israel's Gaza offensive." [42]

Two Camps, Two Contrasting Approaches to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

Iran's and Syria's support of the resistance, as well as Egypt's and Saudi Arabia's support of a peace agreement with Israel, can both be understood in light of the Iranian — Saudi schism.

The Saudi camp's opposition to Hizbullah during the 2006 war, and its opposition to Hamas during the Gaza war, were both part of its conflict with Iran. Likewise, the Saudi camp's determination to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is meant to strengthen its position vis-à-vis Iran and its allies. Egypt is demanding to sponsor the intra-Palestinian dialogue and the current arrangements between Gaza and Israel, in order to prevent Iran from taking over Gaza via Hamas. Saudi Arabia, for its part, is striving to promote its peace initiative with Israel as a strategic option that will consolidate its position vis-à-vis the Iranian axis — at the same time as this axis attempts to undermine the Saudi position through its support for the resistance against Israel.

In fact, the Iranian axis has called to revoke all initiatives for peace with Israel and all manifestations of normalization with it — which it terms "collaboration" by the Arab regimes with Israel and the U.S. As part of this approach, Qatar and Mauritania announced at the Doha summit that they were severing ties with Israel. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei even equated the moderate Arab leaders who maintain ties with Israel with the Jews at the time of the Prophet Muhammad who were considered to be his enemies. In a letter to Hamas leader Isma'il Haniya, Khamenei said: "The Arab traitors must realize that their fate will be no better than that of the Jews at the Battle of Al-Ahzab [i.e. the Jews of the Al-Quraidha tribe who were killed for allegedly conspiring against the Prophet]." [43]

The Iranian axis contends that the correct course of action vis-à-vis Israel is resistance. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad declared the Arab Peace Initiative "dead," and coined a new phrase by defining the resistance as "a way to achieve peace," explaining that "peace without resistance is surrender." [44]

Editor of the Syrian government daily Teshreen Samira Al-Masalma explained that the disagreement between the camps was profound and could not be bridged: "The dispute between the Arabs is no longer a matter of different positions or different approaches to the solution, as was the case in the past. [Today,] the dispute is about the fundamentals, the means, the [proper] conduct and the practical approach to the crucial issues. This is what makes the disagreements so blatant.

"Both in July 2006 and during the aggression against Gaza... two [different] positions emerged among the official Arab regimes... According to one position, there is no peace without resistance, while according to the other, surrender is the key to peace and resistance is but meaningless 'adventurism.' These two positions are not merely theoretical. The [proponents of] the former support the resistance in every possible way, while the [proponents of] the latter are openly involved in destroying it." [45]

Furthermore, spokesmen for the Iranian-Syrian axis hinted at the possibility of a further escalation in the region. Syrian President Al-Assad said: "It was the 1982 [Lebanon-Israel] war that gave birth to the resistance in its present form and brought about the liberation [of Lebanon]. The 2002 massacre in Jenin [sparked] a situation of resistance in Palestine. In 2006, the same thing happened [in Lebanon], and today [in 2009] we see the same thing [in Gaza]... There are displays of resistance, and each of these [further] consolidates the course of the resistance and the validity of its ideologies... These are small victories that are part of a great triumph. They will continue in the future, and undoubtedly there will be further confrontations in one form or another — not all of them necessarily armed. But these victories are like steps on a ladder leading to further victories, and we cannot attain the final victory without them." [46]

Ibrahim Al-Amin, chairman of the pro-Syrian and pro-Hizbullah Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, claimed that the Doha summit had provided a new impetus for the resistance, which would now become the preferred strategy not only of the resistance organizations themselves but also of certain Arab regimes. He wrote: "The most important point is that the Arab-Israeli conflict has entered a new phase... The meeting in Doha served as a lever for the camp that advocates resistance, [and resistance] has now become a dominant part of the operation methods employed [vis-à-vis Israel] — also by the [Arab] regimes and governments. This will have repercussions for relations with Europe and the U.S. It will also affect the situation in Iraq, which is the largest Arab country under U.S. occupation..."

Al-Amin contended that "the Arab world would [now] face a spell of score-settling even worse than the one witnessed by Lebanon in 2006 in the wake of the [Israeli] aggression." [47]

Hizbullah deputy leader Sheikh Na'im Qassem said: "We believe in resistance as a means [of bringing about] liberation and change... [for] the land and the people cannot be liberated from the force of arrogance [i.e. the U.S.] and from its pampered protectorate, Israel, in any other way... We carry out this resistance with our own hands in order to take back our rights. We do not [intend to count on] the [U.N.] Security Council or the superpowers; we will liberate our lands with our [own] weapons, as we did in the past and will [continue] to do [in the future]... The resistance we mean [to carry out] is military, and we say to the world: We will arm ourselves more and more, and we call to arm all the resistance [movements] that fight the enemy who occupies the land..." [48]

The Saudi-Egyptian camp, on the other hand, opposed the resistance strategy, and rejected calls to sever ties with Israel or withdraw the Arab Peace Initiative. The Saudi foreign minister said, "The Arab Initiative is still relevant," adding that it "places Israel under considerable pressure." [49]

Some even called to return to the original version of the Saudi Peace Initiative, before amendments were introduced in 2002 in response to demands by Syria, such as a clause acknowledging the Palestinian right of return. An editorial in the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal stated: "The Arab Peace Initiative, especially in its original form, before it was injected with Syrian-Lahoudian [50] corruption during the 2002 Beirut summit [meaning the inclusion of the right of return for the Palestinian refugees], was a comprehensive strategic vision... Lasting peace is a condition for the success of the programs for reform in all the Arab countries. For the sake of all this, the Arab peace initiative was and still is alive and well, and is the only strategy that the Arabs can propose in today's world."

The daily also called "to remove the Syrian-Lahoudian flaws from the Arab Peace Initiative, and to reintroduce as it was it in its original form." [51]

End Notes

[1] Al-Tayyeb 'Abd Al-Rahim, secretary-general of the Palestinian Authority Presidency, stated that during a visit to Damascus, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had told the Hamas leaders to resume the resistance, and to keep Egypt from playing any role in the Palestinian dialogue. Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), January 1, 2009.

[2] Ha'aretz (Israel), January 6, 2009.

[3] According to the Arab League charter, an emergency meeting must be convened by a quorum of at least 15 member states. Consequently, each of the Arab countries was forced to take a side in the conflict by either supporting the initiative of the emergency summit or rejecting it, and thus effectively declaring its membership in one camp or the other.

The summit in Doha was eventually attended by Syria, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon (whose president, according to Hizbullah, made a great show of attending under duress), Comoro Islands, Mauritania, Iraq, Oman, Libya, Morocco, and Djibouti. It should be mentioned that PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas, who is cooperating with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, did not attend. Conversely, representatives of several Palestinian factions, namely Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Democratic Front — General Command, did arrive, in the Qatari Emir's private jet.

[4] Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit explained in an interview with Orbit TV that Egypt had thwarted attempts to hold an emergency Arab League summit because "the Arab actions cannot be contingent upon the consent of [non-Arab] countries like Comoro Islands..." He added: "Where are the large and influential countries in the region, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia?" Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 29, 2009.

[5] The 2008 confrontation between Hizbullah and the March 14 Forces ended with a victory for the former, since the organization's major demands were met: a one-third majority in cabinet giving it control over government decisions, and the nomination of a president approved by the organization. In addition, the government of Prime Minister Fuad Al-Siniora reversed its May 6, 2008 decisions which had been the immediate trigger for the clash between Hizbullah and the March 14 Forces — namely, the decision to declare Hizbullah's private communications network an illegal enterprise undermining Lebanon's sovereignty and to charge those responsible for establishing it, as well as the decision to fire Beirut airport security chief Wafiq Shuqair, who is affiliated with Hizbullah. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 15, 2008.

Hizbullah's takeover of Lebanon was facilitated by Qatar, who convened the May 21, 2008 Doha summit, in which the political achievements of Hizbullah and the Iranian-Syrian-Qatari axis were consolidated.

[6], July 25, 2005.

[7] Sharq, IRNA (Iran), November 15, 2005.

[8] See MEMRI TV Clip No. 782,

[9] IRNA (Iran), January 31, 2009

[10] Al-Hayat (London), May 29, 2008.

[11] Al-Hayat (London), December 15, 2008.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 3, 2007.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 19, 2006.

[14] Ahmadinejad's rise to power is sometimes referred to as the "Second Islamic Revolution." See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 229, "Iran's 'Second Islamic Revolution': Fulfilled by Election of Conservative President," June 28, 2005, and MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 253, "The 'Second Islamic Revolution' in Iran: Power Struggle at the Top," November 17, 2005,

[15] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 29, 2008.

[16] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 15, 2008.

[17] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1249, "Arab Media Accuses Iran and Syria of Direct Involvement in Lebanon War," August 15, 2006,

[18] Sunni countries and forces, such as Syria, Qatar, Turkey, and Hamas, have various motivations in joining the axis of Shi'ite Iran. Syria, whose standing in the Arab world is at odds with its self-perception as the cradle of Arab civilization and of pan-Arab ideology, sees the Iranian axis as a framework for enhancing its regional status. In addition, it is probably motivated by considerations of political survival. Faced with the danger of conviction by the international tribunal for the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, Syria hopes that its alliance with Iran will provide it with some backing against this tribunal (like the backing extended by the Arab countries to Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir). See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 490, "Recent Attempts to Form Strategic Regional Bloc: Syria, Turkey and Iran," January 6, 2009,

Qatar likewise sees the Iranian axis as a platform for elevating its regional status and also for challenging Saudi Arabia's dominance in the Arabian Peninsula. The policy of Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani is one of blatant opposition to Saudi Arabia, which did not support him in his 1995 coup attempt against his father. To counterbalance the fact that Qatar is home to the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East, and has ties with Israel, the Qatari Emir uses Al-Jazeera TV — his long arm in the Arab and Muslim world — to attack the Arab regimes and the U.S., and to support the global jihad organizations, the ideology of resistance, and the Nasserist pan-Arab ideology.

In the past few years, Qatar has been actively supporting Syria, Iran and the resistance movements. In 2006, it assisted Hizbullah in the passing of U.N. Resolution 1701 for ending the Lebanon war, and, unlike the other Gulf states, it refrained from condemning Hamas' 2007 takeover of Gaza. Additionally, in an attempt to prevent the isolation of Syria, it was the only Arab country that abstained in the vote on Security Council Resolution 1737 on establishing an international tribunal for the Al-Hariri assassination. Finally, it served Iran's interests by inviting Ahmadinejad to the December 2007 GCC summit in Doha — to the astonishment and consternation of the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia — in an attempt to break up the anti-Iranian Gulf bloc. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 416, "The Collapse of the Saudi Sunni Bloc against Iran's Aspirations for Regional Hegemony in the Gulf," January 11, 2008, (A further report on Qatar's policy will be published by MEMRI in the near future).

Hamas likewise regards the Iranian axis as a suitable framework of operation, since its political goals are at odds with the positions of the Saudi-Egyptian axis.

As for Turkey, in the past few years it too has been inclining towards the Iranian axis. During the 2009 Gaza war, it expressed solidarity with Hamas, and Prime Minister Erdogan attended only the forum of the Iranian axis (e.g. the Doha Summit) and did not attend the summit at Sharm Al-Sheikh. He offered to mediate between the Palestinian factions in coordination with Syria, but not in coordination with Egypt. On the recent Turkish-Iranian rapprochement, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 490, "Recent Attempts to Form Strategic Regional Bloc: Syria, Turkey and Iran," January 6, 2009,

[19] In 2007 and in 2009, Saudi Arabia tried but failed to bring Syria and Hamas back into the Arab Saudi-Egyptian fold.

[20] Al-Manar TV, January 7, 2009. [21] Al-Thawra (Syria), September 18, 2008.

[22] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 485, "Rising Inter-Arab Tensions: Saudi Arabia and Egypt versus Syria and Iran, Part I — Deepening Crisis in Saudi-Syrian Relations," December 22, 2008, ; Inquiry and Analysis No. 486, "Rising Inter-Arab Tensions: Saudi Arabia and Egypt versus Syria and Iran, Part II — Egypt Trades Accusations with Hamas, Syria, Iran," December 22, 2008, ; Inquiry and Analysis No. 487, "Rising Inter-Arab Tensions: Saudi Arabia and Egypt versus Syria and Iran, Part III — Syria, Saudi Arabia Clash over Fath Al-Islam," December 22, 2008,

[23] In demonstrations in Tehran, strong accusations were made against the Arab regimes, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia. During the war, and even before it, there were calls to bring down the Egyptian regime and assassinate Mubarak, like Sadat. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 479, "Calls in Iran to Topple Egyptian, Saudi Regimes," December 12, 2008,

[24] IRNA (Iran), January 22, 2009; Ayandenews News (Iran), January 21, 2009.

[25] IRNA (Iran), January 31, 2009.

[26] ISNA (Iran), January 16, 2009.

[27] Kayhan (Iran), January 27, 2009.

[28] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 31, 2008.

[29], January 1, 2009.

[30] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), June 20, 2007.

[31] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), January 1, 2009.

[32] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 23, 2009.

[33] The articles appeared on December 22, 23, and 24, 2008.

[34] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), December 29, 2008.

[35], January 17, 2009.

[36] Al-Ba'ath (Syria), January 19, 2009.

[37] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 18, 2009.

[38] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 20, 2009.

[39] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 16, 2009.

[40] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), December 19, 2008.

[41] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), January 18, 2009.

[42] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 16, 2009.

[43] Fars (Iran), January 15, 2009. In a recent Friday sermon, Ayatollah Jannati called Saudi Arabia "a U.S. puppet" and Egypt "an ally of Israel," adding that the heads of those countries should fear an uprising by their people and the wrath of God. ISNA (Iran), January 16, 2009.

[44] Al-Ba'ath (Syria), January 17, 2009.

[45] Teshreen (Syria), January 17, 2009.

[46] Al-Thawra (Syria), January 27, 2009.

[47] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 17, 2009.

[48], January 17, 2009.

[49] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 17, 2009.

[50] A reference to then-Lebanese president Emil Lahoud.

[51] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), January 17, 2009.

Yigal Carmon is the President of MEMRI; Yael Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI; Ayelet Savyon is director of MEMRI's Iranian Media Project; and H. Migron is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

This article was published as Inquiry and Analysis, February 2, 2009, No. 492 by The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and is archived at


Return_________________________End of Story___________________________Return

HOME January-February 2009 Featured Stories Background Information News On The Web